Montessori 101

An Introduction to Montessori for Parents

The Many Faces of Montessori in America

by Tim Seldin
President of the Montessori Foundation

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It is difficult to determine precisely how many schools in the United States follow the insights and strategies developed by Dr. Maria Montessori 89 years ago. The Foundation’s computers show the names and addresses of almost 4,000 schools; yet each time we visit a new community, we discover dozens more.

In 28 years of traveling on behalf of Montessori, I’ve had the opportunity to visit, work with, and observe more than 650 Montessori schools. The diversity is astounding. Montessori schools are often found in charming homes; the outcome of an individual hobby of the owner/director. These hearty souls live and breath their work, creating wonderful intimate communities that radiate a sense of personal attention and family.

Most Montessori schools begin with three-year-olds and extend through the elementary grades. Every year many more open middle school programs at one extreme and programs for infants and toddlers at the other. Montessori schools are often found in affluent communities, but just as many serve working-class neighborhoods and the poor. You can find Montessori in Head Start, the inner cities, migrant workers camps, and on Indian reservations, as Montessori schools offer a wide range of programs. Many are focused on meeting the needs of the working family. Others describe themselves as college-preparatory programs. Public Montessori programs pride themselves on serving all children, while many independent schools work hard to find the perfect match of student, school, and family values.

The diversity within Montessori is tremendous. Despite widespread beliefs and misunderstandings about what Montessori is or is not, no two Montessori schools are the same. Some pride themselves on remaining faithful to what they see as Montessori’s original vision, while others relish their flexibility and pragmatic adaptation. Each school reflects its own unique blend of facilities, programs, personality, and interpretation of Dr. Montessori’s vision.

The International Montessori Community

Montessori schools can be found all over the world. Montessori schools are found throughout Western Europe, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and much of Asia. The movement is widespread in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Korea, and Japan, and it is beginning to mushroom in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China. No accurate count of the total number of Montessori schools has ever been made, but a reasonable guess might be a hundred thousand.

Why is there so much variation among Montessori schools? There are more than 5,000 Montessori schools in North America, but every one is unique. Even within the same school, each class may look and feel quite different from the others, reflecting the interests and personalities of the teachers; however, certain characteristics will be found in all classes that are honestly following the Montessori approach. Dr. Montessori was a brilliant student of child development, and the approach that has evolved out of her research has stood the test of almost 90 years in Montessori schools around the world.

The Montessori approach has two great qualities: replicability (it can be translated successfully into all sorts of new situations) and sustainability (Montessori programs don’t tend to self-destruct after a few years, as do many other educational reforms). However, the only truly authentic Montessorian was Dr. Maria Montessori herself. The rest of us have been forced to interpret and reinterpret her ideas and methods through the filter of our personalities and experience.

Many people assume that “Montessori” schools are essentially alike, perhaps a franchise like McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. In reality, they can differ dramatically, in size, facilities, programs, and emotional climate. At the conceptual level, Montessori schools share a common philosophy and approach, but there will always be tremendous variation among schools that use the name “Montessori.”

How can a parent know if she’s found a “real” Montessori school? Although most schools try to remain faithful to their understanding of Dr. Montessori’s insights and research, they have all, to some degree, been influenced by the evolution of our culture and technology. Perhaps the a more relevant question in selecting a Montessori school is to consider how well it matches your sense of what you want for your child.

Before we established the Montessori Foundation, I served for 22 years as the Headmaster of the Barrie School outside of Washington, DC. In that role, every year I met with hundreds of families who were interested in enrollment. I always began each open house by reminding these bright, eager, and sometimes overly anxious parents that no one educational approach can be right for every child. The wisest goal is to seek out the best fit, not only between the child and the school, but also between parents’ values and goals for their child’s education and what a given school can realistically deliver. I believe that finding the right school for mom and dad is as important as finding the right school for the child.

In the end, the selection of a Montessori school comes down to a matter of personal style and preference. If you visit a school and find yourself in harmony with its ambiance and practice, it will represent at least one example of what you define to be a good school. In determining which school is best, parents have to trust their eyes, ears, and gut instincts. Nothing beats personal observation. The school that one parent raves about, may be completely wrong for another’s child. Conversely, another parent may have decided that “Montessori doesn’t work,” while it clearly is working very, very well for your family. Rely on your own experience, not hearsay from other parents. There is probably no clear cut answer. Often one sign of a school’s commitment to professional excellence is their membership in one of the professional Montessori societies, such as the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) or the American Montessori Society (AMS). Both organizations also offer schools the opportunity to become accredited. There are several dozen other smaller organizations. It is important to remember, though, that many excellent schools choose not to affiliate with any national organization. They are independent.

What makes Montessori different?

The Montessori approach is often described as an “education for life.” When we try to define what children take away from their years in Montessori, we need to expand our vision to include more than just the basic academic skills.

Normally, Americans think of a school as a place where one generation passes down basic skills and culture to the next. From this perspective, a school only exists to cover a curriculum, not to develop character and self-esteem. But in all too many traditional and highly competitive schools, students memorize facts and concepts with little understanding, only to quickly forget them when exams are over.

Recent studies show that many bright students are passive learners. They coast through school, earning high grades, but rarely pushing themselves to read material that hasn’t been assigned, ask probing questions, challenge their teacher’s cherished opinions, or think for themselves. They typically want teachers to hand them the “right answer.” The problem isn’t with today’s children, but with today’s schools. Children are as gifted, curious, and creative as they ever were, when they’re working on something that captures their interest and which they have voluntarily chosen to explore.

Montessori schools work to develop culturally literate children and nurture their fragile sparks of curiosity, creativity, and intelligence. They have a very different set of priorities from traditional schools, and a very low regard for mindless memorization and superficial learning. Montessori students may not memorize as many facts, but they do tend to become self-confident, independent thinkers who learn because they are interested in the world and enthusiastic about life, not simply to get a good grade.

Montessori believed that there was more to life than simply the pursuit of wealth and power. To her, finding one’s place in the world, work that is meaningful and fulfilling, and developing the inner peace and depth of soul that allows us to love are the most important goals in life.