Montessori: philosophy, education & the method
Built on three primary principles children can freely choose how they want to learn
Dr. Maria Montessori founded the Montessori method in Italy in the early 1900s and her scientific approach to education was shaped around the individual needs of the child. Her goal was to develop the child and their whole personality through a system that is focused on spontaneous use of the human intellect.
Built on three primary principles – observation, individual liberty, and preparation of the environment – it designed an environment children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities.
The method is focused on the role of childhood in the formation of adults; she is a formidable progenitor of so much of today's thought concerning early childhood education. Her educational views have been very influential in the development of today's preschools, daycares, and philosophies of early learning.
Click here to view a list of Montessori schools
For Montessori, education is integral to the growth of the child. At the same time, it's important to note that the philosophy is not restricted to education.
It isn't easy to spot the teacher in a classroom. There's no grown-up at the front spouting facts. But if you look closely, you'll notice someone moving among the students, gently making suggestions, helping children to teach themselves.
This is the heart of what Dr. Montessori believed - that another could teach no human being; that you must learn for yourself or it won't mean a thing. In the classroom, children get up and move around and let curiosity be their guide. What a novel approach!
And because she believed "the hand is the chief teacher of the brain," students most often learn by touch - by handling specially designed materials such as golden math beads, sandpaper letters, and wooden maps of the world. The teacher's job is to show children how to use these materials - then leave them to learn independently.
From watching how effortlessly a child learns to speak, or walk, Montessori concluded that a young child's mind is like a sponge - she called it "the absorbent mind." And because it is so absorbent, she called the first six years "the most important period of life; the time when intelligence, man's greatest tool, is being formed."
As a result, classrooms often expose children to challenging concepts earlier than the public-school system does. And they seem to grasp such concepts with the help of special materials. It is through such creative elements of the classroom that the gifted Italian educator continues to promote "the excitement of learning" in new generations of children.
The Montessori method
Teaching focuses on the child's experience, characterized by self-directed activity, where the teacher's role is more observational than what might be considered traditional or typical.
The teacher is sometimes called a guide in the philosophy. The environment is adapted to the child and his or her development. Seatwork, like you’d find in your typical public school classroom, plays a less significant role in favour of physical activity and interaction. Emphasis on how students learn is placed on all five senses, not just listening, watching, or reading, like students in a traditional-style classroom may learn.
“We do not respect children,” Dr. Montessori wrote in the Dr. Montessori handbook in 1914. “We try to force them to follow us without regard to their special needs. Let us treat them, therefore, with all the kindness (that) we would wish to help to develop in them.”
Children, from preschool on up, learn at their own pace and how they wish to learn – teachers do not guide students to learn certain things but allow students to make the choices themselves with added support. Schools will separate children into three-year age groups (three to six, six to nine, nine to 12), to create a learning environment where the older children share their knowledge with the younger learners.
How to the Montessori method works
If you’re thinking of sending your child to a Montessori school, it’s important that you thoroughly research each school to make sure it is properly accredited. Since a failed lawsuit in 1967 by the American Montessori Society (AMS) for exclusive rights to the name – the U.S. Patent Office said the name was a descriptor for a type of schooling – any educational institution can use the name.
This has allowed schools to use the name even if it isn’t accredited by one of the bodies that oversee Montessori education standards and philosophies, like AMS or Association Montessori Internationale. The free use of the name can lead to slight or extreme variations of the teaching methods.
Make-up of the Montessori method
If you’re seeking an accredited school, the following concepts will play a role in how children learn and their interaction with teachers:
The philosophy is based on the idea children are markedly different from adults. Dr. Montessori advocated children's rights and believed that if children were treated with more respect they would help shape a world as adults that would be a better place to live for everyone.
The philosophy, similar to Waldorf and Reggio Emilia, downplays the notions of performance evaluation with numbers or letters.
Children should have much more say in what they learn. In fact, they are capable of self-directed learning.
The teacher as observer facilitates better ways for the child to direct his or her own learning by (for example) providing more material they are interested in. The development of the teacher-student dynamic might be described as moving from "help me to help myself" to "help me to do it myself" and eventually "help me to think for myself."
Children are susceptible to "sensitive periods." Properly understood and used, these periods can provide great benefit to children if these bursts are not left ignored or lost in adherence to a rigid classroom experience. Capitalizing on the heightened period of attention will help students better control their environment.
The International Montessori Index outlines specific details about the method that are worth nothing. There are two three-hour, uninterrupted, work periods each day for students six and under in most elementary schools. Older children schedule meetings or study groups when needed, either with the teacher or with other students. Adults and children respect concentration and do not interrupt someone who is busy at a task. Groups form spontaneously or are arranged ahead by special appointment and it is rare that this will take precedence over self-selected work.
Teachers teach students, not correct them. Work submitted by students is not marked up with corrections and red ink, but respected as it is submitted. Using observation of each student, teachers plan projects for each child in order to help them learn what they may need to improve on. Subjects are not taught in isolation, but woven together, and a child can work on whatever they wish at any time.
Except for infant/toddler groups, which are set by provincial regulations, the teaching ratio in some schools is one teacher and one aide to 30-plus children. The teacher is trained to teach one child at a time, and to oversee thirty or more children working on a broad array of tasks.
The teacher is a semi-expert in the basic lessons of math, language, the arts and sciences, and in guiding a child's research and exploration, capitalizing on his interest in and excitement about a subject. The teacher does not make assignments or dictate what to study or read, nor does she set a limit as to how far a child follows an interest.
No report cards
There are no grades, forms of punishment, or reward. Through teacher observation and detailed record keeping of each child in the class, student success is ‘graded’ on the child’s behavior, happiness, maturity, and their level of work, among other things. Progress is tracked by portfolios and the teacher's observation and record keeping.
There are no academic requirements for children under the age of six. They are exposed to knowledge and often learn to read, write and calculate beyond what a child of this age is normally interested in.
This is similar to the Waldorf and Reggio Emilia preschool approach. For a comparison of preschool approaches, read our articles on Montessori vs. Waldorf, Montessori vs. Reggio Emilia, Waldorf vs. Reggio Emilia, academic vs. play-based, Montessori vs. play-based, and Montessori vs. academic preschools.
We also compare these schools at all levels. In separate articles, we compare Montessori to Waldorf, Waldorf to Reggio Emilia, and Montessori to Reggio Emilia schools. If you want to compare specific schools one-to-one, visit our compare hub.
Click here to view a list of Montessori schools
High Quality Education
More than Childcare…. Early Childhood Education At Its Finest
The primary goal of a Montessori program is to help each child reach its full potential in all areas of life. The method of Montessori is based on three key factors; the specialized training of the teacher, a specially prepared environment complete with Montessori apparatus and a multi age grouping of children. When these elements are in place, young children are able to discover their own talents, gain self-confidence, make friendships, experience the joys of learning, and grow in a holistic manner.
Montessori School of Shanghai provides highly trained, credentialed Montessori Teachers and exceptional classroom environments. Mixed age groups are found in our Infant, Toddler, Early Childhood and Junior classes.
Creativity flourishes in an atmosphere of acceptance and trust. Our teachers establish such an atmosphere in their classrooms. Treating each child with love and respect enables the child to trust their teachers. This relationship is the foundation of the learning process. The three-year cycle enables the child, the family and the teacher time to really know one another and work together. Strong bonds are made, and many relationships are long lasting.
For any great accomplishment, the foundation has to be strong, solid and long lasting. That is the opportunity a Montessori education provides. Birth to age six is the most important time of education. It is here that the foundation is firmly established. We build good people!
The Montessori School of Shanghai has classrooms of multi-age children. They are “Multi-Age Learning Communities.” Montessori practice has shown that children in multi-year age groupings progress academically while building important social, learning, and character skills.
The multi-age grouping accommodates the child's individualized “biological clock”, rather than relying on age as the primary indicator for readiness with lessons. Peer cooperation and peer tutoring increases achievement and self-esteem in both the older and younger child.
The multi-age classroom is a groundbreaking concept for developing community and supporting students of varying levels of academic and social development. By creating a bond between parents, teachers, and children, Dr. Montessori sought to create a closely-knit community where individuals could learn to be empowered; where children could learn to become contributing, sharing members of their school-family; where students could learn to care for younger children, learn from older people, and trust one another; and where children could find ways to be acceptably assertive rather than being aggressive.
Montessori’s idea of the prepared environment was that everything the child came in contact with would facilitate and maximize independent learning and exploration. This calm, well-ordered environment has a lot of movement and activity. Children are free to choose and work on activities at their own pace. Here, they experience a combination of freedom and self-discipline, as guided by the environment and the teacher.
There are generally seven aspects, or principles, to the Prepared Environment: Freedom; Structure and Order; Beauty; Nature and Reality; Social Environment; Intellectual Environment; Montessori materials.
FREEDOM: A child must be free to explore and follow his own natural impulses, thus developing his potential and increasing his knowledge of the world around him. Within the prepared environment, the child must experience freedom of movement, freedom of exploration, freedom to interact socially, and freedom from interference from others. This freedom ultimately leads to a greater freedom: freedom of choice.
STRUCTURE AND ORDER: While Structure and Order seem counter-intuitive to the aforementioned freedom, nothing could be further from the truth. Structure and Order in the Montessori classroom accurately reflect the sense of structure and order in the universe. By using the Montessori classroom environment as a microcosm of the universe, the child begins to internalize the order surrounding him, thus making sense of the world in which he lives.
BEAUTY: Montessori environments should be beautiful. The environment should suggest a simple harmony. Uncluttered and well maintained, the environment should reflect peace and tranquility. The environment should invite the learner to come in and work. This atmosphere is easily seen through the attitude of those working there, both child and adult.
Nature and Reality: Montessori had a deep respect and reverence for nature. She believed that we should use nature to inspire children. She continually suggested that Montessori teachers take the children out into nature, rather than keeping them confined in the classroom. This is why natural materials are preferred in the prepared environment. Real wood, reeds, bamboo, metal, cotton, and glass are preferred to synthetics or plastics.
Social Environment: Where there is freedom to interact, children learn to encourage and develop a sense of compassion and empathy for others. As children develop, they become more socially aware, preparing to work and play in groups. This social interaction is supported throughout the environment and is encouraged by the multi-age classroom settings.
Intellectual Environment: If the above aspects are not recognized, the intellectual environment will not reach its purpose. The purpose of the Montessori environment is to develop the whole personality of the child, not merely his intellect. By guiding the child through the five areas of the Montessori curriculum (Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics, and Cultural subjects), the child has the structure, which is at the forefront of the creative work in a Montessori classroom.
Montessori Materials: Each classroom at the Montessori School of Shanghai is equipped with the full range of Montessori materials. These unique and specialized materials are often imported from Europe or the United States to ensure authenticity and quality. In addition MSS classrooms are rich with colorful extensions and individualized teacher-made materials that complement and enhance the Montessori materials.
In Montessori education we believe in the importance of three things, that all work together: the child, teacher, and materials, where each part is important. We believe that each child has many gifts and talents to be discovered, and not that a child is an empty container waiting to be filled up by the teacher. The teacher is an observer, follower, and guide bringing wisdom, thoughtfulness, and experience to the child's academic, social, and intellectual exploration. The Montessori approach demands special professionals who are confident and skilled enough to allow children to be active participants in their learning. It also means that all school decisions are driven by what is best for the child. The authentic and beautiful Montessori materials provide activities that are cherished by the children and that help them learn with joy and understanding.
The teacher establishes guidelines for work and behavior, showing children how to be successful within the structure of the curriculum and the community. As a result, a pattern of good work habits and a sense of responsibility and cooperation are established in the classroom.
Click here to read The American Montessori Society Code of Ethics.
Sensitive Periods of Learning
Maria Montessori believed in children having “sensitive periods” for learning. From birth to 6, the child shows a strong interest on particular things he wants to master. This leads to the child doing a task repeatedly, with great interest, until the child has reached his goal of mastery.
The purpose of each sensitive period, which is actually an inner sensibility possessed by children, is to help them acquire a certain skill or characteristic necessary for their growth. As they acquire the skill or characteristic, their sensitivity for it decreases and another sensitivity increases.
Dr. Montessori observed that the first six years of children's lives are directed by their absorbent minds. She divided this six- year time span into two three-year periods. The first three years she calls “unconscious learning” and the second three years, “conscious learning”.
During the first three years of life children absorb and take in all that is around them in their environment. They absorb impressions from the environment, “creating themselves”. Dr. Montessori said, "The child takes in his whole environment, not with his mind but with his life". The task of adults around the child in this stage of development is not to intervene but to provide a safe, rich environment for the child.