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Montessori Talking Points

When they ask you, “so what is Montessori?” what do you say? If you’re like me, you’ve been trying to boil this down for years with little success. It seems like every piece is connected to every other piece, and you don’t know how to begin.

Last year the Montessori Madmen challenged us all to work on our Montessori Elevator Speeches—quick summaries of Montessori you could give in the space of an elevator ride. You’re in a hotel at a conference, and someone sees “Montessori” on your name tag and says, “Montessori? What’s that?” And you have the perfect spiel ready to roll out.

And some great pieces came out of that, still up on YouTube, including the top five winners.

But it doesn’t always work quite like that, does it? It all depends on who is on that (metaphorical) elevator with you—what floor they got on, where they’re getting off, and how long they have for the ride. Then there’s the tendency of Montessorians to go on and on. Joke:

Q: How do you get a Montessorian to talk about Montessori?

A: How do you get them to stop?

What’s really needed are Montessori Talking Points, to be tailored to the speaker, the audience, and the particular situation. So here’s my first run at them, to be adapted and improved as readers see fit. (Just try not to talk too much.)

Montessori is a method of education.

It’s a method of education, based on a model of human development, created over one hundred years ago by Maria Montessori.

In Montessori, the children choose their own work.

What the choices are, how they are presented, and with what freedoms and limits—that’s where it gets really interesting. But children choosing their own work is the central premise of Montessori education.

Montessori isn’t religious, it isn’t just for gifted children, and it isn’t just for the wealthy.

Montessori herself was Catholic, but Montessori education is secular. Montessori is about meeting children where they are, so it’s for all children. Montessori started out with “special needs” children and poor children, and serves children of all backgrounds and conditions.

Montessori happens in public and private schools, all over the world.

Montessori is the leading alternative pedagogy and operates in the U.S. in more than 500 public schools and thousands of private schools, and in tens of thousands of schools worldwide.

Montessori has mixed-age classrooms, hands-on materials, and students learning at their own pace.

Montessori pioneered many educational innovations which later became widely known, such as mixed-age classrooms, manipulatives, and student-guided learning, as well as child-sized furniture, phonics, scaffolding, student agency, learning progression, and many more.

Montessori is observation and evidence based.

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a medical doctor. She experimented, and she refined and developed her method throughout her lifetime. Modern brain and education research validate her work.

The best way to understand Montessori is to visit a school and see it in action.

If you want to know more about Montessori, many schools will let you visit a classroom for a short observation. There’s some good video available on the internet as well, but seeing it in person is best.

Montessori is education for peace.

Montessori famously said: “Preventing war is the work of politicians. Establishing peace is the work of education.” Montessori educators believe that human beings allowed to develop to their full potential are the key to a peaceful future.

There they are. That should get us started.

Here they are again, without the paragraphs of explanation—you could print them out and stick them in your wallet, even.

Montessori Talking Points

  • Montessori is a method of education.
  • In Montessori, the children choose their own work.
  • Montessori isn’t religious, it isn’t just for gifted children, and it isn’t just for the wealthy.
  • Montessori happens in public and private schools, all over the world.
  • Montessori has mixed-age classrooms, hands-on materials, and students learning at their own pace.
  • Montessori is observation and evidenced based.
  • The best way to understand Montessori is to visit a school and see it in action.
  • Montessori is education for peace.


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!

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.

The Touch-Screen article in The Atlantic

The Touch-Screen Generation. On the cover of the paper edition, actually.  Hannah Rosin (a prominent, occasionally contrarian journalist at The Atlantic, Slate, and elsewhere) has a 7-page piece about young children and touch screen devices such as tablets and smartphones. Two points of interest caught my eye.

First, a Montessori reference in the second paragraph. At a children’s app developers conference, she reports that several developers

paraphrased a famous saying of Maria Montessori’s … “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”

It’s not clear from the article whether the developers were citing Montessori themselves, or their words put Rosin in mind of the quote (from The Absorbent Mind, as it happens).  She goes on to contrast poking fingers in the sand with tapping a screen, asking “what Maria Montessori would have made of the scene.” She also mentions the developer of an app which “teaches preschoolers the Montessori methods of spelling,” which seems a bit of a stretch in that the Montessori method is distinctively analog.

But, even with the prominent mention of Montessori, with an essentially representative slant, the article left me unsatisfied.  The takeaway seems to be, “the digital transition has taken place, there’s no escaping it, and interactive apps are almost like interacting with the real world, so just go with it.”  Read the piece for yourself, by all means, but in my view she doesn’t really end up anywhere.

Look, I get it, I’m old, and it’s already happened, and the technology is just going to get more interactive and sophisticated, and intertwined with our lives.  But I just can’t bring myself to believe that we’re going to improve on the interaction between the brain, the body, and the real world as the appropriate developmental activity for young children. Plenty of time for virtual interactions later, when the foundation has been laid down.