Montessori. A frequently misapplied name for an educational system that is difficult to explain. The system has seen huge success and the word has become a fad applied to everything from playgroups to pet-training salons (seriously!). As with anything worthwhile though, authentic Montessori education is worth the time it takes to understand.
Here are a few key ideas that have set Montessori apart from other educational systems. Firstly, it is a science-based system. The curriculum is the result of many years of scientific research into the way children learn best. It has moved away from the archaic educational methods still implemented in our public school systems which are remnants of the industrial revolution and factory -operations. These systems fail to acknowledge the individual differences, learning styles, needs, and talents of each child, instead aiming to force each child into the same mold. The Montessori method, in contrast, is uninterested in producing a cookie-cutter product, but rather in honing each individual’s skills, interests, and abilities to their full potential.
Second, Montessori is also a holistic educational system rather than an exclusively academic system. The first glimpse of this idea is the emphasis on independence and self-sufficiency in all areas of life, especially caring for one’s own basic needs. The philosophy supports the idea that no skill can be learned without careful teaching, experience, and practice from an early age, thus one often see Montessori 2- and 3-year-olds performing practical life skills that many of us don’t expect to see from such a tiny tot. For example, Montessori children learn a variety of food preparation skills, like cutting, peeling, slicing, and grating so that they can experience the self-sufficiency and self-reliance of making and eating food independently.
This idea of independence and self-sufficiency permeates every area of the Montessori method. Children freely explore concepts of language and math, making independent discoveries with the help of an experienced guide to help scaffold their knowledge. The skills built in this way are then transferable. For example, children who really understand math learn how to discover a formula and have no need for memorizing hundreds of formulas. They are not constrained by the facts they don’t know, but rather are set free by the skills that enable them to discover facts independently.
Other life skills, or “soft skills”, are also honed and specifically taught and nurtured, helping to bring up well-adjusted, compassionate, and responsible members of society. Montessori classrooms function with a mix of three age groups, therefore children stay in the same class for all three years of the Montessori 3-6-year-old program. This provides children with a variety of older peer mentors to help teach and guide them through social and academic experiences. They get the opportunity to be mentors and guides themselves as they get older and more experienced in the environment. The 6-year-olds learn and develop leadership skills and have practical experience guiding and teaching others.
Third, the Montessori method teaches through indirect preparation. A great example to explain this idea is writing. Learning to write can be a chore because of all the various skills that must come together for the act of writing to happen. Children have to simultaneously know their sounds, string together those sounds, know what they want to say, form the shape of the letter, manipulate a pencil… it’s hard! But imagine if each of those many skills could be isolated and mastered individually. Then bringing together those skills would be a simple task of combining what the child already knows. This is the idea of indirect preparation. Materials in the classroom isolate skills needed for large cognitive and fine motor tasks so that the children feel confident and well-prepared when they are ready to combine their individually honed skill sets.
These revolutionary ideas are just a few of the many implemented in the authentic Montessori classroom. Like all great ideas, Montessori takes a while to understand, and you really never stop learning. We call this quick foray into the Montessori philosophy our “elevator speech”, a necessary tool when someone asks us what we do. We hope it entices people to hop aboard and learn more. Sadly, as the name was never copyrighted we will continue to see “Monte-something” schools, playgroups, and pet salons where the ideas of Maria Montessori are woefully absent. But hopefully next time you hear someone ask, “Sorry, Monte-what?” you can help us to introduce them to this multifaceted, and deeply powerful method we call….Montessori.