What is Montessori?
Montessori, or the Montessori Method, is a child-centered approach to education, founded by Dr. Maria Montessori, an Italian physician turned educator in 1912. The teaching methodologies to come out of Montessori have shaped and influenced curriculums, educational establishments, and the way we understand child development worldwide over the past decade. So, what exactly is the Montessori Method? Why do educators, schools, and parents love it? And is it really a successful approach to teaching and learning? This post aims to offer an introduction to the method for those interested in understanding what Montessori is all about.
What is the Montessori Method?
The Montessori Method is a child-centered approach to education. “Child-centered” is the term used to describe an education system that focuses solely on the best interests of the child, it also means that the child is the primary leader of their own learning. This type of learning is contrastingly different from a “school-based”, “target-based” or “teacher-led” system. In the child-centered classroom, learning is respectful of the child’s natural development and students are met where they are, which means they are given an appropriate level of challenge, not challenge based on the desired trajectory of a school or educational board. There are thousands of Montessori establishments around the world, and many more that use Montessori approaches to learning in conjunction with a “target-based” system.
In the Montessori classroom, with the child’s interests at the center of the teacher’s approach to teaching, the educator does not merely focus on academic outcomes but on the development of social, personal, emotional, and practical life skills of the child. In an authentic Montessori school, practical life skills are just as important as academic achievements, something which mainstream education often puts on the back burner as academic achievement take president.
The Curriculum: Practical Life
There are three core elements of the Montessori Method when it comes to aiding the development of practical life skills. These three elements are infused into the Montessori classroom at all ages, therefore children in Montessori-style schools will continuously develop these skills throughout their schooling.
- Care of the Self: To be able to care for one’s own physical, safety*, personal and emotional needs.
- Care of Others: To be able to behave in a way that is caring of others, regardless of conflicts, challenges, and personal differences.
- Care of the Environment: To be able to take care of my immediate surroundings and the world we live in.
* Age-appropriate lessons and expectations are taught within these three areas of focus.
Students of Montessori schools will typically acquire and learn the same skills and knowledge they would encounter in a traditional school system, such as the core subjects: English, Math and Science, and other subjects such as Art, Humanities, Drama and PE. The difference is that the three core areas of practical life are integrated as a core part of the child’s learning, too.
What I love about the Montessori approach to teaching is that the learning is focused on intrinsic motivation, rather than external motivation, which in my professional opinion and experience, is the only sure-fire way to teach students anything. A typical Montessori classroom will be set up with designated learning areas (see picture below), with each area hosting a range of learning materials ready to use for a specific subject. The facilitator of the classroom will change up these learning materials based on the students’ needs, interests and focus of instruction. The great thing about setting up a classroom in this way is that the child becomes the leader of their own learning, liberating them to understand their own needs, wants, interests, and capabilities. With recent talk on “choice-based learning” in education, it’s clear to see that this approach is still something being used, and explored, as an effective tool for teaching, a hundred years after the Montessori Method was published.
To understand this more, here is an example of what a typical Montessori “lesson” might look like.
Montessori “Lesson” Example
Brian has decided to do Letter Work this morning as his first learning activity. This activity involves using the lowercase wooden letters to make CVC words before writing them out on a whiteboard.
Care of the Self: Before Brian can begin doing this activity on his own, his teacher models the appropriate way to use the manipulatives to complete the task accurately. The letters are also colour coded, with vowels in pink and consonants in blue. The letter card on the tray shows the CVC word structure, following the colour code of blue-pink-blue. The learning materials are self-correcting, which means that Brian is able to work out on his own when he has created a word that follow the CVC structure.
Care of Others: Brian is learning to work independently while completing this task, and respect the work of others while he works. The expectations outlined in the classroom emphasize to students that when they are finished with one task, they move on to another and do not disturb others in their work. The teacher will emphasize this through questioning as and when needed, e.g. “Brian, are you ready to move on to a different task now?” or “Brian, how do we respect our classmates while they are working?”. By using questioning, Brian is reminded himself of the expectations within the class, thus taking ownership over them.
Care of the Environment: The shelves in the classroom are clearly labeled with visual stickers so that students know where the learning materials belong. Brian has been taught how to retrieve the learning materials on their trays correctly and put them back where they belong without the help of a teacher. A big portion of the Montessori approach to learning usually involves a whole unit approach to learning how to care for one’s environment at the start of each academic year.
As an educator who has tried and tested a range of approaches to teaching students of all ages, dispositions, and personal challenges, I can honestly say that the Montessori method is a game-changer. By respecting students as individuals and following their lead when it comes to their interests and the appropriate challenge is often a recipe for success, and in my experience, it works. If you want to teach a child how to remember something short-term (e.g. to simply pass an exam), then this approach is likely not for you. The Montessori method is a holistic approach, which often takes time and patience, and requires educators to take a step back, act as observers rather than dictators, and respect the individuals in the classroom. Montessori schools around the world adopt this approach with not only high academic success but also enabling their students to become well-rounded individuals who know themselves, which I believe should be at the core of all education systems. If we want students to really learn, then we need to understand them as humans with needs and interests and respect the natural process of inquiry and learning.
The Ponder Box resources are built around many of the Montessori principles outlined in this post. To learn more about this approach to teaching, keep up to date with our blogs and explore our range of child-centered inspired resources.