December 13, 2010

The Montessori Method: Criticisms and Recollections

 

I've had the particular advantage of learning in a variety of alternative schools. Of course, a definition of "alternative" relies on there being a set mainstream idea of education: which I believe there isn't. But there have been many educational movements which have chosen to separate themselves from U.S. public schools under the banner of the alternative, including unschooling, Waldorf, democratic schools, and Montessori. My first opportunity as an educator happened at a Montessori preschool and K-8 elementary/middle school.

I have a few criticisms of the Montessori philosophy (the interpretation of which changes not only with each school, but with each teacher). Most revolve around its replicability, or the ability to set up the typical Montessori classroom.

Maybe a little background information is needed. The philosophy was started by Maria Montessori when she set up a school for poor urban children in Rome, Italy, in 1907. As with any philosophies which have also become a practice, there is contention between those who want to retain the pure and original intentions of the "Montessori Method" (if such thing actually exists and is, again, replicable) and those who would rather have it adapt with the times and, in my opinion, relevant changes in education and child psychology; also in my opinion, Maria Montessori's ideas about the spiritual "embryo" and its development can be refuted by contemporary learning theory.

However, the core of a Montessori school is its particular materials; the picture above shows a shelf containing math work designed for children from kindergarten (or late preschool) to middle elementary. A Montessori classroom without its specific materials is, in fact, not much of a Montessori environment at all; most of the class work time is devoted to students (by themselves, in groups, or with the aide of a teacher) manipulating work, proceeding from a set beginning to a set end. M. Montessori originally designed her materials to be easily reproducible in the cheapest materials of the day: specifically wood. Her materials have remained unchanged although a variety of cheaper production methods (particularly plastics) have been developed. Nienhaus, a quintessential manufacturer of Montessori equipment, charges more than $150 for wooden Red Rods, only a small part of a typical Montessori classroom.

The expense of basic educational materials has continued, I believe, for the following reasons: 1) proponents of the Montessori method enjoy the aesthetics of quality-made wood materials; 2) most Montessori schools, being private and often for-profit enterprises, can subsidize the price of materials by charging its students higher tuition; 3) arguably, private industry has retained specific prices to what remains a small consumer base of schools, teachers, and the occasional parent.

The result of reliance on expensive materials has made it impossible to apply the Montessori Method, in its typical application, to schools in developing countries, where basic equipment such as pencils, paper, desks, and even a school building itself may not be present. In fact, it is rumored that the cost to outfit one classroom with the basics, including furniture, begins at $10,000. In which originally began as an effort to provide cheap and tactile materials to poor urban children has become an empire of loosely connected and, in some cases, poorly managed private schools for the preschoolers of the wealthy. The preschool craze of the last decade, in which the privileged vie for a few spots in choice early preparatory schools has only expanded this stereotype and funded the rise of Montessori classrooms around the developed world.

There are a few more criticisms of Montessori education, outside of its relative cost and reliance on outdated, turn of the century learning theory; some of these, given the variety of philosophies under the Montessori banner, may be addressed by different schools.
  • Most use of Montessori materials strictly adheres to fairly rigid and methodical use. When I was in Montessori teacher training, our instructional materials consisted of step-by-step, extraordinarily specific guides to using each piece of educational work in the classroom. According to writings by and about Maria Montessori, she favored a much more experimental and less systematic approach; in one of her books, she advocates throwing the material around, something which would undoubtedly be verboten in the contemporary classroom.
  • At the same time, individual freedom is encouraged while creativity is often curbed. As long as materials are used systematically, creativity with them is discouraged; there can be a lot of "we don't do it that way, we do it this way" in a Montessori classroom. John Dewey advocated creativity and adaptation in education while at the same time criticizing the Montessori Method's lack of it. [Monart, a so-called "progressive" approach to painting which advocates a collective repeating of basic elements in a classic "banking approach" to art education; coincidentally, I came to dislike this style at a Montessori elementary.] Maria Montessori also discouraged imagination in education and in its stead advocated a concretely reality-based learning; in particular this horrifies teachers who place storytelling and creative activities in the center of their classroom.
  • Individual learning is preferred while social interaction is discouraged, whether intentionally or not. Arguably preschool, more so than any other level, is the environment for the most formative social learning; kids are not only learning how to interact with others, but understanding their place within a community. Often, time in a Montessori class are spent either alone with materials, or in a circle group led by the teacher. In my opinion, not enough time is spent in small group activity; and, in fact, much social interaction outside of work is discouraged (my theory to explain this is that collaboration between students is difficult to facilitate, especially when teacher training is not suited to train for it). I think contemporary theories of and projects for group learning, peer interaction, and collaborative work are important at any level, particularly for developing skills particular to this contemporary era (often described as 21st century skills).
Of course, there are important elements of my teaching style that I obviously and freely borrowed from my experience at a Montessori school, whether they arose from the philosophy itself or, more realistically, the techniques and, well, swagger of my educator peers. I enjoy the idea of demonstrating something to students, and allowing them to practice and repeat independently until they "get it"; I like the holistic approach, taking one concept, and spending a week on it, breaking it down into different elements which compose projects, events, activities, and interactions; I like bringing the ecosystem into the classroom and the classroom into the ecosystem; and lastly, I take seriously that idea that the teacher and researcher are, in fact, one in the same: in this way, every classroom is a laboratory for learning.

9 comments:

  1. This is a great article. I wish you'd cited your sources so that I could use this for a research paper! Regardless, great piece. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I am not sure where you taught or where you did the Montessori training, but where I teach we do not discourage the students from creating their own small groups and working together 90% of the time. Now, there are a handful of works in the classroom that take a good deal of focus and these activities are only for a single person, but the vast majority of the work can be done by 1, 2, or 3 students. In fact in her own handbook Montessori herself did in fact, encourage children to form their own spontaneous learning groups.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. It's good to hear there is some group learning within the Montessori approach; my experience and observations were different - in fact, from what I've seen, each school offers a different crystalization of the method, tailored to the environment and the teachers' own philosophies. Despite the critical tone of my post, I had a fascinating time visiting the world of Montessori.

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  3. I also feel sorry for the bad examples you must have had...the core of Montessori is the WAY not the materials, extensive scientific research by polk-lillard shows that not only is Montessori a good method, these children do better later on in school and life. You speak from own experience, and nor research....not an accurate portrayal of Montessori at all.

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    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. Just wanted to clarify, this is of course an accurate portrayal of my own experience, not a summary of research.

      However, I've heard Lillard's research is the opposite of extensive. Not that it's wrong, it's just too small to offer conclusive evidence about wider success of the method. http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500368_162-2050676.html

      Please don't feel sorry for any bad examples. I saw great schools with happy children. It's just unfortunate that the materials and resources are so expensive that, with some exception, only affluent children can benefit.

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    2. I totally agree......I can make the materials myself. I also went through montessori training....and then discouraged. Many urban districts can't afford the pricey material. When I went to visit several montessori schools and asked teachers/parents about the humble orgins of montessori......the parents were often offended that this method started as an urban solution.

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  4. UA,
    this is a good article, pinpointing features of Montessori.

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  5. Hi there,
    I was looking for more information on the Montessori Method when I came across your article. I found it interesting because it actually contradicted (except for the materials used in class, which I didnt think of at all) what I thought the Montessori education would be like. And then I read the comments and then of course realized that i had assumed that all Montessori schools would be like the one you taught in. So my point is this: since different Montessori schools have a different way of implementing the Montessori method, is there any way for me to figure out which Montessori school best suits me without relying on Internet reviews? Should I check the teachers' certification, classroom settings, etc?

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    1. Great question, and one I don't have the answer too. All schools and even classrooms are different, as the Montessori Method was never incorporated or standardized. So some schools use the method very well but also bring others contemporary standards of learning theory, while others do little of the method outside of just having the name. Also because there is no central accreditation, some Montessori schools may fall beneath the standards of other preschools or Kindergarden in topics they cover, and, most importantly, safety and health issues.

      It's hard to say what Montessori school would suit you - do you want one that is more traditional, and practices the original method with Maria Montessori's materials? Or one that incorporates other learning theories but is still centered around the Montessori methodology?

      Here's a few things, from someone that worked in Montessori schools, that you can check into:

      - Is the school accredited by the American Montessori Society? I doesn't have to be, but one that is went through a rigorous process, including curriculum, governance, facilities, and health/safety standards.
      - Do teachers have ECE credentials or credits? This is not required by all states, or some states require a certain amount of teachers or lead teachers to have certification. Isn't a clear indicator of a good school, but a school that's willing to pay more for teachers with standard training is a good sign.
      - Do teachers have Montessori credentials? Usually, the lead teacher in a classroom will have spent a summer or a year getting a certificate. This, like Montessori schools, is not standardize, and the quality of each certificate varies; sometimes knowledge of Montessori and training at the school is more than adequate. A Montessori school without trained and knowledgeable Montessori teachers is just a preschool with the name attached.
      - The classroom environment. The Montessori method is centered around learner independence, so a skilled teacher will allow children, even small, to move independently and use materials (that they know how to use) by themselves. It will look like organized chaos. It's a subtle balance - too much chaos, and it's just daycare, without the basic structure needed for learning. Too little chaos, and the teacher or assistants are asserting too much control, beyond what's necessary with the method.
      - Ask about how the children are being prepared for entry to public Kindergartens and elementary schools. A skilled teacher will be aware of public school standards and having an organized curriculum to prepare the children; hopefully they will be exceeded minimum standards, not just barely making them. Too many schools confuse independent learning with not staying on top of their students' education.
      - Like any private school, be aware of health and safety standards. Do a little research into the minimum qualifications that your state has for preschools and private schools - like where trash is located, bathroom facilities, and possible hazardous chemicals. You'd be surprised what some preschools do and don't do.

      So as I wrote, I don't think the Montessori Method is some magical panacea compared to an equally pragmatic, diverse, and competent non-Montessori preschool. But, in my experience, families with the resources to send their children to quality Montessori schools with competent and knowledgeable teachers have good experiences. It's what you make of it, I guess.

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