Montessori vs. public school: Are there differences between these two models of education?

Yes. Plenty.

Methods of education have been a subject of debate for thousands of years. Literally. Nowhere is this more evident than in the chasm that separates Eastern thought from Western thought.

Confucius (551-479 B.C.) and Socrates (470 -399 B.C.) are two of the earliest teachers on record. Confucious created the underpinnings of Eastern educational philosophy, while Socrates provided the framework for what would become Western educational thought.

Full frame , black background: A gray stone carving/ statue of Confucius holding a scroll in his hands. His face is tilted down as if he is reading from the scroll. His hair is tied  at the top of his head. He is wearing a flowing robe.
Confucious created the underpinnings of Eastern educational philosophy,


Though their goals were similar, their approaches couldn't have been more different. Both Confucius and Socrates saw education as the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. Confucius, however, felt that education was a moral imperative, while Socrates viewed education as a means of acquiring knowledge about the self, through understanding the world. These differences are still evident over 2000 years later.

Right frame: Stone carving/statue od fSocrates. He has longish hair ad a beard. He is not wearing any visible clothing, and his nipples are visible. His right hand is resting on his chin. His left arm is resting on something that isn't visible in the frame.
Socrates viewed education as a means of acquiring knowledge about the self, through understanding the world.

©vangelis aragiannis/

In the intervening millennia, newer methods of education that are not based on either of these ancient prototypes, have entered the fray.

For example, Maria Montessori (1870-1952) conceived and developed a rather unorthodox model for educating young children at the dawn of the 20th century. Her eponymous method, dating from 1906, remains a bedrock of alternative education, boasting 15,000 schools in 110 countries across the globe.

Full Frame: A very colorful Italian postage stamp with white, scalloped edges. An image of Maria Montessori as an elderly woman with white hair, holding a walking stick /cane in her right hand looking toward the frontof the frame, in deep red and white is visible in the left 1/3 of the frame. Behind her, center and right frame are depictions of seven little dark haired children and one dark haired adult seated in green grass, with their arms outstretched at their sides. Trees are visible in the background. It is an illustration, not a photograph. In the upper right frame is the word Italia, in the bottom right corner the number 50, nd in the lower left corner iare the words: Maria Montessori with the years 1870 1952 below her name. all of the writing is deep red.
Maria Montessori conceived and developed a rather unorthodox model for educating young children at the dawn of the 20th century.


So, what is the Montessori method, and how does it differ from public school? Keep reading to learn more!

Key Points of Differentiating Montessori vs. Public Schools

  • Montessori is more unorthodox, while public schools use direct instruction.
  • Students are their own teachers in Montessori and public school teachers are the authority figures.
  • Educational methods have been a subject of debate for thousands of years.
  • When conflicts arise, Montessori teachers act as mediators, whereas public school teachers use punishment as a form of discipline.

Montessori vs. Public Schools: Direct Instruction

There are a variety of educational methods used in publically funded schools across the U.S., including Montessori charter schools. However, for this comparison, references to public education are to the direct instruction method, which is the most common model used in the public sector.

Even if you did not attend a school that used direct instruction, you're undoubtedly familiar with the model: A teacher stands in front of a classroom, lecturing students who are seated at desks in neat rows. Students understand the expectation to sit still and be quiet, and when questions arise, from either side of the lectern, hands are raised.

Traditional classroom setting with teacher at the front of the room,  and students seated at desks with their hands raised.All of the children, who look about 8 years old, and the teacher are all light- skinned. Many of the dozen or so children visible in the frame are wearing plaid shirts, though one is wearing stripes. The room is bright with sunlight from the windows, frame left. A white dry erase board and a green chalkboard are visible in the fan of the classroom, upper right to center frame.
Even if you did not attend a school that used direct instruction, you're undoubtedly familiar with the model.

©Ground Picture/

There is also a sequence to each lesson:

  • Lecture, in which the teacher presents lesson objectives and information.
  • Guided practice, in which the teacher gives the class a task to aid understanding of concepts presented in the lecture.
  • Individual practice, in which the teacher assigns students activities that will strengthen their burgeoning knowledge. This could be an in-class activity or homework assignment.
  • Measurement of students' understanding of lesson objectives, typically in the form of a written test/exam.
  • Feedback in which the student receives a number or letter grade.

Montessori vs. Public Schools: Teacher Role

One of the overarching differences between Montessori and public schools is the role of the teacher.

In public schools, teachers are the authority figures. They are the imparters of knowledge as well as the disciplinarians who mete out consequences for inappropriate behaviors, often in the form of punishment. In the Montessori classroom, however, children are their own teachers, with the adult presence in the room functioning as a gentle guide and facilitator.

Wooden counting and writing trays with coffee beans for educating littles on number writing, fine motor skills, hand eye coordination, mathematical skills. Montessori materials. Counting math game
The adult guide prepares the classroom for the children so that the tools of learning are organized and waiting for Montessori students.

©Nataliia Zhekova/

According to Maria Montessori, children are capable teachers, able to educate themselves. Children have absorbent minds that soak up knowledge from the world around them, and the Montessori classroom is designed to stimulate curiosity. The adult guide prepares the classroom for the children so that the tools of learning are organized and waiting for them.

Public school teachers, on the other hand, create lesson plans, prepare lectures, and assign classwork and homework. They give tests and quizzes, to measure abilities and knowledge. And, they are responsible for grading: d) all of the above.


These two educational models use vastly different methods of classroom management.

Montessori teachers are mediators, facilitating conflicts that arise between classmates or one-on-one (teacher-to-student) when classroom rules or etiquette are breached. In extreme cases, children who have trouble functioning within the bounds of expected classroom decorum are typically asked to stay home to reflect on their conduct, returning to the classroom only when they have expressed their understanding of the situation and their ability to refrain from the same or similar behavior going forward.

Tasked with teaching lessons in the amount of time reserved for specific subjects, public school teachers do not have time for disruptions or shenanigans of any sort.

Therefore, many public school classrooms rely on token economies to establish desired behaviors. These external responses to/rewards for compliance work wonders in the short term. However, research suggests that these systems do little to instill lasting change.

Implementing these classroom behavior models requires time and patience, which are often in short supply in public school classrooms. Consequently, in extreme cases, discipline manifests as draconian punishment, in which the child is made to feel less than, at the hands of the overworked, under-appreciated teacher. The result is fear and mistrust; not a winning combination for teacher/student relationships, but sadly much too common.

Montessori vs. Public Schools: Curriculum

Nowhere else is the divergence between Montessori and public schools more evident than in the curriculum — or lack thereof.

Public schools rely on mass-produced curricula, in which deviating from the script in any fashion is discouraged. Yes, you read that correctly. Much of the curriculum taught in public schools across the country comes with teacher scripts.

Reasons for the scripts vary, from the synchronization of presentation to controlling the narrative, according to who is asked. Scripts leave no room for individual creativity or input. Much of lesson time is spent teaching to the test, as federal funding and merit raises hinge on the metrics of success assigned to individual schools/classrooms via annual tests of students' comprehension.

Scripted education is not the panacea it was designed to be. It leaves little room for imagination or creativity – for both teachers and students. Montessori, on the other hand, is all about creativity and imagination.

The only scripts you're likely to find in a Montessori classroom are ones these students have written themselves. There are no standards of learning in Montessori schools. Children are self-directed, learning experientially through exploration and play. Multi-age classrooms give rise to parallel learning opportunities, in which younger children observe and learn from older ones.

Montessori vs. public school — in Montessori, tests are thought to create stress in students and therefore are not administered.
Montessori understood that children who perform poorly on tests could suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem.


Montessori schools do not rely on testing or grades to measure children's abilities. Dr. Montessori understood that children who perform poorly could suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem, and an internalized sense of failure. On the flip side, performing well on tests does not affect a child's abilities or efforts going forward. Students' abilities and knowledge are extrapolated through teacher observation and quantified in written narratives that discuss the child's perceived strengths and weaknesses, offering more insight than a number or letter grade.


Another difference between Montessori and public schools is conformity.

Public schools are all about it. To be labeled a success in the public sector requires conformity, from students and teachers, alike. Those who don't conform are not warmly embraced and are often punished. From scripted narratives to school uniforms, conformity is the norm in public education.

A scripted curriculum is the height of conformity. Teachers aren't teaching, they're acting; responsible for little more than delivering their lines, and performing the rituals of assigning homework and giving tests. Teacher shortages are at all-time highs across the county, thanks in part to teachers who have made the difficult decision to leave their profession, unhappy with their inability to, well, teach.

School uniforms, once a symbol of wealth and prestige, are finding their way into public school districts as a means of eliminating clothing deemed inappropriate. Determining what renders clothing inappropriate is subjective and in the case of those who have not yet reached the age of majority, probably best left for a parent or parental figure to decide.

Montessori schools, unlike their public counterparts, are all about fostering individuality, independence, and non-conformity. There is no curriculum, no script, and definitely no dress code. Students are the captains of their own ships and embrace their authentic selves, whatever that may look like.

montessori vs. public school is a stark contrast. Lots of imagination is put to good use in montessori education
Montessori students are encouraged to captain their own ships.

©Africa Studio/

Montessori alumni describe themselves as independent, intuitive, motivated, and questioning. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a former Montessori student, said that Montessori awakens curiosity in children and allows them to marvel at the beauty of life.

The list of Montessori alumni is nothing short of astounding and includes successful professionals from all walks of life: Julia Child (chef, author), Taylor Swift (singer/songwriter), and NBA basketball player Seth Curry are all former Montessori students. Not to mention Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin who credit Montessori for teaching them to think outside the box.

Montessori vs. Public Schools: Accessibility

A final difference between Montessori schools and public schools is accessibility.

Of the 3000 Montessori schools operating in the U.S., 80 percent of them are private. The average yearly tuition at a private Montessori school is $14,000, though these numbers are much higher ($29,000 a year for preschool 1/2 days at the Montessori preschool in Manhattan) in metropolitan areas. Price tags like this limit access to families with deep pockets.

Tasked with educating large numbers of students across an infinite spectrum of learning styles and abilities, publicly funded schools make do with what they're given.

Comparing Montessori schools to public schools is a lot like comparing apples to oranges. Both are fruits, and both are schools, but that's where the similarities begin and end. In the battle of Montessori vs. public school, it's no surprise, really, that the well-funded private initiative comes out smelling like a rose, relative to woefully underfunded, overcrowded public schools, and should not be mistaken for an indictment of public education.

Public schools consistently try different approaches to learning, attempting to reach as many students as possible. However, curricula are expensive, and replacing them often is not feasible in many districts, whose budgets are often stretched beyond their limits. And then there's the bureaucratic red tape that must be navigated before a different curriculum gets the green light. So, while adopting a new curriculum seems straightforward, it is anything but.

Montessori schools, on the other hand, have maintained the methods Dr. Montessori proposed over 100 years ago, with few, if any, changes to her original vision.

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