Our Methods

The Montessori Method vs. Traditional School Programs

In traditional classrooms the teacher takes the active role where as the child takes the passive role; however, in a Montessori classroom this is not typical. Maria Montessori stressed the importance of children taking an active role in their learning. She did not design the classroom around the teacher, but rather around the learner. The children are able to move freely about the classroom, respectfully explore the prepared environment, and use the teacher as a guide. Williams (2000) found that children’s choices reveal their needs and while “traditional students learn to be controllable, Montessori students learn to become interdependent and resourceful” (p. 218). In a traditional setting the teacher prepares a curriculum for the class as a whole. This often causes many problems in the classroom because not all children are at the same developmental level nor are they ready for the same information.
Most traditional schools have one age group for each class. On the contrary, Montessori schools consist of children of various ages in the classroom. Montessori proposed that having a three-year span of age grouping allows the teacher, students, and parents to develop supportive, collaborative, trusting relationships, and help build a community. Research found that Montessori children “exhibited superior social skills and reported an unusually strong sense of community at their school” (Lillard, as cited in Bower, 2006, p. 212) compared to the non-Montessori students. The younger children are able to see where their education is headed; they see the older children with more challenging materials, and are eager to work up to the next step. Same age or same skill level grouping can often limit the development of a student.
Montessori’s perfectly well-crafted materials allows for each child to work and learn at their own pace. The child’s learning pace is internally determined rather than externally. This means the child determines when they are ready to move on, instead of the teacher. The materials were designed in an important, sequential order. The materials break activities into a series of organized steps and once a child has mastered one material they will move on to the next. The core curriculum of a Montessori classroom is separated into four main areas, Sensorial, Practical life, Language, and Mathematics. Along with these four areas, there are cultural subjects such as geography, botany, geology, zoology, other sciences, and history. These areas help to develop the whole child, and set them apart from other children.
While Montessori designed her materials she wanted the children to be able to complete the task at hand on their own and gain some self-sufficiency and independence. To do this Montessori put the discipline in the materials. There is self-correction in her materials, which means, the child can spot their own error through feedback from the materials. Errors are viewed as part of the learning process rather than mistakes. These self-correcting materials allow for the children to work on their own and learn from their own mistakes, without being shamed or embarrassed for making an error. “Having children find their own errors through the materials and work to master materials for their own sakes would be expected to lead to a mastery orientation in Montessori children” (Lillard, 2005, p. 278).
The materials are neatly put away on shelves and are ready for the next child to use; this began to be put into practice when Montessori discovered the child’s sensitive period to order. The child may repeat any material as long as they want, for research has proven how important repetition is for children. Repetition helps to refine child’s senses through the exercise of attention, comparison, and judgment. The children use the material until they have perfected it and internalized the feeling of success. Then the child is willing and ready to move on to something that is more challenging making them eager to succeed.
The prepared environment, the classroom, is an important aspect of the Montessori way. Much different from traditional classrooms, Montessori was the first to fill her class with child size furniture and materials. The artwork and classroom decorations are at eye level for the children instead of the adults. The classroom décor is simple and not too overwhelming, so the children are not distracted away from their learning. There are individual child size tables and chairs, for when the child would like to work alone with no distractions, but there are also larger tables with many chairs so that children can work together or interact while they work independently. The materials are set out on shelves that are the perfect size for children to easily access.
Maria Montessori did not believe that testing was the best way to assess a child’s learning. There are no grades, golden stars, or any other way to compare the children. “The prize and punishment are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort, and, therefore we certainly cannot speak of the natural development of the child in connection with them” (Montessori, 1964, p. 21). The teacher in a Montessori classroom observes and assess’ the children individually. The children are never compared to anyone other than themselves. Montessori stressed that children are all at different levels and learn at their own pace, so a grading system is only to compare other children which should never be done. “It is the duty of the teacher to help rather than to judge” (Standing, 1957, p. 300).
Grace, courtesy, and conflict resolution are other important aspects that are integrated into the Montessori curriculum. Teachers set aside special group time, as a neutral moment, to teach the children the importance of manners and problem solving. This helps teach children appropriate social skills at a time when they can truly internalize the information. Typically an educator will try to teach these lessons when something has just happened, making it harder for the child to learn exactly what is being taught because of all the emotions they are feeling. Most schools leave teaching courtesy and grace to the parents, but research by Yarrow et. al, found teachers who deliberately teach and model nurturance and helpful behavior increase the likelihood that the students will “express sympathy, recognize others misfortune, and actively attempt to alleviate distress of another” (Simmons & Sands-Dudelczyk, 1983, p. 204).
Montessori’s main goal is to foster a love of learning in each and every classroom. Allowing children to take an active role in their own learning reinforces their excitement to learn. Getting their hands on the materials and working with each other helps to solidify their experiences and learning, as well as continue to foster their social development.

Inside the Classroom

Montessori approached the study of children from a scientific perspective. As a result of her background in biology, mathematics, and a number of observations, Montessori made remarkable discoveries which were often overlooked by others who viewed the subject of children and education differently. The discoveries and realizations lead to the formation of Maria Montessori’s theories and philosophies. She believed that the pressure one faces to grow up as quickly as possible completely ignores the developmental planes in a child’s life. Montessori stated that, “The children should be encouraged to explore and investigate at their own pace” (Standing, 1957). At the heart of the Montessori method you will find the highly developed theme of respect for the child. In Montessori’s eyes, developing a free and respectful child was the purpose of education. Montessori wanted to create a child who would enter into society with an open mind and heart. A child that would want to make a difference in their world, and do what they can to change it for the better. Through this vision, Montessori found the only way to raise a child who is respectful to those around them is to provide children with respect.
In the development of the classroom, Montessori began with the psychological environment in an effort to create an atmosphere in which children are looked upon as individuals. In this environment children would be able to construct their own knowledge through discovery and exploration in a positive atmosphere they themselves felt comfortable in. Montessori wanted the children to be able to express their interests freely and have the ability to choose their own activities. She did not to have the entire class be lead through the same activity at the same time. Montessori stated that the classroom need not be an elaborate place. She wanted the classroom based on beauty and simplicity. Everything in the classroom must be carefully and attractively displayed as a well planned exhibit. Montessori wanted the colors to be bright and colorful. She hoped for an environment that was warm, relaxing, and inviting.
Montessori began to redesign the macro environment as soon as she finished the development of the psychological environment. The macro environment included the choice of furniture, placement of materials, height of shelves and other aspects of classroom design. The main aspect of Montessori’s classroom design is that it was designed to suit the child, not the teacher. Montessori believed that the classroom needed to be designed strictly for the children. She wanted the classroom to meet the needs of every child by fostering independence and self-direction. Montessori felt that a traditional classroom only met the needs of the teacher and fostered reliance and dependence. Based on these beliefs, Montessori did away with traditional school desks and brought in child size chairs and tables as well as low shelving accessible for children instead of tall, locked cabinets they were not able to access. “She believed that if children were able to spontaneously choose their own work and return it when they were finished, sense of pride and love of order would develop in them, and their self confidence and independence would be fostered” (Standing, 1957).
The environment of the classroom would not fully be complete without the development of the micro environment. The micro environment consists of the materials used in the classroom. In the creation of the micro environment, Montessori wanted to create materials to attract the child. Each material was designed to serve an educational purpose. Each material is designed to facilitate an aspect of development. Each and every material must be determined in quality and quantity by experimental research. The materials must be designed carefully, and must be designed to lead the child on to the next material. Since all materials in the classroom are designed to serve an educational purpose, the children are free to choose to use any of the materials for which they are ready. The materials are designed so the children learn from working with the materials. Some materials promote development of specific skills while others facilitate the development of important concepts. So, children are encouraged to work with any material for as long as they need.
The teacher’s role is to observe the children, see what they need, provide materials and activities to address those needs, and provide leadership to guide the child’s interactions with the materials and with other children. The teacher, through his or her leadership, needs to guide the children in developing a positive sense of community and make sure that every child learns how to have friends and belong to the group.

Classroom Materials

Adding to Montessori’s theories and philosophy, Montessori also wanted to provide manipulative materials for the children to use. These materials were found during her visits to the asylums and were finally put to good use upon the arrival of the Casa de Bambini. Montessori’s method provides us with information on the ideal classroom. This information includes recommendations for the construction of the environment and the role and expectations of the teacher. Building upon the theme of respect for the child, Montessori developed ideas on what the structure of the environment should be like. Montessori believed that in order to liberate the child, we must reform the environment. “The new school must be absolutely suitable to the minutest detail, to the developing soul” (Chattin-McNichols, 1992).

The materials within the Montessori classroom can be divided into four categories. These categories include daily living exercises, sensorial, academic, as well as cultural and artistic. The child is first introduced to materials used to exercise daily living. Such activities involve simple tasks which the child has already witnessed their parents perform at home. Having witnessed these tasks in their own home, the child has a natural desire to imitate the task. The imitation of this task is based on intellectual knowledge based on previous observations. The activities Montessori introduced to practice daily living exercises include washing the table, shining shoes, sweeping the floor, etc. Such activities promote discipline and confidence. After practical life activities are introduced, the child is then ready to move on to sensorial materials. These materials are used to refine and draw attention to the senses such as tactile, visual, auditory, olfactory, baric, chromatic, thermic, sterognostic and gustatory. The use of these materials will assist the child in the development of categorizing sense perceptions into an inner mental order. The academic materials in the classroom are used to teach math, writing, reading, language, science and geography. The aim for learning this material is to satisfy the child’s innate desire for learning. It is not to store a quantity of knowledge in the child. The cultural and artistic materials used in the classroom deal with the communication of ideas and self-expression. The child will develop a sense of love and appreciation for music. While studying music, the child will learn basic concepts of rhythm, harmony and melody. The introduction to art and drawing is similar to the foundation of writing. Montessori introduced exercises that develop the muscles of the fingers and hands for holding pencils or paintbrushes for making controlled movements. Montessori laid down the foundation for learning through these four categories. From there, the child is free to explore.

Materials in a Montessori classroom tend to be overemphasized in relation to other aspects of the Montessori method. The purpose of the materials are often confused to the outsider. The aim of the materials within the Montessori classroom is more of an internal approach to assist the child’s self-construction and psychic development. The materials provide the child with stimuli that captures attention and the initiation of concentration. The materials within the classroom must correspond to the child’s inner needs. Children are introduced to a variety of different materials based on age level. While observing and experimenting with the child, the teacher then watches for concentration and repetition of their actions with the materials. This represents whether or not the piece of material met the child’s inner needs or not. It will also represent the growth and intensity of the stimulus represented by the child. As well as the meaningfulness of the materials, there are several other principles that are involved in the determining of the materials in the classroom.

The error that the child will come across while working with the materials must be isolated within a single piece of material. The isolation of this error will help the child perceive the problem and be able to achieve the task immediately. An example of this would be a block tower. The tower of blocks will portray a variation in size from block to block. The child will not be presented with more complex things such as color, noises, designs, etc. Another example of this would be through a block of wood in which the child places cylinders ranging in size in the correct holes. Through control of error, if the child has not placed the cylinders in the correct size hole, there will be one cylinder left over. The child will then be able to realize what he/she did wrong and be able to adjust the cylinders to fit in each hole correctly.
The materials in the classroom are designed to progress in design and usage from simple to more complex. An example of this would be a piece of material called Rods. A set of rods are designed to first teach seriation varying in length only. Seriation is the concrete operation that involves ordering stimuli along a quantitative dimension such as length. After the child discovers the length of the rods, a second set is brought in. The second set of rods are red and blue in color. They are used to connect numbers and length. In using these rods, the child will be able to understand simple addition and subtraction equations. After working with the first two set of rods, a third set of rods is introduced. Due to the fact that the initial dependence on motor development and sensorial learning has been passed, the third set of rods are used for a more complicated set of math problems as well as the introduction to writing the numerical problems.
All of the materials Maria Montessori implemented in the classroom are designed to indirectly prepare the child for future learning. An example of indirect learning would be the development of writing. Knobs are placed on materials giving the child the opportunity to coordinate his/her finger and thumb motor action. Another example of indirect learning would be the use of inset designs. Through the use of inset designs, the child will develop the ability to use a pencil by using the insets to guide his/her movements. The child is able to develop muscle memory and the pattern of letters by tracing sandpaper letters. When the day comes that the child is ready to write, the child will feel no pressure or anxiety due to the indirect learning he/she has encountered over the year. Because the child has indirectly been preparing for this step, they have developed a sense of self-confidence and initiate to achieve the task successfully.
The materials used in Montessori classrooms start off as concrete expressions and gradually become abstract representations. First the child will sensorially explore a wooden triangle. After the exploration of this triangle, separate wooden triangles are added to represent the base and sides of the triangle. Following the discovery of the base and sides to the triangle, the triangles dimensions are then introduced. The use of these wooden triangles are further represented to introduce different activities such as puzzle trays, triangles colored on paper, triangles outlined with thick heavy lines, as well as the abstraction of triangles thinly outlined. Through these activities, the child will be able to grasp the abstract essence of concrete material.

The Effects of Montessori Education

Reuter and Yunik (1973) examined the social interactions of preschool children at three Montessori preschools, two university laboratory preschools, and a parent cooperative preschool. The results of the study showed that the children in the Montessori schools had the highest rate of peer interactions. The Montessori children’s interactions with their peers and their teachers were longer. This result showed that the Montessori children had more advanced social skills because longer interactions require more verbal abilities and cooperation from the children. Overall, the children in the Montessori classrooms had more quality social interactions.
In a study by Castellanos (2003), different methods of teaching and different educational philosophies were examined to see if they affected children’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, aggressive behavior, and prosocial behavior. Elementary school children from a Montessori program were compared with children from a traditional program. Children in the Montessori classroom were found to continually improve to make and keep friends of the same gender. They were also found to have lower levels of both verbal and physical aggression when compared to children in a traditional classroom. As the Montessori children developed greater skills at working in a group, their levels of verbal and physical aggression continued to decrease. Their ability to work in a group was also related to higher levels of both self-efficacy for academic achievement and self-efficacy for self-regulated learning.
Vaughn (2002) studied the level of empowerment of students in a pre-kindergarten classroom, a lower elementary classroom, and an upper elementary. The classroom policies, environment, and the social construction of learning in the three different Montessori classrooms all helped create a greater sense of empowerment in the children. The students thought about their individual choices and checked their behaviors against how others behaved in the classrooms. The study also found that the children in the Montessori school were more intrinsically motivated and that they governed their own actions for reasons other than to merely please the teachers. The students were found to feel a sense of control in their environment because they chose to work on something towards mastery. They were able to concentrate and focus on tasks for long periods of time and to self-manage their own learning. The children were also found to be confident, responsible, and hard-working individuals.
A Montessori curriculum has many cognitive benefits for preschool children when compared to a traditional environment. In a study by Stodolsky and Karlson (1972), Montessori preschool children showed significant improvement on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test within just one year of attending a Montessori school. The children also showed significant development in the areas of number concepts, visual-motor integration, psycho-motor skills, and classificatory skills within the first year. After two years, the curriculum was found to be extremely helpful in further supporting the children’s development in visual-motor integration, psycho-motor skills, and matching and sorting skills. Soundy (2003) looked at children’s literacy achievements in Montessori classrooms from infancy to age 6. The classrooms had enriched literacy environments with specific prepared language materials, such as the moveable alphabet and sandpaper letters, which led to greater literacy achievement. The responsiveness of the adults also gave greater opportunities for the children to use their oral language skills in meaningful interactions in the classroom.
In a study of high school students, students who were exposed to a Montessori program anywhere from preschool to 5th grade were tested against students who only attended traditional school. The high school students who had attended the Montessori schools outperformed the high school students who had attended traditional schools on standardized tests in both math and science. These results suggest that Montessori schools’ early introduction of math and science, as well as their emphasis in these subject areas, gives these children an advantage when compared with children in a traditional preschool (Dohrmann et al., 2007).
Manner (2000) matched up children in a Montessori elementary classroom with children from a traditional classroom based on their reading and math scores on the Stanford-Binet Achievement Test. The children were then tested repeatedly over three years. Initially, the Montessori students produced higher mean scores in math when compared with the traditional students. In both the second and the third years of the study, the children in the Montessori classroom consistently produced higher mean scores in reading when compared to the students in the traditional classroom. In a study by Miller and Bizzell (1983), the effects of four different preschool programs, including one Montessori program, were examined in the children in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. The children were tested on IQ and school achievement using the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, the WISC-R, and the Stanford Achievement Test. Results showed that the boys from the Montessori program were reading significantly above their grade level when in the 6th grade. In the 7th and 8th grade, the boys from the Montessori program also showed significantly higher scores in math.