The Fuss About Montessori

The Fuss about Montessori:
Why is it so darn great, anyway?
By, Julie Vaillancourt

What’s the deal with Montessori education? Why does it always come up in conversation when people’s kids start pushing the preschool age? You’ll hear questions and comments like the following:

“What’s the difference between Montessori and Waldorf?”
“Is it really worth it to send my child to a Montessori preschool rather than a really good daycare program?”
“I don’t even know what Montessori is about, but I think it’s supposed to be really great.”

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It’s true, a mystery surrounds this mad Montessori method… the Montessori mystique, if you will. Nearly every parent swears by it, most children thrive in it, and yet not one person can really explain its magic in a few simple sentences. This includes me. But I’ll give it my best go, without getting overly theoretical, which, mind you, is quite challenging for most people who have studied this complex and yet brilliantly simple discipline.

Parents praise quality Montessori education because they find that their children are generally happier. But why this happiness? Well, let’s think about a subject we know all too well: being a grown-up. Because – believe it or not – children and adults are actually the same species, so we’ve got a few things in common. In order to begin this process, I’d like you to complete a brief True or False questionnaire. Don’t worry, it’s mindlessly simple.

When you have just acquired a new skill through fulfilling work and effort, you want someone else to do it for you anyway. (T / F)

When you are learning something new, you want to become competent in the basics and move up step by step. (T / F)

When you walk into a messy, disorganized room, you feel less at ease than if it were orderly. (T / F)

When someone is teaching you a practical skill, you learn by observing first and then practicing it yourself. (T / F)

You learn best when someone tells you with words how to do something, then asks you to do it, but continues to tell you how to do it while you’re practicing it. (T / F)

When bored or restless, you tend to succumb to behaviors or actions that you normally wouldn’t had you been busy doing something meaningful. (T / F)

When really fascinated by something, you can spend hours on it without even noticing the time passing, and if something interrupts you or breaks your concentration, you may feel frustrated. ( T / F )

You are either always active and social or always independent and needing solitude. (T / F)

You gain more from specific and honest feedback as opposed to vague praises. (T / F)

Okay, that’s the 9-question quiz for you, and I’d like you to think about why I may have been asking those questions. I guarantee you, if you think long enough, you will be able to describe Montesssori education and why it’s so effective. Children and adults, it seems, thrive in strikingly similar conditions. But I’ll save you the effort and describe it myself in the paragraph below, and you will see how Montessori, in all its beautiful simplicity, is not so mysterious after all.

The first thing a Montessori child walks into is an orderly classroom: A place for everything and everything in its place. It is clean, peaceful, beautiful, child-sized, and bright. The activities on the shelves ascend in order from basic to complex, allowing the child to work incrementally, setting him/her up for success. Just like Starbucks, a Montessori classroom should feel predictable, consistent and safe.

The children learn to care for and maintain their surroundings, cultivating the notion that we’re all in this together. The guide is just that: a guide. He or she shows the child, individually or in small groups, the new lesson to be learned based on individualized lesson plans which address each child’s readiness and interest. The lesson is delivered slowly and deliberately, allowing the child’s spongy little mind to soak it all up.

Then the guide transfers the work to the child, observing to make sure the child can use the materials respectfully. He/she then walks away, monitoring from afar, allowing the child to experiment independently.

The child learns by doing, with few interruptions, controlling the pace. The child gains confidence through the subconscious discovery that he/she is capable of problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and concentration. (“I did it all by myself!”) The child can ask for help from a seasoned peer or from the assistant or guide. The feedback is constructive, kind, and supportive, encouraging the child’s independence.

When the child is feeling social he/she can talk to a classmate while working at a group of tables, have snack with a friend, or join a small group activity. When the child prefers solitude, he/she can read a book in the reading corner, go out to the garden to water plants, or sit at a solo table with a favorite activity. When given the freedom to do what they love and love what they do, the children are less likely to act up and disrupt others.

To sum it all up, Maria Montessori, neither mythical nor mystic, states, “Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.”

Now, who wouldn’t want to be in a classroom like that? Hopefully this unravels the mystery surrounding why Montessori education works. By integrating the otherwise dichotomous elements of freedom and structure, individuality and community, independence and guidance, choice and limits, a human being (whether adult or child) has the potential to thrive.

And when we thrive, we feel happy. And when someone is happily thriving, watch out world! You may have another Google, Amazon.com, or Wikipedia founder on your hands… or perhaps an Anne Frank, Gabriela Garcia Marquez, or a Jackie Kennedy Onassis (yes, all Montessori alumnae)!

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