Here I try to collect some of the questions I hear most often from the participants of Montessori meetings and from other parents. The list is not comprehensive, but will evolve over time, so suggestions, corrections, new questions and so on are very welcome, just contact me.
The answers have been developed together with Grazia Honegger Fresco.
These responses were initially written for the pages of the Montessori School in Varese.
Of course, the kids are disappointed, especially if they move from Children’s House (kindergarten) to a traditional Primary school, where they have to do things out of obligation, on times rigidly calculated, although they are still very young, worse if you come here at five years and a half.
Instead the passage to the Middle school is different: especially if they started from Montessori Nursery, they have been trained to exercise responsible free choice since childhood, they are stronger and more aware of their environment. They have acquired a sense of responsibility in the way of working and acting with others, the ability to regulate by themselves, to criticize and cooperate.
On the other hand, in the last year of the Primary Montessori School the teachers try to prepare them to cope with the diversity that awaits them: the system of votes, competitions, tests and especially the inability to choose. To achieve this in the Montessori school it is essential to strengthen the children, making them live in a non-anxiety-provoking, non-judgmental and non-competitive environment at least in the early years.
With many years of experience that has never occurred because —speaking of Nursery or School— the choices are many, tempting, varied. The adults present them without forcing the children to use them and they, who in principle want to reassure themselves, tend to take a little more of the same, then they are attracted by the new. Their beautiful intelligence does not know laziness: they see the activities of others and want to try them too. Small attempts to use them and then they throw themselves enthusiastically into new activities that match their profound discovered needs. It is the beginning of the pleasure of action, which stems from the same person. External stimuli, prods, prohibitions, obligations instead act exactly in the opposite direction.
The Montessori teachers are specially trained to observe the individual child or small groups of them that are formed spontaneously. She is not sitting in her chair to give orders. When children are not there, carefully prepares the environment in every detail on the basis of the needs observed, so the proposals are always appropriate. And if after experimenting she notice that is not exactly so, she is ready to change, to prepare other proposals.
The prepared environment is like another teacher: silent, indirect but powerful. It is a tacit invitation to act. When the teacher works with one or more children, others are busy with many other activities, chosen by themselves and so interesting for them. She oversees her students, but offers help only to those she is closely following at that time. Later in the day she offers its presence to each of them. Lessons are usually individual and short, that will last as long as necessary for the child to do for themselves. Even objects and materials are designed to do so, and most of them allow the child to check for themselves whether he did well or not, and this gives them the greatest pleasure to repeat and to concentrate.
A cactus does not survive transplanted in the high mountains, nor a fir tree in the desert. Every living being needs an environment corresponding to its vital needs. A child needs welcoming attention from adults giving him the possibility to choose between different activities, but needs also clear boundaries beyond which he cannot go, like: “You can take any of these items, but only one at a time and only when no other child is already using it”.
Many children are not able, at the beginning of their Montessori school attendance, to accept this rule either because —uncertain and shy— do not decide to choose or because —restless, accustomed to “all at once”— they cannot wait for the partner to return the object to its place. Yet just not imposing rigid obedience, offering them interesting things to do, be firm in the request to wait, but leaving them time to understand the extent to which cunning, subterfuge and little mischief in this school do not work, and discover little by little the pleasure to accept the common rules and be loved without fuss or false praise.
In the Montessori school adults do not shout, do not punish, do not highlight the mistakes; as a consequence companions do not judge, do not despise the child who errs; spontaneously they help him, if necessary, in that gentle and discreet way that children placed in a non-violent school of peace are able to use.
The unruly, aggressive child and so unhappy, gradually improves its condition and change its behavior. This takes place more easily as younger the child is.
According to Montessori, freedom cannot be granted, nor given: must be built gradually from the early years through daily exercise of independent choice and self-correction, of doing by themselves and by feeling the confidence of others in their control abilities.
The first step starting from the second year of life is the child choose, use and replace the objects, as is done in the Montessori Nursery. This way the child indirectly builds a sense of responsibility to others and to the environment.
You can start with the resources collected on the page Montessori e dintorni (not yet completely translated), or by searching on the web where you can find countless pages and movies on Montessori, most of them in English.
The reasons for this denial are mostly ideological and historical. Maria Montessori in Italy found itself at the center of heavy attacks by seculars (from left, she was almost never appreciated) and Catholics, in spite of that, in the years before the First World War, the Pope Benedict XV had sent his blessing to the work of Montessori, up to those of Giuseppe Lombardo Radice, influent educator of the Fascist era, that denigrated her to the benefit of the Agazziane schools. Different attitude regarding Montessori, which was at least of respectful listening, come from the idealist philosopher Giovanni Gentile.
Mussolini, who had previously flirted with the Montessori project for its success in bringing children so easily, even before the fateful six years of age, to writing and reading, at the end of the twenties he realized that he could not bend Doctor Montessori to its political options. At this point he ordered the closure of the few public Montessori elementary schools and many municipal House of Children from North to the extreme South of our country and everywhere they were absorbed by religious orders.
Another archenemy of Montessori and the ideas she claimed, was, again during the Fascist era, Father Agostino Gemelli, doctor and psychologist, founder in 1921 of the Catholic University in Milan. Of opposite sign we find the Venerable Mother Tincani, founder in 1939 of the LUMSA (Libera Università Maria Assunta) of Rome, a great admirer and friend of Montessori.
After World War II, the only exception was Aldo Moro that gave a closer look at the Montessori ideas and in the late fifties when he met the proposals of the Montessori Birth Center when his second daughter Anna born.
In more recent years we have seen a professor at the Sapienza University (Lucia Scaraffia) “L’Avvenire” (Catholic newspaper) presents Maria Montessori even as a Mason, and an otherwise careful scholar as Emilio Butturini, professor of education at the University of Verona, who considers her rather fervent Catholic (which is, perhaps, too much: just see his text “La pace giusta” Mazziana editors, Verona).
Finally, the Concordato with the Catholic Church led to heavy obligations all at the expense of Italy, including the obligation, also for private schools that want to be officially recognized by the State, to take religion teachers graduated from the Roman Curia, at par with graduates of State universities, but in a privileged hiring category.
No effective recognition instead, despite the approval of Pope John Paul II, who personally went to visit the atrium of Sofia Cavalletti, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, of sincere montessorian imprint, created by Adele Costa Gnocchi, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi as a different way of presenting the Christian religion to children from early childhood. Catechesis of the Good Shepherd has instead its peak especially in Latin America.
From all this you can see why the Montessori schools have been expanding much more freely in areas where are stronger Protestants and even Muslims or Buddhists or areas with animist religions like India or Sri Lanka.
Quoting from the wonderful blog La Casa Nella Prateria the post: Montessori: between rigor and innovation: “One of the most common prejudices about the Montessori approach is its (alleged) excessive rigidity. The materials are used for a single purpose, and should be used only in one way. If this is true in theory, Maria Montessori herself exhorted teachers to respect «The useful activity», that is the alternative use of materials, provided that this was creative and not destructive…” the whole post it is worth reading.
And then, who can claim that method and materials are rigid? Clearly, it is someone who mistakes the accuracy, environmental care and quiet voices with stiffness. The working style of a Montessori school is based on non-violence, starting with the fact that nobody speaks or shouts from a distance to the entire class or group of children.
To be convinced that the stiffness of the material is only alleged, please read the article by Camillo Grazzini “A beautiful evolution: the history of Montessori material” in the “Il Quaderno Montessori” (Summer 2003 p. 6-16) where the author recounts the evolution of some mathematical materials such as the numerical rods. Evolution that always obeys some essential features (scientificity, precision, self-correction, etc.) And materials that always are tested in the field, observing the use that children make of them.
I add only that it is in the nature of things that the principles of use of the materials we are lost along the way and that’s why Montessori teachers explain the proper way to use them. If teachers were trained in an approximate way, what would become the Montessori project? Then when ready to use these materials with children, come into play all the other features of the Montessori way of doing things that take precedence over materials and methods.
No one even remotely think of belittling the work of many good teachers working in traditional schools. But a Montessori classroom is not only materials and “things” to do.
Among traditional and Montessori schools programs are the same, more or less, but it is completely different the way used to provide the experiences, the study, the exercises. These are always based on very concrete activities, without ever resorting to forced memorizations based on rewards and punishments, threats and praises, because the motivation starts from the child, is based on free choice and not on induced and pretentious motivation.
As one Montessori student once said: “Here we do not do what we want, we want what we do!”
The willingness of a child to be active, to work intensely is closely related to being able to make free choices among the many offerings on display in the environment, without the adult telling him what to do. The adult is only responsible for the environment that is like a beautiful table set for a standing dinner, where everyone consumes what they prefer.
In addition, the child or the boy, along with free choice, also takes responsibility for the materials’ use. These should not be spoiled, they should be put back in place at the end and should be used in a congruent manner (an orange should not be used for ball games or a tablespoon to scoop the earth!).
This responsibility is not just the “do what I want” in the usual, ambiguous and arrogant, sense of the phrase.
The fact that no one raises his voice, to laugh or scream, allows an atmosphere of quiet attention in their work and in the perception of others’ work and thus makes evident the rise of concentration, that is, the psychic ability to «polarize the attention», to direct it, to lock it on something interesting on a personal level.
Joy is not the opposite of seriousness. Serious business, such as learning, can be joyful. It is not true that students should voice their joy of learning with laughter and jumps during school hours. But the joy of the child who discovers capacities, he does not suspect to have, is real. If the parents are attentive, at the right time they will discover this interior joy and not when they say there should be.
For the child having built his independence is essential in adult life, but it is an option that cannot be improvised, rather it must be built from early childhood, without constantly distracting the child. Independence means not being dependent from the adult or from a companion that is better at what you can do yourself: personal care, eating, dressing and undressing, bathing and so on.
Said that, in a Montessori school there is so much interaction as children want, but working with the materials often is so satisfying that, for these few hours a day, children prefer to master the challenges that these materials offer them. And so they become more happy and kind and this is the basis of true socialization.
The toddlers especially need reality, true tales of animals or plants, which they turn in their own way with their imagination to explain the world. This does not justify the attitude of adults that, with threatening and moralistic tales, take what comes to hand to preach the small children. See Little Red Riding Hood, who disobeys — see how it ends — and many others like The wolf and the seven little goats. Or Hansel and Gretel that cook the witch for revenge.
The children do not need to feed the imagination with so bloody stuff, which, by the way, belongs to German folklore. Why not prefer the Italian tradition, as for example the fables collection from Calvino, still little known? In the fairy tale Le ochine, the small geese are threatened by the fox, the mother protects her geese and that’s what the toddlers want to hear. In the same spirit, when speaking about religion, you do not have to start from the Crucifix, but from the Good Shepherd. Italian fairy tales that usually read at school and that have fed children and grandchildren (tells Grazia Honegger Fresco) are often emblematic, as Pierin Pierone, Cecco bilecco, The child sold with pears. But you must choose. As always it is a matter of listening and respecting the child to avoid anticipations on the great problems of life.
And then the boat going to sea and land (one of the most popular) absurd and funny or Giuanin fearless (I quote from memory the titles) which became a symbol of courage. You can feed the spirit — the imagination — with symbols accessible and easily assimilated by choosing with care and a sense of great respect for the child development phase. I would not say that Disney has just done something similar…
When the first Children’s House opened in Rome, many visitors donated toys to their young guests, but these did not use them much. They were more interested in real assets: really washing, instead of pretending to do so; dry dishes instead of imagine doing so, offering coffee to a guest rather than pretend to prepare and drink it and so on. Montessori schools will offer children the opportunity to choose from many “real” activities, without preventing them to baste situations of symbolic play in a very personal way, even with leaves, acorns and stones in the garden, and not stereotyped, with kitchenettes and wooden pots of colorful plastic.
Seems clear that those who make this question were never for long in a Montessori school of good quality. The materials and generally every presentation by the teacher are only the starting point: I learn to use a microscope, the discovery comes after; I learn the correct use of scissors at 3 years of age, and then use them on par with a pencil, that is to use them to draw a shape or the shape of an animal without first draw, around 5 or 6 years.
Using the Montessori material is like learning to use a good violin and then play music. It is not considered “creative” to use the violin as a hammer, nor as a bridge while playing with cubes. It is “creative” to learn how to properly use the violin to later create music.
The same materials used for sensory activities or grammar or arithmetic allow highly free inventions and compositions: everything depends on the climate of freedom that the adult has created in the class.
Skills will not be missed and if some argument was not pursued, children have the study ability and concentration that will allow them to quickly remedy the gap.
Instead of focusing on programs and skills, do not forget to put the child and his needs at the center of your attention, because unfortunately we are not always attentive to his feelings and emotions.
First try not to make transfers in mid-year if not unavoidable. Transfers are too painful for the sudden breaking of ties of friendship and sympathy. In addition, the child will suffer for what he had to undergo by suddenly entering in an unknown group, not being able to work with classmates as already accustomed and so he feels as the different one. But this would be heavy for any child, not just for those coming from a Montessori school.
In addition, for a child who comes from a Montessori school, there is the perverse game of the votes and moralistic blackmail and it is painful to accept a situation in which he risks becoming the laughing stock of his companions just because he is not accustomed.
There are no problems whatsoever for exams that conclude a cycle of work. Indeed, in most cases, the results are better, since children often have more serious preparation, that is, more free, more thorough, not only entrusted to memory, as often it happens to those used to study for a query or verification test.
Students of a Montessori school of any age are acting with real things more than others, they live real and calm situations, do not spend their energy to defend itself constantly, instead observe a lot, are trained to self-correct and do not have fear of judgments, neither of unfair corrections and humiliations. In short, they do not fear the truth.
Compared to where is reality, a comment by Brandon Kuczma on YouTube says it all: “«Public school is the real world» is one of the most ignorant things I have ever heard. It’s real if you’re gonna work in a cubicle the rest of your life, that’s about it”.
Let me put it in another way. What children need is the truth. And in Montessori schools they learn not to fear it. They experienced the taste of independence and security in what they do, overcoming the need to race and avoiding predictable defeats. Satisfied in their personal work, they turn to others with loving care and respect that sometimes amaze us adults not accustomed to such delicacy. Even children who come to the Montessori school at year started, that have experienced the damage caused by constant competition and frustrations, when they live from day to day the fruits of a real non-violence, abandon the aggressive behavior and, well fed on the emotional level as on the intellectual, enter into a relationship with others calmer and healthier.
I suggest to read the piece by Alfie Kohn Getting Hit on the Head Lessons — Justifying Bad Educational Practices as Preparation for More of the Same that explains, inter alia, the long-term negative effects of this way of thinking.
A tablet in the classroom does not make a school digital. An interactive whiteboard (IWB) in a classroom does not make by itself a school modern when used for traditional lectures. Consider instead that the developers of the latest smartphone applications use paper, pens and Post-it to design them. It’s not the technology that makes a school modern, what makes it so are the ideas and principles that the school embodies.
In a Montessori school many basic materials, related to the sense sphere or to arithmetic, after a century are used by children with the same interest and enthusiasm of 1907. Once in stable use after innumerable observations, they correspond well to the needs of children’s development plans and are therefore very functional. As an example, the grammatical and logical analysis is made interesting and even funny as they relate to the living language of the child and to the pleasure of reading and experimenting. Other materials — such as those concerning cosmic education or history — are more susceptible to expansion and innovations that come from current research and discoveries. For example, presentations related to the appearance of the first humans and the corresponding “strip of life” have been updated to best follow Darwinian ideas by prof. Telmo Pievani (Department of Biology of the University of Padua (Italy) where is chair of Philosophy of Biological Sciences).
The most important motto in the Montessori pedagogy is: “Follow the child”. If we refrain from any verbal judgment that humiliate, do not neglect the assessment of their needs, the good performance of the individual and the group, and we consider that the positive climate of the class depends largely by the quality of the offers made available to children, we realize that nothing is old, boring, useless among the materials offered in Montessori schools. If they were so, children would reject them and simply would not use them. At this point we, the wise adults, would be forced to change them or to produce new materials.