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Monday, October 08, 2007

some misconceptions about montessori

there is a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions about the montessori educational philosophy. some of it is because there are a lot of schools that use the term "montessori" but actually have varying methods and approaches, leading to different experiences. "montessori" was a brand name that has been widely appropriated and almost any school or nursery can claim to be montessori if it adopts some of the methodologies and principles.

the under 3s programme that the Bean is enrolled in, however, pretty much follows the spirit and letter of the programme that was developed by dr maria montessori and the principles set by the AMI (Association Montessori Internationale).

but i thought i'd broach some misconceptions here, anyway:

1) someone told me that the montessori system is very "italian".

well, the only thing italian about it is the name and its founder. in fact, dr montessori was actually rebelling against the italian education system of her time when she developed her teaching methods, which originated from her first pedagogical experience - with slum children who were at the time considered delinquent and of 'sub-normal' intelligence.
a medical doctor by training (she was the first female graduate doctor in italy!), dr montessori was inspired by the pioneering work of a french educationist, edouard seguin, whose didactic materials she used and adapted for her class of children of different ages.
thereafter, using her clinical training, she observed the children in her school and developed her own teaching methodology and materials, just as any scientist might observe, analyse and then deploy new experiments.

*more info on the development of her methods can be found in the biography by rita kramer - see references below.

2) the montessori system is stiflingly structured and requires children to sit and work quietly by themselves. in describing the montessori system to others, i too have been guilty of reducing it: "quite japanese in style" was what i said, perhaps leading other people to assume that meant strict structure.

i spoke to the bean's montessori directress about this and she said that it is quite a common misconception. but she said that the system is not about creating quiet and obedient children or requiring children to be so. the nature of each child would not change through the programme: a sociable child will still be a sociable child, an active child will remain active. however, she said that the environment and the materials there inspire the child to want to master his or her chosen activity.
she then told me an experience she had with one hyperactive boy. he was admitted into the school aged 2.5 years, which is a little late for the under 3s programme.
his first week ('day' really, since the programme runs weekly) at school he was jumping and running everywhere, but on his second week, he went to one of the activities ('watering flowers') and asked how it was done. after watching the directress demonstrate it once, he actually completed the entire activity by himself AND THEN he decided to repeat it not once but four times.
the directress said that she was amazed at his concentration powers, thinking at first that he was going to jump around and spill the water. in fact, he did not spill a drop of water from the watering can. she said that he decided on this activity himself; and that he wanted to do it over and over showing how much influence the environment and the materials have on young children.
unfortunately, the boy's mother was not very patient waiting for him to complete his work and the next week, she rang the school to say that she was pulling him out because he does not suit the montessori style - he was naturally active and she did not want him to be locked into too structured activities.
the directress thought it was a pity that the mother missed what her son achieved on that second class, as well as the fact that it was her son who chose the activity himself and enjoyed it so much he did it five times.

3) montessori gives too much power to the child in academics and there is no way of finding out how much or well he is learning.

in the 3-6++ years montessori schools, "there are no text books, and seldom will two or more children be studying the same thing at the same time. Children learn directly from the environment, and from other children—rather than from the teacher. The teacher is trained to teach one child at a time, with a few small groups and almost no lessons given to the whole class. She is facile in the basic lessons of math, language, the arts and sciences, and in guiding a child's research and exploration, capitalizing on interests and excitement about a subject. Large groups occur only in the beginning of a new class, or in the beginning of the school year, and are phased out as the children gain independence. The child is scientifically observed, observations recorded and studied by the teacher. Children learn from what they are studying individually, but also from the amazing variety of work that is going on around them during the day." (michael olaf)
so yeah, this is misconception is understandable, especially in hyper-competitive educational environments, and here i am thinking of singapore primarily with its kiasu-ness.
i too am very interested in finding out how much each child gets out of such a system and how it compares with 'traditional' or mainstream schooling.
the author and montessori teacher
paula polk lillard said that she found by letting children choose the topic they want to research they can actually develop a project in depth, incorporating various academic disciplines in the process.
i am hoping to observe classes at a montessori preschool and primary school in the coming weeks and will report on my impressions here.


  • Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd.
  • Montessori Philosophy, AGE 3-12+ YEARS -
  • Lillard, P. (1996). Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood. New York : Schocken Books.

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