Montessori Elementary vs. Traditional Elementary
Montessori Elementary differs significantly from a traditional elementary school education and other progressive programs. In this article, we break down what these differences are, and why they matter for children aged 6+
A Note on Montessori
The Montessori Method was developed by Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori more than 100 years ago, and is still found in classrooms and homes around the world. Most famous for its framework to “follow the child,” Montessori is progressive when compared to conventional teacher-led models – but it doesn’t necessarily align with today’s progressive education movement.
Montessori can be thought of as a middle ground, where individualized learning signature to progressive models merges with academic rigor typical in traditional models. In Montessori, children are not expected to mold to one rigid pace of learning. Nor are they left with unstructured free rein.
How to Identify a School’s Educational Approach
Traditional, progressive, Montessori – sometimes it’s not always clear what a school’s approach is. Other times, schools will blend more than one method together, creating unique hybrids. Here are some of the biggest differences from the child’s perspective:
Traditional (commonly found in public schools):
- Same-age: Children are grouped by their age and change classrooms every year.
- Teacher-led: Students must keep pace with teacher, who directs what is learned each day.
- Rigid curriculum with subjects taught in short daily increments: Content is exchanged from teacher to class according to an hourly schedule
- Rote memorization: To keep pace with the class and teacher, students must learn to memorize content quickly
- Frequent homework, quizzing, and standardized testing: Since classroom subjects are studied in specific, short periods of the school day, children take on heavy homework and testing to practice what they didn’t get to retain during school
- Rewards and punishments used as quick-fix behavioral tools: Uniformity is often emphasized over individuality, with less time to dedicate to long-term social and emotional skills.
- Movement is treated as a break from learning: Hands-on work and flexible seating may be offered, but children are largely expected to sit and listen for extended periods, and bigger movement is reserved for recess.
- Multi-age: Children are grouped according to stage of development, changing classrooms every three years.
- Child-led: Each student learns at their own pace, and the teacher serves as a guide ready to support individual areas of struggle – or extend advanced lessons for mastery.
- Structured curriculum with long, open-ended work periods: Structured academics are thoughtfully sequenced, but the child is given more agency and time to self-discover at their interest level and readiness.
- Experiential learning: Students learn by doing with self-correcting, hands-on materials and real-world application.
- Little to no homework and quizzing: The autonomy for each student to focus at school eliminates the need to “catch up” after school.
- Holistic social and emotional skills proactively nurtured: Montessori emphasizes inner discipline and life skills alongside academics – eliminating the need for external reward and punishment systems.
- Movement is considered a core part of how children learn: Children freely move, collaborate, and socialize in their classrooms, with options on where to work, with who, and for how long. There are no rows of desks.
Progressive education shares many of Montessori’s features, but tends to have:
- A much greater emphasis on the creative arts
- Lower teacher-to-student ratios with smaller groups
- A broad curriculum that is often project-based with thematic units
I Thought Montessori Was Just for Preschool?
The early years are just the beginning, but they are emphasized in Montessori because they are foundational. Most of the child’s brain is formed by the age of six. Even if your child attended an early childhood Montessori program, Montessori Elementary looks quite different!
What changes, you may be wondering? Everything! The “absorbent mind,” or that heightened ability to acquire knowledge merely through absorption, is no longer applicable, and the elementary child must now learn with greater effort in the “conscious mind.” Other noteworthy shifts for the 6-to-12 -year-old:
- Sensitive period for imaginative thinking replaces a heightened interest in the factual world. Their creativity booms!
- Strong drive for moral order replaces younger drive for physical order. Elementary kids may outwardly appear messier and louder, but extra attention has moved inward while they sort out values like justice, fairness, social norms.
- Heightened capability for intellectual independence. Ages 6 – 12 are when children are most naturally drawn to learn academically.
- Innate desire to be social. Now that their sense of self is established from the early years, they are motivated to learn through collaboration.
The Montessori Elementary Difference
The features of a Montessori Elementary classroom are distinct because they are designed around the child’s holistic stage of development. In traditional education, the child’s journey is designed around academic competence. With more freedom to cater directly to the whole child, the Montessori student will experience greater agency, responsibility, and sociability in their daily classroom experience.
Here’s how that looks at Guidepost:
Classrooms are age-appropriate, not age-specific:
When a student enters first grade, they’ll join what’s called the Lower Elementary Community, spanning grades 1-3. Upper Elementary is comprised of grades 4-6. These multi-age classrooms break from the “factory-based” mold of teaching children en masse by age, shuffling students around the same lesson at the same time. These three-year communities provide individual opportunity for students to progress on their own timelines, while gaining the social benefits of interacting with people both younger and older – a much more realistic community that is how the workforce functions.
Group learning at the child’s lead:
In traditional elementary, a student’s responsibility is tied to following directions and managing follow-up work independently as it is tasked. In Montessori Elementary, lessons are given in small groups with students taking the lead on project ideas, research questions, and the work that follows. Responsibility is nurtured by giving students that freedom to initiate, plan, and problem-solve. The student is an active driver of their learning, rather than a passive participant. This promotes curiosity, creativity, as well as retention of knowledge through meaningful experience – not just fast acquisition of facts through memorization.
In traditional elementary, a teacher delivers lessons to the class, and then students are assessed based on how well they can recall this information through frequent testing. This is a rigid, delayed feedback loop that results in heavy homework to support test prep. In Montessori, more time is given for the child to connect directly to the lessons each day. Seeing children work with the lessons, not just listen to them, gives real-time feedback on areas of struggle or mastery. Students are able to deep dive during classroom hours – freeing their evenings from homework – and the teachers are able to assess through observation –– eliminating the need for repetitive quizzing and artificial deadlines within which to acquire knowledge.
Advanced Academics and Community Outings
Taking a holistic approach through the Montessori Method doesn’t come at the cost of academic rigor, and since we know children at this stage are naturally driven to understand more complex subjects, the Montessori Elementary classroom is meticulously prepared to offer advanced curriculum in math, language, literature, science, history, geography, culture, music, and art. On top of this, students at Guidepost practice gardening, cooking, typing – and also plan their own field trips.
In Montessori, they're called "going out” trips, and instead of the teacher and parents directing the experience, the students themselves get to initiate, plan, and execute the events. Sometimes it is as simple as walking to the library, market or farm. Other times, students may visit a local expert in a field, a museum, or a business that is connected to what they’re researching. By empowering the students to lead these outings, they get real-world application of life skills like grace and courtesy, time management, budgeting, navigating transportation, and more.
Is Montessori Right for My Child?
Collectively, these differences feel significant. When the adult-led structure of traditional schooling has been our recent norm, and progressive child-led models have been associated with lack of structure, it can be hard to grasp how Montessori manages to offer both – but it does!
Montessori empowers each student with broader life skills beyond academics, while laying a deep foundation of knowledge that is key to success. This balanced approach is much more applicable to the workforce, and ongoing research is validating that Montessori graduates have an advantage both academically and socially and emotionally. The Montessori Method is founded upon meeting each child where they are, which makes it an inclusive path for any and every child.
Jenna is a trained journalist and writer whose parenting journey transformed after implementing Montessori at home with her three children. She is a passionate advocate for bridging Montessori to the mainstream as a means to build community, empower parent-child relationships, and honor learning as the lifelong journey that it is.
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