What is the difference between Montessori and Traditional Education?
Q) How Do I Know That a School Really Follows the Montessori Philosophy?
Warning: All Montessori Schools are not alike!
A) The word “Montessori” is not trademarked. Montessori schools aren’t a franchise or national chain. There is no headquarters or governing office, so sadly it is legally possible for schools to use the term “Montessori” without sticking to Maria Montessori’s teaching methods.
Worse yet, private schools in general are not legally obligated to hire people with teaching certifications or even college degrees! In fact, there isn’t even a law that states that their teachers have to have high school diplomas.
How can private schools get away with this? Simple, they rely on the belief that most people hold that private schools in general have higher standards for both their children and teachers. Although this is true for some, it certainly isn’t for all private schools, Montessori or not.
It is therefore highly important that prospective parents become familiar with the Montessori Philosophy, method, and the materials in order to select an authentic school for their child. It is also important for parents to know how to question teachers and administrators about the credentials of the teaching staff. Many schools have some very creative ways of circumventing questions about credentials and accreditations.
Q) What is the purpose of a “multi-age” Classroom?
A) When implemented correctly, multi-age education is a joy. The competent older children can reinforce their understanding of the content material while the younger ones have it taught to them in different ways. Sometimes another child can word a concept in a way that an adult can’t, facilitating better understanding for both children involved.
Multi-age classrooms allow children to excel. With higher level materials on hand and an infrastructure already in place to differentiate the instruction, higher functioning children can often work past the prescribed curriculum.
In other words, a well-functioning multi-age classroom will be able to adapt to the needs of each child, promoting enrichment and remediation in the specific concepts that each child needs to work on.
Some people worry that the different ages in one classroom will cause problems such as older children bullying younger ones, older children becoming immature from socializing with younger ones, or that having children working on different levels will promote taunting of lower functioning children.
Although all of these are valid points, most of these problems can also occur in single-aged classrooms as well. The problem is not with the intrinsic nature of a multi-age classroom itself, instead it is in the way the classroom, multi-age or not, is organized.
The teacher of any classroom can alleviate many of these problems by leading several community building exercises at the beginning of the year (and then periodically throughout the year) that focus on the individual worth of each child’s natural strengths. This helps the children learn that the classroom environment is a place to focus on each person’s growth, not their weaknesses. Children, especially at the younger grades, are very accepting and forgiving when such attributes are modeled for them.
Sometimes parents worry that by having younger children in the same class as older ones, one group or the other will be shortchanged. They fear that the younger children will absorb the teachers’ time and attention, or that the importance of covering the kindergarten curriculum for the five-year-olds will prevent them from giving the three- and four-year-olds the emotional support and stimulation that they need. Both concerns are misguided.
At each level, Montessori programs are designed to address the developmental characteristics normal to children in that stage.
- Montessori classes are organized to encompass a two- or three-year age span, which allows younger children the stimulation of older children, who in turn benefit from serving as role models. Each child learns at her own pace and will be ready for any given lesson in her own time, not on the teacher’s schedule of lessons. In a mixed-age class, children can always find peers who are working at their current level.
- Children normally stay in the same class for three years. With two-thirds of the class normally returning each year, the classroom culture tends to remain quite stable.
- Working in one class for two or three years allows children to develop a strong sense of community with their classmates and teachers. The age range also allows especially gifted children the stimulation of intellectual peers, without requiring that they skip a grade or feel emotionally out of place.
Q) Do Montessori teachers follow a curriculum?
A) Yes! Montessori schools teach the same basic skills as traditional schools, and offer a rigorous academic program. Most of the subject areas are familiar—such as math, science, history, geography, and language—but they are presented through an integrated approach that brings separate strands of the curriculum together.
While studying a map of Africa, for example, children may explore the art, history, and inventions of several African nations. This may lead them to examine ancient Egypt, including hieroglyphs and their place in the history of writing. The study of the pyramids, of course, is a natural bridge to geometry.
This approach to curriculum shows the interrelatedness of all things. It also allows children to become thoroughly immersed in a topic—and to give their curiosity full rein.
Q) How do most children adjust to a traditional school after being in a Montessori School?
A) There is nothing inherent in Montessori that causes children to have a hard time if they are transferred to traditional schools. Some will be bored. Others may not understand why everyone in the class has to do the same thing at the same time. But most adapt to their new setting fairly quickly, making new friends, and succeeding within the definition of success.
By the end of age five, Montessori children are normally curious, self-confident learners who look forward to going to school. They are normally engaged, enthusiastic learners who honestly want to learn and who ask excellent questions.
Montessori children by age six have spent three or four years in a school where they were treated with honesty and respect. While there were clear expectations and ground rules, within that framework, their opinions and questions were taken quite seriously. Unfortunately, there are still some teachers and schools where children who ask questions are seen as challenging authority.
It is not hard to imagine an independent Montessori child asking his new teacher, “But why do I have to ask each time I need to use the bathroom?” or, “Why do I have to stop my work right now?”
We also have to remember that children are different. One child may be very sensitive or have special needs that might not be met well in a teacher-centered traditional classroom. Other children can succeed in any type of school.
There will naturally be trade-offs if a Montessori child transfers to a traditional school. The curriculum in Montessori school is often more enriched than that taught in other schools in the United States. The values and attitudes of the children and teachers may also be quite different. Learning will often be focused more on adult-assigned tasks done more by rote than with enthusiasm and understanding.
There is an old saying that if something is working, don’t fix it. This leads many families to continue their children in Montessori at least through the sixth grade. As more Montessori High Schools are opened in the United States and abroad, it is likely that this trend will continue.
Q) Why do Montessori classes tend to be larger than those found in many other schools?
A) Many schools take pride in having very small classes, and parents often wonder why Montessori classes are so much larger. Montessori classes commonly group together twenty-five to thirty children covering a three-year age span.
Schools that place children together into small groups assume that the teacher is the source of instruction, and one teacher per group is a very limited resource. They reason is that as the number of children decreases, the time that teachers have to spend with each child increases.
Ideally, we would have a one-on-one tutorial situation. But the best teacher of a three-year-old is often another somewhat older child. This process is good for both the tutor and the younger child.
In this situation, the teacher is not the primary focus. The larger group size puts the focus less on the adult and encourages children to learn from each other.
By consciously bringing children together in larger multi-age class groups, in which two-thirds of the children normally return each year, the school environment promotes continuity and the development of a fairly stable community while fostering social skills development.
Q) Are Montessori schools as academically rigorous as traditional schools?
A) Yes; Montessori classrooms encourage deep learning of the concepts behind academic skills rather than rote practice of abstract techniques. The success of our children appears in the experiences of our alumni, who compete successfully with traditionally educated children in a variety of high schools and universities.
Q) Why do most Montessori schools ask young children to attend five days a week?
A) Two- and three-day programs are often attractive to parents who do not need full-time care; however, five-day programs create the consistency that is so important to young children and is essential in developing strong Montessori programs. Since the primary goal of Montessori involves creating a culture of consistency, order, and empowerment, most Montessori schools will expect children to attend five days a week.
Q) Why is Montessori is so expensive compared to conventional schools?
A) Montessori programs are normally more expensive to organize and run than conventional classrooms due to the extensive teacher education needed to become certified and the very high cost of purchasing the educational materials and beautiful furniture needed to equip each Montessori classroom.
Montessori is not always more expensive. Tuition costs depend on many factors, including the cost of the various elements that go into running a particular school, such as the cost of the buildings and grounds, teacher salaries, the size of the school, the programs it offers, and whether the school receives a subsidy payment from a sponsoring church, charity, or government agency.
Q) What do Montessori schools mean by the term “normalization”?
A) “Normalization” is a Montessori term that describes the process that takes place in Montessori classrooms around the world, in which young children, who typically have a short attention span, learn to focus their intelligence, concentrate their energies for long periods of time, and take tremendous satisfaction from their work.
In his book, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, E.M. Standing described the following characteristics of normalization in the child between the age of three and six:
- A love of order
- A love of work
- Profound spontaneous concentration
- Attachment to reality
- Love of silence and of working alone
- Sublimation of the possessive instinct
- Independence and initiative
- Spontaneous self-discipline
- Joy; and
- The power to act from real choice and not just from idle curiosity.
Q) Is Montessori for all children?
A) The Montessori system has been used successfully with children from all socio-economic levels, representing those in regular classes as well as the gifted, children with developmental delays, and children with emotional and physical disabilities.
There is no one school that is right for all children, and certainly there are children who may do better in a smaller classroom setting with a more teacher-directed program that offers fewer choices and more consistent external structure.
Children who are easily overstimulated, or those who tend to be overly aggressive, may be examples of children who might not adapt as easily to a Montessori program. Each situation is different, and it is best to work with the schools in your area to see if it appears that a particular child and school would be a good match.
Q) Why doesn’t Montessori give homework for the primary ages?
A) Most Montessori schools do not assign homework to children below the elementary level.
When it is assigned to older children, it rarely involves page after page of “busy” work; instead, the children are given meaningful, interesting assignments that expand on the topics that they are pursuing in class.
Many assignments invite parents and children to work together. When possible, teachers will normally build in opportunities for children to choose among several alternative assignments. Sometimes, teachers will prepare individually negotiated weekly assignments with each child.
Q) If children work at their own pace, don’t they fall behind?
A) Although children are free to work at their own pace, they’re not doing it alone. The Montessori teacher closely observes each child and provides materials and activities that advance his learning by building on skills and knowledge already gained.
This gentle guidance helps the child master the challenge at hand—and protects him from moving on before he’s ready, which is what actually causes children to “fall behind.”
Q) Is Montessori opposed to competition?
A) Montessori is not opposed to competition; Dr. Montessori simply observed that competition is an ineffective tool to motivate children to learn and to work hard in school. The key is the child’s voluntary decision to compete rather than having it imposed on him by the school.
Traditionally, schools challenge children to compete with one another for grades, class rankings, and special awards. For example, in many schools tests are graded on a curve and are measured against the performance of their classmates rather than considered for their individual progress.
In Montessori schools, children learn to collaborate with each other rather than mindlessly compete. Children discover their own innate abilities and develop a strong sense of independence, self-confidence, and self-discipline.
In an atmosphere in which children learn at their own pace and compete only against themselves, they learn not to be afraid of making mistakes. They quickly find that few things in life come easily, and they can try again without fear of embarrassment. Dr. Montessori argued that for an education to touch children’s hearts and minds profoundly, children must be learning because they are curious and interested, not simply to earn the highest grade in the class.
Montessori children compete with each other every day, both in class and on the playground. Dr. Montessori, herself an extraordinary child and a very high achiever, was never opposed to competition on principle. Her objection was to using competition to create an artificial motivation to get children to achieve.
Montessori schools allow competition to evolve naturally among children, without adult interference unless the children begin to show poor sportsmanship.
Q) Is it true that Montessori children never play?
A) All children play! They explore new things playfully. They watch something of interest with a fresh open mind. They enjoy the company of treasured adults and other children. They make up stories. They dream. They imagine. This impression stems from parents who don’t know what to make of the incredible concentration, order, and self-discipline that we commonly see among Montessori children.
Montessori children also tend to take the things they do in school quite seriously. It is common for them to respond, “This is my work,” when adults ask what they are doing. They work hard and expect their parents to treat them and their work with respect. But it is joyful, playful, and anything but drudgery.
Q) What is the difference between “fantasy” and “creativity”?
A) Fantasy and creativity are important aspects of a Montessori child’s experience. Montessori classrooms incorporate art, music, dance, and creative drama throughout the curriculum. Imagination plays a central role, as children explore how the natural world works, visualize other cultures and ancient civilizations, and search for creative solutions to real-life problems. In Montessori schools, the Arts are normally integrated into the rest of the curriculum.
Q) Why Does Montessori talk so much about freedom and independence?
A) Children touch and manipulate everything in their environment. In a sense, the human mind is handmade, because through movement and touch the child explores, manipulates, and builds a storehouse of impressions about the physical world around them. Children learn best by doing, and this requires movement and spontaneous investigation.
Montessori children are free to move about, working alone or with others at will. They may select any activity and work with it as long as they wish, so long as they do not disturb anyone or damage anything, and as long as they put it back where it belongs when they are finished.
Many exercises, especially at the early childhood level, are designed to draw children’s attention to the sensory properties of objects within their environment: size, shape, color, texture, weight, smell, sound, etc. Gradually, they learn to pay attention, seeing more clearly small details in the things around them. They have begun to observe and appreciate their environment. This is a key in helping children discover how to learn.
Freedom is a second critical issue as children begin to explore. Our goal is less to teach them facts and concepts, but rather to help them to fall in love with the process of focusing their complete attention on something and mastering its challenge with enthusiasm. Work assigned by adults rarely results in such enthusiasm and interest as does work that children freely choose for themselves.
The prepared environment of the Montessori class is a learning laboratory in which children are allowed to explore, discover, and select their own work. The independence that the children gain is not only empowering on a social and emotional basis, but it is also intrinsically involved with helping them become comfortable and confident in their ability to master the environment, ask questions, puzzle out the answer, and learn without needing to be “spoon-fed” by an adult.
Q) What if a child doesn’t feel Like working?
A) While Montessori children are allowed considerable latitude to pursue topics that interest them, this freedom is not absolute. Within every society there are cultural norms and expectations for what a child should know and be able to do by a certain age.
Experienced Montessori teachers are conscious of these standards and provide as much structure and support as is necessary to ensure that children live up to them. If for some reason it appears that a child needs time and support until he or she is developmentally ready, Montessori teachers provide it non-judgmentally.