What is Montessori?
Montessori is the name of a very popular approach for teaching preschool and primary age children. We'll explore the reasons for its popularity later. First let's examine how Montessori got its start. As with many great movements, Montessori began with an idea and some theories put forth by one of those visionaries who dot the pages of history.
Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was born and raised in Italy. She came from a family of modest means. Her father did not approve of his daughter's desire to be educated much less to become a doctor. Women didn't do such things back at the end of the 19th century. Despite the many obstacles which stood in her way Maria actually earned her degree from the University of Rome in 1896. Her speciality was pediatric medicine.
While Dr. Montessori was working towards her degree, she had studied and worked with mentally disabled children. She got her chance to put her experience, observations and theories into practice when she was invited to open a school for the children of working class families in a low income housing project in Rome in 1907. The first Casa dei Bambini was a traditional school with desks and chalkboards and all the other accoutrements of classrooms of the day. Dr. Montessori herself did not teach. She left that task to the building porter's daughter.
Dr. Montessori observed the children becoming deeply involved in their work and their play. She began organizing their day and their classroom environment to encourage self-discipline and responsibility. Her idea was to "follow the child." The classroom space, the materials, the desks, the flow of the day all had to flow from this central tenet of Montessori. Teachers were to be guides, not stern taskmasters. Needless to say, Dr. Montessori's approach was quite different from what was commonly found in elementary classrooms of the day. Yet her first Casa dei Bambini was successful and her methods gained the attention and approval of other educators and civic leaders. Her second Casa dei Bambini opened later in 1907.
Dr. Montessori began to develop the teaching materials we know recognize as Montessori to support reading, writing and mathematics. She codified her approach in The Method of Scientific Pedagogy Applied to the Education of Children in the Children's Houses.
Here are five facts about Montessori schools to bear in mind when exploring preschools and primary schools for your child.
Most Montessori schools belong to the American Montessori Society or the Association Montessori Internationale which was founded in 1929 by Dr. Montessori herself. Depending on which association a school belongs to, if it belongs to one at all, it will also have regional and/or state associations available to it of which it may be a member.
While Dr. Montessori began her work in the inner city with children from low-income families, her approach has taken root in middle class America. Search on Private School Review for Montessori schools within, say, a 10 mile radius of a zip code in most urban areas and you will be rewarded with dozens of Montessori schools to choose from.
2. Not every Montessori school is the genuine article.
Dr. Maria Montessori never trademarked the name 'Montessori'. As a result anybody can call their school Montessori if they so choose. But does that mean the school adheres to Dr. Montessori's principles and methods? Not exactly. You will only learn if it is the real thing if you know what to look for and what questions to ask.
A trained, credentialed Montessori teacher has been thoroughly trained and is experienced in Montessori principles, concepts and methods. Mary Gutting Matthews explains what it is to be a Montessori teacher in Reflections of a Montessori Child.
From the American Montessori Society: "Components necessary for a program to be considered authentically Montessori include multiage groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choice of work activity. In addition, a full complement of specially designed Montessori learning materials are meticulously arranged and available for use in an aesthetically pleasing environment." An Introduction to Montessori
Beautiful materials which children learn to treasure: "The Montessori school environment is arranged according to subject area -- cooking, cleaning, gardening, art, caring for animals, library corner, etc. -- children always free to move around the room instead of staying at desks. There is no limit to how long a child can work on something she has chosen." The International Montessori Index
3. Montessori schools are individually owned and operated.
Montessori schools are not a franchise operation. Each Montessori school is individually owned and operated. Many small schools are proprietary schools owned by an individual. Others are not for profit entities governed by a board of trustees. Most Montessori schools are small with less than 100 children. Individual ownership and small size can mean that a school's viability is very much dependent upon the sound business practice and experience of the owner. A school established as a not for profit organization overseen by a board of trustees will have a broader base of interested supporters. Both business models have their advantages and disadvantages. Make sure that the school is well-managed and is sound fiscally.
The degree to which any school can be called Montessori is dependent on several factors. That is why it is so important for parents to read about Montessori and understand all that it entails. Then evaluate each school on your short list comparing them with the Montessori tenets and elements which you feel are essential for your child's education.
4. Montessori schools are considered progressive schools.
If you are looking for a so-called 'traditional' style of teacher-directed learning, then you will be disappointed. Montessori schools are almost always 'progressive' schools. Their classes are multi-age and teacher-guided. The teacher hovers on the sidelines observing, helping and guiding the learning process.
The Teacher's Role: "The teacher, child, and environment create a learning triangle. The classroom is prepared by the teacher to encourage independence, freedom within limits, and a sense of order. The child, through individual choice, makes use of what the environment offers to develop himself, interacting with the teacher when support and/or guidance is needed." American Montessori Association
Is Montessori for all children? "There is no one school that is right for all children, and certainly there are children who may do better in a smaller classroom setting with a more teacher-directed program that offers fewer choices and more consistent external structure. Children who are easily overstimulated, or those who tend to be overly aggressive, may be examples of children who might not adapt as easily to a Montessori program." The Montessori Foundation
by Natashi Jay
5. Montessori schools use specially designed materials.
Dr. Montessori designed sensorial materials for the purpose of developing a child's five senses. The materials include the cylinder blocks, the pink tower, the brown or broad stair, the red rods, the colored cylinders and more. As well there is a host of other materials used for the learning and discovery activities of older children. Upper school teachers are usually expected to develop their own materials.
Learning materials: "In the Montessori classroom, learning materials are arranged invitingly on low, open shelves. Children may choose whatever materials they would like to use and may work for as long as the material holds their interest. When they are finished with each material, they return it to the shelf from which it came." North American Montessori Teachers' Association
Implicit in these five facts about Montessori is the reality that your child is beginning an incredible journey. If you decide to send him to a Montessori school, you must remain involved with his education on a daily basis. His teacher is his guide at school. You are his guide for life. 24/7. You will always know what is best for him. Never forget that.