Happy Birthday Maria
March 2, 2007 5:16 PM   Subscribe

Maria Montessori, the first woman to graduate from an Italian medical school, changed the world of education, although she left her own child in the care of professionals for most of his life. Her work is available online.
Her method is controversial, both for it's rigidity and it's lack of focus on grades and testing, but research points to the positive impact of the method on social and academic skills as well as math skills specifically. This site includes historical photos of Montessori and her schools around the world (site uses frames, sorry no direct links - click EsF/historical photos) A traveling exhibit marks this year as the 100th anniversary of Montessori's birth. A bit more on youtube.
posted by serazin (19 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's worth pointing out that at least in the US, no one owns the rights to the name "montessori". Thus any school can call itself a montessori school, whether it follows Maria Montessori's teaching philosophy or not.
posted by Pastabagel at 5:49 PM on March 2, 2007

I was Montessori educated through 6th grade, and I've got to admit that I'm puzzled at the "rigid" comment. People say that *Montessori* is rigid? As opposed to the traditional method where students are all but chained to their desks for hours on end? WTF?
posted by sotonohito at 7:09 PM on March 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Hey Sotonohito, I'd love to hear more about your experience in school!

My kids are in Montessori preschool. From my point of view, it's rigid in that there are a lot of tools that the kids are only allowed to play with in one way. My understanding is that each 'work' (as they call it) has a specific teaching goal, and that's why they have to play with it in a certain way. From a pedagogical point of view, I'm pretty sure (from what I read researching this post) that Montessori's theories were in contrast to contemporary ideas that emphasised imaginary play for small kids.

On balance, I like it better than traditional school though.
posted by serazin at 7:45 PM on March 2, 2007

My kids are in Montessori preschool. From my point of view, it's rigid in that there are a lot of tools that the kids are only allowed to play with in one way.

This isn't rigid when you understand that kids aren't playing with the tools, they are working with them. It's work, not play (the secret is the kids don't realize the difference). A tool (like a screwdriver to you) is not a toy.

Furthermore, you encounter the same approach in other successful pedagogical methods outside of Montessori. The Suzuki approach to music involves the child learning how to stand or hold the instrument for weeks before playing a note. The purpose is to build good habits from the start rather than sloppy ones that have to be broken later.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:57 PM on March 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Right. I understand the concept. That's why I have my kids there. But useful or not, it's pretty rigid.
posted by serazin at 10:22 PM on March 2, 2007

My daughter went to a Montessori preschool (I wish she, and my son, could have continued being educated using the Montessori method, but we moved)... It was the most wonderful school, with the happiest kids, I have ever had the pleasure to see.
posted by amyms at 10:49 PM on March 2, 2007

I've known way too many people in my town to EVER send my kid to the Montesorri here. Too many damn hippies.

Not that it wouldn't be better somewhere else.
posted by geekhorde at 11:07 PM on March 2, 2007

My daughter went to a Montessori preschool as well - however for her it was the wrong choice, it was simply too rigid. We thought that would be helpful, but ultimately it was not.
posted by jkaczor at 11:32 PM on March 2, 2007

Montessori is really good for first and second graders. Kids are mixed together in classes of 1-3 and 3-6th grade and learn in a "mixed age" environment. More challenging.
posted by bkiddo at 12:34 AM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Children must be taught both limits to their behavior as well as have their creativity stimulated. Montessori does that in addition to allowing children learn at their own pace. Put me down as a convert and a supporter. My first hand evidence is my daughter who scored in the upper 1500s on her SATs, won various scholarships to Case Western Reserve University and graduated with a degree in biomedical engineering.
posted by TBocce at 5:21 AM on March 3, 2007

Montessori has come up on AskMe a few times, generally good discussions there too. As Pastabagel rightly points out, the label Montessori can mean very different things to different people, in a very large part due to there being a plethora of interpretations of the philosophy, teaching associations, and certifying bodies. These points on what constitute an "authentic" Montessori school, reflect my own view of what Montessori is, and is good at, based on the better schools I attended. I did however, briefly attend one that slapped the name on their own idea of "unschooling" and if that had been my only exposure I'd have been pretty turned off too.

Serazin - for your concerns regarding ridgity, you might find this comparison of Montessori and Waldorf schools interesting. It is part of the Montessori philosophy to ground activities in reality, and especially in early childhood to teach practical social/life skills. You don't say how old your kids are, but part of the natural progression of Montessori is to start with the concrete and move to the abstract, which can manifest in disuading some imaginative play. But there still should be lots of opportunity for invention and creativity! Can you give more specific examples of a tool your child was told not to use in another way? Was she/he given a reason they could understand, or just told no?

For me, I have overwhelmingly positive memories of my Montessori elementary years, and feel strongly that it would be my preference to have my own (hypothetical) children also attend a Montessori school. But, from my own experience, and that of others, I know that the philosophy isn't always consistently applied. So, it takes a lot of research and care to find the right school. Since my family was being transfered all over the country when my sister and I were in grade school, sometimes the local Montessori was great and matched our expectations. Sometimes, less so. Overall though, I feel very fortunate to have had the Montessori environment to learn and grow in.

I do feel the Montessori idea breaks down after elementary school, partly because there is just a dearth of good upper grade Montessori schools. It's also very hard transition to go from self-directed learning in a structured but open ended environment of mixed ages to sitting in one desk all day listening to one (adult!) person speaking. To be in competition rather than cooperation with your peers, to have a set time for each subject, a set amount of effort not to go beyond, it was very limiting! The upside was that once I got to university, the expectation to learn on my own, plus work well in groups was actually a relief, rather than terrifying as it seems to be for many public school graduates.

Thanks for the great post! This video, albeit biased, is exactly what I remember my Montessori classrooms being like, right down to the materials and activities. Very good memories!
posted by nelleish at 8:10 AM on March 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks for sharing your expience. Very intesting, especially for a parent of kids in Montessori.

like Montessori better than the other models I've seen. My partner is a teacher, and we're in the process of looking at primary schools right now (our kids are 4 and 5), so we've seen a LOT of educational models recently.

What I like about Montessori is the self-paced learning - the ability to move quickly or slowly through each subject without being labeled a genius or delayed. I like that most concepts are taught with three-dimensional models instead of on worksheets. My kids seem to have a holistic understanding of math and reading and science concepts, instead of just knowing 'answers' to questions.

What I don't like is the lack of emphasis on creative play, which I think from my reading the links above, was intentional on the part of Montessori herself.

The learning tools - or 'work' including Roman Arch, Square of Pythagoras, metal inset work, or the practical life activities like polishing, buttoning, etc all have to be taught to the kids before they can explore them on their own. Then they are required to 'work' with these tools in a very specific way. They aren't supposed to use the polishing tools as a tea set, or use the pieces of the roman arch to make a smiley face.

I understand that there are academic goals for each of these tools, and the way these tools are taught probably has a lot to do with why Montessori kids excel academically later on, but for me, I'd be fine with my kids spending more time just playing.

A certain amount of the 'success' of Montessori learning has got to be just the one on one attention that these kids receive and lack in most large public school settings.

The other thing that I dislike about Montessori is that there seems to be a lack of emphasis on parent participation. At our school we are specifically told not to do any Montessori work at home. I've heard that at other Montessori schools, parents are really discouraged from coming into the classroom. Now that I know that Montessori gave up her own son to a wet nurse and then to boarding school, and didn't even tell him that she was his mother, it all makes sense to me!
posted by serazin at 9:27 AM on March 3, 2007

serazin Taking your last point first, I'd say that you've simply run into a weird Montessori school. The school I attended encouraged parent participation.

As for the supposed rigidity of Montessori I think it comes from the odd idea that all things in a child's environment should be seen as toys. The children in a Montessori classroom are not allowed to randomly play with the work; that's hardly a bad idea, or even rigid. To take an extreme example, should children be allowed to use a computer as a table for a tea party? Of course not, and neither should they be allowed to play with the exercises in a classroom. In the preschool settings there usually are toys available for off times, and those toys are kept separate and distinct from the exercises.

I'm not an educator, but my experience in a Montessori school seems like a good one from my POV. I know I learned a lot more than the kids who came up through a traditional public school. I clearly remember, when I first began attending a regular public school in 7th grade, being astonished at what the teachers were introducing as new material. In math class they started on Roman numerals (I had learned not only Roman numerals, but also the concept of math in different bases in second grade). In "Social Studies" [1] they were still talking about the relative locations of the continents, and just brushing over a few African nations (I was familiar with the continents and their relative positions starting from second grade, and knew the locations of all the major nations in *all* continents by third grade or so). In "Life Sciences", which I guess they didn't call biology because they didn't want to scare anybody, they were just starting on scientific classification and the two kingdoms system (which I knew from preschool, seriously).

So, I'd argue that a Montessori education is quite beneficial. I have no idea what they waste their time with in a traditional school between the first and sixth grades, but I know it isn't a system that teaches kids all they can learn.

I'm sure its possible for a child to go through Montessori and come out relatively ignorant, GIGO and all that. But kids are able to learn a *lot* more than people think they can, especially when it comes to proper terminology for various things (ie: biological classification, geology, geometry, land forms, etc).

[1] Dunno how it works elsewhere, but in Texas when I was in school they stuck history, geography, sociology, and current events together under the label "Social Studies". If that wasn't bad enough, they had a coach teach it.... Yeesh.
posted by sotonohito at 1:12 PM on March 3, 2007

Serazin - I too was suprised that parent participation is discouraged in your school, that was not my experience at the Montessori schools I attended (in Maine, Massachusetts, Florida, New Hampshire and California). My dad taught a portion of sex ed in my 6th grade (in California) since our director was a gal and wanted the boy students to have a male resource if they wanted one.

I suppose overall, we didn't have parents helping in the classroom the same way my mom was an assistant to my brother's class in a public school. But I do remember many many after school events, from plays to parties to science fairs where parents played a large role. You shouldn't see dividing the child from the family as an integral part of the Montessori philosophy, I would have never even considered that! It may be that they want to keep home time for family life, I know I never had "homework" in Montessori.

I also agree with sotonohito that there is a always the undercurrent of "A place for everything, and everything in its place" to early childhood education in Montessori. Kids are still figuring out the world at that point, and making it clear that certain objects have certain functions and applications is a part of helping them understand how the world is put together. I would hope that any correction of alternative use was gentle, and included an explaination that there were other objects in the play area to be used if that was want they wanted to do at that point of the day.

I'm glad you have Montessori available to you, and that you have access to alot of different kinds of schools to find the right one for your family and your kids!
posted by nelleish at 2:11 PM on March 3, 2007

Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments everyone. But is it so much of stretch to see Montessori as rigid? Rigid doesn't even have to mean bad, it just means that there is a very specific structure. Much more so than in traditional pre-school programs. In some ways much less than in traditional primary school programs.
posted by serazin at 3:18 PM on March 3, 2007

site uses frames, sorry no direct links - click EsF/historical photos

You can still link to the URL of the frame.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:36 PM on March 3, 2007

serazin It would definatley be fair to say that Montessori is more rigid than other pre-school programs, but that's because other pre-school programs are essentially glorified babysitting. Such programs are utterly unstructured because the entire point is to let the children play.

A Montessori pre-school is, surprise, a school, not a playpen. There is time to play, but the bulk of the time is work time. The "surprise" up there is only halfway sarcastic, people have gotten so used to the idea of "pre-school" as a synonym for "daycare center where there are very rare, half-hearted, attempts to introduce an element of learning" that a pre-school that is actually a school is genuinely surprising.

When you compare Montessori elementary school to regular elemantary school I think the argument that Montessori is more rigid completely falls apart. I can't speak for other Montessori schools, but at the one I attended the work was largely self paced, the children were free to go where they wanted, when they wanted, etc.

The public schools, by comparison, are completely controlled environments. The children sit at their desks all day, have to ask permission to use the toilet, all work is done to the schedule set by the school, etc. Vastly more rigid.
posted by sotonohito at 5:25 AM on March 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


I spent a long time trying to figure out how to link. What's the trick to finding the URL?
posted by serazin at 12:37 PM on March 4, 2007

both for it's rigidity and it's lack of focus on grades and testing
its. No apostrophe there.

As far as the method goes, I was a child raised in it until around 3rd grade--and as far as I can tell, it (or the fact that my parents may have raised me mostly right) was one of the reasons why I was always labelled as "gifted" in the public school programs once I transferred out. Of course, my mom herself was a Montessori teacher, so I got to play with the materials both at home and at school.

From what I remember, it's also what made me like school in the first place--it wasn't a soulless place where learning meant reading from dry books, but a place of warmth and knowledge.
posted by qcubed at 5:10 PM on March 4, 2007

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