If you’re currently researching schools and trying to figure out which one would be a good fit for your little one, you might have stumbled across the term ‘Montessori education’. Montessori is often held up as one of the better educational styles, because of its focus on being child-led. Parents often speak very highly about Montessori schools and you’re probably interested in learning more about this alternative education method.
The history of Montessori education
The first Montessori school was founded in Italy in the early 20th century by Maria Montessori. Her years of observational and academic research led her to conclude that children learn best when treated as individuals who are allowed to develop at their own pace. It was this belief that became the foundation for a Montessori education.
Dr Maria Montessori was an inspiring character. She was the first female doctor in Italy and had studied biology, psychiatry, anthropology and medicine, giving her an in-depth understanding of human development. Through her work, Dr Montessori became focused on child development and how a child’s environment affects development.
The first Montessori education center, Casa dei Bambini, meaning ‘children’s house’ was set up for sixty underprivileged children. Because of her work there, Maria Montessori believed that children learned best when they were able to control their own learning. The children at the school did well, and news about the success of Dr Montessori’s teaching methods soon spread. As educators from other countries grew interested in her work, Dr Montessori traveled the world, sharing her methods far and wide to ensure more children would benefit from her years of experience.
What is a Montessori school?
Based on Dr Montessori’s observations that children learned better when they are in charge of their own learning, Montessori pupils are encouraged to be independent learners. They choose what they work on in the classroom and develop strong bonds with their fellow classmates and teachers.
There are tens of thousands of Montessori schools in the world today and, of course, they do things differently.
There are some key factors, however, that are common to most Montessori classrooms, including:
- Mixed-age classrooms. Montessori classrooms tend to feature mixed age groups to encourage children to form friendships with older and younger children. In mixed-age groups, the older children often assist the younger children in their learning, which is good for both the older and younger members of the class.
- Classroom design. Montessori classrooms are set up in such a way that children can reach their own equipment. Unlike regular schoolrooms, which use locked cupboards and high shelving to keep materials out of reach, a Montessori classroom invites children to help themselves. Low shelving allows children to choose their equipment, even in kindergarten.
- Child-directed learning. One thing of note in Montessori classrooms is that children choose what they do. Though the teacher may set up activity stations, it’s up to each individual child whether or not to visit each station and complete the activities. There is no expectation for children to use the activity stations on offer, and it’s fine for them to get out different equipment to use instead.
- Teachers as facilitators. Rather than standing at the front of the class, Montessori teachers walk around the room, assisting individuals with their learning. Teachers do not see themselves as directing but as facilitating the learning of their students. For Montessori teachers, the job is to encourage children to learn by themselves, not to teach them in the traditional sense.
- A focus on whole child development. Whereas most schools focus on academics, the Montessori Method aims to develop the whole child. Physical education, the arts, social well-being and emotional maturity are all seen as vital as academic learning.
- Montessori materials. Many of the Montessori learning materials present in Montessori classrooms today were developed by Dr Maria Montessori 100 years ago. These learning materials have stood the test of time, after being tried and tested in Montessori programs all over the world.
What to expect from a Montessori school
Each Montessori school might do things differently. This could be due to varying budgets, available space or even different interpretations of the Montessori method. If you are considering a Montessori education, it’s important to visit your local Montessori school to see the education on offer. The Montessori method features many positive aspects but schools might be selective about which aspects of the Montessori method they choose to practise.
Modern schools might not offer all of the following elements of a Montessori education, though most of them are universal:
Outdoor learning is considered vital to child development. Montessori education centers aim to encourage a love of nature, and there’s no better way to do this than to spend time outdoors. Building dens, going on nature walks and growing vegetables are all examples of outdoor learning you might expect at a Montessori school. Children also spend plenty of time outdoors playing games, exploring and getting to know their local area.
Whereas traditional schools place their focus on academics, the arts are very important in a Montessori education. In order to develop the whole child, it’s important to encourage creativity and self-expression through the arts. Music, drama and art feature highly in a Montessori classroom, with children able to direct as much time as they like to these expressive art forms.
Montessori students learn by doing. You’re unlikely to see a teacher standing at the front of the desk writing on a blackboard in a Montessori classroom. Instead, the classroom will be a hive of activity, with children working alone or in small groups on whatever they like; teachers make their way around the room to assist.
Instead of seeing a class, teachers see a room of individuals. Children are encouraged to learn at their own pace on topics that interest them. For older children, this means selecting which (if any) exams they’d like to sit, and when. Students are able to decide what to focus on; this encourages their natural curiosity and allows them to build an education around their interests.
Montessori teachers are there to support and facilitate a child’s education, not to dictate how it should progress. A Montessori teacher is experienced in bringing out the best in each child and encouraging their natural love of learning.
Montessori children are given responsibilities to encourage their development. Children are expected to take on domestic duties and help take care of the school and other students. For younger children, this might involve setting the table and tidying away after lunch. The classroom is set up in such a way as to allow children to take an active part in domestic duties. The schools have high expectations for their students but the support is there to help children meet them.
The pros of Montessori education
There are lots of benefits to this educational philosophy.
A Montessori education:
Fosters a child’s love of learning
Children are not confined to desks or to learning as a class. Instead, they are encouraged to follow their own interests and explore the learning materials on offer. They can learn at their own pace, get lost in their own learning and work on projects of their own creation. All of this encourages a child’s capacity for learning, which can help learning in the long term.
Encourages peer learning
The mixed age groups encourage children to form friendships with children of different ages. The role of the teacher as a facilitator also encourages a strong bond between teacher and pupil. Peer learning encourages older children to share their learning with the youngest in the class, thus consolidating their skills.
What is a Montessori school like for children with special educational needs? Children of different abilities do well in a Montessori curriculum because of the understanding that children will learn at their own pace. Neurodiverse children do well, thanks to child-directed learning that allows children to focus on their special interests. Children who struggle to sit still in a traditional classroom might feel more at home in a Montessori classroom, where hands-on learning is encouraged.
The focus on independence encourages confidence from a young age. Children take charge of their own learning and thus feel proud of their work.
The cons of Montessori education
Although there are lots of things to celebrate about a Montessori education, there are also some negatives, including:
Where Montessori schools are not funded by public money, a Montessori education can be a luxury not available to all. In many places, Montessori schools must be paid for privately, meaning many children miss out on the benefits of this education philosophy.
Individualism might not prepare students for employment
A Montessori education focuses on the individual and learning at your own pace; this might not translate well into the workforce. Many jobs, especially starting jobs, are team-focused. Some Montessori schools fail to teach the importance of team skills and team working, potentially leaving school leavers struggling as they enter the workforce.
Children might not get a well-rounded education
Although there are plenty of benefits in letting children control their learning, there are some obvious downsides, too. Children might favor certain subjects and let others fall by the wayside. If a child isn’t interested in Math or English, it might mean they fall behind their peers by the time they leave school. Some skills are important for everyday life, even though they might not be particularly interesting to learn.
It doesn’t work for everyone
A Montessori classroom is very different from a traditional classroom. For children who need routine and order, a traditional classroom could be a better fit. A Montessori classroom can appear unruly as children work on their own projects – alone or in small groups. This works well for some children but might not appeal to all.
What is the purpose of a Montessori school?
Montessori schools exist to further the educational aims Dr Maria Montessori believed to be important. Using her special approach to education, Montessori schools set out to educate children in a way that utilizes the child’s innate love of learning.
Montessori schools hope to create future stewards of the planet by teaching pupils to respect and protect the natural world. Montessori schools aim to educate global citizens by ensuring children understand other cultures and the wider world. Far from simply educating students to pass tests, Montessori methods want to create independent thinkers who value the planet and those living on it.
Montessori schools aim to teach children how to learn, ensuring they are equipped for a life of learning. Unlike children taught to pass exams, Montessori students learn the skills necessary for future learning. Children learn how to analyze, question and come to their own informed conclusions.
What is a Montessori school?
A Montessori school uses the methods of Dr Montessori and largely follows the Montessori curriculum. There are thousands of Montessori schools across the world, and though they are all influenced by her teachings, it is unlikely the schools offer the same experience. If you’re interested in learning more about the Montessori method, it’s important to focus your research on your local school. No two Montessori schools are created equal, so be sure to research the individual school you are considering for your child.
Speak to parents of students at the school to find out what they like (and dislike) about the school. No school is perfect, and there will always be opportunities for improvement, but it’s crucial to see the full picture when researching a school.
Find out how the school in question uses Montessori teaching methods in the classroom. Ask them how pupils progress and how they deal with bad behavior in the classroom. A Montessori school is like any other in that it will have methods and processes in place to ensure all children are able to learn effectively.
Montessori schools are often small when compared with state schools. If it’s a fee-paying school, it will likely want to keep class sizes small to ensure the Montessori teacher can give each child the best education possible.
Montessori classrooms are usually busy places to be, with children engaging in individual and small-group tasks. The Montessori teacher will move around the room, engaging with the children to learn more about what they’re working on. The Montessori classroom environment might feel different from a traditional school in that the traditional teacher-pupil hierarchy doesn’t work in the same way.
Montessori preschools for younger children are popular across the world, with many people favoring the Montessori method for early childhood education. However, as children grow, school choices become more limited. In an ideal world, parents would be able to choose from a variety of schools for their children. In practice, though, it comes down to which schools are available in your local neighborhood.
Montessori education: a review of the evidence base, published in 2017, found Montessori options for teenagers to be limited and that there was little evidence into the effectiveness of Montessori methods at this age.