In the past few weeks, as I’ve begun to lose sight of myself in the sea of college essays, I’ve been reflecting on my educational past as I look to its future.
My mind keeps drifting back to my time in a Montessori school from the ages of three to thirteen, but also to the Montessori model of education on the whole. Montessori education is, as I see it, widely misunderstood. I’m often met with skepticism at its efficacy or dismissal of the pedagogy as “nontraditional,” good for some kids but not for most. The traditional educational system in the United States, though, is broken. The quality of education pro-vided by public and private schools differs greatly, and access to better schools is unequal. The sheer size of enrollment and the nature of the traditional system itself means students at different socioeconomic levels and levels of ability leave school with unequal outcomes. Increased access to Montessori education is the key to educational reform.
It’s important to give some background on the Montessori method to understand why it’s so powerful. It was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in the early twentieth century. Dr. Montessori devoted her professional life to the development of a new educational model based on her observations of children. She brought her pedagogy first to a hospital for children with special needs, then to the tenements of Rome, and eventually to classrooms around the world. The typical Montessori classroom has twenty to thirty students led by one teacher, and is mixed-age, which often fall in three-year increments (0-3, 3-6, etc.). To start, I’ll highlight some of the most important pillars of Montessori education:
1) Respect for the Child - the Montessori method is built on a deep mutual respect between parents, teachers, and children. Children are allowed to make choices for themselves, and adults model respect. Montessori believed that children, when treated with respect, would develop a deeper respect for others and their environment.
2) The Absorbent Mind/The Prepared Environment - in her observation, Montessori realized that much of early childhood development is dependent on environment. Children are constantly learning from and making sense of their environment. If children are presented with an environment that encourages them to make free choices and do things for themselves, they will learn to be intrinsically motivated and independent. If you walk into a Montessori classroom, you’ll see a room filled with furniture designed to fit children, but also light enough for them to move and manipulate without help.
3) Sensitive Periods/Follow the Child - Montessori identified certain developmental periods in which children were more susceptible to acquiring certain skills - but also acknowledged that these periods would naturally occur at different times for different children. Follow the Child is one of the most important aspects of Montessori education. Teachers are trained to constantly observe their classrooms and identify when children are ready to be taught new skills or lessons.
4) Cosmic Education/Education for Peace - these are the pieces that’ve been on my mind the most recently. Cosmic Education teaches children the interconnectedness of life on Earth through studies of history, science, and culture. Montessori education is built on the belief that, if values of independence, peace, and integrity are taught to children from a young age, they will go into the world more socially responsible and compassionate.
The traditional educational system is often completely at odds with the pillars of Montessori’s pedagogy. Most of the disciplinary systems within traditional schools are built on mistrust. When students are monitored to ensure they don’t act out, they will. Hall passes, hall monitors, and detention are all examples of the educational system failing students. When adults lead with respect for children from a young age, children model that behavior. From a very young age, children have a desire to learn, to communicate, and to be heard. The traditional system disregards this entirely. Because of the nature of the educational system, if students are interested in learning about something that is technically beyond their level, they are often turned away. In a Montessori classroom, while lessons are taught to individual students based on their needs or to small groups, any student who wishes to watch a lesson is welcome to, and are encouraged to ask questions. Individuality and diverse interests are encouraged, and the system fosters students who are intellectually curious, driven, and emotionally intelligent.
The biggest roadblock for Montessori education today is cost. The vast majority of Montessori schools are private institutions, and are forced to rely on donor contributions and high tuitions to sustain themselves. This is largely because the materials that make up Montessori classrooms are themselves expensive, and teachers who have received training in Montessori pedagogy are few and far between. Charter Montessori schools, supported by the public education system, do exist, but often divert from the strict pedagogy, and because there is no trademark on Montessori education, any school is free to call itself a Montessori school even if it uses none of Dr. Montessori’s educational methods.
As great as all of Montessori’s methods sound to me as someone who grew up in the system, I’m well aware that they can sound quite alternative to those unfamiliar. I’ll lead with this: the Montessori method is uniquely suited to meet students at their needs. The principle of “Follow the Child” means that teachers guide each student on their own developmental path. Instead of sitting kids down in rows of desks and presenting them all with the same lesson, students are taught material with which they’re ready to engage. And, because classrooms are mixed-age, older children learn to teach younger children in the classroom and help them in their work. A recent study by the journal Frontiers in Psychology examined the efficacy of Montessori education as compared to traditional preschool. While there was a significant gap in achievement and development between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds in the traditional school system, students in Montessori classrooms performed and achieved uniformly well.
Getting Montessori education to more kids is a big goal, and one I keep coming back to. Realistically, how do we get there? One of the most important pieces is standardizing what can be called Montessori education in the first place. The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) is the leading governing body of Montessori accreditation. Charter Montessori schools should absolutely become more widely available, but should also be accredited by AMI. Adult education is also important. When parents send their children to school for the first time, they should be given more information about alternatives to the traditional educational model.
It’s time for a change to the educational system in the United States. Children are not offered equal opportunities in education and their possibilities of achieving success in the traditional system are often dependent on their socioeconomic status and their parents’ education. Montessori education is uniquely suited to meet children at their needs, and instills vital principles of self-discipline, but more importantly, values of deep respect for others and the environment. By scaling up Montessori education into the public system, students will be better served and leave their pre-collegiate education better equipped to move into society.