Montessori Education Explained

Guidepost Montessori’s VP of Pedagogy Matt Bateman joined Ben Chugg and Vaden Masrani, hosts of the podcast Increments, to discuss the history and characteristics of Montessori education.

Melissa McElhill

Guidepost Montessori’s VP of Pedagogy Matt Bateman discovered Montessori education 10 years ago while he was working in academia. Since then, Bateman has been engaged in an ongoing deep dive into Maria Montessori’s work, and has just launched the think tank Montessorium, which seeks to better understand the history of education and the historical context of Montessori in particular.

Bateman recently joined Ben Chugg and Vaden Masrani, hosts of the podcast Increments, to explain the origins and key features of Montessori education. He discusses our approach to specific topics like Montessori high school and standardized testing. Here are a few highlights from Bateman’s interview in his own words.

When you visit a Montessori school, you will notice there’s a very specific structure, and that structure has two parts

First, there’s an environment set up where children can meet their own needs: they clean up after themselves, feed themselves, learn to trust themselves. They accomplish this because of the tiny furniture that has been tailored to their size: picture tiny chairs and tables, a tiny fridge, tiny stove, and so on.

Second, there are the learning materials. Maria Montessori was a pioneer in learning materials that have very specific uses and scope and sequence. These aren’t just toys; it’s not as though the child is playing with Lego blocks and incidentally learns something about proportion. The scientifically designed learning materials are used in specific ways along with specific exercises, which are performed repeatedly by the children at their own pace.

This infant is learning how to drink from a glass independently
This young child is working on a set of sensorial materials in the Children's House

Once you have that environment set up, you give the children tremendous liberty

And the teacher’s job is to show the children how to use the environment and to inspire them to use the environment. In particular, the teacher guards the children’s concentration during the work cycle, which is a period of time when children are free to choose their own set of materials, set the items up at a table, and practice with them. They work from five or ten minutes to hours. This is a sacred time where the child is building all sorts of mental and characterological muscles in exerting effort, trying something over and over that is challenging for them.

Maria Montessori gained international fame when she taught very young children how to read and write

At the time, nobody thought that you should try to teach children how to read and write before the age of six or seven. It was thought to be quite difficult. And if anything, the consensus was moving in the opposite direction, that we should wait until children are eight, nine, or ten before teaching them how to read. But Maria Montessori had children ages three and four joyously writing in the spontaneous ways with materials they chose to use themselves. It was groundbreaking.

The reason Maria Montessori was so successful is that she isolated the difficulties involved in reading and writing

There are a number of things that children have to develop in order to write. For example, they need to develop motor control. Many of the materials in the Montessori classroom, therefore, have little pegs on them. And the way to hold these pegs is the same way you hold a pencil. So, children are prepared for writing by manipulating things that they are interested in. This is just one of the ways they are prepared until, suddenly, all the skills the child has acquired culminate, and the child is writing—even though they’ve never held a pencil before.

Maria Montessori also argued for better middle school education

Maria Montessori is known for her work with young children, but she also had a model in mind for middle school where the students traveled from home to live on a farm part of the time, with time to study and work on the farm as a business. The students would be responsible for crops and would go to the market and sell them.

Most of us have had the experience of being older and coming to realize what we should have actually studied at university. This doesn’t happen when children receive Montessori education, because they have the opportunity to do real work in the real world during their formative years.

Montessori said very little about high school, so let me speak personally about how we use Montessori’s guidance to inform our high school programs: Montessori did a lot of work in the early years, showing us that a lot of the distinctions that we observe in education, for example, the amount of freedom that should be given to a child, are false dichotomies (all or nothing) when there is actually a third way where you have, for example, maximal freedom and child-centered education that has a lot of structure and academic rigor. So, you don’t need to make a false choice between traditional and progressive education.

Our high schools offer students opportunities to do real work in the real world
Our middle school students plant seeds they will harvest months later

Learn more about our middle and high school programs at the Academy of Thought and Industry.

Standardized tests are generally avoided by Montessori educators, but can be seen as challenges for students to conquer

There is a general view that Montessori education doesn’t use exams to assess the child’s progress because of how damaging the culture surrounding standardized testing can be to children (creating an unnecessary sense of competition among them, obsessive relationships with exam scores, and so on). However, if your child wants to go to college, they are probably going to have to take the SATs (which are not as bad as most critics think).

Maria Montessori’s view of the “unpleasant task” (in this case, taking a test) is that the way that you learn how to do that is by learning how to do challenging “pleasant tasks”. The capacity for hard work is something we help young children build by offering them activities that appeal to their abilities and interests, so that if there comes a time they want to take tests to help them achieve their goals, they will have the strength of character needed to endure the challenge.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Listen to the full podcast here:

Montessori Education: Increments podcast with Matt Bateman
Meet the Author

Melissa McElhill

Melissa is an AMI-certified educator who has taught children aged 10 weeks to 18 years old in the UK, US and China. She is also a qualified positive discipline parent coach, helping families integrate Montessori principles into their lives.

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