More than a hundred years ago, Maria Montessori had the bold idea that children could guide their own education, with careful observation and coaching from caring and highly trained educators. Today, the Montessori method is a popular — but often misunderstood — alternative to traditional schooling. Here are some of the primary principles of Montessori education, and how to determine if it might be right for your child.
Traditionally, educators teach students grade-leveled subjects and report progress through a pre-determined specific curriculum. Dr. Kylea Asher-Smith, head of school at A Children’s Habitat Montessori School in Indianapolis, says that following the child is imperative to every facet of learning.
“Montessori had the concept to follow the child through their individualized education,” Asher-Smith says. “So, instead of the teacher being in front of the classroom, the way many of us may have learned — everyone on the same page on the same day — it’s tailored to each child.”
Montessori educators guide students by presenting work to them as they are ready and developing a work plan directly with each student, creating individualized academic complexity and rigor. Students then work through the work plan in uninterrupted two- to three-hour work cycles. In Montessori, reporting happens on a consistent, on-going basis through attentive observation by the classroom staff and often follows the child through their education.
The physical space and objects that make up a Montessori classroom are vital to student learning. Maria Montessori was a proponent of a beautiful, orderly space, where purposeful, cross-curricular and self-correcting materials are carefully returned to their designated location after use. Mary Lyman, founder of the Montessori School of Westfield, says that this layout and its materials provide order and structure, while allowing the students to have control over their learning. “We’ve observed the children and prepared the environment for them, so when they’re ready to work, it’s all laid out on the shelves, from simple to complex. Then they’re able to put it back because it fits in one spot.”
Mixing It Up
Though traditional schools divide children into classes based on age, Montessori education encourages multi-age rooms where younger children can learn from their older peers. Asher-Smith says this is key to building mentoring relationships.
“We look at it as another form of diversity,” she says. “The youngest in the class learn from their older peers and gain a lot of important social skills. Eventually, they become the older students and get the opportunity to be leaders in the classroom.” Classes typically span a three-year age range.
Montessori education aims to set children up for success; not only through high GPAs and college acceptance, but also by teaching necessary life skills. Abi Moore, a parent at A Children’s Habitat, says that this practical education is a big differentiator between Montessori and traditional schooling.
“They’re learning, from an early age, everything from washing dishes, sweeping up messes and cleaning up spills, to meal planning and responsible budgeting, on top of their more traditional academic work,” Moore says.
Lyman says that this way, children become self-reliant, not through external consequences, but through self-discipline. “We don’t use rewards and punishment, we just redirect,” she says. “Each child has his own way of developing self-discipline, and their reward is that they did it within themselves. So, when they do things that are correct, they do it for them, not for us.”
A Peaceful Place
Montessori believed in maintaining a calm and peaceful atmosphere. That emphasis on peace has become integral to the Montessori method, as educators help children learn how to navigate conflict and remain in harmony with their classmates, friends and adults. “There’s peace education through all of the Montessori classrooms that talks not just about peace with your neighbor or your work partner, but with your classmates, your teacher, and your world,” Moore says. “And you can see that in a Montessori child almost instantaneously when you watch them interact with other kids.”
Different Learning for Different Needs
Because of Montessori’s ability to tailor education based on student readiness, academic rigor is intrinsic, with a simple mindset of always challenging students to meet their next academic milestone. With a versatile, yet rigid structure, it can provide a truly deep toolbox to find the best learning approaches to meet the needs of a very wide range of learners, from those who are grade levels ahead of their peers to those who are on-grade level or performing below. Students are not bored or, in contrast, anxious in their educational journey and each child can grow and learn at a pace that is appropriately challenging.
If you’re curious about Montessori education, the best way to learn more is to schedule a school tour and see it in action for yourself. Most area Montessori institutions will be thrilled to give you an inside look at the way they operate. You can also learn more about the theory and science supporting the Montessori method from the American Montessori Society at amshq.org, and more about area Montessori schools at umsindiana.org.
Local Montessori Schools
1402 W. Main St., Carmel
1607 W. Smith Valley Rd., Greenwood
801 W. 73rd St., Indianapolis
2404 W. 62nd St., Indianapolis
North Campus, 13942 E. 96th St., McCordsville
South Campus, 6633 W. 900 North, McCordsville
800 E. Sycamore St., Westfield