Montessori: Pulling Education out of the Past and Launching It into the Future

By: TNSM Director, Jeff Groh

Angeline Stoll Lillard’s book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, begins with this sentence: “Two fundamental cornerstones of American schooling today were placed at the turn of the 20th Century: the school as a factory and the child as a blank slate.” Modern research shows that both of these ideas are outdated and ineffective when it comes to educating children, and yet, they remain deeply embedded in the educational models of the United States.

The first, the school as a factory, was the result of mass public education spreading across America starting in the mid-19th century while simultaneously the Industrial Revolution was shaping a culture of efficiency. Successful business models were quickly adopted as useful educational models. Again, here is a passage from Lillard’s book that best demonstrates this:

  • “Like factories, schools were expected to operate under then-popular scientific management principles. In public discourse…schools were referred to as ‘plants,’ children as ‘raw materials’ and teachers as ‘mid-level managers.’ The dean of Stanford University’s School of Education, put it bluntly: schools are ‘factories in which raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.’”
  • During this time, bells were instituted as a way to move children around from room to room every 50 minutes in an effort to make schools more efficient in their use of space. As a result, teachers developed lesson plans to 50-minute blocks of time which, unfortunately, is a popular model that still exists today. Instead of allowing the length of a lesson to be determined by the interest and engagement of the students, it is shaped by the sound of a factory bell.
  • Lillard goes on to say, “Schools also adopted the factory model as a result of tax-payers demanding a type of education that would develop citizens for a factory-based economy. The school was yet another factory, producing workers for the factories into which they would graduate. What was best for the child was clearly not in view.”

Strangely, our educational system seems stuck in a mid-century model even though our economy has dramatically shifted so that we are driven more by the exchange of ideas and entrepreneurship than the products of a factory.

The second outdated belief still influencing our educational models is the assumption that students are “empty vessels” waiting to be filled up. In spite of the fact that this long-held belief has been debunked by the past 30 years of research in cognitive science, it remains one of the foundational flaws in how schools shape their curriculum and teaching strategies.

  • How can this be? In spite of all our advances in understanding how children learn and develop, we continue to operate most schools as if we were living in the early 1900’s.
  • Although there have been many attempts over the years by leading educational theorists (Dewey, Piaget, Bruner,) to introduce alternatives to our current system, none of them have had any lasting power. These theorists could broadly be placed under the umbrella of “constructivists.” According to constructivists and supporting research, children learn best if approached not as empty vessels, but rather as active participants in the “construction” of knowledge.

Why haven’t these alternatives found a strong foothold in our current traditional educational system?

  • Well, even though their ideas and theories have stood the test of time, none of them have left a legacy of a fully-developed curriculum that schools could implement. Because of this, teachers who want to use a “constructivist model” are left to figure out on their own how to use these educational theories in a practical day-to-day way.

The good news is there was one educational theorist who went beyond simply theory and developed a broad and detailed curriculum based in the constructivist model.  If you haven’t guessed already, that person was Dr. Maria Montessori.

  • Dr Montessori’s curriculum gave schools and teachers the tools necessary to shape a new approach to education. Although her work gained popularity and began to spread world-wide during the early 1900’s, it did not take root in America until the 1960’s. Now there are over 4,000 Montessori schools across the country and thousands more all over the world.
  • Montessori education in America was born in response to a failing educational system and continues to grow due to a fully-developed curriculum backed now by decades of research.

Lillard breaks down eight principles developed by Dr. Montessori that easily illustrate the essence of what a Montessori education looks like. Here they are in Lillard’s words:

  1. “Movement and cognition are closely entwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning.
  2. Learning and well-being are improved when people have a sense of control over their lives.
  3. People learn better when they are interested in what they are learning.
  4. Tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn.
  5. Collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning.
  6. Learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts.
  7. Particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes.
  8. Order in the environment is beneficial to children.”

These eight principles, as simple and intuitive as they may seem, are largely still ignored in most American schools today. But each year the Montessori movement grows, and each year we take another step toward pulling our educational system out of the past and launching it into the future.

Comments 2

  1. Very interesting read – thanks, Jeff! Giving these kiddos the opportunity to learn in this kind of environment is really like giving them a gift – hopefully one that they will carry with them the whole of their lives 🙂

  2. I really hope people read this article and take pause. The Montessori principle is definitely not new but it’s new to many.

    Montessori has always been, to me, about the love of learning. It’s never been about memorizing facts or regurgitating definitions. It’s about trial and error and seeing a child’s eyes when the light goes on. It’s about children sharing their learning experiences, helping each other, and talking about the task at hand. It’s about critical thinking, communication, and preparing our children to live in a global society.

    Those of us who are spreading the word about Maria Montessori are grateful to have you, Jeff Groh, as an ambassador of her educational philosophy.

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