In our ongoing series about alternative education, Montessori Master Teacher Mary Ellen Maunz responds to common questions about the Montessori method.
Q: Why do Montessori class sizes tend to be so large?
Montessori schools are not typically that large. Most Montessori schools around the nation are under the jurisdiction of the state licensing for daycare and they usually put a cap of around 24 children. So unless Montessori schools get a waiver to exceed a cap of 24, you won’t see that large of a class.
In any Montessori class the noise level can be high on some days and completely quiet on another day depending on how well acclimated the children are and their ability to concentrate.
We are mindful that children are children and they will be noisy at times, creating a “happy buzz”. Sometimes the children get loud and sometimes the teacher needs to do something to bring that noise level down and sometimes it is just because they are talking with each other in the normal course of doing their lessons.
Q: Why isn’t Montessori more affordable?
There is currently a movement in the U.S. for Montessori public charter schools, many of which include early childhood programs, but the vast majority of Montessori in the U.S. are private schools, and unfortunately they do cost a lot of money.
What is most important to remember is that those early years from birth to six are the most informative of the child’s life.
It is just as important, if not more so, as the investment in college. In those early years the foundational development takes place that only happens once in a child’s life. The better that development is the better the child’s later outcomes will be, both socially and academically.
Q: Is the Montessori Method unstructured?
The structure of the Montessori classroom is based on four avenues of learning in the 3-6 year old program.
The first one avenue is practical life, sometimes called motor education. These are the humble tasks of daily living such as sweeping, dusting, polishing wood, or metal, learning to work buttons and zippers, or pouring juice and water.
Practical life gives children that coordination of movement which is one of the great goals of early childhood. The practical tasks also provide an ever developing internal sense of order with the ability to follow a sequence of actions to complete a task. The child gains confidence that he can accomplish his goal and at the same time settles into concentration that is the real jewel of Montessori classrooms around the world. The child also gains independence which answers the deep need of early childhood that Maria Montessori articulated: “Help me to do it myself!” So practical life is a key area of our lives and of our prepared Montessori environments.
The second major area of focus is what we call sensorial development. In this area children do activities where they are refining and working with hand-eye coordination, the sense of size, shapes, colors, weights, smells, temperatures, sounds from loud to soft, and then the musical bells where they learn the scales from middle c to high c.
They develop every one of the senses using very concrete materials. For example, children use a piece of material called the red rods where the first one is 10cm. long all the way up to the meter stick. They’re all red they’re all the same height, all the same width; the only thing different is length so as the child carries them from end to end and traces his fingers over them he gains a clear concept in his mind. It’s what Montessori called the “materialized abstraction on lengths”.
Sensorial includes beautiful hands-on materials in geometry, botany and geography that extend out into an exploration of many fields of science, art and culture.
The third great avenue of learning is language. It begins with basic conversation, self-expression and oral comprehension. It leads into the all-important skills of phonemic awareness and the sounds of our language that have been identified by research as the number one skills related to eventual reading ability.
Children learn the letters that these sounds represent (and how to write them) by tracing Montessori’s sandpaper letters and then they learn to apply what they know about sounds and letters to words with the movable alphabet. From the movable alphabet, children begin writing and reading, learning about the functions of words in beginning grammar and gradually become fully literate human beings.
The fourth area of the classroom is early preparation of the mathematical mind which starts with very simple counting activities, the sandpaper numerals and games to demonstrate the sequence and actual quantities of each symbol. Montessori’s golden bead decimal system materials lead to an understanding of our base-ten system. Children learn to work with unit beads, ten bars, hundred squares, and thousand cubes.
With these they learn the four major operations: that the function of addition is putting together, the function of multiplication is putting together the same quantity several times, the function of subtraction is taking away and the function of division is sharing equally, while place value is becoming very clear. The child continues into multiple beds and charts and chains of the square and cube of numbers, effortlessly leading to memorization of math facts.
So we come to understand that there really is a great deal of structure underlying a Montessori classroom. Children are systematically introduced to the lessons throughout the four avenues of learning that are appropriate for them at their stage of the three-year classroom cycle.
The teacher or guide acts as the dynamic link between the children and the wonderful opportunities the environment affords. On a daily basis they are free to choose from among all they have been shown during a two- to three-hour uninterrupted work cycle each morning.
Q: Our neighbors’ kids are Montessori-educated, and they rarely have homework. Is it just because they get more time to work on things during the day? Or does the Montessori philosophy just not believe in homework?
Children are given extensive periods uninterrupted work time every morning in high quality Montessori classrooms. One child might spend much of the time doing some math materials that she finds fascinating, then move to reading and the botany cabinet to identify leaf shapes. Another might build maps of the various continents or work on geometric shapes or reading.
Children pass through sensitive periods when they are ripe to learn something; their interest is piqued and they will work for long periods of time and we allow that.
Children do not develop in a linear fashion. They might develop the math really quickly for a couple of months then it kind of tapers off and they get interested in geography and grammar and some other things, but then they go back to lessons they previously worked on.
Our schools have our children for 6-7 hours a day already, and if they can’t manage to do the job in those hours, shame on them. You know we need to respect our family time, we need to respect the children’s time to play, to be outside, to be with their siblings, and bond with their parents. Author Alfie Kohn has written a book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, demonstrating that there is absolutely no research that shows that homework yields any good results and it does increase frustration and difficulty with many children.
What many Montessori schools do suggest is that the children read for a half hour every night or 15 minutes every night depending on the age of the child. This way the children are engaged in learning something but they are not being forced to do these things that sometimes bring the whole family to tears and anger.
Q: Why are there no grades in Montessori?
There are no grades because the teacher is always observing, and she sees the progress children are making and she is able to then assess what a child needs and then guide the child through the next steps. It’s very often a hindrance to them because it can decrease motivation.
Low grades are demoralizing. High grades may lead to pride. Both can lead to competition which can lead to children doing their work for the wrong reasons. We want the children to work because they want to work for their own internal satisfaction and Montessori has proven over the last century that the normal state of childhood is love of work!
So we consider that educating the child is a way to life; it’s not about academic prowess, although Montessori students tend to do as well and in most cases better than their peers. Many times children will go way beyond their grade level in one or more subject areas.
There are studies that show not only academically were Montessori children doing better, but 80% could solve interpersonal problems with other students and only 20% had to go to the teacher to help them solve their problem. It was just the reverse of that in public schools where 80% had to go get help from the teacher and only 20% could solve their own problems.
Dr. Steven Hughes and Dr. Adele Diamond are among those neuroscientists who are leading the charge to compile high quality academic research on the outcomes for Montessori classrooms. One of the most significant outcomes thus far revealed is the power of Montessori on the development of executive functions in the brain. Executive functions include creative problem solving, mental flexibility, self-control, self-discipline and perseverance. Good qualities for our children to have!
Q: Do Montessori students score well on standardized tests?
We don’t spend a lot of time on it, but we certainly tell them and work with them on how to work with a test sheet with bubbles, how to answer a question with a yes or no, how to pick from among several choices, how to make the best choice. When they move on to traditional middle and high schools, Montessori students perform well on standardized tests.
Q: Why do they learn cursive handwriting in primary? When is it used?
Unfortunately the U.S. is going away from teaching cursive which I think is really kind of a tragedy because cursive handwriting is a means of expression. Montessori actually suggested that writing is like a second language; it’s an acquisition of civilized man that allows us to write down all the thoughts of our minds and pass them on.
Some start with manuscript writing then they switch over to cursive towards the end of the early childhood experience. Cursive is more natural to the way our hand and wrist moves. Straight lines are not natural. An advantage of cursive is that once you start to write, the letters are connected and you don’t have to lift your hand off of the page. For a child with any kind of learning disability, such as dyslexia, this provides a great advantage. A child who learns cursive can read a book script just as easily as manuscript, so it does not seem to pose a problem.
Q: Can a primary Montessori education count as traditional kindergarten, and will my child learn to read when he / she is 5?
Primary does and can count as traditional kindergarten in many areas of the country. In some cities in order to get your child into the public school district you desire, you have to start them in kindergarten, which is a shame for a Montessori child.
Check with your local school district how enrollment works if public school is in your child’s elementary school future. (Of course there are great Montessori elementary programs including free charter schools in many areas of the country.)
Many of our children learn to read when they are three, some at four or five or six. We present the steps necessary for a child to read, but each child is following an internal trajectory of his own development, so we can’t always assure that a child is going to read in a certain month of a certain year.
Dr. Montessori recognized over a century ago that children have a spontaneous interest in learning to write and read when they are four or five years old, which she identified as a “sensitive period in development.”
Sensitive periods occur when the brain and personality desire to accomplish some specific learning. The child is attracted to it and if there are materials in his environment to facilitate it, the learning is easy and fun, involving many spontaneous repetitions of work.
No two children go through these periods at precisely the same time although there are definite patterns as to when they emerge and begin to decline. Some children move slowly while others speed through the same period. Montessori’s genius was to design education around these sensitive periods and to work with them. Children can still learn to read and write after these periods, but they have to do it with a more conscious effort.
Q: How do Montessori students adjust to public schools?
The wonderful thing about Montessori early childhood, if it’s a good quality program and the child is a good fit and the teacher knows how to handle the children, is that they become what Montessori called “normalized” which means they know how to get centered and concentrate and calm down. These children then just love to learn.
They have learned how to learn and so while a change may come in the future, it can be managed. If there is a new school we can take our children on the first day or we see if we can come for a few days earlier and look around get to meet the teacher and get to know what the expectations will be. For example, in my school when we got to the kindergarten year and we knew that children were going to go to first grade next year, during springtime after lunch the younger children would take a nap and we would have the older children line up the work tables.
We would practice the skills that the children would need in public school. The children learn how to raise our hand, how to request permission to go to the bathroom, how we do a worksheet and how to take a test. In this way we would prepare the children for what was coming, which we call “help to life.” Montessori tells us that this is the true role of education – to help life develop wherever it is. This basic concept is why Montessori is applied to all age levels including pre-natal to end of life care for Alzheimer’s patients.
Q: How do I find an authentic Montessori school in my area?
I would recommend that you look in your phone directory or online and you find whatever Montessori schools in whatever geographic radius you’re willing to drive to and go visit all of them. You need to see them and get a sense or a feel of the quality of the schools to determine which ones are a good fit for your family and for your child.
Here’s a full article on finding an authentic Montessori school.
Visit with the teachers, visit with the principal and ask them questions. Get a sense of their understanding, their beliefs about Montessori and their beliefs about education; really explore and observe because there is nothing that compares to your direct experience with what is going on in the classroom. There are a number of Montessori organizations that schools may affiliate with, but there is only one accrediting agency in the U.S. for Montessori teacher training programs and that is the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE). I recommend that the teachers who will teach your children have a diploma from a MACTE accredited institution.
Q: What are AMS & AMI? Is there a difference?
AMS is the American Montessori Society and it was established back in the 1960’s here in the United States. AMI is Association Montessori International and it is the organization that was founded by Dr. Montessori and her son. The headquarters is in Amsterdam.
In the U.S. AMS has far more training centers and internationally AMI has more training centers. In addition to those two organizations there is the Pan American Montessori Society (PAMS), there is Montessori Education Professionals Incorporated (MEPI) and there are some other independent courses such as Age of Montessori. All of these courses may choose to go through the same accrediting process with MACTE under the U.S. Department of Education.
While there are some differences between the organizations as to certain specifics, the essential point is that we are all on the same team; we all follow our best understanding of the work of Dr. Maria Montessori who was truly a pioneer. She started out as a medical doctor; she was a biologist and an anthropologist as well as a mathematician.
She was also a philosopher, but most of all she was keen on children. Her idea was to create an environment with child-sized furniture and some things for the child to do and which allowed her to discover the child: what characteristics do they possess and from that original experiment came her first school in Rome, Italy in 1907. From this single original work we now find tens of thousands of Montessori schools in nearly every country on almost every continent.
Whether they are AMI, AMS, PAMS, or independent you still have to look for the quality and the heart of the teacher as well as the beautifully prepared environment. Look for the care that is taken in the sequence of the materials, the quality of the materials. No one organization can guarantee a good school; you have to go look for yourself, study your options. Talk to the people, look at their websites and find out about the how the teachers have been trained, and how long the schools have been in operation before you make a commitment.
Q: Are Montessori schools Catholic?
By far the largest segment of Montessori schools are secular (no religious basis), whether they are private or in the rapidly growing public sector. There are some Catholic and protestant Montessori schools, Jewish Montessori schools, Muslim Montessori schools, Hindu Montessori schools and Buddhist Montessori schools. There are also Montessori schools for children with special needs and learning differences.
Q: If children are free to choose their own work, how do you ensure that they receive a well rounded education?
We are talking about 2 ½ – 6 year old children primarily now, although Montessori applies to elementary school, middle school and high school. It’s also applied to prenatal development, infant-toddler development and Alzheimer’s care. The overarching concept at the heart of Montessori is the concept of “help to life.”
Children are free to choose their work within the constraints of what they have been shown how to use. They can’t go take some advanced lesson off the shelf and start playing with it. The teacher gives lessons first and then within the context of those lessons the children are free to choose. ]They might also get a lesson from an older child but the teacher is always observing.
Montessori teachers keep meticulous notes and records of the lessons children do and the whole idea is to expose them to a wide range of activities that are appropriate for their stage of development. We do circle time every day, we do a lot of the cultural things that come out of the sensorial area with beautiful matching cards that show interesting places all over the world. There are just so many things that children are exposed to in addition to reading, writing, geometry, biology, and music.
A Montessori classroom is a very rich environment. If they are really are not getting engaged we might do little group lessons with a few children and make sure that, even if they are not choosing to do something specific, they still get the exposure to those things. All I can say is that this wonderful method has been going for more than 100 years and it works!
Q: Why should a parent learn about Montessori methods in the home?
That is an excellent question. Montessori is really a way of life and it has to do with a respect for the child as an individual; it has to do with respect for the kind of mind he has, this absorbent, sponge-like mind which is different from our reasoning mind.
It is about the understanding that there are stages of development that the child goes through where some things that he might do (that we might not like) are very natural for that age and it is just something that he is going to pass through and we have the opportunity to simply show him a better way to behave. We don’t have to correct him, we don’t have to spank him, and we don’t have to yell at him. We simply have to show him the right way to do things.
When a child gets into what Montessori called a “sensitive period” he has a very strong desire to learn to do something. Just think about your child when he first started to talk. You couldn’t stop him from talking. We know that the energies of life gather around the vocal cords during those months when the child begins to talk. There are sensitive periods when the child wants to coordinate movement and gain balance. An example is when you take him for a walk and he heads for the curb or the cracks in the middle of the sidewalk.
There might be a child who spills all the paper clips from your desk on the floor and wants to pick them back up again because he is in a sensitive period for developing what we call the “pincer grip” that he will use when he writes. So there are many times children engage in repetitive action which is an indication that they are involved in a sensitive period. When parents and teachers understand those sensitive periods and nurture them, there is more of a consistency for the child.
The parents can tell the teacher what they observed in the child at home and the teacher can tell the parents what she observed in the child in the classroom. It is much more harmonious and a united team effort to help each precious child develop his or her own unique potential.
Q: How does Montessori handle ADD & ADHD?
These problems are neurological in origin and there is a spectrum that includes dyslexia and autism as well as ADD and ADHD and other kinds of developmental problems.
Montessori lessons and a safe, calm environment can help by engaging the child and showing him a new way of living. With the right situation you can help a child find what he likes best and bring to him the joy of concentration. We can show him that he will not be punished for naughtiness, but will be given opportunity to calm down and settle in and find satisfying work.
Sometimes it takes children several months of experience in a Montessori classroom before they do settle down and that is why the first question is often why is it noisy in some classrooms? Well, children are not all settling at the same time so they may be loud or they may be running around all over the place, but children with attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have the same needs as other children.
These children need to find some way to settle themselves and we will often work with parents with diet and with whatever their physician may be recommending to help the child.
In our world of Montessori we realize that the most important curative agent for children with all kinds of disorders, as well as normal children, is simply learning to work. It may take time but it is the same process for every child. The principles work for all of them to different degrees.
Q: Is it ever too late to start Montessori?
If you look at Montessori as “help to life,” which is how she defined it, it is never too late to start! However, there are some schools that prefer not to take Montessori children into preschool unless they start at 3 or 4 years of age.
They find that if children don’t start until they are 5 year-olds they don’t know how to work because they haven’t settled into themselves. This same principle holds true with Montessori elementary schools. It is more difficult to integrate a child who does not have the preschool experience, who does not already know how to read and write, and does not know how to work independently through his own choice.
Some Montessori elementary programs welcome children at any age level and there are some that will accept only a certain percentage of children without Montessori early childhood experience.
In any good Montessori school, the teachers will work to give every child they accept the opportunity to learn how to make constructive choices and to use their work time well. As Montessori teachers we really prize the morning work period in our classrooms and our children really love to learn, so the more experienced children will model a great work ethic to the new children.
Q: I enrolled my child in a Montessori preschool, now what, as a parent what can I do?
The first thing I would do is make an appointment to go observe the school where your child is enrolled. The school will probably do one of two things: ask you to go in and sit quietly and not move around but to just observe, or if your school has a two-way mirror, you can observe your child and he doesn’t even notice you are there. In either case, you can really see the interactions that take place and gain an understanding of how the classroom works.
I would also find a book or two by Montessori or about Montessori. One of the finest books that I’ve found is by Trevor Eissler called Montessori Madness. It’s a wonderful book that really understands the parent perspective and explains the significance of what goes on in a Montessori classroom.
As a Montessori parent you want to get involved in whatever parent activities are available; join a parent book study and go to the open house parent meetings. Offer to support the school in whatever way you can and learn as much as you can.
Become a real partner with the teachers who will be very grateful to have your support. Your child will flourish more when we all work together as a team.