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What is Montessori?

A comprehensive guide to the Montessori method and some of the most-asked questions

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Montessori is a complex and widely discussed educational system. There are hundreds of books, website and research papers that discuss the merits and criticisms of the popular alternative to the traditional form of classroom education.

It’s a complex topic to navigate, so we’ve answered some of the most asked questions about the method to help parents better understand the popular method of educating children that will help with deciding if it is the right fit for your child.

What is Montessori?

The philosophy believes that children learn best in a social environment that encourages individual growth. Classes operate on a “freedom within limits” principle.

Children are able to direct their own learning at their own pace under the guidance of a trained teacher. “They’re able to choose their own work and complete it and repeat it to their happiness. Guidance is given by the adult when necessary, not overly imposed,” explains Katherine Poyntz, executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators (CCMA), located in Toronto, Ontario.

Teachers then introduce children to the next level of complexity when they are ready. Children of different ages are placed in the same class to stimulate conversation, create community and allow the older children to be role models.

It always sounds like Montessori doesn’t have rules, is this true?

The bustle of a class is matched by a tangible sense of order. No running or yelling or drifting is allowed. Children are taught grace and courtesy, how to say "good morning" politely (with direct eye contact and a handshake), how to eat lunch with table manners, even how to walk a line to develop decorum.

And although students help themselves to materials throughout the room, it's not a free-for-all. Students may choose only from materials the teacher has shown them. If they want to try something new, they must ask for a demonstration to spare them confusion or frustration.

Timing is also very fluid in the classroom. Don't look for a lesson schedule. Each child's curriculum is presented at its own pace. Montessori believed children pass through phases where they're suddenly ready to understand a certain idea - such as adding, reading, climbing stairs. And she believed children hit these sensitive periods at different times, so they must be allowed to learn when they're ready, not be dragged to a lesson when the teacher is ready.

A certified teacher may give 15 to 20 lessons per hour to different students - each lesson only two minutes long. The child chooses the work to do, and the teacher observes when the child is ready to be guided to the next step.

What is the role of the teacher in a Montessori classroom?

Italian educator Maria Montessori believed that you must learn for yourself or it won't mean a thing. Because she believed a person couldn’t be taught by another, children get up and move around and let curiosity be their guide.

And because she believed "the hand is the chief teacher of the brain," students most often learn by touch - by handling specially designed materials such as golden math beads, sandpaper letters, wooden maps of the world. The teacher's job is to show children how to use these materials - then leave them to learn independently.

The teacher works with each individual student on what that child is interested in learning about: from cursive to marine life, to counting or math, the teacher’s job is to give the student the tools he or she needs to begin the learning process. This is how Montessori believed a classroom should run - as a marketplace of discovery where children learn at their own pace, with the teacher stepping in only when needed.

What kind of training does a teacher have to complete?

Teachers are required to go through comprehensive training in order to become accredited teachers for the classroom. Elementary school teachers are required to have a solid foundation in liberal arts, humanities and all other major subject areas that would be part of the classroom dynamic.

The goal isn’t for teachers to be experts in everything, but to be a guide, or as Paula Polk Lillard writes in Montessori Today: A comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood, a Renaissance person: knowledgeable enough to get, and keep, children interested in a given subject to help direct them to find the answers to their questions independently.

Textbooks created by each teacher-in-training will give them a more complete understanding of the method and how to be successful in the classroom. Essentially, they will create their future classroom materials as they are being trained, and are inspected thoroughly by certified trainers at both the national and international levels.

Oral and written examinations are also required for certification.

Students are placed in classes with students in age groups of three – what is the benefit of this?

Because children learn at different times, students are placed in three-year clusters to offer a broader range of materials within the same class. A preschool class includes children aged three to six; the primary class has kids aged six to nine, the junior class has kids nine to 12, and so on. The three-year age span also allows younger children to learn from older students, and lets the older ones reinforce what they know by teaching their juniors.

The older kids are expected to be helpful - and the younger ones discover this and the multi-age grouping is a very important part of the philosophy. Younger children also pick up messages of tolerance and respect by watching older students. And having every student for three years gives teachers a rare chance to get to know each child on a meaningful level.

Dr. Montessori felt a child's first "work" in school - ideally enrolling at age two and a half - should be simple tasks familiar from home, such as washing dishes, polishing shoes, sewing on buttons. Not only do these make children feel they are helping out, but they boost concentration span, good work habits and co-ordination.

The educational approach is to encourage independence, encourage children to walk, not be carried by their parents, and to dress themselves and help out at home.

For what kind of kid is the Montessori method tailored?

Whether a child is wildly gifted or somewhat below average, and even for some children with special needs, it works. The issue is parents' philosophy; many today are very nervous about their child's academic performance and standardized tests. Our kids are not graded.

It's about developing inner drive and motivation, and lots of character development, as opposed to offering external rewards such as grades, because the learning only works as long as students care.

What are some characteristics of the Montessori philosophy?

  • The philosophy is based on the idea that children are markedly different from adults. Ms. Montessori advocated children's rights and believed that if children were treated with more respect and understood more fully, the world that they helped create as adults would be an increasingly better place.

  • The method downplays the notions of performance evaluation with numbers or letters.

  • Children should have much more say in what they learn. In fact, they are capable of self-directed learning.

  • The teacher as observer facilitates better ways for the child to direct his or her own learning by providing more material they are interested in. The development of the teacher-student dynamic might be described as moving from "help me to help myself" to "help me to do it myself" and eventually "help me to think for myself."

  • Children are susceptible to "sensitive periods" or what might be called "intellectual growth spurts." Properly understood and used, these periods can provide great benefit to children if these bursts are not left ignored or lost in adherence to a rigid curricula.


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