The first thing you have to know before you choose a Montessori school for your child is that not every school that has “Montessori” in its name is necessarily a “real” Montessori school — that is, a school that abides by the educational philosophy laid out by Dr. Maria Montessori. Below, we’ll talk about the essential elements of an authentic Montessori school — and why it matters! First, though, here’s a bit of background knowledge to help you understand the history of Montessori education and why it is how it is today.
The Montessori method of education was developed by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician-turned-educator who worked extensively with children in her clinical practice, her researches, and later on as the director of a children’s school called Casa dei Bambini in Rome. Dr. Montessori’s observations of the children under her care led her to formulate the principles and practices that are now the hallmarks of Montessori education.
Maria Montessori was a visionary and a trailblazer in many ways. She refused to be bullied out of the male-dominated schools she attended — the technical school where she initially trained to be an engineer, and her medical school — and she was one of the first ever female physicians in Italy.
What she did not envision, however, was the need for some sort of trademark for the educational philosophy that she developed and that bears her name. Dr. Montessori had set up an organization that would maintain and develop her pedagogy, and she herself worked tirelessly to promote it. As the Montessori method of education grew in popularity around the world, different organizations began to, first, adopt it, and then adapt it.
As you slowly get acquainted with the Montessori method, you’ll eventually hear of one or both of these organizations: the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) and the American Montessori Society (AMS). The first, AMI, was the one founded by Dr. Maria Montessori and carried on after her death by her longtime assistant, her son Mario. AMS is a US-based Montessori organization that has grown very big and influential in the Montessori world.
One time, there was a policy disagreement between AMI and AMS, and Mario Montessori basically said that if AMS wasn’t going to adhere to the principles set by Maria Montessori, then they really ought to drop the name “Montessori”.
In response, AMS sued AMI in an American court, and the American trademark appeal board sided with the American organization, saying that “the term ‘Montessori’ has a generic and/or descriptive significance” and so, for all intents and purposes, everyone has the right to use it.
So that’s what happened, and that’s why there isn’t an international standards organization regulating the use of the word “Montessori” in school names.
In a kind of ironic footnote — after the whole AMI vs. AMS hullabaloo over how to define Montessori and how to take the movement forward, an episode that has been referred to as “the great schism” of Montessori education — nowadays both organizations agree that certain standards have to be met for a school to be considered “authentic” Montessori.
It’s always going to be debatable whether or not Montessori is better than traditional educational methods, or even other non-traditional educational methods out there. I don’t think anyone is ever going to be able to definitely prove that one is better than the other — simply because “better” is such a relative term! How do you measure “better”? School grades? Rate of acceptance to the biggest universities? Annual income at age 35? Depression rates at age 40? Self-reported happiness levels at age 50?
It all really depends on what you want out of life — and what you want for your kids — and how you think you can best achieve that. Your goals will guide your judgments and your choices.
Having said that, it has been found that — compared to conventional schools, low-fidelity Montessori schools, and schools that are practically Montessori only in name — it’s the “high fidelity classic Montessori programs” that have been found to give their students an advantage in executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, and social problem-solving. (Lillard, 2012; also read Marshall, 2017)
Another rationale for why it’s important for a school to be authentic Montessori is our very own reasons for why we are drawn to the Montessori philosophy in the first place. In my case, I want my son to have a lifelong love of learning. I feel that children learn better when they approach a lesson from a place of interest, rather than when they are merely told, “Okay, this is what we will learn today.” I also believe in training him early to take initiative and to make his own choices.
You will have your own reasons and priorities, and if those are what drew you to Montessori in the first place, then obviously it’s best to make sure that a school will meet your expectations of Montessori education.
Finally — a not unimportant point — Montessori schools tend to be a bit more expensive than traditional schools. If you’re going to invest in a Montessori school, you might as well make sure it’s not a traditional school in Montessori clothing, right?
So: now we come to the point of the article.
What is meant by “high fidelity classic Montessori programs”?
When is a school a real Montessori school?
These are the essential elements of Montessori education, as agreed on by both AMI and AMS and many other Montessori organizations, and if you want to make sure that a school is “authentic Montessori” you should ask the relevant questions to make sure they check these boxes.
This is one of the easiest ways to quickly identify a real Montessori classroom — it would have a mix of children of different ages and different grade levels. This is one of the hallmarks of Montessori because mixed-age classrooms give children opportunities to learn from each other, mentor each other, lead, and develop social skills. A preschool classroom would normally have kids age 3-6, lower elementary 6-9, upper elementary 9-12, and so on.
Can children choose what lesson they want to work on? In real Montessori, students are given the choice of what activity or lesson they want to do that day. There is a prescribed range of options — because one of the jobs of the Montessori teacher is to observe and assess what lessons the student is ready for — but it’s the child who will decide whether he’ll do dynamic addition or nouns or whatever that day. It’s freedom within limits — a central tenet of Montessori education.
Especially in the early years, but even as they start to develop the ability to think abstractly, children in authentic Montessori programs will be working with materials that are specially designed — many of them by Maria Montessori herself — to lead to learning. These materials are placed in designated areas in the classroom; the children themselves take them from the shelves when they start working on a lesson/activity and put them back when they’re done.
Montessori materials are ideally made of natural substances like wood, glass and fiber, rather than plastic.
AMI has designated certain companies as “official” makers of Montessori materials — the condition being that they have to follow Montessori’s strict specifications — but as you can guess they tend to be expensive.
I would think that, especially with the pandemic and a lot of us having to do home-based learning, makeshift or substitute materials are okay as long as the principle behind them is being followed. “You can do Montessori without the materials but you can’t do Montessori without the philosophy” as one Montessori trainor likes to say.
If you search Instagram or even Google for Montessori images, you would invariably come across pictures of wide open, orderly classrooms, with materials in beautiful wooden shelves. This is the Montessori prepared environment. These spaces are designed to be calm, to promote purposeful movement and independence, and to be aesthetic, the rationale being “beauty inspires interest”. Furniture should be child-sized. Materials, organized by subject area, should be within easy reach of the child.
“Work” in Montessori-speak means the whole range of purposeful activities that the child does in the process of learning. In authentic Montessori schools, children usually have a 3-hour block of uninterrupted time during which they do their “work.” Within that block of time, usually referred to as the Montessori work cycle, children work individually (or one-on-one with a teacher during presentations) and at their own pace.
(If you’re new to Montessori, you might think, “Children are given the freedom to work on their own for three hours?! And they actually get things done?!” Yep, my friend, I’ve been to many, many Parent Observations, and I’m happy to confirm that, yes, the children do get work done, by themselves, without being nagged, quite cheerfully, in fact…because they are trained that way. Isn’t that great?)
Obviously, if a school is to be faithful to Montessori principles, they have to have been formally trained in the Montessori philosophy and methods. What may differ is where they were trained, or who trained them, or how many of the teachers have certificates from this or that organization. What’s critically important is that they know what they’re doing and that what they’re doing is Montessori.
Because students do not receive instruction as a group, but rather work at their own pace and have an individualized plan of lessons and activities, it’s important that the ratio of students to teachers is kept low. Usually, there would be one teacher for at most 15 students (1:15).
There are other standards that are sometimes mentioned when defining “authentic” Montessori education, such as the number of trained teachers, teacher tenure, number of teaching assistants, and classroom area — some going so far as to specify a certain number of square feet per student! However, the ones above are the most basic and the ones that are easiest to inquire about.
To be clear, I’m not saying that schools that have Montessori in their name but don’t meet the criteria above are not as good as “high-fidelity” or “authentic” Montessori schools, just like I’m not gonna say that Montessori schools are necessarily better than traditional or conventional schools. As I’ve said above, people have different goals and priorities in life, and those factors will affect which schools you will think are best for your child.
Having said that, if you have read up on Montessori, and you’re attracted to its philosophy, its methods, and its results, and you’re thinking of enrolling your child in a Montessori school, it will really be worth your while to ask questions about what exactly the school means when they say they’re Montessori, just to make sure that your expectations are aligned with what they offer.
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