More than a hundred years ago, Maria Montessori had the bold idea that children could guide their own education, with careful observation and coaching from caring and highly trained educators. Today, the Montessori method is a popular — but often misunderstood — alternative to traditional schooling.
Here are some of the primary principles of Montessori education, and how to determine if it might be right for your child.
Many of us are used to educators taking the lead with structured learning, intensive testing and regular report cards and grading. Montessori education turns that model on its ear by allowing children to guide their learning based on their interests and affinities.
“Montessori schools follow the child, and each child receives a curriculum that is essentially custom-designed for them,” says Casey Reed, director of The Children’s Meeting House Montessori School in Cincinnati. “Montessori teachers step back and observe each student to understand academic areas that might need more support, but they can also see where each child excels, and help them spread their wings in those areas.”
The physical space and objects that make up a Montessori classroom are vital to student learning. Maria Montessori was a proponent of a beautiful, orderly space, where materials were unbroken, in working order, and carefully returned to their designated location after use.
Jeff Groh, head of school at The New School Montessori in Cincinnati, says that this layout provides order and structure, while allowing the students to have control over their learning. “Children learn constructively through working with concrete materials to understand abstract ideas,” Groh says. “And so, what’s wonderful in a Montessori program is that students have these very specifically designed materials that are showing them in a very concrete way how division works, or how fractions work. And then as they get older, they’re able to internalize that and think about it abstractly.”
Mixing it Up
Though traditional schools divide children into classes based on age, Montessori education encourages multi-age rooms where younger children can learn from their older peers. Groh says this is key to students’ development. “One of the ideas behind this is that you’re developing mentoring relationships,” he says. “So, you’ll have third graders who are able to help second or first graders learn. That’s really wonderful. It also allows the students the opportunity to accelerate at a pace they may not have been able to in a traditional classroom.”
Montessori education aims to set children up for success; not only through a high GPA or a college acceptance, but by also teaching necessary life skills. Groh says this will be an asset to them, now and well into their future.
“How are we preparing students for a world that’s coming in 20 or 30 years?” Groh says. “The old-world idea of very specific memorization of facts and knowledge aren’t going to prepare them for a future that will require flexibility, the ability to communicate ideas, and the ability to work with a variety of people from a variety of different paths. I feel that Montessori really tries to prepare a child for that type of world.”
Reed adds, “Montessori benefits extend beyond traditional academic subjects, ensuring children also develop self-confidence, independence, respect, and personal and social responsibility.”
A Peaceful Place
Montessori believed in maintaining a calm and peaceful atmosphere. That emphasis on peace has become integral to the Montessori method, as educators help children learn how to navigate conflict and remain in harmony with their classmates, friends and the adults in their lives.
Different Learning for Different Needs
Montessori education provides a rigorous and challenging curriculum for students at many different academic levels.
“Often, what you’re finding in Montessori classrooms is that concrete approach to education, that tactile approach, speaks to a lot of children that have learning challenges, whether it’s sensory issues, processing issues or attention deficit issues,” Groh says. “When they’re physically involved with their learning, rather than sitting and just listening to teachers, it has a positive impact on their success.”
If you’re curious about Montessori education, the best way to learn more is to schedule a school tour and see it in action for yourself. Most area Montessori institutions will be thrilled to give you an inside look at the way they operate. You can also learn more about the theory and science supporting the Montessori method from the American Montessori Society at amshq.org.