1513 Hall Johnson Road
Colleyville, TX 76034
Q: What makes Montessori education so different from traditional education?
A: Just about everything!
“What makes Montessori education so different from traditional education?” I hear this question almost every day – from parents and prospective parents, from grandparents, and from people I meet in the community.
It’s true that serious students of Montessori have written entire volumes on this topic, and those who have spent 40 years or more in Montessori education still find that they learn something new every day. But it’s not really a mystery – even the most casual observer can’t help noticing some of the striking differences between a Montessori classroom and the typical public school classroom.
For one thing, our classes are composed of mixed age groups of children. For another, they are child-centered, not teacher-centered. Within an established structure and guided by a trained adult, children choose their own work and work at their own pace. Our children learn by doing, exploring, and discovering, not by listening to a teacher talk.
We have only to pick up a newspaper to see that our country’s standing in world education rankings is falling. Drop-out rates continue to rise; promising teachers become frustrated and disillusioned; adults who should be role models for their students resort to cheating and fraud to pump up test scores; and children who started out excited about learning become bored and discouraged.
When we see that our Montessori children, in contrast, are happy, eager learners who love school, we have to ask, just what has created this fundamental difference?
Montessori parents know first-hand that this approach to education helps children develop the qualities that prepare them for success in school and in life, qualities such as:
This doesn’t just happen by accident. Montessori education is intentionally designed to support children in learning the way human beings learn best. Dr. Steven Hughes, President of the American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology, calls Montessori “the original brain-based method of education” because it is based on scientifically recognized principles of human development.
Dr. Angeline Lillard, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, reviewed the current psychological literature in her book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius (available in our BGMS parent library). She identified a number of principles of Montessori education that have been validated by recent scientific research, and I offer some of them to you here in the context of a comparison with the traditional approach to education.
1. Movement and cognition are closely interrelated, and movement enhances thinking and learning.
Traditional schools discourage movement. Children are required to sit and listen to the teacher, and are prohibited from moving around independently.
In contrast, Montessori schools are specifically designed to encourage movement. The materials the children use must be carried to a rug or table, often piece by piece. Everything is designed to be lifted, touched, moved, handled, manipulated, sorted, and organized. The child engages all his senses in exploring the materials, and all learning begins with concrete, real-world objects and experiences before progressing to abstract concepts.
2. People thrive when they feel a sense of choice and control.
Traditional schools don’t offer very much opportunity for children to make meaningful choices. Children are told what to study and when, what to read and when, what to listen to and when, when they may talk, when they may go to the library, and even when they may go to the bathroom.
Montessori schools, on the other hand, encourage freedom of choice. Once developmentally appropriate materials in any subject area have been offered by the guide, the child is free to choose what he will work with, with whom he will work, and how long he will work on a project.
3. We learn best when we are interested in what we are learning.
In traditional schools learning is scheduled according to a prescribed curriculum. It doesn’t really matter whether the children are interested or not, they are all going to be presented the same material at the same time, and they’re all required to learn the same thing at the same time.
Montessori schools leverage that spark of interest and imagination that resides in the soul of every child by encouraging the child to follow his interests in depth, to research and write about things that fascinate him. Although the guide makes sure that no subject area is neglected, the child will never encounter an arbitrary limit, imposed by a mandated curriculum, on what he can study, what he can learn, or when he can learn it.
4. Offering extrinsic rewards, like money for reading or high grades for tests, reduces motivation and level of performance once the rewards are removed.
Traditional schools are based on grades and competition. Children are trained to work for grades, and to compete for the teacher’s approval. Errors are discouraged, to the point that children are actually penalized for making mistakes.
Montessori schools are purposely designed to permit children to experience the most fulfilling of all rewards -- inner satisfaction. Children are born explorers; they have an innate drive to discover things for themselves. From the very beginning of life they have a burning desire to do things for themselves, and they feel tremendous joy and satisfaction when they are able to do accomplish things on their own. No grade inked in red, no happy face, no gold star bestowed in judgment by an adult could possibly compare to the self-esteem and self-confidence that a child creates for himself through his own satisfaction with his work.
Montessori schools cultivate a friendly attitude toward error. Making mistakes is how children learn. The materials our children work with are scientifically designed to be “self-correcting.” This encourages children to repeat and try again until they discover that they can do it by themselves, thus placing another building block in the structure of self-confidence and self-esteem.
5. Every child develops at his own rate.
Traditional schools group children into grades arbitrarily by age. A first grade class is for children who are six on September 1, which means that a single class may have a child who turns six on September 1, a child who turns seven on September 2, and everything in between. But even though the children in the class may be at vastly different levels of development, with a variety of different learning styles and abilities, under the standard curriculum all the children are given the same material at the same time, the teacher must teach them all the same facts and concepts. All the children are expected to follow the same lesson plan every day, and pass the same tests at the end of the year.
Montessori schools operate in exactly the opposite way. Our schools are deliberately designed to accommodate each child as an individual.
A Montessori classroom is composed of children within a three-year age range. A lower elementary class, for example, is composed of children who are six, seven, eight, and even nine years old. This group will include children with an even wider range of developmental levels, learning styles, and abilities than the average traditional class, but the key difference here is in the approach to teaching and learning. With the Montessori approach each child pursues his own interests, according to his own abilities and his own level of development. The guide meets each child where he is, with a lesson plan designed specifically for that particular child as an individual. Every child works individually or in collaboration with others, and the children are not compared to each other, segregated by ability, or ranked within age groups.
In our classrooms children work at their own pace. A child can work and progress as quickly and as far as he is able, and at the same time he can take all the time he needs to repeat and practice when that is necessary. Children are in the same group for three years, so they have plenty of time to explore, discover, and consolidate skills and knowledge without being rushed or made to feel superior or inferior to others.
6. Children learn well from and with peers; after age 6 children respond well to collaborative learning situations.
Traditional schools discourage communication among the children. Elementary children, in particular, are expected to be quiet and listen to the teacher. Depending on the school, they may even be forbidden to talk to each other during lunch! Everyone works for himself, and for the most part children are not permitted to help each other with their work. Helping a friend can actually be seen as “cheating,” and may be punished. The model is one of competition, in which children who learn faster and do better than others on tests are praised and rewarded. The ultimate goal is to do better than anyone else, and by extension, to be better than anyone else.
The Montessori approach encourages and nurtures communication, collaboration, and community. Because each classroom is made up of a mixed age group, younger children learn from older children, and older children have the opportunity to be leaders and role models for the younger children. Our model is one of cooperation and mutual respect, not competition.
Montessori schools recognize that elementary children have a natural developmental drive to communicate and work with friends, due not only to the development of consciousness, but also to a hormonal change that takes place at this age. The same surge in adrenal hormones that causes children to lose their baby teeth around this time also stimulates an increased interest in social relationships, fairness, and justice. This age presents the prime opportunity for our children to learn about what works and what doesn’t work in social interactions and how to live and work with others in a community – knowledge that will serve them well as they move into adult society. Our schools make the most of this stage of development by encouraging collaborative work and projects at the elementary level.
So, back to our original question: What makes Montessori education so different from traditional education? It’s true that “just about everything” is different, but perhaps a better answer would be this:
“Montessori education is not based on educators’ or politicians’ ideas about what children should learn and when. Rather, it is based on scientific observation and study about how children learn and how they learn best.”
If you would like to see for yourself the scientific research that underlies Montessori principles, come by the parent library to look through Dr. Lillard’s book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Better still, check it out and take it home for more extended study. And for a quick sample of some of the most current research on these and other topics, check out the “Montessori Research” page on our website, www.bgmontessori.com.
The name “Montessori” is not trademarked, and any school or even daycare can use this word, regardless of whether it properly implements, understands, or is even aware of the profound vision and insights of Dr. Maria Montessori. For this reason, when I use the term “Montessori schools” in this article I am referring to schools like BGMS, in which all guides are AMI-trained and certified, and which adhere to the highest standards of Montessori practice as recognized by AMI (the Association Montessori Internationale).