Understanding the Montessori Method

Published on: July 15, 2013

With so many teaching methods out there, it’s hard to make sense of what each method offers. Dina has done the research for you in a series of articles; this one focuses on the Montessori Method. By Dina Kassymbekova   With so many schools, preschools, and nurseries in Bangkok, it’s tough to figure out which one is right for your child. In addition to traditional schools, there are Waldorf, Montessori, and other alternative schools. How do they differ from each other? Should you consider one? To help you decide, we have prepared a series of articles focusing on the different educational methods.

Montessori: History and guiding principles

Maria Montessori. Image courtesy of Nationaal Archief via Wikimedia

The central idea of the Montessori philosophy is that children learn naturally through play. Adults only need to support them by providing a nurturing environment. This idea was developed by an extraordinary woman, Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, in the early twentieth century. Inspired to respect and understand children (revolutionary ideas at the time), Maria Montessori turned to methods of teaching. She observed students and experimented with new teaching activities and materials, gradually developing a new child-centered educational method. Children in her first school, Casa dei Bambini, which opened in 1906, were allowed to choose among a range of activities and could learn at their own pace. The classroom mixed students of different ages together and was filled with materials that stimulated children’s senses and natural interest for learning. Her students made extraordinary progress and the new educational method attracted great attention. Within decades the Montessori approach spread all over the world.

What is a Montessori school today?

More than one hundred years later, “Montessori” can mean many things and may or may not be consistent with Maria Montessori’s original ideas. The best way to find out if a school truly follows Montessori principles is to visit a classroom and observe the learning process. Some schools combine the Montessori approach with traditional teaching methods and curriculum, making it easier for children to transfer to conventional schools later.

The Montessori curriculum

According to Laura Prykhod’ko, vice-principal of Modern Montessori International Pre-school in Bangkok (MMI), there are five areas that form the basis for a Montessori curriculum:
  1. Practical life activities give children the opportunity to learn how to take care of themselves and the environment, how to socialize and develop coordination of their physical movement, including fine motor skills.
  2. Sensorial activities enable children to explore the environment through their senses (children touch, smell, listen, etc.).
  3. Language Arts includes oral language development, handwriting, reading and grammar.
  4. Mathematics exercises enable children to understand numerical concepts.
  5. Cultural Activities introduce the children to basics in geography and history.
Children can choose activities from these areas, following their personal interests.

Independent learning

In a Montessori classroom, students learn independently. The teacher observes, supports, and guides them. “As a Montessori teacher, my role is to help children learn on their own. If a student struggles, I will encourage her/him to try again,” says Cedric E. Grondin, Montessori trainer and teacher at MMI.
The central idea of the Montessori philosophy is that children learn naturally through play.
“Montessori materials are self-correcting; this means that when a student has completed an activity incorrectly, s/he can see it. Sometimes I need to show a student how to do an activity correctly, so s/he can repeat it. Sometimes this can be done by one of the older students who have mastered the materials and activities already.”

Montessori materials and activities

Image by Lisa Maruna via Flickr

What are the specific Montessori materials and activities? To give you an idea, here are some examples of practical life activities: buttoning (the material, in this case, would be a piece of fabric with buttons on one side and holes on the other), spooning (a cup, containing some beans, several empty cups, and a spoon), and pouring (a small jar with water and a number of empty cups). An example of a language activity would be matching picture cards to their corresponding word cards. The first Montessori classrooms offered the children both traditional toys and objects from real life. Maria Montessori quickly observed that given the choice, children preferred “work” to play (using real things to playing with toys), so traditional toys were gradually abandoned. Later specific materials that help children to learn language, math and other academic subjects were added.

Benefits for the students

Montessori concept of freedom within limits teaches children independence and self-discipline and ensures that they learn according to their personal interests and at their own pace. “The Montessori approach fosters a child’s curiosity. Our students have the opportunity to explore exactly what they are curious about and not what the teacher assigns to them,” says Cedric. “Besides, we have a large focus on social skills. In a Montessori classroom, children share and work collaboratively. They learn to respect each other. With older children helping younger ones, the sense of community is fostered.”

Teacher’s role

In a traditional school teacher leads the learning process. In a Montessori school, the focus is on the child. “A Montessori teacher must be a good observer and be able to step back and let students take the lead,” explains Cedric, “Children learn like sponges and Montessori education enables them to do so. In this environment, children learn with excitement!”

Criticisms of the method

One of the main criticisms parents have of the Montessori method, in general, is that it’s too rigid. Children are expected to use their materials in a particular way, or a particular sequence, which doesn’t foster creativity or non-linear thinking. Another criticism is that kids aren’t encouraged to socialize. Though older children can act as teachers and models to younger ones, most of the “work” students do they do on their own. This may encourage individual learning but it doesn’t encourage collaboration or socialization.

Montessori schools and pre-schools in Bangkok


Useful links

  • www.montessori-ami.org The website of the Association Montessori Internationale, founded by Maria Montessori in 1929. Good source of information about the method and its history
  • www.montessoriconnections.com provides information about the method and a search engine for international Montessori schools
  • www.montessorimom.com shares ideas, free lessons, and printable materials
  • www.howwemontessori.com A blog by an Australian mom, bringing up her children in a Montessori environment.
Photo courtesy Thacherschoolmilton via Wikipedia

About the Author

Dina comes from Almaty, Kazakhstan. After graduating with a degree in philosophy, she moved to Germany to get her master’s degree in public relations from Freie Universitaet Berlin and worked as a freelance PR-consultant and a children’s book editor.
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