What are Montessori schools and what do they teach? Montessori is one of the fastest-growing methods of education worldwide, and with good reason. The self-directed child-centered pedagogy has a proven track record that spans the last 100+ years.

Keep reading to learn more about this compelling model for educating young minds.

What are Montessori Schools: Roots

The roots of Montessori education grew out of Dr. Maria Montessori's research in the asylums of Rome. Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian physician, was nothing short of amazing. She was the only female in the University of Rome's medical school class of 1896, a time when the majority of women were encouraged to stay at home minding the hearth. A pediatrician and psychiatrist by training, Dr. Montessori developed an interest in special education from her observations of the children in the asylums who had been written off by society.

She saw their potential and endeavored to help. She began by translating the works of two pioneers in special education, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin, from French to Italian, incorporating some of their methods into her final model. The success she experienced with her earliest classes working with some of Rome's most impoverished children led Dr. Montessori to venture into the mainstream. By 1907, she was already gaining a reputation as an educator.

A black-and-white photograph of Alexander Graham Bell circa 1913. He is seated at his desk, which takes up the bottom and lower right frame. His gaze is focused looking down on the paper on which he writes with a pen in his right hand. In his left hand he is holding a pipe. His hair and his beard are gray and he is wearing wire-frame spectacles. He is quite wrinkled. indistinct black background.
Alexander Graham Bell was an early patron of Montessori education.

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Her renown grew exponentially to the point that In 1913, a mere six years later, Alexander Graham Bell (yes, that Alexander Graham Bell), and his wife Mabel founded the first Montessori school in Canada and one of the first Montessori schools in The United States. Thomas Edison was also a fan and benefactor. Fast forward to the present in which the founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page credit their Montessori education for teaching them to think outside the box. Other Montessori graduates include Beyoncé Knowles, Taylor Swift, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. A fairly impressive list to say the least.

A photograph of Beyonce Knowles in an incredible black jacket with silver thread embroidery and rhinestones. She is also wearing a stunning rhinestone necklace that appears to have some pearls on it it is silver and V-shaped with mini strands hanging off of it that hang in her cleavage. She’s also wearing matching earrings that are approximately 3 inches long. She is light brown skin with black hair that has been styled close to her head. The background is a black screen on which you can see in Golden buffet uppercase letters ING to the left of beyond say space and a little behind her is a sign that says probably Dolby cinema but all you can see is the OLBY Dolby in the NEMA of cinema. And that is white.
Beyoncé Knowles is a Montessori graduate.

©Tinseltown/Shutterstock.com

So what exactly is the Montessori method?

What are Montessori Schools: Principles

Maria Montessori developed her pedagogy around five core principles:

  • Respect for the whole child
  • Acceptance of the child as a sentient being with an absorbent mind
  • Awareness of sensitive periods when the child's mind is ready to acquire new skills
  • Access to a prepared environment in which the tools of learning are organized and waiting
  • The child is a capable teacher, able to educate him/her/themself, a/k/a auto-education

These five principles are the blueprint for Montessori's self-directed, child-centered model of education. Through her initial observations of children coupled with the evidence provided by the accomplishments of her earliest students, Maria Montessori concluded that children are capable of educating themselves. The absorbent, sponge-like qualities of the young mind manifest in its ability to receive information without prejudice or bias.

Montessori recognized that children will naturally gravitate to the subjects and activities that interest them. This is where the prepared environment comes into play. Montessori classrooms are divided into 5-8 stations that present various learning opportunities for curious, young minds. The tools of learning are wooden blocks and glass tumblers for the youngest students and laptop computers and subway maps for the older ones.

A classroom with a wooden laminate floor. The background is a neutral colored wall on which hang shelves with books and glue and markers, in the renter frame. Windows are in the wall on the left and right frames.  In the classroom itself, four tables. There are three children seated At the table and frame left closest to the left is a light-skinned little girl with stringy light brown hair. She is  wearing a pink and orange sundress. She is looking at some things she is holding in her hand bit away from the table. To her left closer to the center of the frame is a light-skinned little boy with short blonde hair;  he is obscured by a plastic tub that is on the table in front of him, but underneath the table you can see that he is wearing shorts and he is barefoot. Seated to his left in the center of the frame is a brown skin boy with very close cropped black hair he is wearing a short-sleeved coral colored T-shirt and rust colored shorts he also has on black tennis shoes with white soles. He has a pencil in his left hand or possibly a wooden dowel. Behind them are four other children two little boys and two little girls. A light-skinned boy facing the camera is looking down at something on the table. He is obscured by a basket on the table. Across the table from him with his back to the camera is a olive-skinned little boy wearing a short sleeve awkward T-shirt and khaki shorts he is sitting crosslegged in the chair. A light-skinned little girl in the back right frame wearing a blue and white striped sundress has her head down performing a task at the table. A brown-skinned girl with waist long black hair has her back to the camera across the table from the little girl wearing the sundress
Montessori classrooms are divided into 5-8 stations that present various learning opportunities for curious, young minds.

©Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

Montessori also perceived sensitive periods in child development in which the child's neural pathways were open to learning new experiences. These periods occur from birth to age six:

Sensitive Periods

Category:Age (in years):Characteristics:
Movementbirth-1rolling over, pulling up, crawling, walking
Small Objects1-4a fixation on small objects and attention to detail.
Order2-4consistency and repetition / thrive with routine
Grace and Courtesy2-4Imitation and internalization of manners
Senses2-6Making increasingly refined observations about their environment through their senses.
Writing3-4Fascination with letters and numbers, attempting to reproduce them
Reading3-5Connecting sounds with letters; sounding out words; reading
Languagebirth-6progressing from gibberish to words to phrases to sentences
Spatial Cognition4-6Interest in routes and landmarks; increasingly able to work more complex puzzles
Music2-6 Interest in and development of rhythm and melody
Mathematicsbirth-6addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division in the form of tactile manipulatives and rhythm games.

Montessori classrooms are designed to address these phases of development as they occur. Observation, modeling, and experiential activities designed to stimulate the child during these sensitive periods are central to Montessori education. So what does a Montessori classroom look like?

What are Montessori Schools: Classrooms

Montessori classrooms can often be filled with the noisy activity of young scholars at work. They look nothing like traditional classrooms with teacher-centric, direct instruction methods and neat rows of desks in which children are expected to sit quietly while the teacher delivers facts and information via a lecture.

There are no lectures and no desks in Montessori classrooms. And Montessori students are never admonished for making a little noise. Movement is also encouraged in this child-centric model. Montessori recognized the underlying message to children in traditional classrooms, stating, “The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity.” It makes you think.

The classrooms are furnished with child-sized tables and chairs, and soft rugs, for lounging on as neural pathways explode into understanding.

A young girl is seated on a rug center frame the rug is striped with one large white stripe followed by an orangey brown stripe that is not as wide, and then a pink stripe followed by another orangey brown stripe. The pink stripe is a little bit wider than the orangey brown stripes but only about half as wide as the white stripe. The orangey brown stripes are about 1/3 the size of the white stripes. The pattern repeats four times on the small rug. The rug is on carpet that is tan and wheat colored. The young girl is looking down her focus is on her hands which are dropping some colorful manipulatives onto the small rug. They are red yellow blue and green. They are about the size of a quarter, but they are not round. The little girl has on a long sleeve gray shirt with white lace running the length of both sleeves. She is wearing indigo denim jeans. The little girl is the focus of the picture although there are other people in the frame they are out of focus. There are also other rugs visible in the frame. One behind the girl is striped with light blue and green with the light blue stripes being larger than the green ones. A woman with long blonde hair is partially visible on the right side of the frame.
Montessori classrooms have soft rugs for lounging on as neural pathways explode into understanding.

©Natalia Lebedinskaia/Shutterstock.com

Classrooms accommodate three-year spans: birth-3 years, 3-6 years, 6-9 years, and 9-12 years. Montessori education relies on the mixed-age classroom for the opportunities they afford younger students to learn through observing and modeling their older classmates. Children are as adept at teaching other children as they are at teaching themselves.

Curriculum

Curriculum, integral to traditional education models, is absent from the Montessori classroom. The children captain their own ships, creating their own personalized course of study. Montessori education addresses the needs of all sorts of children, accommodating different learning styles. Standardized curricula too often rely on rote memorization skills. Memorization of facts is not the same as understanding.

Montessori classrooms provide the space and time for students to fully grasp concepts and ideas, incorporating their experiences into knowledge. Though some students will undoubtedly create their own, there are no textbooks in Montessori classrooms. And because Montessori classrooms have no set curriculum, they consequently have no tests or grades.

Tests and Grades

Because there is no standardized curriculum in Montessori's method, there are also no standardized tests or their associated grades. There aren't tests of any description, thanks to Montessori being keenly aware of the lasting damage that performing poorly on tests has on children. She was witness to the toll that repeated failures had on children's self-esteem and sense of well-being. She also saw that performing well on tests did not inform a student's abilities or ambition moving forward.

Center frame: light-skinned girl with long straight brown hair is visible seated at a desk with her elbows propped up on the desk; her right hand is propping up her head, while in the right frame her left hand is holding up what appears to be a blank piece of paper with the red letter F in the top right hand corner in a red circle. The girl is not happy. Some out of focus books on a shelf are seen in the background.
Montessori was keenly aware of the lasting damage that performing poorly on tests has on children.

©Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock.com

Instead of tests and grades, Montessori students' abilities are measured through teacher observation. These observations are shared with parents via written narratives or in conversations, both casual, and in more structured conference formats. Such reporting often allows for a more intimate portrait of the student than a mere letter grade.

Teacher Role

With no curriculum and no testing, what exactly is a Montessori teacher spending her day doing? A lot. Montessori envisioned a bustling classroom with up to 38 students (or more!) milling about in the ongoing process of learning. Teachers do not teach in the strictest definition of the word, however, directing a classroom of 25-38 students, each captaining their own ship, requires patience, dedication, and the skills of an air-traffic controller, or a plate spinner.

Full frame: a twilight sky orangey gold on the bottom with a bright spot of light that is the sun. The top of the frame is light blue streak at various angles with a dozen or more com trails from airplanes.
Montessori teachers require patience, dedication, and the skills of an air-traffic controller.

©Robinotof/Shutterstock.com

The adults in a Montessori classroom act as guides and directors rather than lecturers or authorities. They observe their students, discerning when they are moving toward sensitive periods, and prepare the classroom accordingly. They will also intervene when cooperative learning devolves into the vortex of hijinks and shenanigans that are unavoidable from time to time in a roomful of unbridled children. But even such uncontrolled chaos offers opportunities for learning.

Without a set curriculum, testing, or grades, what exactly does Montessori teach? Perhaps that question is best answered by former Montessori students. According to Montessori alumni, Montessori education armed them with critical thinking skills, self-reliance, problem-solving abilities, and self-discipline. It taught them to meet the world on their own terms, approaching situations in their own unique way without concern for what others will think.

In this cookie-cutter world, with its penchant for uniformity, what better panacea could there be?

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