“Free the child’s potential and you transform him into the world.” Dr. Maria Montessori
What do the founders of Google, Wikipedia and Amazon have in common? All attended Montessori schools—distinctive learning environments that foster academic excellence, innovation and a lifetime love of learning. The Wall Street Journal describes the approach as the “Montessori mystique,” while the Harvard Business Review calls the CEOs who run America’s top companies the “Montessori mafia.”
What is Montessori?
Montessori is a research-based, empirically-validated, student-centered and time-tested approach to education, named for Dr. Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy and a pioneer in the study of child development and psychology. Many of Montessori’s discoveries, at the time controversial, are now considered common knowledge in the fields of child development and education. A humanitarian and devout Catholic, she was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1907, Montessori founded the Casa dei Bambini, a school for mentally ill and disabled children in Rome. At that time, the mentally and physically challenged were usually believed to be incapable of academic learning. However, Montessori found that when offered the appropriate environment, guidance and materials, the students were capable of great things. Observing that that all young children have an innate curiosity and desire to learn, Montessori said: “free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.”
Based upon her scientific observations, Montessori dramatically transformed the prevailing approach to education for all children. “It is not true that I invented what has been called the Montessori Method. I have studied the child, I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method,” she said.
Montessori today: the original “brain-based” education
Today, neuroscience confirms what Dr. Montessori discovered a century ago. “Montessori is the original brain-based approach to education because it is based upon scientific principles of human development,” says Dr. Stephen Hughes, past president of the American Academy for Pediatric Neuroscience.
Montessori has grown to be the single largest pedagogy and education movement in the world, with an estimated 20,000 schools on six continents, including 5,000 in the United States. While many specialize in preschool (ages 3 to 6) education, Montessori programs can start at birth and go through 12th grade.
Most Montessori schools are private, nonprofit, non-sectarian organizations, but a growing number of religious and public schools (500 in the United States) are also adopting the program. The largest school of any kind in the world, City Montessori in Lucklow, India, has more than 50,000 students!
What makes Montessori different?
“When it comes to education, one-size-fits-all doesn’t,” says explains MMS Co-Director Suzanne Sanders.
Dr. Montessori developed her unique education approach more than a century ago and she ways a woman ahead of her time, Sanders says.
“She realized that, ideally, children should learn at their own pace and be driver by their own interests with adults as guides. For instance, a child who interested in automobiles would learn best about mathematics and science while researching what makes a car run. Montessori education allows children to follow their own paths to develop socially and emotionally as well as academically.”
The Montessori classroom: a laboratory for learning
The Montessori classroom is a laboratory for learning, designed around the intellectual, social and emotional needs of children at each stage of their development.
Students are grouped in three-year age spans in the same classroom: parent-infant (ages 0 to 3), preschool (ages 3 to 6), lower and upper elementary (ages 6 to 9 and 9 to 12), and middle school (ages 12 to 15). Each of these environments is designed to accurately and precisely reflect the natural learning characteristics of the child at that stage of development. Through the use of the prepared environment, research-based materials and guidance by the trained Montessori teacher, children engage in a wide variety of tasks that encourage critical thinking, social interaction and practice with applying logical problem-solving skills — all at the level that is developmentally appropriate for the child’s specific stage. Children learn the how and why of what they know as well they gain a rich storehouse of knowledge about the world.
Montessori is education for innovation
That’s where Montessori shines. Montessori graduates were noticeably over-represented in a six-year study of successful executives who had either invented new products or launched innovative companies. The study, conducted by Professors Jeffrey Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of INSEAD, involved 500 individual interviews and surveys of 3,000 global innovators. Among their notable characteristics were a Montessori education and the ability to follow their curiosity. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think ‘different,’ they act different,” said Gregersen in a Wall Street Journal article.
“It was part of that training of not following rules and orders and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently,” explained Google co-founder (and Montessori alumnus) Larry Page in an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters in a 2007 interview.
Does it work? Montessori outcomes
Some may attribute the success of Montessori students to their families’ socio-economic status, parental educational attainment and involvement or other factors, but a landmark study of inner-city Milwaukee students with comparable backgrounds found that Montessori students outperformed peers on standardized tests in reading and math, “engaged in more positive interaction on the playground and showed more advanced social cognition and executive control.” The study, reported in the Sept. 29, 2006, issue of “Science,” also found that in higher grades, Montessori-educated children “wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas and reported feeling more a sense of community at their school.”
What do students say?
“The thing I like best about my school is that here are all kinds of people there from so many places and I’m friends with them all. I make new friends every day. The adults lift you. They encourage you, not discourage you,” says Chase Boland, a primary student. “I love working on maps and I love working on Practical Life activities. My mom says she didn’t know about the maps of the world at my age, and the only continent I have left to do is Africa!”
“We are independent and get to take care of our environment,” notes River Schroeder-Neal, a lower elementary student,
“It’s not sit down, book, paper, pencil. It’s get your hands on it. Do it. Figure it out,” explains seventh-year student Jamie Coleman, who collaborated with classmates on a project to map the historic Carriage Trail in South Hills. Hands-on, student-led projects in “real world” settings are one of the hallmarks of Montessori.
“When people are talking to you, you’ve kind of got a picture of what it is, but you’re not really sure. Having the outdoor experience and doing what they’re actually teaching is much better and you have more understanding and learn a lot more,” added student Jasmine Phillips.
What do parents say?
“We are living in an age of knowledge. Only the highly educated will be positioned to succeed,” explains Brian Glasser, a Rhodes Scholar and founding partner of the law firm of Bailey & Glasser LLP. All four of his children attended Mountaineer Montessori. “The Montessori method gives children the intellectual discipline to understand how learning is a personal responsibility.”
Sarah Halstead, the mother of a primary student, agrees. “Our son has learned so much in his first year and he’s so excited about learning. We appreciate the focus on personal responsibility and accountability and the emphasis on caring for others. The nature of the lessons in different topical areas offer Chace and other kids amazing opportunities to ask questions, to work independently, and together to explore and experiment and master information and skills that are so important to life. We can’t imagine a better, more loving and intellectually stimulating place for our child.”
What do teachers say?
The focus is much more on “leading children toward independence, with more freedom to go where they need to go rather than where the testing goes,” says an MMS lead teacher with previous public school experience.
“Instead of just checking boxes for a list of standards, a Montessori education guides children to discover and become who they were meant to be.”
What does a Montessori student look like? You might be surprised!
More About Montessori
Additional Montessori resources and information (please watch this page in coming days for a rich listing of helpful books, websites, videos and other resources on Montessori education):
Montessori organizations and resources
“The Absorbent Mind,” by Maria Montessori
“Together with Montessori” by Cam Gordon
Montessori Madness (must watch five-minute video)
Superwoman Was Already Here (Maria Montessori philosophy in animated “Fast Draw” form)