Maria Montessori’s Birthday

Today is Dr. Maria Montessori’s birthday and it is  refreshing to see Google has acknowledged this with their logo that uses Montessori educational materials to spell out the word Google.  The founders of Google are eager to share the fact that they were Montessori educated and they attribute much of their success to this particular form of schooling. They are not alone. Great technology and creative advancements have come from Montessorians.

Most people have no idea what makes a Montessori education. Some people think its a loosey-goosey method where children are allowed to wander about doing whatever they please. Others believe it is an overly structured, old fashioned method that stifles creativity. The confusion over the method has everything to do with the general public’s lack of understanding about all forms of education rather than the method itself.  At the heart of the Montessori philosophy is a reverence for the belief  that each person is a unique individual with something of value to contribute to society (strengths).  Any school program that honors this belief must break away from a traditional system that treats everyone as though they are all the same and should be learning the same thing at the same rate and time.

The Montessori method is designed to engage a child’s natural curiosity within an environment that is specially prepared to maximize learning opportunities. The room is highly structured, with everything in a certain place, yet the child is afforded the freedom to gravitate towards those lessons which most spark their interest and creativity.  Its not that children can do whatever they want when they wish; indeed, teachers guide students toward all lessons without demanding they all do everything at the same time in the same order  and the same way. The interplay of structure and choice ensures that the imagination is continually sparked while providing a boundary against mental chaos. The balance of choice and structure inspires students to develop self responsibility which is freely exercised. This development is in stark contrast to traditional classroom which rewards compliance (the enemy of creativity). When compliance is rewarded, the person who feels stifled has no choice but to rebel. Rebellion in this case is never positive and inevitably leads to disrespect for school, teachers and formal learning. We cannot demand motivation, creativity, intellectual curiosity or true character development with high handedness, grades or threats.

These concepts are at the heart of the Montessori philosophy but the method in actuality is so much more. It is sequential, developmental, sensual, spiritual and conceived by one of the most well respected scientists of her time. As a groundbreaking medical doctor, Maria Montessori had a serious formal education and backed up her methods with scientific truths.  Many people do not understand Montessori education, but I challenge you to answer these questions about the traditional system you do not question, challenge or interrogate:  how are grading systems standardized from class to class? Do your children’s teachers give multiple choice tests? Are they trained in how to make these tests? Does every English in teacher in your child’s school teach writing the same way? What is that way? Who writes the textbooks your children use? Who else uses them? A Montessori classroom can answer all these questions because the method is well thought out and most teachers have undergone the same training to deliver it.

Still, not all Montessori schools are the same. Dr. Montessori never protected her brand and anyone can call their school a Montessori school. Maybe that is the cause for some of the confusion.  AMI Montessori schools (like the Clariden School of Southlake, Texas) undergo rigorous accreditation and all teachers have AMI Montessori diplomas– the study for which is the equivalent of a master’s degree.  Formal Montessori curriculum goes through what traditional schools refer to as 6th grade. Dr. Montessori did not have an opportunity to write a curriculum for grades 8-12 and while the philosophy is one that goes from birth until death, there are not formal lessons, only guidelines that correspond with the developmental planes.

The Global Strengths Program at The Clariden School is not a Montessori curriculum (since there is no such thing), but it shares many of the ideas especially around the use of time in 3 hour blocks, groups of similar ages rather than lock step grades at age level, balance of freedom and responsibility and the need for the school to function as a democracy based on ritual and tradition and focused on the whole child, as individuals. It’s good stuff. It’s the right stuff. It’s the stuff of freedom and democracy. Its the stuff that inspires both the intellectual and the innovator. Happy Birthday Maria. Thanks for leaving us the stuff that dreams are made from.

Jenifer Fox is an internationally published author, educational keynote speaker and leading innovator on 21st Century Learning. Her groundbreaking book, Your Child’s Strengths, a Guide for Teachers and Parents (Viking/Penguin) is widely accepted as the definitive guide to developing success through a focus on strengths for children. Jenifer authored The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists (Wiley) and has created Differentiated Instruction, an online professional course for teachers.

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