Celebrating the Uniqueness of Montessori Part 1

Follow the Child

Happy Montessori Education Week! It's amazing to think that it's been 114 years since Maria Montessori founded the first Casa Dei Bambini in Rome, and today Montessori schools around the world still follow many of the exact same principles she developed way back then. As we celebrate this week, it's the perfect time to reflect on what has made Montessori education so distinctive and so transformative for generations of children. Over the past century, as countless educational fads have come and gone, Montessori education has remained remarkably faithful to its founding principles-- ideas that are just as powerful and relevant today as they were in 1907.

Maria Montessori started from a radical proposition: follow the child. If you've spent a lot of time in Montessori communities, you've probably heard this phrase so much that you hardly notice it anymore, but if you think about it--- what a revolutionary idea! It contradicts one of the most basic assumptions most adults have about education: that we have to get children to follow us in order to learn.

"It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method... I have studied the child; I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method."

-Maria Montessori

Montessori, however, refused to start with any assumptions about children and how they learn. She was a scientist, and so she began by observing children. What she observed was that children are, from the moment of birth, full of lively natural intelligence-- an intelligence which is often superior to that of adults. Learning is not something that needs to be forced on them; it comes as naturally to them as breathing. Maria Montessori devoted her life not to teaching children, but to learning from them. The result is a philosophy of education that sees itself as "an aid to life", devoted to supporting the full development of human potential from birth to adulthood. 

This distinctive starting point echoes through all of Montessori philosophy and practice, creating numerous major differences between the Montessori approach (follow the child) and what we might call "mainstream" education (follow the adult). Let's look at a few of them.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

One of the most pervasive "common sense" ideas about education is that children need extra incentives to learn. A lot of adults assume, consciously or subconsciously, that learning is difficult and boring for children, and therefore that children won't do it without some kind of reward and/or punishment. Happily, these have gotten gentler over the years, but the underlying belief is still common: adults must use praise or prizes to motivate "good work" and criticism to deter "bad behavior". 

But does this actually work? Increasingly, research shows that extrinsic motivation-- rewards and punishments-- is not an effective way to motivate real learning. Rather than emphasizing the value of learning, incentives often become obstacles, as children focus more on getting the praise or avoiding the criticism than on learning the subject. Most people who went to traditional schools can remember cramming for a test to get a good grade, then never looking at the material again. Worse, lots of us carry around painful memories of feeling humiliated when we made a mistake-- experiences that often drove us away from the subject, rather than inspiring us to trying harder. 

Montessori education refuses to introduce rewards and punishments into learning. Instead, it begins from the observation that all children are natural learners. Human beings are born curious, always exploring, experimenting, asking questions, making discoveries. Learning isn't something a child needs to be trained to do; it's a natural impulse, an evolutionary drive. Right from the beginning, Montessori emphasized that the role of adults in education is to act as a support for the child's intrinsic motivation by providing relevant experiences, offering assistance, and removing obstacles. Rather than praise a child for pleasing us, we celebrate the child's own sense of accomplishment. Rather than drawing attention to their mistakes, we privately note them and encourage continued practice. By nurturing a child's intrinsic motivation, Montessori education builds confidence, resilience, and a life-long love of learning.

Teacher-centered vs. Student-centered

Picture a typical school lesson when you were a kid. Chances are, if you're an adult now, you pictured a teacher standing at the front of the room, explaining something to a group of students who are all sitting at desks, listening. For most of modern history, this was the standard teaching practice in most schools. And, as we all know, it left many students feeling bored, frustrated, and disinterested in learning.

Now, thanks to the efforts of dedicated teachers and education researchers, many mainstream schools are moving away from this model. They're trying to incorporate more project-based learning, active time for students, peer collaboration, and individualized instruction. But for school systems coming from this old, teacher-centric model, it's not easy to implement these ideals. Their curriculums still dictate exactly what topics need to be taught in what order every year, usually based on one set of textbooks and materials. Whole-group instruction is still the norm. Even though we know that every child is unique, teachers are still expected to, somehow, make all students learn the same thing at the same time.  

In contrast, Montessori has been student-centered right from the beginning. The core daily routine of Montessori education is the three-hour work period, in which children are free to choose their own activities from many dozens of possible options. The classroom is full of materials designed for independent learning, and children move freely between different areas of study, sometimes working alone, sometimes with friends. Guides attract students to new subjects by building strong relationships and discovering ways to appeal to each child's unique interests, offering lessons individually or in small groups as needed. Because the classroom is decentralized and students are empowered to work at their own level, all children are able to be actively engaged in meaningful learning at all times.

Distraction vs. Concentration

One of the most common complaints one hears from modern teachers and parents is that children these days seem to have no attention span. They don't seem to be able to focus on anything independently for very long. They need constant adult attention to be able to complete tasks. They just don't seem to be able to concentrate! 

What we often overlook is how the structure of mainstream education may actually be hurting children's ability to develop their attention span. It is true that many young children cannot stay focused during lengthy teacher-centered lessons. So, often, the solution educators come up with is to change activities frequently. They bounce quickly from one subject to the next in order to try to hold the children's attention. 

Paradoxically, these quick changes of topic may be training children not to pay attention for very long, because there are few opportunities to stop and engage deeply with any particular activity. There is no option to stop and concentrate on one thing for a long period of time; the whole group has to move on together every ten or fifteen minutes. Eventually, children learn to expect an adult to provide a new activity at regular intervals. 

However, one of the first things Maria Montessori observed about young children is that they actually have very long attention spans for self-chosen activities. A three-year-old who is truly interested in something will often repeat it over and over and over again, sometimes for an hour or more, oblivious to external distractions. In fact, children at various stages of development often form intense interests in subjects that meet their developmental needs, and take great delight in fully immersing themselves in these topics. Montessori observed that this kind of concentration has a transformative power for children: when they are able to follow it through to its natural conclusion, they achieve a sense of peace, satisfaction, and relaxation. This kind of deep learning, which may be the same phenomenon that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified in his book Flow, not only extends the attention span and furthers learning skills, but also supports healthy emotional development. 

Maria Montessori was ahead of her time in identifying that these qualities-- intrinsic motivation, independent learning, and concentration-- were essential for children to achieve their highest potential. However, she also recognized that, even though these capacities are innate, they still need the right kind of environment in order to be able to flourish. In the next article in this series, we'll look at the second unique quality that defines Montessori education: the prepared environment.

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