What is Montessori?

By David B. Kopel

The Volokh Conspiracy, May 25, 2007. More by Kopel on education.

Last Saturday, Slate's Emily Bazelon, the mother of a child in an Montessori pre-school, wrote an article titled "The Cult of the Pink Tower: Montessori turns 100--what the hell is it?" She stated that "In many ways, Montessori education remains a cult: No one outside the fold (and lots of families inside it) really knows what exactly it is." So I will now reveal the secret; there's much to explain, in terms of pedagogical technique, but here's the deep philosophy of Montessori education. Montessori is not for everyone, but I believe that the world would be a much better and kinder place if every family had the opportunity to choose a Montessori school....

Montessori is a superb method for children to achieve a high degree of proficiency at many important academic skills. But Montessori is also something much more profound than a high-quality type of learning.

If you talked with someone who jogged several miles every day, and you asked her "Why do you spend all that time on road work?" it's possible that she might answer "Because it helps me run faster over longer distances." It's true that the direct benefit of running a lot is that the runner gets better and better at running. But it's more likely that the runner might answer something like this: "Running strengthens my heart, my lungs, my legs and the rest of my body. Running builds concentration and focus that stay with me even when I'm not running. Running clears my head, and so when I'm running, I sometimes have insights into lots of different things in my life. Running helps me get the rest of my life under control." Notably, the main direct benefit of running--building speed and stamina for running--wasn't even mentioned.

All these same points can be made about Montessori education. Yes, Montessori does help children grow much more proficient at reading, writing, research, and mathematics. (And these skills have a great deal more practical application in modern society than does the ability to run fast.)

Yet the most important benefits of Montessori education lie beyond the direct academic skills that are acquired by mastering the Montessori materials. As with running, the academic skill-building is what the children actually do, but what they achieve is much more than just academic enrichment.

Responsibility, Self-Control, and Independence

Although most students need to do language and math work every day, students are generally free to choose the works that interest them, and to stay with them as long as they want. ("Works" can include Montessori manipulatives, such as "the pink tower" of blocks, or written work such as math problems or writing in a science journal, or other projects.) The major part of the day consists of long blocks of time in which children have the freedom to totally engross themselves in activities, with deep concentration. These large blocks of time are one of the ways in which Montessori differs from most other educational approaches.

One of the important premises of Montessori is that children have a natural love for learning. When given the opportunity to engage in meaningful, interesting, self-directed work, children show that they can achieve high levels of focus. It is relatively rare for a Montessori classroom to become disorderly or excessively loud, or to need repeated orders from the teacher for quiet.

The quiet (not silence, since conversation is perfectly legitimate while work is being done) and the order do not come from external control imposed by the teacher. They come as a natural result of the children exploring a fascinating environment of learning opportunities. Interacting with others, while not disturbing the concentration of other parties, is one of the many social skills taught by Montessori schools, and research suggests that Montessori children tend to develop greater social competence. (M.M. Boehnlein, "Montessori Research," The NAMTA Journal13(3), 1988.)

The Teacher is not the Center of Attention

Another way in which Montessori cultivates responsibility, self-control, and independence is that teachers take the focus off themselves. The point is not for the students to passively absorb knowledge from the teacher, but for the students to teach themselves, with the teacher providing guidance when appropriate. A student works for the satisfaction of learning, not for the teacher's praise. "This helps develop his will and helps him be present to the work for its own sake," explains one Montessori scholar.

After introducing a material, teachers generally leave the child to work it our herself, intervening only when the child needs guidance to move on to a higher level.

"Help the Child to Help Himself"

Maria Montessori explained that her method aimed to help the child "to act, will, and think for himself," and so many of the Montessori materials foster independence. The "Practical Life" tools in the Toddler and Primary classroom help children build autonomy in their daily lives--as by learning how to use buttons or zippers. Other Practical Life tools--such as pitchers of water to be poured back and forth--help the child learn to use her body as she directs. During the first months of school, Toddlers show their parents the "up and over" way to put on a jacket--so that a 21-month-old can put on a jacket by herself, rather than needing someone to hold it for her. "Help the child to help himself" is a core element of Montessori.

More generally, the curriculum always keeps practical application in mind. For example, Upper Elementary (grades 4-6) math work with percentages frequently uses percentage skills to solve real-life problems--such as calculating discounts on a product, or figuring the rate of return on an investment.

The Montessori materials also foster independence through the principle of "control of error." That is, the materials allow the child to discover whether he has made a mistake, rather than needing to go to the teacher to see if the work is done properly. For example, the "cylinder block," used in the Primary (ages 3-6) classrooms, is a block of wood with ten cylinders cut out from it. Each cylinder has a knob on the top. The cylinders are all the same height, while their diameter increases from narrow to fat. The object of the work is to learn about size relationships, by putting each cylinder into its proper hole, increasing order of size. If a child puts a thin cylinder in a wide hole, by the end of the work he will have a fat cylinder left over, which doesn't fit in the remaining hole. Thus, the child can see that he has made a mistake, and use his intelligence to discover the proper places for each cylinder. He does not need to go to the teacher to ask for assistance.

Responsibility for One's Education

In the elementary grades, students conduct long-term research and writing projects. Not only do they take responsibility for seeing a major task through to its completion, they also learn how to uncover information for themselves, rather than having it fed to them.

When Montessori children move on to other schools, their new teachers usually applaud the ability of Montessori children to complete assignments, including long-term projects, without monitoring, and to take responsibility for their learning--whether by remembering to bring pencils to class every day, or by getting themselves to the library when they need to conduct research.

Helping and Teaching Others

To foster the development of the child's will does not mean that the child becomes willful. To promote independence is not to promote isolation. To be inner-directed is not to be self-indulgent. To the contrary, responsibility, self-control, and independence lay the foundation for a wide variety of cooperative interaction and friendship. A pair of four-year-old boys who have developed some self-control can play together longer and more happily than a pair of boys whose only controls are externally imposed. An Upper Elementary classroom filled with students who can concentrate and who can persevere on long-term projects can decide to perform Romeo and Juliet.

All students are also teachers. All classrooms are multi-age, so that, for example, Lower Elementary includes first, second, and third graders. The older children often help the younger ones learn how to do works, and also act as role models. At some schools, older students (e.g., Upper Elementary) may spend time each week reading to one or a few younger students.

So while there is nothing in Montessori formally called "character education," the whole Montessori experience is integrated to cultivate responsible, self-reliant, caring people.


The true heart of Montessori is profound respect for the fundamental dignity of every individual. While Montessori is used in a wide variety of secular and religious schools, Dr. Montessori's philosophy is very profoundly influenced by Catholic teaching of "the inherent dignity of the human person."

Again, the classroom materials play an important role. For example, works are usually done on a small cloth mat laid out on the floor; the mat sets the boundaries of the work, and guides the other children in moving so as not to disturb others at work.

This is one of the ways that Montessori education teaches respect for the environment. This includes respect for the classroom environment--putting works away properly so that next person can use them, and working with others in constructive ways. It also includes respect for the macro environment, as children learn about ways to care constructively for the global and community environment--and to respect individual differences, and the different choices that individuals make.

The attitude of respect toward children enabled Maria Montessori to develop the insight that children learn and think very differently from adults. Adults may start their learning with abstraction--as when college students listen to a chemistry professor lecture about principles of chemistry, even when the students have never observed the chemical reaction that is being described. Doctor Montessori (the first woman to graduate from an Italian medical school) began looking at education from the child's point of view, and recognized that children do not learn the same way that adults do. She also saw that adults often greatly underestimate the intellectual capacity of children, because the children are not able to express themselves fully in adult-style communication.

Respect for the child, therefore, opened the way for the insight that children learn best from sensory approaches to knowledge before attempting abstraction. The first step in learning to read is to trace one's fingers over sandpaper cutouts of the letters of the alphabet. "From hands to mind" is the practical foundation of the Montessori Method.

"Respect" in Montessori is not a code word for hierarchy, in the sense of "students must respect the teacher." Certainly students must respect the teacher. And the teacher must respect the students. And the students must respect each other. Of course since nobody is perfect, nobody at in a Montessori school achieves this high standard of respect every single moment during the school year.

Respect is why students are allowed to choose their works, why they are guided to independence, and why they are motivated by their own joy of learning rather than the need for external validation.

Respect does not mean that everybody is supposed to pretend to like everybody else all the time. Respect does mean that conflicts are to be resolved with consideration for the dignity of everyone involved. Respect is the foundation for access to the highest possibilities of learning.

Tim Seldin, president of the Montessori Foundation, explains that "Montessori is a way of life. It is a philosophy about how human beings ought to live their lives and treat one another. It is an attitude of respect for each human being, no matter how young or how old. It is a sense of partnership, rather than power and authority." ("Montessori in the Home," Tomorrow's Child, Spring 2000, p. 5.)

Once one enters into an attitude of respect for the child, then one can begin to understand how much teachers and parents (and also the students in their roles as teachers for other students) have to learn from the child. As Kathy O'Brien, the head of a Montessori school in Maryland writes:

Dr. Montessori believes that the child has lost much of his natural grace and charm because often his only value is seen in that some day he will be an adult. Montessori says the child has its own value, "the child and the adult are in fact two different and separate parts of humanity which should interpenetrate and work together in the harmony of mutual aid...having reciprocal influence." It is easy for us to accept that we adults aid the child, but the child is also an aid to the adult and should be a formative influence on the adult world. A child can change the hearts of adults. In the presence of a child hardness disappears. Dr. Montessori says: "The child can annihilate selfishness and awaken the spirit of sacrifice," tenderness and affectionate care. "The love which then begins is like a revelation of the moral greatness of which man is capable when his child obliges him to feel as a parent. In this way does God move and form the adult through the child."

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