What is a Montessori school?

Confession time. Until very recently I had no idea what a Montessori school was, and the first one I did see I thought was just a weird name for a school. When I had a child of my own it became apparent that it was more than just one school, but I still had no idea what it was actually all about.

Then you get talking to other parents and realize that ‘Montessori’ is one of those things in your life that you ‘know about’, until someone actually asks you about it at which you realize that the sum total of your ‘knowledge’ is that it is called Montessori and there are some schools that have it in their name. Its just one of those things that you assume you know, and maybe you are never going to admit to not knowing. So maybe its like the Emperor’s new cloths, or maybe its just me who is in the dark.

If I am an audience of one, then thank you for coming, I will plough on to dispel my own ignorance. Otherwise, strap in while we explore the alternative to mainstream education that is the Montessori approach to education.

Montessori History

Lets go back to the beginning, and dispel another myth I developed regarding Montessori. My step from realizing that there was more than one Montessori school was to think that it was something new. Wrong again!

The Montessori approach was developed by Maria Montessori, and Italian physician and educator. Maria was born in 1870, in Chiaravalle, Italy.

She began studying pedagogy in 1897. The first school was opened in 1907, the whole process seemingly a chance to put into practice her findings on education; to observe how children reacted; and to experiment with environment, materials, and lesson structures.

Feeling that her findings were important Montessori spent much of her time lecturing around the world on her new model for education. This led to the concept being adopted in various places around the world, although she often found herself at odds with the established order (not surprising as at the time the most valuable teaching tool was probably seen as the cane).

Maria Montessori died in 1952, aged 81. By the time of her death her system of teaching had spread throughout the world, though to this day it is seen more as an alternative, than a part of, mainstream education.

(Interestingly the original name of the system was “Method Franchetti-Montessori”. Franchetti was the family name of Alice and Leopold (Baron & Baroness) Franchetti of Città di Castello. The pair found that they agreed with a lot of Montessori’s ideas on education, and presumably had the money to bankroll a lot of the early development [though Maria Montessori was also not exactly from a poor background]. ‘Franchetti’ was removed from the title when the fascists came to power in Italy, in the 1930’s- the Franchetti’s were apparently jewish, the perennial scape-goats for European fundamentalists since the time for the Romans.)

Montessori Education in the Modern World

Although the Montessori method for education was intended for all stages of development it is most associated now with younger children. It is by far most prevalent amongst pre-primary establishments.

In a true Montessori school has ‘environments’ instead of classrooms, and children are encouraged to learn at their own pace. The key is ‘freedom within limits’: a series of ground rules establish what is and is not acceptable. For instance, the child is able to move between activities at their own discretion, however, they must not interfere (and therefore disrupt) with the learning of another child. Discipline is also on a personal level, with the child being encouraged to look within to discover what is socially acceptable behaviour- making decisions based on how they will effect others around them.

True Montessori should be religiously neutral. The individual child is encouraged to find their own moral code, which may or may not include religious teachings, however, those teachings will be from outside the classroom not within the environment of the school. This is not to say that you will not find a Montessori school in an area that is heavily biased towards a single religion that does not at least hint at that religions teachings.

Note the use of the term “true Montessori”. This is where it gets sticky for parents looking at the Montessori method for their children. The term “Montessori” is in the public domain, which means that anybody can add it to the name of their school without answering to anybody. Establishments following the method may register with a body such as the South African Montessori Assocation (SAMA), but they are not obliged to. So how do you know that you are looking at a genuine Montessori school?

The SAMA say on their web site that:

“Since the term ‘Montessori’ is in the public domain, many non-Montessori schools use it to capitalize on public interest in Montessori. But an authentic Montessori classroom must have the following basic characteristics at all levels: (a) A classroom atmosphere which encourages social interaction for cooperative learning, peer teaching and emotional development. (b) Teachers educated in the Montessori philosophy and methodology for the age level they are teaching. (c) Multi-aged students, and a diverse set of Montessori materials, activities and experiences which are designed to foster physical, intellectual, creative and social independence. It is very important to check the credentials of the teachers and the school before enrolling your child.”

The Montessori method has attracted a lot of independent study. Some studies are for, some against. If you are looking for definitive answers, then I am sorry to disappoint you. The purpose of this resource is to merely give you the choices that are available. Whether Montessori is the right option of your child is your decision. Certainly, there are merits in what the Montessori method tries to achieve, attempting to produce independent thinking individuals rather than rote learning robots.

Further reading:




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