What is Montessori?

Montessori is an approach and child-centered philosophy to education with the fundamental belief that a child learns best within a social environment which supports and respects each individual's unique development. Children learn at their own pace and experience "freedom within limits".

What Makes Montessori Education Unique?

  1. The "Whole Child" Approach.  A primary goal of a Montessori program is to help each child reach full potential in all areas of life.  His/her physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, spiritual, and cognitive needs and interests are considered inseparable and equally important.  The Montessori curriculum provides the resources and atmosphere for exploration and discovery.  This allows students to experience the joy of learning, promotes the development of self-esteem, and foster's respect for one's self, for others, and for the environment.
  2. The "Prepared Environment."  In order for self-directed learning to take place, the whole learning environment--room, materials and social climate--must be supportive of the learner.  The teacher provides necessary resources, including opportunities for children to function in a safe and positive climate.  The teacher thus gains the children's trust, which enables them to try new things and build self-confidence.
  3. The Montessori Materials.  Dr. Montessori's observations of the kinds of activities that children enjoy and go back to repeatedly led her to design a number of multi-sensory, sequential, and self-correcting materials that facilitate the learning of skills and lead to learning of abstract ideas.
  4. The Teacher.  The Montessori teacher functions as a facilitator of learning.  As such, he or she is a designer of the environment, resource person, guide, role model, demonstrator and meticulous observer and recorder of each student's behavior and growth.

How Does It Work?

Each Montessori classroom operates on the principle of 'freedom within limits.'  Every program has its set of ground rules which differs from age to age, but is always based on core Montessori beliefs--respect for each other and for the environment. 

Children are free to work at their own pace with materials they have chosen, either alone or with others.  The teacher relies on his or her observations of the children to determine which new activities and materials may be introduced to an individual child or a small or large group.  The aim is to encourage active, self-directed learning and to strike a balance of individual mastery within small group collaboration within the whole group community.

The multi-year span in each class provides a family-like grouping where learning can take place naturally.  More experienced children share what they have learned while reinforcing their own learning.  Because this peer group learning is intrinsic to Montessori, there is often more conversation--language experiences--in the Montessori classroom than in conventional early education settings.

How many students are typically in a Montessori class?

Montessori classes for children above the toddler level might include 20–30 students whose ages span 3 years. Our pre primary classroom has 10 students to 1 teacher ratio while our toddler programs boast a 8 children to 2 teacher ratio. We feel all members of our community benefit from this set-up, as older students are proud to act as role models; younger ones feel supported and gain confidence about the challenges ahead, while all children learn from each other.

How is Creativity Encouraged?

Creativity flourishes in an atmosphere of acceptance and trust.  Montessorians recognize that all children learn and express themselves in a very individual way.

Music, art, storytelling, movement, and drama activities are integrated into American Montessori programs.  But there are other things particular to the Montessori environment that encourage creative development: materials that stimulate interest and involvement; emphasis on the sensory aspect of experience; and opportunities for both verbal and non-verbal modes of learning.

How can children learn if they're free to do whatever they want?

Dr. Montessori observed that children are more motivated to learn when working on something of their own choosing. A Montessori student may choose his focus of learning on any given day, but his decision is limited by the materials and activities—in each area of the curriculum—that his teacher has prepared and presented to him. 

Students typically set learning goals and personal work plans under their teacher’s guidance.  Montessori is "real life".

Why do some people think Montessori schools are all work and no play?

Dr. Montessori realized that children’s play is their work—their effort to master their own bodies and environment—and out of respect she used the term “work” to describe all their classroom activities. Montessori students work hard, but they don’t experience it as drudgery; rather, it’s an expression of their natural curiosity and desire to learn.  At Montessori Beginnings School, we have a minimum of an hour per day, outside time scheduled for all classrooms.  We have become the first school on Cape Cod recognized as a Nature Explore certified classroom.  Our outdoor play area incorporates art, music, imagination and gross motor components within the children's outdoor environment.

If children work at their own pace, don't they fall behind?

Although students are free to work at their own pace, they’re not going it alone. The Montessori teacher closely observes each child and provides materials and activities that advance his learning by building on skills and knowledge already gained. This gentle guidance helps him master the challenge at hand—and protects him from moving on before he’s ready, which is what actually causes children to “fall behind.”

Do Montessori teachers follow a curriculum?

Montessori schools teach the same basic skills as traditional schools, and offer a rigorous academic program. Most of the subject areas are familiar—such as math, science, history, geography, and language—but they are presented through an integrated approach that brings separate strands of the curriculum together.  We move children from concrete thinking to the abstract thinking which is vital to a child's development.  This approach to curriculum shows the correlation of all things. It also allows students to become thoroughly immersed in a topic—and to give their curiosity full rein.

Why don't Montessori teachers give grades?

Grades, like other external rewards, have little lasting effect on a child’s efforts or achievements. The Montessori approach nurtures the motivation that comes from within, kindling the child’s natural desire to learn. 

A self-motivated learner also learns to be self-sufficient, without needing reinforcement from outside. In the classroom, of course, the teacher is always available to provide students with guidance and support

Although most Montessori teachers don’t assign grades, they closely observe each student’s progress and readiness to advance to new lessons. Most schools hold family conferences a few times a year so parents may see their child’s work and hear the teacher’s assessment—and perhaps even their child’s self-assessment.

Can Montessori accommodate gifted children? What about children with other special learning needs?

An advantage of the Montessori approach—including multi-age classrooms with students of varying abilities and interests—is that it allows each child to work at his/her own pace. Students whose strengths and interests propel them to higher levels of learning can find intellectual challenge without being separated from their peers. The same is true for students who may need extra guidance and support: each can progress through the curriculum at his own comfortable pace, without feeling pressure to "catch up." 

We might note that from a Montessori perspective, every child is considered gifted, each in her own way. For every child has his own unique strengths—it is all a matter of degree.

How well do Montessori students do compared to students in non-Montessori schools?

There is a small but growing body of well-designed research comparing Montessori students to those in traditional schools. These suggest that in academic subjects, Montessori students perform as well as or better than their non-Montessori peers. 

In one study, for example, children who had attended Montessori schools at the preschool and elementary levels earned higher scores in high school on standardized math and science tests. Another study found that the essays of 12-year-old Montessori students were more creative and used more complex sentence structures than those produced by the non-Montessori group. 

The research also shows Montessori students to have greater social and behavioral skills. They demonstrate a greater sense of fairness and justice, for example, and are more likely to choose positive responses for dealing with social dilemmas. 

By less stringent measures, too, Montessori students seem to do quite well. Most Montessori schools report that their students are typically accepted into the high schools and colleges of their choice. And many successful grads cite their years at Montessori when reflecting on important influences in their life.

What Happens When A Child Leaves Montessori?

Montessori children are usually adaptable.  They have learned to work independently and in groups.  Since they've been encouraged to make decisions from an early age, these children are problem-solvers who can make choices and manage their time well.

They have also been encouraged to exchange ideas and to discuss their work freely with others.  Good communication skills ease the way in new settings.

Research has shown that a good predictor of future success is a positive sense of self-esteem.  Montessori programs, based on self-directed, non-competitive activities, help children develop good self-images and the confidence to face challenges and change with optimism.

© 2013 American Montessori Society. All rights reserved. 

For further information on Montessori programs, please visit the American Montessori Society's homepage at www.amshq.org