Monthly Archives: May 2013

Montessori Documents From 1911: A Scientist and an Experimenter

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 5-24 • 6.27 13PMThe Montessori Society of Canada has a great page up about Alexander Graham and Mabel Hubbard Bell’s Montessori lab school at Beinn Bhreagh in Nova Scotia in 1912, and the early days of Montessori in North America. It tells the story of the Bell family’s early interest in Montessori education and their support of the movement as it came to America.  It’s well worth the read for anyone interested in Montessori history.

What’s really interesting about the article, though, are the links to historical documents from the period. (I’ve started a new page on this site to collect links to these and others that come along.) Bell kept careful notes of the experiments at Beinn Bhreagh, including the Montessori classroom, and the Montessori Society of Canada has posted scans on the site.  A sample: 

Next, business actually began.  Each little experimenter carried his or her chair to a table, picked out an object which struck his fancy as worthy of investigation, and then began. Alex and Barbara and Georgie chose cylinders and studied different sizes and their relations to different sized holes.  Robert and Sadie investigated the properties of various solids.  Others tried experiments with tower building.

Also linked are the hugely influential McClure’s magazine Montessori articles from 1911-1914. The Bells likely learned about Montessori from S. S. McClure, a frequent visitor to intellectual gatherings at Beinn Bhreagh. An early description of Montessori’s scientific approach:

 Maria Montessori is an example of genius in education – a field where genius is not often found. Her work is creative and can not be defined in any number of formulae. She is always experimenting, revising, modifying. … This magazine believes that her experiments are of the highest importance, and that her system of teaching is based upon observations and experiments that have never been made before, or, having been made, were never so correlated.

 Contemporary articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post are linked as well. Montessori Historical Documents on this site collects and gives context for these documents and others that I may come across. As always, submissions and information are more than welcome.

Thanks to the Michael Olaf Company for bringing this page to light.

AMI: The I is for International(e)

Their are many Montessori organizations in the U.S. and around the world doing great work—an overview from this website can be found here. But whatever your politics, you have to recognize that AMI has been doing international Montessori since the very beginning.

Apparently they’ve been keeping track. They posted this map this week on facebook and Twitter, marking their 100th international endeavor:

AMI map

(click the map for a larger image, or follow the link)

In other news, TMO will be offline this week as its editor goes with Montessori 7th years to the Appalachians.  More news, information, video, and links to come!

Montessori Mention at Psychology Today

ImageA throwaway Montessori mention today: Montessori Had it Right: We Learn by Doing, by Dr. Sian Beilock, a professor at the University of Chicago, in Pscyhology Today.  (She has a new book out: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.)

The article describes new research that shows that, in fact, writing development precedes and improves reading development in the brain.   Toddlers who practiced letter shapes had better letter recognition than those who practiced naming words, and brain imaging showed faster development of the fusiform gyrus, which is involved in letter recognition.

Who knew? Beilock casually mentions Montessori in the headline, but it’s not just “learning by doing.” As many Montessorians know, writing comes before reading in the Children’s House classroom because that’s what Dr. Montessori observed working with children.  Nice to see the brain research catching up.

Interestingly, Beilock and Montessori turned up together in a 2008 piece on, Don’t Just Stand There, Think, talking about “embodied cognition.”  This is the idea that “we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies.”  At the time, this was a “young field” in the world of psychology, although:

Some educators see in it a new paradigm for teaching children, one that privileges movement and simulation over reading, writing, and reciting.


The article cites a study by Beilock, and at the end he brings in who else but Dr. Angeline Lillard!

While embodied cognition remains a young field, some specialists believe that it suggests a rethinking of how we approach education.

Angeline Lillard, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says that one possibility is to take another look at the educational approach that Italian educator Maria Montessori laid out nearly 100 years ago, theories that for decades were ignored by mainstream educators.

A key to the Montessori method is the idea that children learn best in a dynamic environment full of motion and the manipulation of physical objects. In Montessori schools, children learn the alphabet by tracing sandpaper letters, they learn math using blocks and cubes, they learn grammar by acting out sentences read to them.

As it turns out, Lillard cites Beilock in the American Journal of Play article I featured on this site last week, and they’re all over together in psychological bibliographies.

So this is what it looks like to be in the conversation.  More and more brain-based stuff for us to point to.

Hat tip: Montessori Madman Daniel Petter-Lippstein.

Ten Thousand

ten thousand barSometime last night The Montessori Observer had its ten thousandth view! The site has 263 “likes” on Facebook and 36 followers (click “Follow” up on the left for email updates).

If you like what you see and read here, and you think other people would like it too, if they only knew about it, please like, share, follow, post to your email groups, put a link in your school newsletter or on your website, and pass it on.  And as always, if you see something that should be added or corrected, please let me know.

Thanks to all my readers!  Let’s take it to 100,000 or more!

Update at 8:15 pm, 12 hours later:  In 12 hours, we went from 10,000 hits to 10,373 , picked up 15 likes for 278, and 2 followers, making 38.   To the 195 “unique visitors” today, thanks for the boost.   This Montessori thing could really catch on!

The Best of Montessori Video

If you’ve ever gone looking for Montessori videos on the internet, you know there’s a lot out there.  Go to Google or YouTube and you’ll get literally millions of hits.  Who has time to wade through all of that to find out what’s worth watching and sharing?

The Montessori Observer, that’s who!  A new page on the site, Montessori Videos, breaks it down  for you and serves up the best of the best in five categories: “Peek Inside” the Classroom, School Videos, “About Montessori”, Children’s House Activities, and Montessori Concepts.  Videos from Baan Dek Montessori and the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector.

Browse, view, marvel, and share! 

Cycles In Nature: A Montessori Adolescent Event


The Montessori Institute for the Science of Peace, Educateurs Sans Frontières, and the 2013 International Montessori Congress have put together an exciting event to “bring Montessori adolescents into the big picture and celebrate their role in the Montessori world and beyond.”

Montessori schools with adolescent programs are invited to organize participation in an international “Cycles in Nature” event. Students will spend May 30 on their bicycles, reflecting on and documenting the natural world, and  submit writing, images, sound, etc., for a youth statement on the environment to be presented at the 2013 International Congress in Portland, Oregon this summer.

In addition, schools are invited to sponsor adolescents to attend the Congress and take part in keynotes and special events planned for them, including a youth training for Educateurs Sans Frontières, AMI’s global children’s outreach program.

This an exciting opportunity to get our Montessori youth represented at the Congress, and involved in the growing Montessori peace movement.  Get involved and pass it on!

More information:

News Flash: Diapers Make Walking More Difficult for Babies

New on Slate’s generally excellent How Babies Work blog by writer and dad Nicholas DayDiapers make walking more difficult for babies.  He pretty much nails the idea of adult-fostered obstacles to independence.  Here’s the lede:

So let’s say you’re a baby. You really want to walk, but walking turns out to be hard—stunningly hard. And then it hits you: This would be a lot easier if your parents hadn’t stuffed this big heavy bag of warm pee between your legs. Is this some sort of practical joke?

Not sure I’m ready to go all the way with diaper-free babies as detailed in the New York Times here and skewered on Slate here, but around the house on the hardwood floors, with a clean-up cloth at hand?  On the grass in the back yard? Why make life harder for babies?

It’s not clear whether Day has heard of Montessori and A to I in particular, but you can easily let him know at his contact link here.

Montessori, Play, Lillard, and Empirical Research

Dr. Angeline Lillard, professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, as well as several academic articles on Montessori, and Montessori speaker and advocate, has a new article in the American Journal of Play: Playful Learning and Montessori Education.  It’s long, dense but readable, and bristling with objectivity, academic citations, and peer-reviewed research.

Because the world of public education depends on academic studies and research, the article has all kinds of implications for the expansion of Montessori Primary to many more children.  It also offers a lot of theory and data for conversations with curious or skeptical non-academics.  This one should be on the coffee table in the admissions office at every Montessori school out there.

I encourage readers to read take the time to read the whole thing. Here’s the executive summary:

  • Play, as opposed to didactic learning, is a big deal in the world of Early Child Education.
  • Montessori has been generally considered anti-play (when it is considered at all).
  • Which seems strange, since freely chosen, open-ended activity is what we do!
  • In fact, Montessori has many of the elements identified as part of playful learning (to wit, structure, objects, interactive lessons, free choice, peer interactions, intrinsic rewards, and fun).
  • What Montessori doesn’t do is pretend play, such as dress-up, toy kitchens, and fantasy.
  • When you look at the research, the evidence for pretend play (as opposed to play in general) isn’t all that strong one way or the other.
  • Consequently, we don’t really know if adding pretend play to Montessori environments would help or hurt.
  • But we can look to see if the other elements of “playful learning Montessori style” is helpful to children’s learning.
  • This can be problematic because Montessori is practiced under a range of interpretations.
  • But if we control for certain elements of “high-fidelity” Montessori, we see improved social and cognitive outcomes.

That’s a very condensed summary of a thorough and detailed article.  Why is this so important?

Dr. Lillard bridges two worlds that don’t communicate much or understand each other.  Montessorians often don’t get why we’re not more widely adopted, especially in the pubic sphere.  Academics often don’t seem to ‘get’ Montessori, or find it relevant to their work.  There are two reasons for this state of affairs.

One reason we have stayed on the sidelines is the play question. The academic world sees us as didactic rather than play oriented.  But ‘play-based’ is the gold standard in early child education.  The article lays that perception on the table and takes it apart point by point.  It give Montessorians a way to talk about, and answer, the kinds of questions outsiders will ask.  Consider handing this to the smart and skeptical parent who wants to know “what the research says.” It also opens the question of pretend play on both ends, challenging Montessorians to consider our biases, and asking the academy to put up some solid research on why it belongs in schools in the first place.

(Recently D. Lillard has taken on exactly that question.  She has an article questioning the research supporting pretend play, followed by a fascinating exchange of comments, in the Psychological Bulletin 2013, 139/1)

More generally, the world of public policy, where funding and curriculum decisions for schools, Head Start, and early childhood education programs are made, depends on peer-reviewed, quantifiable, replicable research. Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of this .  That’s because of selection bias (it’s hard to get a control group of families who would have chosen Montessori but couldn’t) and because the topic has seemed so nebulous—how can researchers know what  they’re measuring when they measure Montessori?  What Lillard does here is outline a research framework—defining Montessori, translating our practices into technical, researchable topics, and laying pout enticing possibilities for further work.

Dr. Lillard told me that she wrote this paper primarily for an academic audience.  But it carries a challenge for Montessorians as well. There are legitimate issues around measurement and testing, to be sure, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  That is the language they speak where the decisions are made, and if we want to bring our voice to the conversation, we would do well to learn to speak it as well.  And if we can tell our story in language they can understand, we will get our story out to many more children and adults.  If not, we will remain an mostly exclusive niche.

Slate Magazine Calls Out Grades, Cites Montessori

An article today from The Case Against Grades, by Michael Thomsen, spells out everything that’s wrong with   the 116-year old A-B-C-D-F system, in no uncertain terms.  I’ll quote liberally from the article because it’s so good, but please, click though and read the whole thing.  A sampling:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn…

With data:

I was all set to comment about Montessori, as the largest (by far) organized pedagogy which explicitly rejects grades, when I got to this in the meat of the article:

The most famous example are Montessori schools, noted for their lack of grades, multiage classes, and extended periods where students can chose their own projects from a selected range of materials. The schools have educated many of today’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, including Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales, business management legend Peter Drucker, and video game icon Will Wright.

It goes on, citing Angeline Lillard’s widely cited 2006 article Evaluating Montessori Education:

A 2006 comparison in Milwaukee found that Montessori students performed better than grade-based students at reading and math; they also “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.”

But isn’t Montessori just for those who can afford it?  Thomsen is way ahead of you:

Some contend that Montessori schools attract more affluent and successful parents, who give their children an inherent advantage, but the Milwaukee study was built around a random lottery for Montessori enrollment. All the children in the study came from families with similar economic backgrounds, with average incomes ranging between $20,000 and $50,000.

He goes on to describe Summerhill and free schools modeled after it, and I think that’s just fine.  That’s the company we want to be mentioned among.  Go ahead with the full free school philosophy if you’re ready to go that far.  If you’re looking for something equally progressive, a touch more accessible, and quite possibly in your neighborhood or coming soon, check out a Montessori school.