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Montessori's century-old philosophy is about guiding kids, not just teaching them

Photo: Valilouve/Flickr



Now more than 100 years old, the Montessori approach to child development and education that Maria Montessori, Italy's first female doctor, developed in the early 1900s, has spawned a proliferation of schools worldwide. There are more than 4,000 in the United States and about 60 in the greater Seattle area.

Preschools offering the Montessori method abound here, and elementary Montessori classrooms are offered now in some local public schools: Daniel Bagley, Graham Hill and T.T. Minor, to name three. At Ballard High School, teens in a family and consumer sciences course learned about the Montessori philosophy by observing children in preschool lab on campus.

All Montessori classrooms have a "prepared environment," so observers will notice similarities wherever they visit. The furniture is sized for young children, and there are low open shelving units, so kids can reach materials easily and choose what they want to work on without help from an adult.

Gail Longo, director of the former Ballard High School program, pointed out the huge, nature mural that decorates the walls of the classroom along with fans, and the plants on the premises. The space was designed to reflect Montessori's notion that "beautiful things" attract and instruct a child.

The prepared environment "allows a trained adult to link a child to the learning the child's development is calling for at any particular moment," according to Terri Allen, a longtime Montessori teacher who lives near Bellingham and now serves as a consultant for Association Montessori Internationale's U.S. branch (AMI/USA) in New York. She said it "also creates a safe place for freedom of choice, which is key to developing independence and responsibility for one's own education."

When children are doing their work, they, not the teacher, choose what to do. Younger children may choose to scrub a table, pour water, or polish a surface, all part of their "practical life" activities. Perhaps they will trace shapes from metal insets, or count beads, or work with sandpaper letters to prepare for later writing and reading. The Montessori approach focuses on the child, not on the teacher.

Through detailed observations of children, not just in Italy but during her travels to other countries, Montessori saw that children need to concentrate, uninterrupted, when they are learning. She also noted that they have what she called "sensitive periods" when they are particularly attuned to learning certain things, for example, language or math. She then developed special sensorial materials to enhance a child's independent development, wrote several books based on her observations, opened a teacher training center, and began to champion children's rights. At the core of all of her efforts was respect for the child. Her son, Mario, continued her work after her death in 1952, and he became director of AMI, the organization his mother created to train teachers and promote her ideas.

Dr. Montessori believed that during children's earliest years, teachers are there to guide children to the appropriate sensory materials, and to give some minimal group instruction. She saw children as individuals who need to develop at their own pace and recognized that they learn well from each other, so classrooms are mixed-age.

The North American Montessori Teachers Association (NAMTA) Web site states that teacher-directed activity should account for just 20 percent of what happens during the day, while the children, themselves, should take the lead on 80 percent of their activities. There are many objects in the prepared environment to choose from, and the teacher is not supposed to intervene when the child is learning how to do something. Teachers only intervene if a material is being used in a destructive way.

"Montessori is an environment where children can develop independence, interdependence and responsibility," Longo said. "Parents are profoundly touched by how their children are learning and growing in so many ways."

Dr. Montessori first visited the United States in the early 1900s, and her ideas were initially supported by people like Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell. Then, however, the approach fell out of favor and didn't resurface here until the 1950s, when Nancy McCormack Rambusch founded the American Montessori Association (AMS). Although dedicated to Montessori's ideas, the group did not affiliate with the European AMI that had relocated to Holland just before World War II. Consequently, there has long been some confusion among some parents about what is "authentic" Montessori. One way to understand it is to think of it as a complete system based on theoretical beliefs about how children develop. Dr. Montessori actually envisioned an educational system from birth to adulthood, but in the United States, the main focus has been on preschool and elementary-age children.

In the Seattle area, Montessori teachers come from a variety of training centers, not just AMI or AMS. Locally, many teachers – often referred to as guides – train at Montessori Education Institute of the Pacific Northwest (MEIPN) in Woodinville, which offers the AMS certificate. The Woodinville program is one of four in this area accredited by the international Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE).

Today, it is not uncommon for an AMI teacher to work in an AMS-affiliated school; it's less likely that the reverse would be true, because the main teacher in an AMI school must have AMI training. Jacquie Maughan, who opened Pacific Crest School in Seattle 23 years ago, said that although it isn't affiliated with the Holland-based AMI, she is AMI-trained and is partial to it because "it is totally grounded in the philosophy of human development." She currently serves as president of the Ohio-based NAMTA.

John Chattin-McNichols, an education professor at Seattle University, has devoted much of his career to Montessori, writing extensively about it and training teachers. He and his wife, Barbara, were the original owners of MEIPN after Seattle University closed its Montessori teacher-training program in 1986.

Chattin-McNichols credits the publication of Angeline Lillard's 2005 book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, for rekindling interest in the Montessori method. A University of Virginia psychology professor, Lillard initially called herself a "skeptic," but concluded that current research and Montessori's concepts and practices mesh well. She said it is the materials in that prepared environment mentioned earlier, as well as a three-hour "work" cycle, that help activate a child's concentration.

Given the plethora of Montessori-related acronyms, organizations and training options out there, it's easy for parents to feel overwhelmed about the prospect of doing their research before choosing a school. Chattin-McNichols advises visiting schools and observing. "As a parent, you've got to be there," he said. Maughan recommends also visiting a traditional classroom so there's a point of comparison.

Chattin-McNichols warns that just because a school may display a certificate from either AMI or AMS, it doesn't mean it is actually affiliated with those organizations. Anyone or any school, he explained, can claim to be Montessori because Montessori did not copyright her ideas. "You shouldn't enroll your child based on the letters," he said.

Parents may contact either the AMI/USA or AMS organizations to check for information on a particular school, or contact the NAMTA organizations. It's also helpful to check with the parents of other children enrolled; they'll likely be eager to share information they gathered while researching their options.

Tuition for private Montessori schools varies depending on whether parents opt for a half-day or all-day program, but it seems comparable to other forms of private education. A half-day program for children ages 3 to 6 will run between $4,600 and $6,800 a year; a full-day program, $5,250 to $7,650.

Allen, the AMI-teacher-turned-consultant, travels throughout the United States to observe AMI-affiliated schools to make sure they are adhering to Montessori's philosophy. She said she hasn't encountered any other form of education that supports the needs of the developing brain as well as the Montessori method does.

"Traditional education practices often work against the child's need for concrete experience in order to learn a new skill or concept," Allen told Seattle's Child. "We in the United States rely on abstract thought and left brain, linear thinking in our teaching, even though we write many articles and books about individual learning differences. Montessori, when well done, allows opportunities for the child to learn through whatever pathway is most useful to her/him and the time to rehearse/repeat a skill until it is mastered by that child."


Words of wisdom from Maria Montessori

"The secret of the free development of the child consists, therefore, in organizing for him the means necessary for his internal nourishment." from Spontaneous Activity in Education

"Touching for the younger child is what imagining is for the older one."
from From Childhood to Adolescence

"The child's imagination is vague, imprecise, without limits. But from the moment he finds himself in contact with the external word herequires precision."
from From Childhood to Adolescence

"The fundamental development of language continues in fact up to the age of five years, and the mind during this period is in a phase of activity regarding everything that has to do with words." from Childhood Education

"The movable alphabet is a docile instrument that the hand can move about making different combinations and constructing different words as one does with the various pieces of a puzzle. It thus guides the child to make a marvelous conquest." from Childhood Education

Judith Raunig-Graham is a local freelance writer whose daughters attended Montessori preschools many years ago.

Editor's note: This updated article was originally published in November of 2008.

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