For over one hundred years, early childhood educators have used teaching methods developed by Maria Montessori. Some, including public schools, use these approaches piecemeal, while others embrace Montessori’s complete system. The latter often bill themselves as Montessori schools, but the Montessori name is not protected by trademark, so anyone might use it without regard to their level of adherence to the founder’s principles.
Florida has more than 150 Montessori schools, but only seven are accredited by an official Montessori organization. The difficulty of the accreditation process means a lot of schools don’t have the capacity to complete it.
A proposed Montessori Coalition of Florida would solve this problem by having accredited schools guide others through the process. Accreditation can take two years and over two hundred working hours, said Sheila M. Linville, co-head of school at Lake Mary Montessori Academy. “Unaccredited schools may have teacher training,” she notes, “but accreditation is important for best practices.”
The founder of the Montessori method was ahead of her time in many ways. Born in 1870, Maria Montessori was the first female physician in Italy. Her early work, where she developed many of her teaching methods, focused on children with special needs. She later worked with children who from impoverished families. Over time, her methods have been shown to work across multiple socioeconomic and cultural spectrums.
The Association Montessori Internationale’s USA division, AMI/USA, identifies five components that make for a complete Montessori teaching environment:
• A specially-trained teacher for each class
• Mixed-age classes with students grouped in three-year ranges
• Class sized that ensure social development
• Uninterrupted schoolwork periods, usually three hours in the morning and two or three hours in the afternoon
• Specialized teaching materials
The materials used in Montessori classrooms are usually manipulatable objects designed to reinforce specific motor or mathematical skills. The use of such manipulatives for math instruction is one Montessori principle that has been widely adopted in public schools.
Topics covered in a Montessori classroom will include, according to AMI/USA, life skills, sensory development, language, mathematics, history, science, and cultural studies such as geography and the arts. All of these are integrated: for example, a student will be encouraged to use art to illustrate a science report.
Montessori’s foundational principle is that children, provided a stimulating environment and adult guidance, will learn most of the things they need to know by doing them. The method is a holistic approach, considering not only academic matters but everything that feeds into a child’s personal and social development. “Learning to pump a swing is as important as learning to read,” said Linville. “Empathy is as important as arithmetic.”
One aspect of the Montessori method that differs from traditional schools is its emphasis on adapting to each child’s individual needs. Children develop at different rates and learn in different ways. Not all five-year-olds have the same verbal and motor skills. Some will be more advanced in one area, while others are opposite. Multi-age classrooms allow students at similar development levels to work together, though some may be four and others six years old. By contrast, traditional schools set expectations for each age level and then expect children to meet those expectations by the end of the school year.
Given the importance of arts to education, most Montessori schools incorporate all forms of art into their curricula, including visual art, music, dance, and drama. As public schools curtail this kind of programming because of budget cuts, parents should consider whether a Montessori school can provide what their local public schools no longer do.
In an interview on the Capital Public Radio program Insight, Dr. Steven Hughes, a pediatric neuropsychologist and chair of the Association Montessori Internationale Global Research Committee, said, public schools have narrowed their teaching to “things that speak directly to basic skills. Well, this isn’t what children need to succeed in life.” He notes that what are called soft skills—personal interaction, resilience, and analytical problem-solving—are being neglected.
“Traditional education has moved steadily away from that, yet … those are the kind of things that make a real difference in life outcomes.” Because skills like socialization and collaboration are key to the Montessori approach, class sizes at Montessori schools are usually larger than at public schools for the same age level.
The biggest difference between Montessori and traditional schools is that Montessori schools rarely assign homework. Work is done in class, so students are free in the evenings to spend time with their families. In a paper on this topic, the AMI/USA advises that “homework” should consist of purposeful activities related to children’s own interests. Assignments based on textbooks or workbooks, “or particular teacher-directed activity after a lesson should be avoided.” This is in stark contrast to traditional schools, where instruction is given in class and work is done at home.
Testing and grades are less important in a Montessori school. Students are often quizzed orally, and only take written exams in upper grade levels. Standardized testing may be given to comply with state regulations, but it doesn’t have the import such tests receive in the public schools. The AMI/USA website states, “What you won’t see in a genuine Montessori program are systems of rewards and punishments to promote work or control behavior. There will be no lost recess, gold stars, or grades.” Students are motivated by their own intrinsic desire for accomplishment.
Another major difference between the Montessori method and traditional schooling is the role of the teacher. In a traditional school environment, the teacher directs the lessons, imparting knowledge to students who absorb it.
Montessori education is child-directed, and the instructor takes the role of a coach or guide, suggesting activities that will stimulate and educate the child while allowing the student to work at their own pace.
Although the Montessori Foundation has said it “does not advocate for externally-mandated standards,” the organization acknowledges that the Common Core State Standards are widespread and therefore need to be addressed by Montessori schools. The Common Core State Standards are being used in the District of Columbia and forty-three states, including Florida.
Common Core provides a set of targets that specify what knowledge students should possess by certain grade levels. For example, students are expected to have completed pre-algebraic studies by Grade 7 so they will be prepared to study algebra in Grade 8.
Montessori Compass, which makes school management software, examined the standards and found they align in many ways to the Montessori Scope and Sequence guideline for child development. For example, Common Core requires that square roots be introduced at the upper elementary school level. Most Montessori schools often introduce this information even earlier.
When choosing a Montessori school, be aware that not all schools that use Montessori methods are completely adherent to the requirements of The American Montessori Society, which accredits Montessori schools. There are many reasons a school might not be accredited. Schools must be in operation three years before applying, and the application fee is $150 to $500, depending on the number of student at the school. Some schools will forgo accreditation because of the time or expense, or because they are too new to apply.
Not every child has a temperament that will respond well to the Montessori method. The Montessori Foundation notes on its website, “There are children who may do better in a smaller classroom setting with a more teacher-directed program that offers fewer choices and more consistent external structure.”
Nevertheless, Montessori teaching methods have proved effective at all socio-economic levels and among children with a wide range of aptitudes, from those with developmental delays to the very gifted. But the foundation notes that “Children who are easily overstimulated, or those who tend to be overly aggressive,” may not be able to adapt to a Montessori-style program. Since the Montessori method emphasizes self-direction, students who lack this kind of intrinsic motivation may not fare well.
Dennis Shapiro, the late publisher of Public School Montessorian, wrote over twenty years ago about the potential for Maria Montessori’s educational methods to reform the public school system. His observation still holds promise: “By creating respectful, stable, and integrated learning environments for children … Montessori schools can provide a sense of order in an otherwise disordered world.”