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Montessori: An Effective Learning Approach or a Matter of Faith?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Unsplash pan xiaozhen
*Updated 2022
In 1907, Dr. Maria Montessori opened her first children’s learning center in the slums of Rome, a school which emphasized children’s autonomy, full sensory engagement, and self-correction. Montessori believed that given the right environment, children were their own best teachers. More than a century later, there are around 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide. The internet is packed with Montessori chatrooms, beckoning parents to not only send their kids to Montessori schools, but to “Montessori” their homes.  With top innovators like the founders of Amazon and Google hailing from Montessori’s halls, it is no wonder that intrigue in this alternative learning philosophy continues. Let’s examine the Montessori school’s viability by exploring three advantages and three disadvantages of the method.


Montessori works wonders


Montessori schools are low-pressure

Montessori environments remove stress from learning. No tests, no grades, no cumbersome lectures. In a Montessori setting, students learn at their own pace, and they select their materials without direction. At the early childhood level, Montessori’s goal was simply to “activate the child’s own natural desire to learn.” The effects of stress, and the power it holds to influence emotional and intellectual development, are well established. The Montessori method removes traditional stressors like competition and coercion and focuses on what’s left – learning.


Some experiments show that it’s good. Like, really good

Social scientists tested randomly selected low-income kids from the inner city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to attend a Montessori school free of charge. When compared with other inner city children who attended traditional schools, the Montessori results were promising – young Montessori students had better reading and math capabilities, while older Montessori students showed demonstrated writing and social skills. If these results were to be reproduced in more environments, the Montessori method could prove to offer meaningful advantage over other traditional or alternative methods. More recent research compared the wellbeing of adults who had gone to Montessori school during childhood and those who went to conventional schools; the wellbeing surveys of the Montessori graduates showed strong evidence of elevated psychological wellbeing as adults.


Montessori called attention to the important benefits of active learning

Montessori urged parents and educators to “desist from the useless attempt to reduce the child to a state of immobility.” Her description of traditional education is an apt one and highlights the ways traditional education challenges learning rather than supports it. How many children can sit still for hours on end or maintain interest in lectures? (Remember how you used to daydream in Chemistry?) The Montessori method showed that learning could be a comprehensive sensory process, and not one built on passive reading and listening. Montessori opened educators’ minds to the possibility that students gain more from knowledge obtained only through discovery, and the wisdom of her argument is echoed by today’s cognitive scientists. Evidently, Thomas Edison was also a fan.


Montessori has serious deficiencies


It’s nearly impossible to gauge Montessori outcomes

There are relatively few academic studies of Montessori methods and their outcomes, and those in existence do not conclusively point to the superiority or inferiority of Montessori education. This is owing to a number of factors. First, the Montessori philosophy intrinsically resists being measured – the method rejects grading and testing, and therefore, Montessori schools can offer no quantitative data on learning benchmarks. Secondly, there is a relative lack of uniformity among Montessori schools.  Broad use of the name Montessori (any school can use it, whether or not they strenuously follow the creator’s methods) complicates the process of gathering and comparing outcomes.


Montessori resists change, even to proven new techniques.

Progress is generally considered desirable – we all want to benefit from the latest knowledge, particularly when it comes to health and child rearing. Not so if you are a Montessori purist. The Montessori school of educators actively quelled attempts to incorporate more traditional learning methods into the Montessori curriculum – changes which would allow the philosophy to be offered in US public schools. Let’s put this into context: a learning philosophy conceived in 1907 shuts out new, proven pedagogical techniques while remaining reflexively unable to provide empirical evidence of its own success. Resistance to change highlights Montessori’s blurry line between method and dogma.


All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

For all the autonomy of the Montessori approach, the program is undoubtedly rigid. One writer and Montessori mom observes how their teaching manipulatives drive children to self-correct because the activities can only be accomplished in one way: the blocks must be stacked from biggest to smallest. So, there is plenty of room for discovery, but less room for deviation (and creativity!). The Montessori philosophy values industriousness, and these educational discoveries are even referred to as “work.” Furthermore, Montessori does not value imaginative play like make-believe (like pretending to be a chef or a dragon) or emphasize social interactions. Many educators fear these practices are remiss, especially given the known benefits of pretend play for children’s cognitive and social development. While Montessori herself advocated to treat children as whole beings, she left some important parts of their being out, namely imagination, creativity, and social interaction.


The Bottom Line:  The Montessori method liberates students from their desks and allows them to interact with their environment and their minds on their own terms. But with little empirical evidence to support the success of the method, proponents of Montessori schooling seem to be operating mainly on faith. To be sure, there is no one system that can wholly cater to each child’s unique educational needs. Both traditional and Montessori methods would do a service to children by adopting the best methods of each.

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