What is Montessori? Is it a ‘curriculum’ for teaching children? A set of materials used in a classroom? A framework of ideas? An approach to children? A way of life? All of the above?
Having been around for over 100 years, many people understand ‘Montessori’ as one or many of these things. There are also many misconceptions around what makes a school or daycare ‘Montessori’ as there is no trademark on the use of the name. Montessori is a unique combination of pedagogy, psychology, philosophy, method, and materials thereby giving its influence a wide reach. Luckily a few key principles help to define the Montessori method for child development:
- The view of the child: Maria Montessori viewed children as the ‘makers of men’ and therefore had profound respect for children, their potential, and the work they must do to build themselves into tomorrow’s adults. This basic premise is the foundation on which the Montessori method is based.
- The purpose of education: The goal of education is not to fill an empty vessel with information, but instead ‘to help the child to act, will, and think for himself’ by supporting the ‘successive stages of independence’ that occur naturally in all children.*
- The role of the adult: Rather then teach children some preset curriculum, adults in a Montessori environment focus on observing the needs and interests of individual children and then gently guide them down their own path of personal growth and development. The primary role of the adult is to set appropriate boundaries within the classroom and spark an interest through the presentation of materials so that they may step back to let children dig into the activity at their own pace and depth.
- The structure of the day: A key goal of the Montessori method is to help children develop the skill of concentration. Therefore, rather then follow rigorous classroom schedules organized by subject or activity, a Montessori day contains long periods of uninterrupted work cycles in which children select their own activities, focus on mastering them, and then reflect on the progress they’ve made.
- The interaction of children: Montessori environments mix ages of children, typically in 3 year cycles, so that each child has the opportunity to both learn from others as someone new and inexperienced, and also demonstrate their learning and leadership through the mentorship of those younger than them.
- The measurement of progress: There is no grading or standardized testing in a Montessori classroom. Instead, progress is measured based on the observation and documentation of each individual child’s unique trajectory of development. This information then helps the teacher to guide the child towards activities that will either widen or deepen a child’s understanding of key concepts.
- The source of motivation: Given the lack of grading/testing, a limitation of adult praise used in the classroom, and the freedom for children to cultivate deep interests, motivation is developed almost entirely from within the child rather then from the pressures or rewards that come from external sources. This helps to foster a growth vs. fixed mindset, which has been proven to help children thrive over the long term.
- The use of Montessori materials: Montessori materials have been scientifically designed to engage children in a way that builds a solid understanding of the senses, math, language, science, culture, the arts, and practical life. The materials have common properties which include: the isolation of concepts being depicted, control of error that children can recognize for themselves, the use of movement to manipulate the material, a successive build from concrete to abstract concepts, and a beautiful aesthetic.
*The Absorbent Mind, p. 257