- What is Montessori?
- Key concepts of Montessori
- Montessori method – Is it right for you?
- Lower elementary program
What is Montessori?
Montessori is an educational philosophy named for Dr. Maria Montessori, who was the first woman physician to graduate from the University of Rome. Dr. Montessori’s core concepts are:
- Respect Yourself
- Respect Others
- Respect Your Environment
Maria Montessori has taught us to look at each child as a unique being alive with possibility and ready to grow spiritually, morally, and psychologically. Children carry within themselves the key to their own development.
The primary role of the parent is to help the child to become mature, independent and responsible. Dr. Montessori also found that no one can be free unless he is independent; therefore, a child must be guided through activity to arrive at indepedence. Independence arises naturally within the individual when allowed to do for himself. What is possible in a Montessori classroom is to prepare an environment which invites the child to work independently. Children are allowed to choose work, help others, and move freely about the classroom, their self-concept growing accordingly.
For more information about Montessori and how you can help your child continue this philosophy at home, please ask your child’s teacher or consult the web at www.montessori.org/library.
Key concepts of Montessori
The American Montessori Society, one of several organizations that accredits schools and trains teachers, describes several key concepts:
- To foster competent, responsible, adaptive citizens who are lifelong learners and problem solvers;
- To learn in a cooperative, nurturing atmosphere where students increase their own knowledge through self- and teacher-initiated experiences;
- That learning takes place through the senses by manipulating materials;
- The individual is considered as a whole. The physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, spiritual and cognitive needs are inseparable and equally important;
- Respect and caring attitudes for oneself, others, the environment and all life are necessary
Reprinted by permission from Dallas Child Magazine.
Lower elementary program (1st-3rd)
The lower elementary program at Harry Stone Montessori Academy consists of 7 classrooms with approximately 21 children in each room: about 7 children in each grade level. A child usually stays in the same classroom with the same teacher for the three year span. This enables the teacher to know the students well and provides continuity for the child. Also it allows for the development of responsibility and leadership in the older students, while enhancing the motivation and learning of the younger children. Children enjoy the variety of having different ages in a classroom. It is a natural grouping that helps to build a sense of community. Multi-age grouping allows the child to work comfortably at his or her ability level in all areas of the curriculum while still being challenged to meet educational goals.
The teacher gives the students small group or individual lessons in reading, grammar, spelling, mathematics, geometry, zoology, botany, geography, and history. The lessons involve activities that the children repeat individually, or in pairs, to learn a concept or practice a skill. The lessons build on each other, so the child must complete the simpler ones before going on to more difficult ones. This requires a commitment from the student to his or her own learning; the child must show a certain level of mastery of one lesson before the teacher gives the following lesson. Often when the child realizes this, it inspires greater effort because of the sense of control in the learning process. The more lessons they complete, the more new lessons they get to do. They become very pleased with their accomplishments. If a child does not complete the assigned lesson promptly, the teacher may guide the student in time management, or she may pair the student with another student for success. If the child has difficulty in mastering the work, more time is allowed until the child is ready to go on. Children accept their need to work at different rates. They are glad to let the teacher know when they are ready for a new lesson.
Homework consists of daily reading from a school reading text or from a library book, depending on the child’s ability. Because reading is the most important skill that the lower elementary child learns, daily reading at home with the parent is critical to the student’s success in school. Other homework assignments may be given in spelling, mathematics practice and special projects. Since Montessori is a materials-based method of learning, there are fewer worksheets used than in traditional school.
Conferences are scheduled district-wide twice a year. We encourage parents to visit the classroom frequently. This allows them to observe and work with their child or assist with other students. We expect that parents will contact us if there is a problem, concern or a change in the family that may affect their child. We will contact the parent with our concerns also. We are happy to discuss progress individually after school or on our planning periods. We strongly feel that learning begins at home, and we are happy to assist you in continuing that process.
Independent productive activity is one of the most important goals of Montessori, because if a child is an active learner who tries to solve problems and finish a task independently, all other academic goals can be met in time. It is important that the family foster independence by allowing the child to complete alone any task of which he or she is capable. Usually, this means allowing the child time to struggle with the task for a while and experience failure. We believe that children learn from their mistakes, as well as from their successes. The self-confidence and pride that a child feels on completing a task alone are priceless. What is more important is that it gives the child the message that he or she is a capable person deserving our time and respect.
Montessori – Is it right for you?
Montessori Education was founded in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, in Rome. She based her educational methods on scientific observation of children’s learning processes. Guided by her discovery that children teach themselves, Montessori designed a “prepared environment” in which children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities.
Montessori emphasizes learning through all five senses, not just through listening, watching and reading. Manipulative materials reinforce concepts the child hears and sees. Children learn at their own pace and according to their own choices of work and activities. Another critical component of Montessori is the three-year-cycle. Class levels are composed of three-year age groups (3-6, 6-9 and so on) in which younger children look up to older kids and the older students share their knowledge with the younger ones.
The Montessori approach is totally unlike the traditional classroom model. School directors, teachers and parents can get defensive when the century-old educational system is questioned. Myths abound; misinformation proliferates. To the casual observer, a first-grader lolling on the floor humming to herself while idly moving puzzle parts around couldn’t be learning anything. Why do children get up from the work tables without permission and walk around the room? Where are the tests? The report cards? When a parent shows up for a semi-annual teacher conference, it is difficult to be satisfied with the news that her preschooler gets high marks in “practical life” or “sensorial studies” when her neighbor’s kid gets an A in spelling. It’s not that spelling – or math, science, geography or foreign language, isn’t taught, but that learning is measured by different standards in a Montessori environment.
Skepticism is the cross a Montessorian must bear. If a parent was not schooled in a Montessori environment (and Montessori schools were uncommon in North Texas until about 20 years ago), she has only her own childhood experience to compare it to. For most parents, the traditional model is what you know: Children sit at desks, the teacher delivers a lesson to everyone at the same time, students are told what to do and when to do it, they work on the assignment put before them, get a grade and repeat the process the next day. A parent cannot sit in on a Montessori preschool class, on the other hand, and always get a grasp of what is being taught that day. Because the classroom is child-centered, not teacher-directed, each student chooses for himself which lesson to take up. And that simple, seemingly inconsequential decision is a key to understanding the point of a Montessori education. Every day in the classroom, from preschool through middle school, provides opportunities to make choices. They begin with little choices – Do I work with the Pink Tower now or do I practice setting the table? And graduate to bigger choices: Do I use my time to work or do I succumb to the temptation to visit with my friends, meaning I’ll have to finish the assignment during recreation time? The theory is, lots of practice at making small decisions leads to an ability, as children mature to adolescence, to make the right decision when it really counts, as in saying yes or no to cheating, drugs, cigarettes, drinking and driving, sexual behavior or violence.
“Education is supposed to prepare a child for society, not college,” stresses Pam Butler, administrator of The Westwood School in North Dallas since 1986. “That means making the grade in college but also doing the job their boss requires, functioning in society, being a part of a group. And there is no one who is not part of a group.”
A parent observing in a classroom who is a novice at the Montessori system, however, will not perceive any of this internal growth. In fact, Montessori parents may tell you that the effects of a long-term Montessori education may not be visible in a dramatic way until the child has left Montessori for middle school or high school.
“It is a tapestry woven from many threads that only in time becomes clear,” says Butler. “The question a parent must ask is not “is Montessori right for my child.” The questions is, is it right for the parent. Children will do well in any system that is well done. If you are looking for a system in which you can compare your child to other children, that’s not Montessori. Are you willing to learn how it is done in the Montessori system? A traditional system doesn’t require a lot of learning on your part.”
“It really is a leap of faith,” explains Sue Henry, director of White Rock Montessori School and a former public school teacher. “I’m a big believer in parent’s intuition. Not that you don’t sometimes question a policy, but you have to have an intuitive felling that this is for you.”
Pam Dunbar, director of The Montessori Academy in Arlington, named a Blue Ribbon School (a highly coveted national designation) in 1998-99, agrees that Montessori has to be right for the parent. “We can teach any child, but we look for a fit. We believe in the parent-teacher-child triangle. If the parents’ expectations, values and beliefs are aligned with Montessori principles and philosophy, it’s a much stronger partnership than working at cross purposes. There certainly is documented research that [parental support] is a critical factor to the success of the child.”
All Montessori schools share a basic philosophy about the end product, the child. Dr. Jean Miller is head of the elementary program at St. Alcuin Montessori School in Dallas, with 517 pupils one of the largest in the nation. Miller, who has trained teachers and lectured about the system all over the world, says a Montessori-educated child should possess the ability “to be independent, self-directed and normalized, that is, peaceful, joyful in academic pursuits and easy in social relationships. They should feel a gratitude for all that has come before them – all that is here for them to enjoy today – and feel a responsibility for preserving all those gifts and improving upon them for those who come after them.”
“Montessori is concerned with the development of an autonomous individual- not only academic development but the whole child,” explains White Rock’s Sue Henry, who has been with the school all of its 27 years.
“Montessori children are given a lot of respect in the classroom,” adds Dunbar of Arlington’s Montessori Academy. “Independence is fostered. We don’t do anything for the child they cannot do themselves. [This encourages them] to be willing to take ownership of their education and their behavior. If they choose to use their time to socialize, and some do, then they have to make up for it after school. They know they can use their time well, but they know the consequences if they choose not to.”
St. Alcuin’s Miller agrees: “Choice-making is a skill that has to be built up. If a child only has the experience of being told what to do and when to do it, she has not been given the opportunity to develop that skill.”
Montessori programs can begin as early as 2 months and go through high school, although there is currently no high school curriculum available in North Texas. The most common Montessori school is the traditional grouping of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds that Maria Montessori first worked with. She developed a theory that there are “sensitive periods” in a child’s life where all kinds of important things happen, such as developing a rich vocabulary and learning to follow a sequence of activities, and devised materials to address these stages that are still in use today in Montessori classrooms.
All Montessori practitioners interviewed for this story agree that a Montessori preschool is a most advantageous start for a youngster, “but you’re not getting the full benefit of Montessori,” says Pam Butler, by switching to a traditional school in kindergarten. Yet it is in kindergarten where a parent might get anxious that his or her child is not doing the same things he or she did at that age. That American emphasis on competition and winning creeps into the picture and often causes a parent to second-guess the Montessori method. There are no tests, grades or homework in early Montessori years, although standardized testing, homework and course tests may appear by fourth grade. Even then, the emphasis is not on a grade but mastery of a subject. The test serves to tell a teacher where the student stands and where more work needs to be done.
While most educators and school administrators put their focus on knowledge first, followed by skills, with attitudes and values last, Montessori schools, its proponents say, reverse the order, teaching values, attitudes and habits of independent study, followed by skills and, finally, knowledge, explains White Rock’s Henry. “As early as the 1920s, Montessori taught that youngsters ought to be reared so that they enjoy learning, know how to find and synthesize information, develop wide-ranging interests and desire to nourish their minds for the remainder of their lives.”
On the other hand, inserting your child into a Montessori upper elementary or middle school program without the benefit of that Montessori foundation in earlier years can be detrimental, especially if parents are not wholly supportive of the very different way their child will be expected to act in the classroom. While children in traditional classes look to the teacher to choose their work and plan their time, Montessori pupils are encourage to make decisions and be accountable for their choices from an early age, Henry explains. “Students are encouraged to exchange ideas and discuss their work freely with others, allowing them to develop good communication and teamwork skills and easing their way in social settings. Traditional methods discourage students from getting or giving assistance and put them into competition with their peers for grades and class standings.”
Parents more comfortable with traditional schooling question the value of Montessori’s three-year concept, in which a classroom contains pupils from three grades, because it means children vary widely in development and ability. “The younger children have role models and the older children learn the value of helping others and develop empathy,” explains Dunbar. “Plus, it provides a bonding experience with their teachers, to be with her three years.”
“It helps the child understand they are part of a group that changes,” adds Westwood’s Butler. “They work their way socially from the bottom of the ladder to the top rung. People do change and change causes tremendous stress. Grouping by age teaches you a very narrow range of tolerance.”
The three-year model also allows for a wide diversity in abilities. “The Montessori curriculum is developmental,” explains Henry. “The teacher has to understand the child’s developmental level no matter what his age is. The pace will be different for every child. Usually that makes for better learning. They’re not being pushed ahead too fast; they’re not being held back waiting for someone else to catch up.”
“Montessori is truly child-centered,” adds Dunbar. “All children have special needs, whether they are gifted or whether they need four years to do three years of work.”
Reprinted by permission from Dallas Child Magazine.