Think of how hatchlings learn to fly. Not by listening quietly while an adult bird explains the various properties of flight; not by being tested and ranked on their ability to memorize and recall. For birds – and for humans – learning is best when it is active and experiential, not passive and abstract. We learn to fly by flying. Because, ultimately, it is only our own hops, glides and flutters that have the power to take us higher.
This allegory captures the fundamental difference between Montessori education and others. Our first premise is that children enter this world with a powerful drive to learn and to be productive. Techniques that focus learning on external rewards ( gold stars, reading for pizza) or on beating others (class rank) are designed, we believe, to “motivate” young people to do what they’re born wanting to do – well intentioned “motivation” that drains students’ efforts of self-direction and intrinsic satisfaction. Overt focus on testing repositions learning (worthy in itself) as a means to an end – slippery slope in our view. When learning becomes predominately a means to test scores and test scores a means to college placement, and college placement a means to good employment, life itself is reduced from something worth living to a series of pressured prerequisites.
Our second premise: Montessori sees learning as active, not passive. We view children as competent beings capable of self-directed discovery. Students start with hand-on tools and progress through exercises that rely on active experience more than on textbooks. Teachers are guides, gently opening a path before young people as they achieve greater competency and responsibility. We focus on the whole personality, so you are as likely to see a Montessori pre-school child learning grace and courtesy as learning the alphabet: middle school students analyzing literature and working in soup kitchens. In the classroom, students move from activity to activity- independently and in groups – rather than sitting still facing a teacher. (This is consistent with psychologists’ understanding of the powerful link between physical movement and cognition and stands in sharp contrast to students’ traditional seated-at-the-desk pose) Teachers move around too, observing, guiding, facilitating- asking questions far more that providing answers.
Montessori classrooms are very different from traditional classrooms in several important ways:
They are places of beauty, simplicity and order. In the preschool classrooms you will not see the clutter of whimsically-designed plastic implements so often associated with young children but instead handsome, well made objects of wood, glass and fabric (and children using them skillfully).
They are busy places. Montessori and developmental psychologists agree: people learn by doing. (Try teaching a child to tie her shoes by talking to her) So, in contrast to classrooms where learning’s derived from texts and lectures, a Montessori classroom features materials specifically designed to make abstract concepts real. The thousand cube is made up of ten squares of 100 golden beads.
Each class is a diverse multi-age group. Each class group spans three years, so you will see 3 year old and 6 year old students inhabiting the same classroom – the younger children learning from their peers and older children learning to guide others, each child gaining valuable life skills.
The bell never rings. Each Montessori classroom is designed to support individuals working alone in long periods of focused concentration. There is no unnecessary interruption.
Students are cultivating many kinds of intelligence. We all know it: people that know how to “get along” go further in life. According to the Harvard Business Review they go farther in business too. In fact emotional intelligence is widely agreed to be at least as important as IQ in education and emotional intelligence is seeded in childhood. Its cornerstones (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and people-skills) are as much a part of Montessori curriculum as reading, math and science; they are the DNA of the Montessori method.
No one is studying for a test. Educators and psychologists agree that if we want to find out what people know, examining them in artificial ways in artificial settings is a poor way to find out. Yet traditional education remains intensely focused on doing just that, to the detriment of real learning. Grades and tests are not the way our students (and teachers) measure competencies. Our teachers do not “teach to test”, and our students are correspondingly free to learn rather than to prepare. We hold our students to different (non-numerical) standards for success, and our teachers to clearer ways of measuring the skills that matter most. Students in grades 3 – 6 are given the nationally recognized standardized Stanford 10 test annually. The purpose is to provide them the experience of taking a standardized test – a life skill in today’s world.
Cooperation is a designed component. The smallest Montessori children begin their education with lessons in Grace and Courtesy – lessons that teach them how to make life comfortable for others. They learn from experience that responsibility is reciprocal. They come to value cooperation, not because teachers say it is important but because it is how they have learned to engage the world. They are grounded in the knowledge that each of them is unique and at the same time a functioning part of the whole and that knowledge, we believe, is the beginning of wisdom.