The Montessori method

Many parents enrol their children in Montessori preschools because they are an "educational" way of getting childminding - if you're going to put your child in a creche, why not put them in a preschool instead - or because they want to give their child a "head start" on education. Quality preschool education is a rarity and Montessori are certainly leaders in the field.

My own children have been involved with Montessori since they were three.Like many parents, I came to Montessori education more by accident than design, and my belief in the system has grown over the years. When a Montessori primary (elementary) class opened in time for my older child, I was very pleased.

It is probably fair to say that parents send their children to a Montessori preschool because they provide a quality preschool education, but they send their children to Montessori schools because they have become converts to the Montessori approach and/or because they have deep dissatisfactions with the traditional education system.

I admit freely that both are true of me. Would I have been so keen on sending my son to a Montessori primary if I had been happier at school myself (rather than bored out of my tree)? But my sons' involvement with Montessori has only deepened my commitment and appreciation of its approach.

It is interesting that Montessori education seems particularly attractive to parents of sons. The preponderance of boys in my sons' classes may well be an anomaly, but I observe that those children who come to us at an older age, having had problems in mainstream (traditional) schools, are invariably boys. It is a truism today that the traditional education system favors girls. The Montessori environment and program doesn't penalize boys for their difficulty in sitting still; their later maturing; their need to touch and manipulate objects. The Montessori program is based around the individual. Thus, for example, the student determines when they'll do maths and for how long. This doesn't mean the child can choose never to do maths, merely that the child has control within the limits set by the teacher.

One of the most fundamental, and misunderstood, tenet of the Montessori approach is encapsulated in the phrase "Follow the child".

"Follow the child" does not mean let the child do what he wants. It is simply an acknowledgment that the child has her own pattern - that we need to take into account where the child is at, rather than impose our idea of what the child should learn now. Montessori saw the child's development as passing through four developmental phases, with a pattern of intense growth reaching a peak and then declining, within each phase.

Each of these developmental phases is marked by:

  • a specific developmental goal
  • a readily identifiable direction to reach that goal
  • specific sensitivities that facilitate reaching that goal

This scenario is the basis for the Montessori structure of 3-6, 6-9, 9-12 classes. The age-bands reflect the developmental phases, and the program and environment provided for that phase reflects the sensitivities characteristic of that phase.

The color of these triangles reflects the similarity between, for example, the developmental phases at 0-6 and 12-18, a similarity that has been remarked on by many parents and teachers of adolescents.

Maria Montessori was ahead of her time in recognizing that babies were active learners, and it is also instructive to note that she saw development continuing to age 24. However, for the most part, Montessori education has concentrated on the periods 3-6 (preschool) and 6-12, with particular emphasis on the preschool years. This emphasis no doubt reflects the much greater void that existed in preschool education.

It is also partly an historical artifact - when Montessori decided (on the basis of her amazing success with so-called "uneducable" children) to try her methods on normal children, she had no opportunity to work with school-age children, as they were already in school. However, an opportunity arose to have custody of children below school age in a reclaimed public-housing project in Rome. Hence, quite by accident, Montessori's first successes were with preschool children. The success of her methods was of course, also much more obvious with this group of children, since few children below the age of six received any sort of education.

You can now read Maria Montessori's 1909 book online. There is an illustrated edition available at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/montessori/method/method.html

References: 

Lillard, Paula Polk. 1996. Montessori Today: A comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood. NY: Schocken Books. Toronto: Random House.