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The Montessori method is an educational method for children, based on theories of child development originated by Italian educator Maria Montessori in the late 19th and early 20th century. It is applied primarily in preschool and elementary school settings, though some Montessori high schools exist.

The method is characterized by an emphasis on self-directed activity on the part of the child and clinical observation on the part of the teacher (often called a "director", "directress", or "guide"). It stresses the importance of adapting the child's learning environment to his developmental level, and of the role of physical activity in absorbing academic concepts and practical skills.

Although there are many schools which use the name "Montessori," the word itself is not recognized as a trademark, nor is it associated with a single specific organization. Thus it is legally possible to use the term "Montessori" without necessary adherence to a particular training or teaching method. Nonetheless, schools identifying themselves as "Montessori schools" generally apply this method in their teaching.


Dr. Montessori developed what became known as "The Montessori Method" as an outgrowth of her post-graduate research into the intellectual development of children with mental retardation. Building on the work of French physicians Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, she attempted to build an environment for the scientific study of children with various sorts of physical and mental disabilities. Following successes in the treatment of these children, she began to research the application of her techniques to the education of children of average intelligence.

By 1906, Dr. Montessori was sufficiently well-known that she was asked to run a day-care center in the run-down San Lorenzo district of Rome. She used the opportunity to observe the children's interactions with materials she developed, refining them as well as developing new materials with which the children could work. This materials-centered approach, in which the teacher primarily observes while the children select materials designed to impart specific concepts or skills, is a hallmark of Montessori education.

Montessori's initial work was primarily with preschool-aged children. After observing developmental changes occurring in children who are just beginning elementary school, she and her son Mario began a new course of research into adapting her approach to elementary-aged children.

Toward the end of her life, in her book From Childhood To Adolescence, Montessori sketched out a view of how her teaching methodology might be applied to the secondary and university levels.


Introduction to the Methodology in Practice

The Montessori Method is a teaching methodology developed in Italy by Dr. Maria Montessori. With the opening of her first school in 1907 in Rome, the term Montessori became associated with schools that use Dr. Montessori’s educational approach to children as well as her precise educational materials tailored for children’s developmental needs, and a number of schools around the world implement her approach to education for a wide range of ages.

“From the moment the child enters the classroom, each step in his education is seen as a progressive building block, ultimately forming the whole person, in the emergence from childhood to adult. All focus is on the needs of the child.” [1]

One distinguishing feature of Montessori at the preschool age is that children direct their own learning, choosing among the sections of a well-structured and stocked classroom including Practical Life (fine and gross motor skill development), Sensorial (sensory and brain development), Language, Math, Geography, Science and Art. The role of a teacher is to introduce children to materials and then remain a “silent presence” [2]in the classroom.


The Montessori philosophy is built upon the idea that children develop and think differently than adults; that they are not merely "adults in small bodies". Dr. Montessori advocated children's rights, children working to develop themselves into adults, and that these developments would lead to world peace.

The Montessori method discourages traditional measurements of achievement (grades, tests) under the premise that it is damaging to the inner growth of children (and adults). Feedback and qualitative analysis of a child's performance does exist but is usually provided in the form of a list of skills, activities and critical points, and sometimes a narrative of the child's achievements, strengths and weaknesses, with emphasis on the improvement of those weaknesses.


The premises of a Montessori approach to teaching and learning include the following:

  • A view of children as competent beings capable of self-directed learning.
  • That children learn in a distinctly different way from adults.
  • The ultimate importance of observation of the child interacting with her or his environment as the basis for ongoing curriculum development. Presentation of subsequent exercises for skill development and information accumulation are based on the teacher's observation that the child has mastered the current exercise(s).
  • Delineation of sensitive periods of development, during which a child's mind is particularly open to learning specific skills or knowledge, including language development, sensorial experimentation and refinement, and various levels of social interaction.
  • A belief in the "absorbent mind", that children from birth to around age 6 possess limitless motivation to achieve competence within their environment and to perfect skills and understandings. This phenomenon is characterized by the young child's capacity for repetition of activities within sensitive period categories, such as exhaustive babbling as language practice leading to language competence.
  • That children are masters of their environment, which has been specifically prepared for them to be academic, comfortable, and allow a maximum amount of independence.
  • That children learn through discovery, so didactic materials that are self-correcting are used as much as possible.


Montessori is a highly hands-on approach to learning. It encourages children to develop their observation skills by doing many types of activities. These activities include use of the five senses, kinetic movement, spatial refinement, small and large motor skill coordination, and concrete knowledge that leads to later abstraction.


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Bespoke child-sized furniture.

Montessori classrooms provide an atmosphere that is pleasant and attractive to allow children to learn at their own pace and interact with others in a natural and peaceful environment. In the ideal classroom, children would have unfettered access to the outdoors, but this is frequently not possible given modern day space considerations (and cost thereof).

In response, Montessori teachers stock their classrooms with nature shelves, living plants and small pets, or perhaps a window sill garden, allowing children to experience as much of the natural world as possible given modern constraints.

In the elementary, middle, and upper school years, Montessori schools ideally adhere to the three-year age range of pupils to encourage an interactive social and learning environment. This system allows flexibility in learning pace and allowing older children to become teachers by sharing what they have learned.

Pedagogical materials

Every activity has its place in the classroom and is self-contained and self-correcting. The original didactic materials are specific in design, conforming to exact dimensions, and each activity is designed to focus on a single skill, concept, or exercise. All of the material is based on SI units of measurement (for instance, the Pink Tower is based on the 1 cm cube) which allows all the materials to work together and complement each other, as well as introduce the SI units through concrete example. In addition to this, material is intended for multiple uses at the primary level. For example, manipulative materials initially used to allow the child to analyze sense impressions are also designed to improve fine motor coordination needed for writing.

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Girls at The Druk White Lotus School learning with Montessori materials

Other materials are often constructed by the teacher: felt storyboard characters, letter boxes (small containers of objects that all start with the same sound) for the language area, science materials (e.g. dinosaurs for tracing, etc.), scent or taste activities, and so on. The practical life area materials are almost always put together by the teacher. All activities must be neat, clean, attractive and preferably made of natural materials such as glass or wood, rather than plastic. Sponges, brooms, and dustpans are provided and mishaps, including broken glassware, are not punished but rather treated as an opportunity for the children to demonstrate responsibility by cleaning up after themselves.

At higher grade levels, the teacher becomes more involved in creating materials since not only the students' capacities but also the potential subjects widen considerably. Many of the earlier materials, moreover, can be revisited with a new explanation, emphasis, or use; for example, the cube that a five-year-old used as an exercise in color matching is revealed to the elementary level student to physically embody the mathematical relationship (a+b)³=a³ + 3a²b + 3ab² +b³.


A child does not engage in an activity until the teacher or another student has directly demonstrated its proper use, and then the child may use it as desired (limited only by individual imagination or the material's potentially dangerous qualities). Each activity leads directly to a new level of learning or concept. When a child actively learns, that child acquires the basis for later concepts. Additionally, repetition of activities is considered an integral part of this learning process, and children are allowed to repeat activities as often as they wish. If a child expresses boredom on account of this repetition, then the child is considered to be ready for the next level of learning.

Children are introduced to equipment that is designed especially for the lesson at hand. For example, children are introduced to sandpaper letters as the first step to reading. Sandpaper letters are simple lower case letters cut out of fine-grained sandpaper and mounted on wooden cards. Simple sounds that flow together are introduced first. In addition, children are taught the sounds of the letters, not the names. For example, the teacher would show the child the k sandpaper letter and say kuh. The child is encouraged to trace the letter as he or she says the sound aloud. Once the first letter is mastered, the child will be introduced to another.

When children have learned seven or eight letter sounds, they are introduced to the movable alphabet. The movable alphabet is a set of letter cutouts where the vowels and consonants are different colors. Using these letters, the child will learn how to blend CVC (consonant vowel consonant) sounds to form words such as "mat" and "cat."

Home schoolers may find both the philosophy and the materials useful since each child is treated as an individual and the activities are self-contained, self-correcting, and expandable. Aspects of the Montessori Method can easily scale down to a homeschooling environment — save for Montessori's focus on maintaining a group of children within a three-year age range.

Montessori in the United States

Montessori schools

Because there is no official registry or even definition of what constitutes a Montessori school, there is some dispute as to the number of private Montessori schools in the United States. Estimates range from just under 4,000 to greater than 8,000. There are about 250 public and 120 charter schools that include Montessori programs (see below). Most private schools have a primary program (from 3-6 years) and often a lower elementary (6-9 years). Upper elementary programs (9-12 years) are less common, although about one school in eight will have this program. At this time Montessori junior highs and high schools are rare. However, the first public Montessori high school in the country, Clark Montessori located in Cincinnati, Ohio, was started in 1994. In 2002, Great River High School[1] opened in St. Paul, MN. Several pilot Montessori junior high schools, have opened based on writings by Montessori on Erdkinder, German for "Children of the Land", which was a term Montessori coined for children ages 12 through 18. The last few years have seen the advent of infant and toddler Montessori programs. Many schools, offer "Mother and Child" programs in which parents can learn about Montessori and how to apply the philosophy to their child-rearing practices. In many other schools, the demand for high-quality childcare has spurred the growth of Montessori infant, or "Nido" (the Italian word for "nest") and toddler, or "Infant Community" programs.

Montessori programs in public schools

Public school districts in the U.S.began experimenting with Montessori classrooms in the mid 1970s in Arlington, VA, Philadelphia and Reading, OH. By the mid-80s there were about 50 sites. With funding support from federal magnet grants and desegregation efforts, that number surpassed 200 by the beginning of the 21st century.

A survey conducted in 1981, collected data from 25 of the approximately 57 school districts nationwide known to have Montessori programs at the time of this study (Chattin-McNichols, 1981). The only other study of public Montessori programs is much more recent. During school year 1990-91, this study received responses from 63 of the 120 school districts or schools to whom surveys were sent (Michlesen and Cummings, 1991). Results from this study indicate that the number of students in the schools or school districts averaged 233, with an average of 10 teachers per program. A total of 32, or 58%, of the schools surveyed reported that they were magnet schools. A total of 69% of the Montessori programs shared a building with other programs. District funding for the training of Montessori teachers was provided in 66% of the districts. Only 42% of the programs provided the three-year age span of three-, four-, and five-year-olds. This indicates that the degree to which particular districts implement the Montessori model varies.

A total of 16 of the 57 schools charged tuition for some part of the program. About two thirds of the programs provided free transportation. In addition, two thirds of the districts reported that additional staff were used in the Montessori magnet schools. These factors can add to the overall costs of the program.

In January 2007, The Washington Post published an article titled "Montessori, Now 100, Goes Mainstream".[3] The article discussed the increasing number of Montessori public school programs, particularly in African American communities.

Once a maverick experiment that appealed only to middle-class white families, Montessori schools have become popular with some black professionals and are getting results in low income public schools with the kind of children on which Montessori first tested her ideas.

The article goes on to discuss how Montessori has been implemented in the public schools, and has become an attractive option to black, middle class parents because it provides an alternative to the "No Child Left Behind" strategies in most current public school curricula.


Among the critics of the Montessori method are William Heard Kilpatrick and John Dewey, who argued that the method is too restrictive and does not adequately emphasize social interaction and development. Dewey believed that the Montessori method stifled creativity. However, Dewey and Montessori agreed that the needs of the student should direct education, and that the teacher should act as a guide to the educational process. [How to reference and link to summary or text]

A further criticism of the Montessori method is that it does not traditionally assign homework.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The lessons taught in a Montessori classroom are not generally conducive to home use, and the materials are highly specialized. It would be unlikely that a parent would buy all the materials necessary to replicate a Montessori classroom, and would not be able to compensate for the social nature of the classroom in any event. Critics allege that a child who transfers to a traditional school and is required to do homework will have trouble adjusting, but while this is the case in some instances, the opposite also occurs. Homework in some form has started to find its way into some implementations of the method.[How to reference and link to summary or text] In any case, the pedagogical value of homework is a matter of substantial debate.

For many years, Montessori schools in North America did not believe in marking students according to letter grade system, and instead issued report cards that focused entirely on descriptions of the student's behaviour and progress in class.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Many parents complained that such report cards made it too difficult to get a clear picture on how well or poorly a student was doing in their subjects. As a result, some American Montessori schools now issue letter grades just as non-Montessori classes do. Some traditional style public schools have now shifted away from a letter grade, causing opponents of this methodology to claim that the issue of student evaluation and current standards creates further confusion when paired with descriptive grading.

Within the Montessori professional community, there have been squabbles ranging from minutiae to the core principles of the philosophy. Those from one training background may believe another is too strict or outdated whilst their constituents accuse others of diluting Montessori's scientifically derived vision of ideal environments to support human development. [How to reference and link to summary or text]


Angeline Stoll Lillard's 2005 book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius (Oxford University Press) presents the first real comprehensive overview of research done on the comparison of Montessori educated children to those educated in a more traditional manner. Lillard cites research indicating that the children do better in later schooling than non-Montessori children do, in all subjects, and argues the need for more research in this area.

A 2006 study published in the journal "Science" concluded that Montessori students performed better than their standard public school counterparts in a variety of arenas, including not only traditional academic areas such as language and mathematical reasoning, but in social cognition skills as well. [4]:

On several dimensions, children at a public inner city Montessori school had superior outcomes relative to a sample of Montessori applicants who, because of a random lottery, attended other schools. By the end of kindergarten, the Montessori children performed better on standardized tests of reading and math, engaged in positive interaction on the playground more, and showed advanced social cognition and executive control more. They also showed more concern for fairness and justice. At the end of elementary school, Montessori children wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.

The authors concluded that, "when strictly implemented, Montessori education fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools."

See also


  1. "The Essential Montessori: An Introduction to the Woman, the Writings, the Method, and the Movement," Elizabeth G. Hainstock, 1997, p. xiii.
  2. "The Montessori Method," Dr. Maria Montessori, online edition, ch. XXII, p.371.
  3. Mathews, J: "Montessori, Now 100, Goes Mainstream", The Washington Post January 2, 2007, B1
  4. Lillard A, Else-Quest N. "The early years. Evaluating Montessori education." Science. 2006 Sep 29; 313 (5795): 1893-4.


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