Initial differences to the observer are probably physical. There are no desks in rows facing the teacher standing at the blackboard. Indeed, there may not be a blackboard. Groups of children ranging in ages are working on joint projects. Some are more engrossed in their work than others. Some are sitting at tables or desks grouped together, while others work on the floor with multi-colored materials that draw their attention like a game. The teacher's voice is rarely heard above that of the children talking quietly to each other as they work. There is a steady hum of activity throughout the classroom.
Maria Montessori never set out to make a system of education. Rather, her methods of teaching evolved from her observations of the children in her care. She observed that the child absorbs from the environment she is in, and using specially designed materials she was able to call to the child's inner desire to learn. These materials are presented in small groups, frequently on the floor, encouraging individual hands-on participation, and peer problem-solving dialogue. The child is allowed certain freedoms to be independent within the highly sequenced structure of the Montessori Method. Control of error is built into manipulative materials and charts, encouraging self-confidence and independence.
Primarily, the purpose of the Montessori method is to provide an environment where the innate abilities of the child can unfold spontaneously, encouraging the development of the person within, allowing the child to achieve his greatest potential. Maria Montessori stated, "the child is the father of the man." As the child develops his inner self, a love of life and learning follows naturally.
Confidence and the love of learning are the two most important goals for the elementary child. Montessori developed a three-period lesson which fosters confidence. The first lesson is a gift, rather than a rhetorical guess. The second lesson is a choice, i.e. "which of the following is correct", often using self-correcting materials. The third lesson is the direct question, "what is it?" With confidence and a sense of acquiring knowledge as an adventure in lifelong learning, children can reach a greater potential personally and as citizens of the world.
Basic subjects such as language, math, history, geography, biology, chemistry, geometry, music, physical education, and art are introduced in Montessori classes first in the 3-6 programs. Elementary students, by nature, want more answers to life's questions. The "how, where, what, when" questions are expanded into their environment and beyond. They want to classify, group, get control of their world. So the elementary curriculum developed by Maria, and later by her son and grandson, incorporate that explosion into knowledge from questions with materials that name, classify, and redefine the natural world in which the child has joined. Montessori thought less of her method of teaching as having a curriculum, as following the questions of the child to create individual and group lessons based on where the child is and where the group of children might go. That is not to say that her method is without curriculum, nor that the child does what she wants. Montessori directresses are arduously trained in methodically sequenced lessons, frequently broken into many passages for children who need that degree of gradual movement from concrete to abstract presentation. These sequences in each subject matter make up, but do not necessarily define, the curriculum. Each new group of students dictates which lessons will be given according to the needs of those individual and collective children.
This is one of the most important questions to ask when approaching any Montessori school for enrollment. Unfortunately, Montessori never saw the necessity to incorporate her method. Anyone can hang out a shingle and proclaim themselves a Montessori school. Fortunately, there are national and international affiliations where credentials of schools and teachers can be checked, including AMS (American Montessori Society), AMI (Association Montessori Internationale), and NAMTA (North American Montessori Teacher's Association). Each has rigid accreditation standards, particularly for teacher training programs, which are today located throughout the world. To find more about teacher training, visit the home pages of any of these organizations.
Montessori was herself amazed at the abilities of young children two and three years old. In her environments she discovered that they were able to absorb concrete materials using all their senses simultaneously, a unique ability soon lost. She called these times of special absorption "Sensative Periods", and developed specific materials for that time. As the child grows these periods change, yet the continuum is set in motion for the rest of the child's life. Therefore, the early years are the most important, yet most neglected in many societies. Starting a child at 2 1/2 or 3 in a good Montessori environment with well-trained directresses can have results that will remain with the child all her life.
Some Montessori schools do not allow older students to enter their classes. Most give priority to transferring students from their own or other Montessori schools. Adjustment into Montessori classes depends upon the child, his prior educational experience, innate flexibility, and attitudes toward learning and school. They frequently enter with heightened enthusiasm for the "games" encountered. As they adjust to the more subtle structure of the classroom and their own responsibility for their learning, they usually go through a period of trying the limits. It is not unusual for students entering from more traditional education to want to do everything in the room the first week. The idea of touching, handling, and talking as they work tends to, at first, be overstimulating for some, while intimidating for others. It usually takes 6 weeks to 6 months for students to integrate into the classroom. Once adjusted, however, students who have experienced another form of education can positively engage their peers in introspective observations.
What happens when my child leaves Montessori?
This is the most frequently asked question of most people seeking information regarding Montessori learning. Changing from one environment to another takes self-confidence and patience. Different children respond differently to change. Most children adjust well to the transfer from Montessori to other private or public schools when their self esteems are high. Statistically, those who are in Montessori classrooms longest tend to make the adjustment more smoothly. They usually enter their new environments with a positive, flexible confidence following their experience with, and nurturing of, a real love of learning.
Ruth Barnes Reed
Last update: 1/28/99