New Research Supports Montessori — Or Does It?

Child Develpment coverThere’s a new study out in Child Development (a leading peer-reviewed journal in the field), and covered in the Washington Post, that goes straight to Montessori’s complicated interaction with the world of academically recognized empirical science.

The study challenges the commonly held view that children under six do not understand place value in multi-digit numbers.  Instead, the authors found some understanding, most likely gleaned from environmental experiences hearing and seeing such numbers, in children as young as three.  Children were able to identify and compare spoken numbers, choosing among written representations, images of base-10 blocks, and clusters of dots, with an accuracy significantly greater than chance.

This is great news for Montessori teachers, since we have been presenting place value and operations with four-digit numbers to four and five year old children for more than one hundred years.  There’s that smug little affirmation we get when solid research bears out something we already do.

But that’s not the only result the study found.

The authors went on to give children instruction in identifying and comparing multi-digit numbers using two different methods: decimal block manipulatives (similar to Montessori golden bead material) and abstract symbols (single digits on cards).  Surprisingly (to Montessorians), the manipulatives instruction was much less effective at improving numeral recognition.  In fact, children who were instructed with decimal blocks scored lower on testing after instruction.

What are we to make of this?  As Montessorians, we’re a little prone to smugly identifying published research with confirms our preconceived notions and our century of practice.  We sometimes speak of “the science catching up with Montessori.” But we’re not always so quick to point out research that points the other way.  There’s no denying it: we cherry-pick the science.

This piece throws that practice into sharp relief. All in the same article, a scientific affirmation of Montessori and — a challenge. Now, it’s easy to attack the conclusions of the second finding.  “What kind of manipulatives?  What kind of instruction?  Ours is better!  Our approach gives the child real understanding of the decimal system, not some pointless superficial ability to get the right answers.”

Well, maybe so.  But we don’t get to accept the first finding and throw out the others just because we have a gut feeling that they’re wrong.  These are empirical claims, and if we are going to hitch our wagon to empirical science (which we should and must, following Montessori-as-scientist), we need to get out there and prove them.  That’s how science is done.  One study by itself isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning.  But to be part of that story, we need to be represented in the academy, and to be willing to put our claims and methods to the test.

Comments are open on the Post piece here (scroll down, log in).  You can contact the authors of the study through their institutions:  Kelly S. Mix  and Jerri Stockton at Michigan State, Linda S. Prather and Richard Prather at Indiana State.

5 responses to “New Research Supports Montessori — Or Does It?

  1. Nice piece Dave. Asking these questions and listening to all answers is important. I wonder about the deep learning and whether or not this kind of research can tell us if children understand numbers and can use them and evaluate the meaning of quantities (for example, the Federal deficit!). Thank you for bringing it all to us through your work here!


  2. David- I have to say I am pretty impressed that you caught this article! I have been busy since it came out and struggling with how to respond to it. Somehow I thought no one would have noticed it except me! Must have been because I wanted no one to see itto your point. It would be good to have a response in the post. Kathy

    From: The Montessori Observer Reply-To: The Montessori Observer Date: Monday, December 23, 2013 1:54 AM To: Kathy Minardi Subject: [New post] New Research Supports Montessori Or Does It? Montessori Observer posted: “Theres a new study out in Child Development (a leading peer-reviewed journal in the field), and covered in the Washington Post, that goes straight to Montessoris complicated interaction with the world of academically recognized empirical science. The”


    • Montessori Observer

      Thanks for the comment, Kathy

      Your comment got a little garbled there–were you suggesting that I (or someone) respond to the Washington Post article? I put a comment up there, and I would encourage others to comment as well. I’ve also been correspondence with one of the authors who, as it turns out, is a Montessori parent. We’re talking about how we can advance the Montessori research agenda in the academic world.

      By the way, the article came my way via a Montessori parent and friend’s facebook, so go social media!


  3. Very well said and exactly what I felt as a Montessorian. But I did ponder on the same question and realised that Montessori math is a bit different than what the researchers probably observed. While Montessori gives a lot of concrete material to children to manipulate, she also gives them the corresponding symbols to work with in the same way. The golden bead without the large number cards dont work so well for learning addition subtraction or division.

    If the research compared Montessori and only symbolic math and found symbolic better, i would have to rest my case.


    • Montessori Observer

      Thanks for the comment, Anjum.

      I feel about the same way. It would be good to get some solid research comparing well-implemented Montessori math to other methods. FOr that to happen, we need to build out the dataset represented in the Montessori census, as a first step.


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