The education the children receive in a Montessori environment is very different from most other approaches. Let’s look at how and why:
Traditional education was developed to prepare for work on farms or in factories, yet it remains. (One reason may be that it suits the economies and politics of most countries to have an obedient workforce who can complete routine tasks, with only a limited level of proactive behavior and creativity, by a certain deadline; and to be prepared to do so for wages that are lower than their work is worth. This means that companies can make a good profit out of the labor of their workers.)
Montessori education is based on a lifetime of study and observation by Dr. Maria Montessori of the way that children really learn. It has been found to be effective in even the most recent scientific studies.
As you already know… in nearly every school (whether a Rudolf Steiner Waldorf school or an elite private British school), the teacher is the center of attention. Children are required to sit quietly and attentively to the teacher to obtain their knowledge and skills. When a teacher directs student learning through memorization and recitation, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills are not developed. Montessori teachers act as guides and consultants to the students on an interactive and individual basis, assisting the child along his own learning path in planning, managing time, working with information and getting tasks done. (Executive Functioning)
In traditional schools, grade levels are not flexible and are strictly defined by chronological age within a 12-month period. In Montessori schools, the classrooms are mixed-ages. Grade Levels are flexible and determined by the child’s developmental range in 0-3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, 12-15, and 15-18 years of age.
In traditional schools all children are expected to work at the same pace. The pace and order of each lesson is predetermined by an educational body (or the teacher) according to a fixed schedule with minimal regard for student needs, talents or interests. The teacher must deliver the same lesson, at the same pace, in the same order, for all students. Montessori curricula expands in response to student needs and interests. The individual child’s work pace is honored and encouraged.
Traditional school lessons are often PASSIVE with students who cannot move around or choose a learning activity. Montessori classrooms are designed to be hands-on and ACTIVE with students given time for discovery of information.
Traditional curricula focus on standardized test performance and grades. Children learn because it is mandatory. This means that they can’t miss any lessons and must somehow “catch up” in their own time and will fall behind. This concept is so crucial to the normal approach to education that a large part of school life is about attendance and completing homework assignments on time. Montessori curricula appeals to the child’s innate love of learning and hunger for knowledge.Nevertheless, there have been many “cosmetic” changes that originated from Maria Montessori’s innovations – such as having windows in classrooms or child-sized furniture and objects and (only since about 1970) tables where children can sit together, rather than individual desks with chairs fixed to them to prevent children from moving around. She was also vehemently opposed to corporal punishment, but this is still prevalent in many countries (such as Thailand) and has only been banned outright in “Western” countries in Europe, USA/Canada and Australia/New Zealand.
Listen to this talk by Ken Robinson (with Thai subtitles).
So how is Montessori so different?
One of the crucial aspects of Montessori education is that the learning material itself is designed to be “self-correcting” so that the child can learn independently and by making mistakes. For example, the Knobbed Cylinder Blocks are designed that a child discovers the concept of size-comparison and an ordered sequence of size, volume and weight simply by physically playing and interacting with the equipment. If she makes a mistake then either the cylinder block won’t fit into the hole or it will be loose and wobbly. And if she insists on putting small cylinders into large holes then there will be some cylinders left over at the end of the activity, so it’s obvious she’s made a mistake somewhere.
Montessori designed every piece of equipment to have a specific educational purpose, sometimes more than one purpose at the same time. The cylinder blocks are constructed using exact mathematical measurements, allowing for the absorption by the mind of the child. The way these same cylinders are handled also train young children to lift the blocks by pinching the finger and thumb together… good preparation to hold a pen or pencil properly later. They also begin to develop intuitive concepts for geometrical shapes. The blocks are 3-dimensional cylinders and the holes are circular: so, they quickly develop an intuitive, visual and physical understanding of circles both in two and three dimensions; and they begin to develop the linguistic ideas for “thick & thin”, “large & small”, “tall and short”, “bigger, biggest, smaller, smallest”, etc.
This detailed and purposeful thinking is common for all the Montessori teaching materials, classroom organization and behavior.
There is no competition between children and no grades. Yet children usually achieve very deep and high-level understanding and abilities at a very early age. In fact, by playing with equipment such as the binomial cube, even 3-year-old children will get to intuitively understand an advanced mathematic concept that most high-school children (and even adults) have difficulty understanding – that a(b+c) [a times b+c] is the same as ab + ac; or that a+b squared (a+b)² = a² + 2ab + b² and even that a+b cubed(a + b)³ = (a + b)(a + b)(a + b) = a³+3a²b+3ab²+b³ . (How many of you have ever understood this!?)
Montessori children don’t understand this as a string of mathematical symbols; they see that a cubed object consisting of a red-length plus a blue-length can be disassembled into 8 smaller blocks with slightly different properties – a bigger all-red cube, a smaller all-blue cube, 3 cubes with black-and-red-length sizes and 3 cubes with black and blue-length sizes. It may seem complicated to us, but it’s easy and obvious to a 3- or 4-year-old child; and makes it much easier to understand the more complex mathematical concepts in high school.
It’s a very small step then to understand the same concept at a much more complicated level – e.g. the trinomial cube: (a + b + c)³.
Why not Homeschooling?
Homeschooling is a very good and viable alternative to conventional school education. However, it isn’t easy. There are so many different approaches to homeschooling that it is difficult to know which are effective and how to use them at home. Homeschooled children are usually able to follow their interests and passions naturally (as Montessori predicted) and they often have more opportunity to socialize and develop social skills than children at school – which seems strange, but there are good reasons why schools are far more “antisocial” than learning at home.
The main problem with homeschooling is the lack of structure and direction. If the children and parents have a good, clear idea of their goals, interests and passions then this is not usually a problem. What Maria Montessori has done is carefully describe how to structure the environment and has designed each “work” (educational material) with a specific educational purpose in mind – for example, playing with the wooden pegs and arranging them in the correct sequence is specifically designed to develop fine muscle control for writing (later on) and also to understand the concept of mathematical order (small to big, light to heavy).
You can do this yourself if you homeschool your kids. The advantage of following the Montessori curriculum is that Maria Montessori has already devised and tested every aspect of the environment and teaching materials over her lifetime. The best way to work through the Montessori system has been researched now for over 100 years and it has been proven to be extremely effective. Children who are Montessori-educated are usually very self-confident, considerate of others, have good social and analytical skills, self-disciplined, creative, curious and passionate. They tend to be entrepreneurial and either work as freelancers, or as managers, or have their own businesses. And they enjoy their lives. (They also happen to have a higher income on average than school-educated children, but that isn’t necessarily a good measure of success and contentment in the Montessori philosophy.)