there’s no such (unified) thing as Montessori education

As someone who reads and writes a lot about American education policy, I often hear people assert that Montessori education is the secret weapon we could deploy to solve many of our problems. The people who say this are all well-meaning, and they are typically speaking out of personal experience, with a child of theirs or a loved one who succeeded at a Montessori school. Unfortunately, the idea that Montessori pedagogy could be a solution to our education woes is likely a red herring.

The first problem is that overgeneralizing from your own child’s experience is a global problem in our education discourse. Separating variables controlled by the child and his environment and variables controlled by the school and educators is a persistent and vexing challenge for educational research. (Despite what you might hear from some in the education reform movement, this problem is not a plot of the teacher unions.) Montessori education might have been exactly what was necessary for a given child, but present no particular advantages for a different child, given his or her educational needs. That isn’t to say that Montessori would be worse for that particular child, and I want to stress that this post isn’t intended to express skepticism about Montessori in general. It’s just that the only way to responsibly say that a pedagogical regime will improve the educational achievement of large groups of students is to perform appropriate research. There’s no shortcut.

More to the point of this post, it’s hard to say what, specifically, “Montessori pedagogy” refers to.

That might seem like a strange statement to make, given that Montessori herself produced a meticulous guidebook to what her pedagogy entails. Yet even a cursory examination of Montessori schools as they exist in fact demonstrates that defining Montessori education is harder than it might seem. As you’d expect, given how the Internet serves passionate minorities better than any other group, there is a large and active Montessori community online. Scratching the surface of that discourse even a little bit, you’ll find that there are fierce battles about what Montessori is or means. Even with a detailed guide to the system, there are contentious battles over the intention of the author and the meaning of her work. (Sort of like the Bible.)

Part of this stems from the fact that people who try to implement Montessori principles do so within the limitations of their material conditions. Maria Montessori enjoyed an unusual amount of control over her school. Contemporary educators face a host of legal, infrastructural, economic, and practical impediments to implementing her vision. The common move here might be to lament government and regulatory influence, and there’s some of that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if simple economic and market realities made the biggest difference. For example, Montessori pedagogy calls for a “prepared environment,” the physical environment of school and classroom developed according to strict guidelines set by Maria Montessori. That sort of control over the architecture and physical infrastructure of a school is hard to come by.

What’s more, as with any tradition that lacks a central authority, questions of adapting a static document to a changing world are complicated. For example, I imagine that almost no Montessori schools continue to live by the complicated dietary guidelines. (Sample: “Children must never eat raw vegetables, such as salads and greens, but only cooked ones; indeed they are not to be highly recommended either cooked or raw, with the exception of spinach which may enter with moderation into the diet of children.”) Dietary science has simply passed her by. I also doubt that many Montessori schools continue to implement her vision of PE (muscular education, in her terms). There’s no insult to Montessori in that. We know much more about childhood muscular-skeletal development now than we did when she described her methods. I have no doubt that many schools find dropping these aspects of her system natural.

The question is whether Montessori would find it natural. After all, Maria Montessori was consistently adamant that her approach to education was a holistic system, not a set of modules to be picked and chosen. For many, this is precisely the appeal; to send your child to a Montessori school is to place them within a fully developed pedagogical system, where all the pieces fit together and were specifically designed to function as a unit. (In some online circles, the term “hybrid Montessori” is looked on with contempt.) The problem is, if dietary and physical education guidelines can be dropped, what can’t be? There’s no indication in the Montessori Method that those are optional. And just as nutritional science has left behind many of Montessori’s ideas, so has our knowledge of childhood neurological and cognitive development. (For example, Montessori’s four planes of childhood development are not consistent with our current understanding.) Or consider aspects of education Maria Montessori had no way of predicting. How do educators integrate computers into the Montessori classroom? They can hardly refuse to teach them. These and other questions are disputed within the world of Montessori education. I think the analogy with Christianity is again apt: it’s not just that different parties have different ideas about how to alter the system; it’s that they disagree about what parts are subject to alteration at all, and what a “pure” application of the system now entails.

Again, none of this is intended as criticism of Montessori schools or those who praise them. The Montessori tradition includes a great number of insights and techniques that I admire and value. (I’ve written a little bit about them.) Maria Montessori was a huge figure in the history of education, a true pioneer. She helped to establish the very concept of scientific inquiry into educational best practices, and in doing so combated the perception of pedagogy as unimportant “women’s work.” The rise of public schools that work within a Montessori framework is an intriguing development. What I caution against is the “magic bullet” philosophy of education reform, where specific tweaks and changes can solve widespread problems that stem from seemingly intractable social and demographic realities. The “Look See/Look Say” reading method, new math, the rise of digital technologies in the classroom… the history of education is filled with the false promise of magic cures. Pedagogical techniques that work can and should be incorporated into general education practices. But we’ve got to get beyond the idea that there is some secret out there that will solve all our problems.

In a (quite positive) consideration of Montessori education across the decades (PDF), Keith Whitescarver and Jacqueline Cossentino described the conflicted reality of Maria Montessori and her ideas:

Throughout the story of Montessori—the woman, the method, and movement—are woven a series of questions: Was Montessori (the woman) a progressive? Was Montessori (the method) “scientific”? Could Montessori (the movement) be assimilated into existing educational frameworks and capture a viable constituency? … Tensions between cohesion and pluralism, tradition and innovation, radicalism and liberalism play themselves out over the course of a century of social reform, political upheaval, and educational practice.

These tensions might seem like a problem, if we are looking for a unified system to cure our educational problems. But if we instead see Montessori and her system as a source of inspiration and guidance, they can be the right kind of tensions, the productive kind that lead us to better understand our problems and their solutions.

11 Comments

  1. Four things:

    1. Agree: Montessori isn’t a magic bullet. the suggestion is oxymoronic since its very foundations rely on deliberate, repetitive, even painstaking work: the antithesis of magic bullet, to be sure.

    2. An excellent start to the discussion of current debates in the Montessori world. I still revel in her championing sugar! Yes, we can and should talk about spinach & computers.

    3. I see you went to CCSU & worked in Middletown. My super sleuth work leads me to believe you have CT ties despite your Purdue address. Why not visit The Cobb School, Montessori in Simsbury and see if your theory holds up?

    4. Full disclosure: I’m the Director of Communications at Cobb and mother to 4 Montessori children. Maybe you’d describe me as “well-meaning.”

  2. I definitely agree with the general gist of your argument – Montessori is diluted and wars are waged over slight differences in practice. I received my training from the Association Montessori Internationale, which is widely regarded as the authority on Montessori’s method, and I have found that those who stick close to the Montessori the AMI way have a greater understanding of the doctor herself, her method (in theory and in practice) and how this “pure” Montessori method can hold its own against all other sorts of Montessori. Unfortunately the word “montessori” isn’t trademarked so anybody can open up a school and slap her name over its door. It’s not my intention to offend, but I think that life for us Montessorians would have been a lot easier if the majority of educators recognized the AMI as the Montessori authority and stuck with that.

    Now it seems too late for any homogenization of the Montessori method since most of us are passionate about our training backgrounds and struggle to see the value in other approaches. Personally, I don’t think that children under six need to use a computer. But other Montessori teachers would disagree.

    Alas, if educators can agree on pillars of Montessori’s method (follow the child, foster independence, social development, concentration, grace and courtesy, etc.) then we still have an international group of educators who seek to put the child ahead of themselves.

  3. To be clear, I wasn’t attempting to offer much of a theory about Montessori in terms of its quality or its precepts, and as I said, I admire and value a lot of the Montessori tradition. I’m just reacting to a tendency I see online for people from outside of the Montessori community to speak as if Montessori is a discrete entity that can be plopped into an existing school or curriculum. The commitment is much deeper than that, and even when made, it involves more choice and more difficult, meaningful decisions than people seem to realize.

  4. Fredrik,

    I’m glad you have found it wise to pay attention to and research Montessori education! We find more and more of you everyday!

    I invite you to visit a classroom, and see how it can work for ALL children as it a natural way of learning that allows room for each child to move, choose, watch, try, fail, accomplish and most importantly to concentrate on his or her own schedule. As a result, a child becomes transformed in this prepared environment, he or she becomes calm, centered, peaceful, engaged. Another term for this is the experience of “FLOW”. As Laura Shaw pointed out in her article “The right way to train attention” today in the Huffington Post:
    “The periods of deep concentration Montessori students experience are what Dr. Mihály Csikszentmikály, refers to as “flow.” In his now classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as “the mental state in which a person engaged in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” It’s a state that Dr. Csikszentmikály generally attributes to adults, but when he and his colleague Dr. Kevin Rathunde conducted a multi-year study comparing traditional school environments to Montessori environments, they found that “students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings.”

    To suggest that because our understanding of dietary or muscular knowledge has changed over the course of 100 something years, that this somehows lessens the magnificent relevance of authentic Montessori education today reveals the body of Montessori knowledge you have yet to acquire! Keep studying or better yet…go observe a classroom!

    Aidan McAuley
    A Montessori Mad Man

  5. If Montessori is the red herring, what’s the solution?

    You mention that Dr. Montessori’s work on the planes of development doesn’t hold up to “our understanding” today. I totally agree! Frankly, it is our “understanding” of child development that has lead us to create programs which fail to consider what children actually need -when they need it.

    Here are some stated outcomes for children in the Montessori environment in the first plane of development:

    • Self-discipline
    • Increased independence derived from new skills and competencies
    • knowledge of appropriate and specific pro-social behavior
    • Patience and the ability to share
    • Care and respect for others and the environment
    • Willingness to abide by rules to create social order
    • Perseverance, good work habits
    • Ability to choose
    • Mental balance
    • Sublimation of possessive instinct
    • Pleasure in purposeful activity
    • Serenity, Calmness, satisfaction, emotional equilibrium
    • Happiness, joy
    • An anxious concern for life
    • Warm, expressive outgoing, and optimistic personalities

    These concepts aren’t hidden away in the back of the “Montessori guide.” They are page one, top of the list. We are talking about age zero to 6 here. Our “understanding” of child development is that “real school” doesn’t really start until Kindergarten. These outcomes are not just things that children will need in order to take a test or even read or write. These are skills and attributes each child needs to live a happy and fulfilling adult life. Show me another program that focuses on these things to the extent we do in Montessori.

    I noticed that you didn’t criticize the academics of the Montessori method. I assume this is because you agree that even 100 years ago, Dr. Montessori knew how children learn better than our “understanding” today. However, as well-conceived as the math materials are, these fall way down on the list of goals for child development. I meet adults everyday who are missing some or most of those outcomes above, but I’ll bet all those adults can read, write and add.

    So let’s jump ahead to the 3rd plane. Now, tell me if little 14-year-old Freddie Jr. cares about geometry, chemistry, economics, trigonometry or just about any other academic subject at his age. He is concerned only with things which impact his ability to make his place in his society -a job which takes nearly all of his effort and thought.
    I’m not saying Freddie doesn’t need to learn these things, but he’ll retain so much more if the mastery of these concepts a requirement of his existence as opposed to the receipt of a letter grade or a gold sticker.

    I agree, that’s not easy to do, but not for the reasons you mentioned. You say “That sort of control over the architecture and physical infrastructure of a school is hard to come by.” I’ve worked in Haiti -arguably the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and I saw dozens of Montessori schools operating in conditions that are frankly, difficult to describe. If you’re correct in your statement, maybe we should think about why in the most powerful country in the world, “that sort of control…is hard to come by.”

    Freddie, if you have anyone who works directly for you, I’m sure you can relate to how disappointing it is when that person comes to tell you about a problem without offering at least an idea for a solution. That’s not helpful. It’s just complaining. I can see that you put quite a bit of effort and research into your article. That is certainly admirable, but in the end all you’re doing is complaining.

    I look forward to hearing your solution.

  6. It’s really hard for someone who doesn’t truly know and grasp the concepts, theory, and fundamentals of the material to know how they serve a child’s psychological development. I see how you can assume her pedagogy is unable to translate to the education system as it is. That is the problem. The current education system erupted from the Industrial Revolution and was based on a prison model. It’s not suited to meet the needs of a child by any means. All that has happened since then is that parts have been tweaked but no large scale overhaul has been attempted. I take it that this is your “red-herring”.

    Montessori only wanted her way of understanding the needs of a child and the respect that is due for a child in-formation to be wide spread (we are to see the child as the man he will be, to paraphrase). If we can create that environment alone, we can save the system. The mixed ages (which you failed to mention) is another vital aspect of her “scientific method”. She observed that children learn better from their peers and that in a community where there is mutual respect and dialogue over an authoritative figure, children are able to learn.

    The fundamental difference is also what the intentions are from the schools. Montessori schools want children to love to learn, and try to foster that each child learns differently and at their own pace. Our current system values performance. Evaluating children against each other, against the system, and one standard for all. This has been made worse by No Child Left Behind. So, Freddie, I guess it’s how you view education that matters. Is it to learn or to perform, and if you believe that performing, and only a few select are to shine through then yes, the current system is what will enable that.

    No one claims that Montessori as it is can be implemented as the new standard. No, one has has laid claims to that. It would be too much work that frankly most people will not want. As you mentioned there is a clash even amongst the “Montessori community”. This is because she didn’t want her ideas to be patented as Waldorf. She believed that her knowledge could be useful to all, and her theories are being proven through today’s technology. It is not universal since it takes a great deal out of a “prepared adult” to take on this task. It is not only the “prepared environment” that matters. You seemed to stress more on the materials and the classroom, but what you don’t understand is the the role of the adult in that classroom. As I said, it is a prepared adult who realizes that they need to leave their ego at the door and that the space into which they enter is solely for the benefit of the child. If we can have more teachers who are prepared in child development over lesson plans then yes, we can implement the Montessori Pedagogy as you see.

    I’m sorry you seem to think that this is a flawed “education”, but if you change your view and see that hers was a philosophy you might see that taking on a different approach to the way children learn would not be such a bad thing for the current education system.

    Wish you the best in your teaching career!

  7. The previous commenters have made excellent points regarding aspects of the Montessori approach (how it works for every child given the right circumstances, how it’s a philosophy and not a curriculum, etc.), so I won’t repeat their arguments. I do want to emphasize that the text you seem to be using as your main reference regarding the Montessori approach, “The Montessori Method”, was the first book written by Dr. Montessori 100 years ago, just a couple of years after her initial success with the first Children’s House in San Lorenzo. That book is still in print only for historical purposes and to serve as a point of departure when studying the evolution of the approach. If you read ALL her publications (and I suggest you take the time to do so if you wish to posit an argument regarding Montessori’s effectiveness, timeliness, or applicability to current scenarios), you will soon realize that she modified and honed the approach throughout her lifetime based on her observations and those of thousands of trained Montessorians. And if you visit a quality AMI school or enroll in an AMI training course, you’ll realize that the method continues to evolve (for example, we now have an AMI program for adolescents and most upper elementary and adolescent classrooms now use cutting edge technology as one of many research tools). Yes, her views on sugar and vegetables are outdated (and are NOT taught as part of the training program, good grief…), but her observations on the developmental needs of children remain spot-on after 100+ years. Anyone who doesn’t believe this needs to learn to observe without pre-conceived notions of what children are capable of achieving.

    Montessori is not (and was never intended as) a static curriculum, although most mainstream educators see it as such because they can’t understand or even visualize education beyond a fixed set of facts to memorize and regurgitate. Yes, if all you want is improved test scores, then I doubt Montessori is the solution to your problem.

    “Education” as society views it today is but a byproduct in the Montessori approach: we focus on helping the child develop to his full potential; the learning of facts will come naturally and joyfully to a child who is given the freedom and tools to discover the world around him. It seems paradoxical to me that most well-meaning mainstream teachers want their students to love learning, are frustrated when the children don’t, and yet continue to doubt the one approach that has been proven to achieve just that.

  8. It’s very odd to me to keep reading people complaining that I’m criticizing the value or practices of Montessori education, when I explicitly and specifically announced that this wasn’t my intention. My intention was only to say that there isn’t a unified Montessori pedagogy that is actually put into practice. I remain completely convinced of that opinion.

    And I have to tell you guys: working in education and pedagogy, I’ve spoken with other academics who say it’s difficult to work with Montessori because, frankly, Montessori advocates are incredibly sensitive and defensive about the system. I’ve been told that Montessori people often essentially write themselves out of the larger discussion because they can be so provincial and so protective of their own ways.

    Now, looking at this post that is, if critical at all, minimally so, and looking at the comments it has engendered… how could I tell those academics they’re wrong?

  9. Freddie,
    Tell them they’re right! We are defensive about the Montessori philosophy and why shouldn’t we be? When children become independent, collaborative, caring, curious and love learning…they grow into adults who are the same. Isn’t the purpose of education to help to create life long lovers of learning who will use their knowledge to make the world a better place? Montessori does this and yes, we’re defensive and we will protect it.
    Aidan

  10. The reason Montessori doesn’t enter the argument of how to improve education is that Montessori can’t be broken apart into bits and pieces, to be used as band-aids to patch a failing system. You can’t use the Montessori materials successfully unless you’re willing to give the children the freedom to work with them for as long as they need to (instead of the proverbial 45-minute periods). You can’t provide the right lessons at the right time unless the adult is well-versed in the developmental and academic purposes of the material, is trained in child development and is prepared to observe without interfering. You can’t let the children explore and make their own discoveries unless you’re willing to acknowledge that the teacher DOES NOT know everything and is NOT (along with workbooks) the sole method of transmitting knowledge.

    Thank goodness there are still Montessorians who are willing to stand up for the approach for what it is – a philosophy and a way of supporting the development of life, which can’t and shouldn’t be bastardized for the benefit of raising test scores and helping bureaucrats earn their bonuses.

  11. Freddie:

    “Unfortunately, the idea that Montessori pedagogy could be a solution to our education woes is likely a red herring.” -that’s an interesting way of NOT criticizing Montessori. In your article and elsewhere on your website, it seems like you spend quite a bit of time explaining what you aren’t saying or doing. As evidenced by the reactions above, that’s not a very effective way of communicating your point -which seems to be basically that Montessori (to the extent that Montessori is an entity itself) is somewhat divided or subject to interpretation.

    If that’s your only point. I’ll agree with you. As it is applied by humans, aspects of Montessori are subject to interpretation. But I also have to ask why you bother to focus on this one aspect of Montessori? Certainly, there must be a more substantial reason as to why Montessori can be nothing more than a red herring in the national education discussion.

    It is true that Montessorians are protective of the philosophy sometimes to a fault. This is a result of the legacy of Maria Montessori herself, who was fiercely dedicated to the preservation of Montessori as she created it. Fortunately, Montessori is bigger than those who practice it as well as those who attack or defend it. It is a method of education which stands on its own. In spite of internal debate or disagreement, Montessori has succeeded with millions of children all over the world for more than 100 years. I wish I could say all of this about our current educational system.

    Not only is American education significantly divided on a national level, but you can’t even find the same product between one school and the one down the street! Are we to assume that the needs of the children in these schools differ so greatly? In my county, Kindergarten is 3 hours (at best). In the county next door, it’s full day. Yet somehow, both counties are viewed as effective as compared to the nation. Alabama and Mississippi have notoriously bad programs while other states are viewed as fantastic. Whether it is a specific plot or not, teacher’s unions represent only one of many conflicting views inside the system.

    I wish that all this disparity was only the result of the fact that American education is so divided. That would mean that at least we have a sound method on which to base our efforts to improve it. Unfortunately, the problems of American education go far beyond the opinions of its leaders and participants.

    To take a page from your book, “I’m not saying” that Montessori is a great alternative simply because it isn’t as bad as our current model. I’m saying that if its only real fault is that people disagree on its application, Montessori is about as close to a magic bullet as it gets.

    You end your article with “But if we instead see Montessori and her system as a source of inspiration and guidance, they can be the right kind of tensions, the productive kind that lead us to better understand our problems and their solutions.” You’ve said you admire aspects of Montessori and the education of children is clearly your passion. I assume you write because you want to influence people’s opinions. To me, the best way to do that is not to waste time finding fault with other programs, but to take a stand and support the one you think is best.

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