In the early 1900s, when Dr. Maria Montessori started her Casa dei Bambini in Rome, schools were much more regimented than they are today. Dr. Montessori had ideas about how children learn that were revolutionary for their time—that children learned using hands-on materials and could flourish when given freedom within limits. She incorporated her ideas into the Montessori method. Now, there are Montessori schools all over the world, and many of her ideas have become part of mainstream education.
But what are the core aspects of Montessori? And does Montessori produce different outcomes than traditional education? (We know there are some big-name graduates like Jeff Bezos, Julia Child, and Steph Curry.) Read on for answers to all of your questions about Montessori schools.
What is Montessori?
Montessori is a method of education based on the philosophy of Maria Montessori. The Montessori method is:
- Student-led and self-paced
- Focused on cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development
- An environment where students are guided by teachers and peers
- A classroom environment that encourages independence and hands-on learning
The idea behind Montessori is that children come together in multi-age groupings and learn within opportunities for independence, citizenship, and accountability. They are presented with multi-sensory learning opportunities and are motivated to take on challenging projects. Students also move at their own pace, taking time to develop their knowledge and meet each learning goal.
Listen to a Montessori teacher talk and you’ll notice a different vocabulary. Dr. Montessori coined many phrases that are still used in Montessori education.
Image: Children’s House
The Children’s House is the classroom for children ages 2 1/2 to 6 years old.
Concrete to Abstract
Image: Alison’s Montessori
Concrete to abstract is the progression that allows kids to form an abstract understanding of a concept by first understanding it in a concrete way. For example, the Montessori way teaches the decimal system by starting with golden beads grouped into 10s, 100s, and 1,000s, showing kids the numbers before they work with them in a more conceptual way.
Control of Error
Montessori materials are designed so that the child gets feedback about progress so they can recognize and correct errors on their own.
For Montessori, each child’s task was to find their “cosmic task” or purpose in the world. Cosmic education involves giving kids in elementary school lessons in astronomy, chemistry, biology, geography, and history so they can find their own vision of the universe and purpose.
In Montessori, teachers are guides. They observe students and respond by providing guidance on which lessons to provide next based on a child’s readiness and interests.
Erdkinder, German for “child of the earth,” is the Montessori learning environment for adolescents (ages 12 to 15) that connects kids with nature and engages them in hands-on work.
Freedom Within Limits
Montessori classrooms are designed to encourage children to move about freely and choose their work, within limits of appropriate behavior. This is the boundary between freedom and respect for others and the environment.
Grace and Courtesy
Grace and courtesy refers to the manners and social skills that students are taught, including greeting guests, interrupting an adult appropriately, and requesting (rather than demanding) help.
This is a natural process demonstrated by a love of work, concentration, self-discipline, and joy in accomplishment. Children exhibit normalization through periods of uninterrupted work time where they can work at their own pace on activities they choose.
Planes of Development
Montessori describes four periods of development:
- 0–6 (absorbent mind)
- 6–12 (reasoning and abstraction)
- 12–18 (when adolescents create the social self, moral values, and emotional independence)
- 18–24 (when young adults start to understand themselves and find their place in the world)
Image: How We Montessori
Practical life tasks are activities that are done at home or school, like self-care, taking care of the classroom, or serving snacks. All children engage in practical life activities—things like mopping or handwashing for younger children and entrepreneurship or cooking for older children.
This is a time during development when the child is ready to learn a specific skill or ability. For example, a child has a sensitive period to acquire a sense of order.
Image: Montessori Climber
Sensorial materials develop the five senses and support speech, writing, and math through colors, shapes, and sizes.
The Three-Period Lesson
The Three-Period Lesson involves, first, introducing or naming the topic or object (“This is a lake.”). Then, the teacher asks the child to show what was just learned (“Show me the lake.”). Finally, the teacher asks the child to show what was learned (“What is this?”).
Work is any purposeful activity. Montessori believed that children learn through work that they choose, and that work feels like play for children.
Each day, children complete a Montessori work cycle that includes: choosing an activity, completing the activity, cleaning up and returning the materials, and being satisfied that they completed the task.
The Montessori Classroom
Image: Princeton Montessori
Montessori classrooms have lots of natural lighting, and uncluttered spaces create a calm, focused space. You’ll notice wooden, child-sized furniture, wooden toys that encourage independent, hands-on exploration, and children sitting on the floor working on activities that are spread out on small rugs. Materials are stored on wooden shelves. Every child is working on something independently or in small groups. A teacher is leading a small group lesson or observing and circulating.
In today’s Montessori classrooms, you’ll also see Smartboards and technology, but it likely won’t have the central place that it does in other classrooms. You also won’t see the typical desks in rows, or students pulled into small group lessons. Finally, Montessori classrooms are multi-age, so rather than seeing all 2nd graders together, you’ll see students in grades one through three all in the same class. This is to create a sense of community where younger students can learn from older ones, and older students can take a leadership role.
Image: Greenspring Montessori
Montessori classrooms also feature specialized materials, from red and blue rods to a moveable alphabet to counting beads. Each material was developed by Maria Montessori and serves a specific teaching purpose. Students use the materials that they have received a lesson on, and once they are working with a material, they spend the time to master it before moving on.
The Montessori School Day
A Montessori school day is structured differently than a traditional day. Children plan what they are going to accomplish during an uninterrupted work cycle. Then, they move between activities based on their interests or whether they want to work independently or in a group.
After a work cycle, teachers invite the class to come together in a “gathering.” During this group meeting, students may read a book, play a game, or engage in some other planned activity.
Image: Greenspring Montessori
There is also an emphasis on mealtime and students participating in meals in Montessori; this is part of the practical life curriculum. Finally, Montessori schools also incorporate play time and outdoor play, depending on the school day and the children’s ages.
What does a Montessori teacher do?
Montessori teachers circulate and observe students. They plan and lead lessons about how to use materials, or how to move from a concrete to abstract understanding. And they help children resolve conflicts and manage the freedom-within-limits aspect of the classroom.
A Montessori teacher:
- Sets an example for children and serves as a role model
- Observes children and monitors how each child is progressing
- Provides lessons on Montessori materials as children are ready for them
- Encourages children to be independent in their learning
- Receives special training and certification. Learn more about being a Montessori teacher at American Montessori Society.
Read more: Austin Children’s Academy
Types of Montessori Schools
Montessori schools are independent, private, public, or charter. A main difference is that public and charter schools will have to align their policies with state and district mandates. This means that a public or charter Montessori school will have to test students in line with other public schools. And they will have to provide services like special education and academic supports based on what their district and state outline.
Find a school near you through the AMS School Database.
What does Montessori look like in early years?
In Montessori classrooms for children ages 2 1/2 to 6, children choose work that involves anything from writing using a movable alphabet to sorting activities or practical life skills like pouring or measuring. The Montessori Early Childhood curriculum is a three-year sequence and involves:
- Practical life: getting dressed, preparing snacks, setting a table, caring for plants and animals
- Sensorial: activities about describing things using their five senses
- Math: identifying numbers and matching numbers to quantities, the base-10 system and place value, and addition, subtraction, multiplication and division
- Language: vocabulary, language, and skills for reading and writing. Writing is taught first, then children learn letter sounds and how to write with a pencil.
- Cultural studies: history, geography, science, art, music, and art, the community, and diversity
Read more from the American Montessori Society.
What does Montessori look like in elementary school?
Between ages 6 and 12, students participate in an individually paced curriculum. The focus is on being part of a community and taking responsibility for their learning. In these years, the focus is on:
- Transitioning from concrete to abstract thinking
- Increasing socialization
- Creativity and imagination
- Fairness, social justice, and compassion
Students work through the curriculum and teachers monitor student progress in academics, independence, autonomy, and global citizenship.
The elementary curriculum includes:
- Practical life with a focus on self-care, fine motor skills, and responsibility
- Math, namely number concepts, place value, and quantities
- Language, grammar, spelling, and mechanics; reading and analyzing literature
- Cultural studies that are interdisciplinary, including zoology, botany, geography, physical and life sciences, and anthropology. Topics like peace and justice, civics, and history are also introduced.
- Science and social studies. “Great Lessons” are a series of stories about the origin of the universe, planet, and human advancement.
What does Montessori look like in middle and high school?
Montessori programs for middle and high schoolers start at age 12. The focus continues to be academics with purposeful work, preparing adolescents to become self-confident, contributing members of society.
One major difference is the focus on experiential learning. In adolescence, this looks like starting a business or apprenticing in a field they are interested in. Montessori focuses on adolescents’ needs to serve others through service projects and exposure to cultures different than their own.
Secondary students also complete projects to demonstrate what they learned. Montessori also includes experiences that teach:
- Respect for the environment
- Responsible and ethical use of technology
Is Montessori “good” for kids with neurodiversities or disabilities?
A Montessori classroom can provide a rich, nurturing experience for children of all abilities, including children with ADHD, learning disabilities, autism, and other neurodiversities. Some aspects that may be particularly good for kids with disabilities:
- Multi-age classrooms where children stay with one teacher for three years
- A focus on individualizing lesson plans to meet the needs of each child
- Multi-sensory, hands-on materials
- Freedom to set their own pace and move around the classroom freely
- In general, Montessori classrooms are sparse environments that are not overwhelming
Is a Montessori education “better” than a traditional education?
Whether or not Montessori schools produce better outcomes than traditional schools is a much-debated topic. Proponents of Montessori hold that the approach fosters concentration and discipline, as well as academic rigor. However, education as a whole is different than when Montessori started her work, so what was revolutionary then (focusing on individual children, encouraging children’s independence) is now commonplace.
Image: The Post Oak School
Research on Montessori
Researching one type of schooling over another is difficult to do because we can’t randomly assign students to one type of class over another, or follow them long enough to see the results. It’s also unethical to give one group of children a “control” or schooling that you don’t think would have a positive effect. And when we are comparing children who are already in Montessori schools with those who aren’t, there are confounding factors that influence the results—parents who choose Montessori may be more affluent or engaged, for example.
That said, some researchers have studied Montessori education. One study, conducted at a Montessori school in Milwaukee, found that by age 5, children who attended the Montessori school had better literacy, numeracy, executive function, and social skills compared to those who attended other schools. By age 12, the children showed better storytelling abilities. The researcher did attempt to control for confounding factors. It is of note that this is one small study, and it has not been replicated or reproduced.
Other studies have focused on aspects of Montessori like unstructured time. There is some evidence that when children have unstructured time, they improve in independence and self-direction.
Another study, conducted in Switzerland, found that students in Montessori schools demonstrated higher creativity. The study was not randomized, though the researchers did attempt to compare similar groups of children.
So, although there is some research on the immediate benefits of early Montessori education, there is not evidence on the long-term outcomes of Montessori.
Do you have questions about teaching or learning in a Montessori school? Connect with other teachers in the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE on Facebook.
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