What is Montessori Education?

Montessori education is based on neurodevelopment and meeting the individual needs of each and every child. The  curriculum was created over 100 years ago based off of scientific experimentation and observations. In a Montessori environment the focus is on addressing the needs of the whole child. The basic tenants of the individual operating within a community creates an interdependent environment where growth and development occur socially as well as individually with the help of materials and experiences.

One of the main ideals is that the process of learning is internal. In the Montessori environment, children are responsible for their self construction. External judgement and validation are not motivators in the Montessori environment. Ideally a child’s self-esteem comes from an internal sense of pride in his or her own accomplishments. It is their own interests and self-direction, their sense of curiosity and internal drive that motivates and inspires them.

The classroom is an integral part of the Montessori experience as it is designed to be a microcosm of the world. Children stay in same classroom for 3 years. This mixed-age classroom approach provides children with a more developmentally diverse group of peers. Other benefits are that children are afforded a deeper sense of community while inspiring leadership skills, deeper understanding, collaboration, and respect of others.

montessori elementary collaborative learning blocks

In the Montessori sphere, teachers are more often referred to as directors or directress. The role of a Montessori teacher is that of an observer or guide and as a gateway to the materials. Teachers consistently observe each individual child, assessing their current level of development and their personal interests. Their objective is to create structures to meet the child’s needs in the opportune moment to promote their learning process. Montessori teachers are trained not to engage every need, but to provide the tools for learning and then step back, allowing the child to work in their own way and at their own pace. Thus the quality of a Montessori program is closely linked to the astuteness, consistency and temperance of the teachers.

10 facts about the Montessori method:

  1. Children stay in the same classroom for 3 years (Multi-age grouping)
  2. Materials, along with the environment, are considered the primary teacher
  3. Children enjoy freedom of movement, they can work where they wish and get up when needed
  4. Practical life skills are emphasized at a very early age
  5. Internal self discipline and inner drive is fostered
  6. Lessons are based on the teacher’s observations, individually structured to the child’s interests and abilities
  7. Children are provided small group and individual lessons
  8. Independence is encouraged in all aspects of the child’s development
  9. Materials are designed for the child to be able to identify their own errors
  10. Social, emotional and moral development are emphasized

The Roots of Montessori Education

Maria Montessori and her passion for children

“The greatness of the human personality begins at the hour of birth. From this almost mystic affirmation there comes what may seem a strange conclusion: that education must start from birth.” — Maria Montessori

Dr. Maria Montessori is the genius behind the Montessori Curriculum. She saw that there was a great need for reform in the traditional educational system. Through observation, intuition and scientific research, she created programs for different age groups that assist the child in their natural development. In order to fully understand the Montessori educational method, it is best to start with a brief history.

doctor maria montessori founder portrait

Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy on August 31, 1870. When she was ready to attend college, she decided that she wanted to go into Medicine. Both her father and the head of the school tried to dissuade her but Maria Montessori was determined to become a doctor. Because of her determination, hard work and perseverance, in 1896, she graduated first in her class and became one of the first female doctors in Italy. Her first assignment out of college was being a physician for children in a mental asylum. Part of her job entailed visiting state hospitals, including psychiatric hospitals. While there, she observed the children picking up scraps of food from the floor and rolling it in their fingers. Her initial thought was that they longed to manipulate and explore the world with their hands that they used the only thing that was available to them. This began Dr. Montessori on a path of researching materials for children which led her to developing her own materials.

In 1907, Maria Montessori was offered the chance to open up her own school in a housing project in San Lorenzo, Italy. The first Casa de Bambini opened and within a year, the results of this new pedagogy took the world by surprise. The children were reportedly learning to write spontaneously and could be so concentrated on a task that they could be picked up and moved without being distracted from what they were doing. She noticed that after some time, these 5 year old children experienced a transformation of personality. All of them, no matter what their personalities were at the beginning became orderly, peaceful, loving and eager to learn.

With the success of the Casa de Bambini under her belt, Maria Montessori wanted to see if the results would be similar if the environment was replicated. In order to do this, Maria needed to distill out what conditions in the Casa environment supported and encouraged this transformation of personality. By 1913, Dr. Montessori gave her first international training to people from several continents who then opened up Montessori schools in their own country. And so the world wide experiment began, and continues to this day. Over 100 years later, Montessori Education is found on every continent (except Antarctica, as we know penguins are already naturally inquisitive).

Montessori Today

Montessori is a quickly growing international educational movement. There are well over 10,000 Montessori schools in the world today. Montessori resources can now be found in nearly every major language. While many schools are private, there are over 500 public Montessori schools in the United States alone. A common misconception is that Montessori is only for younger children, when in fact there are Montessori middle schools and high schools. The Montessori method is even used to teach adults. Some extremely successful people like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos,  Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, all grew up in Montessori environments.

The Montessori Method

The Montessori Pedagogy promotes individual freedom, critical thinking, gives children a healthy level of self esteem because they are in charge of their own learning. The essence of the Montessori Approach is to give children an environment appropriate to their developmental needs and to then allow them the freedom to construct themselves through their own work with the Montessori materials.

The Montessori Method is designed to meet the child where they are in terms of development and turns their interests into activities they can use to further develop important skills. Through the Montessori Method, children learn to be compassionate, caring, self motivated and independent individuals. All of these traits help to prepare children to be successful in life and look for answers within themselves instead of looking to others to solve their problems for them.

Many people talk about Montessori Education as being concerned with “the whole child”, meaning that the education is not only focused on academics, it also is concerned with the social, emotional and physiological aspects of a person’s development. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life.”

What Does Montessori Provide the Child?

Montessori Education offers hands-on, meaningful experiences. It is concerned with the whole person, not just academics. As a teacher of over 15 years, I have many memories of students asking why they needed to learn a specific topic. They want to know how it is related to their life and how they will use it the future. They don’t want to do something simply because it is a benchmark that some politician came up with. They are interested in bettering themselves, even if they can not eloquently verbalize this for themselves.

Every child goes through the stages of development differently, and learns different things from those experiences. Montessori educators know well the wisdom of observance in the classroom, it is one of their vital tools. Through astute observance of the child on a daily basis a Montessori teacher can track their development patterns and help the child to find their next step forward.

The Montessori method equips educators with tools to intuit when the time is right to introduce a new learning material, or when not to push a child when they are not ready. Being sensitive to a child’s rhythms and needs builds a trust bond which in turn lowers potential resistance to new experiences and ways of thinking. The Montessori classroom provides the child a flexibility and adapts giving each child the ability to learn at their own pace. In this modality, the environment and the educator can also be a helpful mirror for the child to gain awareness and perspective on how they as operate individually as a growing person.

Maria Montessori created a pedagogy with an underlying basis to treat children with the same dignity and respect given to adults. All adults were children once of course, but as adults we frequently treat children very different than adults. Their opinions are not respected in a reciprocal way. We are often harder on them than we are on other adults in similar situations. Many times we dismiss their ideas and bark commands instead of having conversations and trying to reason with them.. But the fact is that if we take the time to instill a sense of dignity in a person at an early age leads to a higher self esteem and greater confidence and thus they will probably also treat their peers better.

Why Mixed Age Classrooms?

In Montessori having multiple ages in one classroom forms a family-like bond between the children and their teachers. The older children look out for the younger ones. They teach them new games, how to share, how to be a good sport, and they also are the first to rush to their side if they get hurt.

Children are more apt to learn from their peers than from adults. In any healthy society the older children serve as role models to younger children. When this approach is applied to the classroom, older children not only support their younger peers socially, but academically as well.  The Montessori environment is specifically set up so that younger children benefit from having older peers as role models and tutors.

Montessori classrooms traditionally follow this structure:

  • Infant – birth through 18 months
  • Toddler – 18 months through 3 years
  • Preschool/Kindergarten – ages 3-6
  • Lower Elementary – ages 6-9
  • Upper Elementary – ages 9-12
  • Middle School – ages 12-14 (grades 7-8 or 7-9)
  • High School – ages 15-18 (grades 9-12 or 10-12)

Mixed age classrooms enable children to experience a more developmentally diverse group of peers. They empower students to learn more by also being the teachers themselves and thereby mastering the work. Montessori mixed age classrooms give young children the opportunity to interact on a regular basis with older children who are more developmentally advanced. Much like in a family setting, the younger ones look up to their older peers for guidance and direction.

The Montessori classroom is set up to be a microcosm of the world. Having a diverse and nurturing community within the class is an important part of the Montessori method. In a fostered environment, being around more social and emotionally mature peers provides a richer support system that is not possible in single-age classrooms.

What is the 3 Year Cycle?

Montessori classrooms are built on interrelationships and continuity. The overall aim of the 3 year cycle is to provide enriched learning opportunities, a sense of community and deeper connections between both peers and the guide. The Montessori classroom innately promotes inter-age learning, as each child remains in the same classroom with the same few children of their age group for 3 years. The environment, lessons and materials are presented in a format in which older children teach younger children and vice versa. Inter-age learning is a natural state of learning and helps to solidify previously learned materials.

Some of the exercises a child experiences in their first year in the classroom materials will lay the foundation for future works with those same materials. This stable environment also provides spontaneous opportunities for new correlations, which in turn helps the child expand and build upon those previously learned points. By having an environment and resources that are not just helping the child achieve an immediate goal, it mimics the natural learning process, and allow the child to see a whole set of perspectives.

Mentoring fosters a sense of place and true affection among the children. Having a sense of place and community has been shown to build self esteem and directly affects learning ability and focus. Transitions from year to year are also emotionally smoother and a child’s progress tends to not backslide as much between years as there is more of an overall sense of continuity.

The Montessori education method is a broad development-based curriculum. It is less focused on learning and more focused on the whole child. The teacher’s role is to create structures to meet the class’s diverse developmental needs, not to engage every need. This built-in structure creates an interdependent community.