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What is the Montessori method of teaching and learning?
What's more, the Montessori approach is not only meant for preschool: daycare, nursery school, and kindergarten. It's curriculum is also suitable for elementary school. And it can work, sometimes very well, for middle and high school.
After all, Montessori education, at its core, is meant to accommodate the growing child. And its approach reflects this fact. Each level of school focuses on a core set of skills suited to each stage of development. These skills are listed below.
Preparing for high school
Doing graded work
Preparing for university
Preparing for the work world
Below, we describe the Montessori curricular approach at each level. Keep in mind, though, schools vary in their approach. You should speak to schools directly to learn more about this. You can also read our Montessori choosing guide.
If you want to learn how the Montessori approach differs from some other alternative preschools, check out our comparison guides. We compare Montessori to Waldorf and Montessori to Reggio Emilia in separate articles (not to mention Waldorf to Reggio Emilia). We also compare Montessori to Waldorf (at all levels).
Many Montessori schools have a toddler room. Some of these rooms have children from birth to age 3, and some from 18 months to 3 years.
Toddler programs, like many preschools, tend to be play-based. Toddlers often have their first contact with other children here. They start to develop social skills such as sharing, listening, and impulse control.
On the other hand, Montessori toddler programs are more learning-focused than mainstream preschool, nursery school, or daycare. Toddlers learn basic cognitive skills through concrete learning. They also start walking, talking, and developing independence.
Christina Sorbara is the mother of twins Romeo and Viviana (age 2.5), who are in the toddler program at Bannockburn Montessori school, in Toronto, Ontario. Her children’s independence and motor skills, she says, has grown by leaps and bounds.
“They really help kids learn to do things by themselves. One month into the program, Romeo and Viviana were putting on their own jackets. They put on their own shoes as well; this takes patience.”
Yet, she also values the focus on academics.
“It doesn’t feel like a daycare, where teachers are providing childcare. There’s a preschool curriculum, there’s a parent night. They talk to my children like real people.”
There’s less focus on cognitive skills at this level, though, than at higher levels. Most toddler programs don’t have long, uninterrupted work periods. Some time is allowed for focused learning, though.
There are many Montessori primary schools. These are sometimes called “Casa dei Bambini.” These schools start to prepare children for grade school.
Primary schools start to focus more on academics. The primary school curriculum involves a lot on concrete learning through practical life activities. Children use blocks, spindle boxes, coloured rods, sandpaper letters, pink towers, and other material. They also work on their speech and start reading, writing, and math. They refine these skills over the three years.
Teachers may give lessons to small groups of children at this level. They also help them with their work. Some primary schools have an uninterrupted work period, though it may be two hours instead of three. Children become more independent, self-directed, and responsible over the three years.
There are four main areas of the primary school curriculum: practical life, sensory exploration, language, and math. The classroom is divided up into these areas, with special materials for each.
Many primary schools also educate children in the creative arts, music, science, geography, and culture. Some have specialist classes and teachers for some of these subjects. Often, globes, maps, songs, and pictures of different cultures are provided to enhance learning.
To learn more about the Montessori preschool curriculum, read our guide to Montessori preschools and comparison of Montessori to other preschools. You can also check out our guide to kindergarten and list of preschools.
Many Montessori schools offer elementary classes. The elementary program is often divided into two classes: one with students ages 6 to 9, and another with students ages 9 to 12. Since its curriculum covers all 6 of these years, sometimes these two classes are combined into one.
At this level, focus continues on concrete learning and promoting independence, discipline, and social skills. Most elementary classes have a three-hour uninterrupted work period. At the 6-9 level, though, it may be less than three hours.
There’s also more focus on academics at this level, especially language, reading, math, and science. Students start to move from the concrete to the abstract (and back to the concrete). They also build their reasoning and problem-solving skills through different tasks and projects. Many students find this both challenging and stimulating.
In an elementary class at Bannockburn School, in Toronto, Ontario, this was abundantly clear. Several students seemed very focused on their tasks. One student worked intently on his math sheets, while another strived to solve what looked to be a manipulative puzzle. None of the students in class seemed fazed by the presence of a visitor.
Elementary schools offer more direct instruction and sit-down learning than preschools. Especially at the higher level, teachers sometimes give longer lessons to groups of students or the whole class. These are known as the great lessons.
The great lessons tend to be given near the start of the school term, and provide the basis for learning throughout the year. They are often on important moments in history such as the beginning of the world, the origin of life, or the story of numbers. They tend to be very engaging and interactive.
Elementary school students often work in small groups on different projects. These projects can be in geography, biology, history, language, science, music, art, and other subjects. Interdisciplinary work is also done, alone or in groups.
Sometimes project work is supplemented with field trips to the library, planetarium, botanical gardens, science centre, factory, hospital, and other places of interest. This allows students to feel connected with people and places, and inspires them to make contributions to the world.
Some elementary schools allot time for reading, creating writing exercises, and art projects. And some use computers, whiteboards, and tablets to enhance learning. Use is confined, though, to research tasks.
To learn more, check out our guide to Montessori elementary schools.
Montessori middle schools only began to emerge in Canada quite recently. They’re sometimes called “secondary schools” or “early secondary schools.” There are over 30 Montessori middle schools in Canada, most of which are in Ontario.
In middle school, focus continues on independence, self-directed learning, and cognitive skills. There’s also a lot of group work done at this level. Some middle schools, like elementary schools, also have field trips, after school programs, clubs, and sports teams. Some also use computers, tablets, and whiteboards to enhance learning.
There tends to be more lectures at this level, given to large groups of students or the whole class. In middle school, teachers also start to prepare students for high school, where they may not be in a Montessori school. Students may be given workbooks and worksheets and start to practice note-taking. They may also be given short assignments and tests, though they likely won’t be graded on these.
Pat Gere is the director of The Element, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada’s first Montessori secondary school. As she sees it, middle schools should be a kind of hybrid.
“Montessori middle schools should be the perfect blend of Montessori educational practices (including self-directed, project-based, and integrated learning) and mainstream middle school education (including note-taking, assignments, tests, and preparation for being graded).”
And The Element seems to offer the ideal learning environment to achieve this goal.
“The school has large rooms somewhat like a cross between a university library and a coffee shop,” says Gere. Lessons are “short and to the point, setting the stage for independent learning and giving direction, or for responding to the work that has been done through seminar and discussion.”
That said, some middle schools have a different approach. For instance, Dundas Valley Montessori school, in Dundas, Ontario, runs an Erdkinder or Earth school for students in grade 7 to 9. In this program, students live close to nature, on a five-acre plot of land.
Students take science, history, math, geography, and other subjects. But they learn the material through real life experiences in nature, the environment, and in the town. They also raise service dogs, make their own food, and do practical work such as building bikes. This can be a great way to learn for many, including students with special needs.
To be sure, there’s no right or wrong way to educate adolescents. As a parent, though, you’ll want to look at Montessori schools closely, to make sure you find the right fit for your growing child.
To learn more, check out our guide to Montessori middle schools.
Montessori high schools, like middle schools, only emerged in Canada in recent years. To this day, there are very few of them.
In high school, there’s still a lot of focus on independence, self-directed learning, and group work. There’s more focus on academics at this level, though. There also tends to be more direct instruction. Like middle school, students may have access to computers and tablets. They may also take part in blogs and other interesting online activities.
There’s also more textbook learning at this level. Often, though, each student has their own textbook(s), instead of there being one textbook for the entire class. And, students still have quite a bit of leeway to choose their work, and whether to work alone or in groups.
In high school, students start to complete assignments and write tests. They also start receiving grades.
Since they must prepare students for university or college, high schools give credits and grades for courses. They also have required courses in English, math, science, and other subjects. Like mainstream high schools, for students to graduate with a diploma, their curriculum must be sanctioned by the Ministry of Education in Ontario, Quebec, or some other province in Canada.
On the other hand, Montessori high schools have less whole-class lectures, sit-down learning, and homework (in fact, many schools don’t assign homework) than mainstream high schools. They also tend to assign few, if any, rote tasks. Like middle schools, then, they offer a blend of standard Montessori schooling and more mainstream schooling.
To learn more, read our guide to Montessori high schools.