What Makes a Montessori Classroom Different?

Any school can market itself as Montessori — here are five signs to look for in an authentic Montessori classroom

Jenna Wawrzyniec

Content Specialist

At first sight, a Montessori classroom looks noticeably inviting with its open floor plan and flexible learning spaces, materials lowered to the child’s level, and aesthetically-calming, natural and minimalist décor––a stark contrast to bright primary colors, rows of desks, towering furniture, and busy bulletin boards often found in traditional classrooms.

This carefully-crafted setup, referred to as “the prepared environment,” facilitates the Montessori Method––a science-backed educational model named after Italian physician and founder, Dr. Maria Montessori. Since Montessori never trademarked her method, any school can market itself as Montessori. It’s important to understand how the prepared environment and pedagogy must both be present in order to distinguish a working Montessori classroom.  

Inside A Montessori Classroom

Here are five things to look for in an authentic Montessori classroom: 

  1. Children collaborate and socialize with peers across different ages.
  2. Children will not be told what to learn by a teacher; they will be shown how to learn with an educator who is called the guide.
  3. Children are given trust and autonomy for greater independence within a deeply collaborative, community-oriented framework. 
  4. Children gain hands-on experience using Montessori materials that have been carefully sequenced for developmentally appropriate progression.
  5. Children will build lifelong social and emotional skills that are uniquely emphasized alongside academics.

1. Real-world, mixed-age learning

Montessori classrooms are grouped in multi-age, three-year groupings, not year-by-year. This means that learning happens naturally around a child’s development, not arbitrarily by their age. Children in the 3-6 year classroom, for example, navigate a shared space called The Children’s House. It is uniquely prepared for the early years, when children learn best with opportunities to absorb their surroundings. No two children are expected to learn at the same pace. The younger children are motivated to progress because they see firsthand what advanced work the older children get to do. Meanwhile, the older children enjoy helping their younger peers, reinforcing what they’ve learned while taking on meaningful leadership roles. 

As children become increasingly social, Montessori Elementary classrooms are grouped for ages 6-9, then 9-12. Montessori Middle School groups adolescents between ages 12-14. Even at the high school level, students continue to advance in multi-age groupings up to age 18. These mixed-age classrooms mirror eventual work environments, where collaboration in the real world is never “same age,” but similarly spans varying levels of experience.

2. Guidance to self-discover

The Montessori educator is called a guide, and the role is different than a traditionally trained teacher. A guide does not command the front of the room to direct what the children will learn. Instead, the invitation to learn is sparked by the meticulously prepared setup that activates self-directed exploration. The guide protects long, open-ended work periods where the children are free to choose their areas of interest. Never anchored by a teacher’s desk, which does not exist in a Montessori classroom, the guide moves as the children do, always observing, engaging and supporting each child’s interests, strengths and struggles. A Montessori guide receives specialized training and is an expert at teaching by showing, not teaching by telling.

In the early years, guides provide individualized support for the child who is trying to understand and categorize their surroundings. From Elementary on, when children become more interested in deeper reasoning, small-group and project-based learning unfolds. However, group learning with a Montessori guide is never assigned from the top-down. Instead, older students have the freedom to initiate and plan for their own projects, forming peer groups naturally and honing lifelong executive functioning skills.

3. Agency with community values

Most people associate a Montessori classroom with independence, but this independence is in context of community. The child does not work alone in silence, but freely interacts as a valued part of the classroom “community.” This is partly why a working Montessori classroom is known for having a “busy hum,”–– never too quiet, never too loud. It is harmonious, where children are given both freedom and limits.

Under age 6, this community framework is nurtured with Practical Life and Grace and Courtesy lessons. Toddlers and preschoolers collectively care for their classroom and each other. They prep and serve their own snacks rather than wait for snacks to be served. They participate in dusting the shelves, wiping the tables, watering the plants, and they put materials away when they are done so that the next child can use them, too. It brings dignity while showing the child how they directly impact their surroundings and those around them. It also equates learning with joy because children in Montessori classrooms are not relegated to a world of “don’t touch,” or “pretend.” Instead, they are empowered to contribute without fear of making a mistake. This inclusivity empowers them to trust their own capability and desire to learn. 

By the time a Montessori student is in elementary, middle and high school, non-academic areas like Physical Expressions, Creative Expressions, and Life Design curriculum meaningfully merge social interests with concrete life skills. Students plan their own field trips and partnerships where they collaborate directly with businesses and artists, taking on their own endeavors beyond the bounds of the classroom and directly into their communities. More than independence, creativity blossoms from this autonomy because they have been encouraged to think for themselves rather than follow up to adult-constructed ideas.

4. Protected concentration with hands-on learning

A child will not learn by rote memorization in a Montessori classroom. Instead, Montessori classrooms are acutely focused on hands-on, experience-based learning where children learn by doing. This is true for all areas of curriculum, from language to cultural studies to math. The Montessori learning materials are designed to engage the child’s hands, creating lasting, concrete impressions of abstract concepts that promote retention of knowledge, not just acquisition.

Hands-on learning in a Montessori classroom goes beyond busying the child’s hands, but it also aims to protect the child’s own motivation by using materials that are self-correcting. When a material is self-correcting, an adult is not required to interrupt the child’s experience because the material has a built-in control of error––like a puzzle that only fits together a certain way––making it obvious when the child needs to troubleshoot. Therefore, the Montessori student learns through experience, not just because of having physical materials to use, but because the child is also free from unnecessary supervision during those critical moments of concentration and problem solving.

5. Development of the whole child

Social and emotional development is treated as a lifelong journey, and guides become significant role models in the classroom for this aspect of development. Maria Montessori believed that true discipline came from within, not from an authoritative source. To respect this developing moral compass, Montessori guides never use quick-fix, extrinsically motivated tactics like bribery, reward charts or punishments. Instead, a child receives logical and respectful guidance on what is expected, good, fair, and right. 

All behaviors are received as a means of communication, and guides work with children to identify the root cause of behaviors deemed undesirable so that the child can return to a peaceful state. Guides model respect by treating each child as a whole person, never as an inferior who must blindly obey. Children do not learn to behave because an adult “said so,” but because they have seen and experienced what feels right within a safe, age-appropriate framework. They have also been given concrete tools to identify, process and cope with varying emotions that, as humans, we all face for the rest of our lives. 

As the student advances into adolescent Montessori classrooms, this all-encompassing social and emotional support continues in a student coaching format. Each student works one-on-one with an adult coach for academics and beyond, where they exchange personalized, observational, deep and meaningful mentorship.

Collectively, these five aspects nurture one overarching goal: help children realize their full potential. A Montessori classroom is structured for the unstructured, teaching universal knowledge in a way that means something to each child.

“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.” ––Maria Montessori
Meet the Author

Jenna Wawrzyniec

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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