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).