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.