For those considering Montessori pre-school or elementary school for their child, there are three significant differences in Montessori schools as compared to traditional schools to explore: the class teacher, environment, and schedule.
The Class Teacher
One of the biggest shifts outsiders will observe in Montessori classrooms is the role of the teacher. Many Montessori teachers consider learning guides as a more accurate characterization of their work. This concept of a guide instead of traditional teacher stems from the priority placed on the observation of students and the one-on-one consultation and facilitation based on observations that Montessori teachers provide for each of their students. Emphasis is placed on individual motivation and progression through a learning topic, instead of an entire classroom being required to engage and move through subjects at the same pace. The mixed age groups of Montessori classrooms further this student-led approach, allowing students to teach and mentor younger students or their peers. Ultimately, though, Montessori teachers aim to cultivate self-motivated and independent learners, meaning each student is their own teacher in their own right.
The Class Environment
When Dr. Maria Montessori was in charge of her own classroom, one of the first things she did was move the straight rows of desks that dominated the space to the edges of the classroom. Instead of relying on this traditional classroom configuration that required young, wiggling bodies to be still, and that positioned the teacher at the front of the classroom as the sole source of learning, Dr. Montessori arranged the space for students to be active learners. Today’s Montessori classrooms also forego the traditional layout and instead create a deliberately prepared environment for student-led learning. The prepared environment utilizes open spaces for students to work independently and in small groups, keeps the room uncluttered and connected to the outdoors, and features organized, easily accessible shelves around the perimeter of the room that is stocked with Montessori learning tools that correspond with the program curriculum and the students’ learning interests. Montessori teachers take great care in constructing the prepared environment, and it evolves based on their observations of the students that use it.
The Class Schedule
Unlike traditional schools and their daily schedule of rigid subject time blocks, Montessori elementary school prioritizes uninterrupted student “work” or learning projects. To achieve this, Montessori schools structure the day around large segments of time where students can engage the prepared environment and its learning tools. Furthermore, the organization of the broad topics of the Montessori curriculum aligns to the students’ developmental stage. The breadth of the topics, like the Five Great Lessons, allows the curriculum to encompass myriad academic disciplines and avenues of education and will enable students to accelerate, slow down, or go deeper into subjects based on their needs. This approach aims to foster self-esteem through students’ personally-motivated learning and pursuit of efficacy and to cultivate, most importantly, a love of learning.
One of the defining characteristics of a Montessori pre-school or elementary school classroom is the everyday presence of hands-on, student-driven learning. This approach to education is called the Montessori method and is guided by the principles of child education developed by Dr. Maria Montessori. Dr. Montessori was a researcher and educator who pioneered this method in the early 1900s and trained a generation of educators across the world in the practice. Today, there are thousands of Montessori schools in dozens of countries with millions of students and passionate adherents to the concept of learning by doing.
Experiential learning and the prepared environment
The concept of experiential learning, or learning by doing, in itself is not unique to the Montessori method. Many educators understand the value of a learning process that starts with a tangible experience, provides space for reflection on that experience, encourages the conceptualization of those reflections into an individual’s knowledge framework, and then allows for testing of those concepts in further concrete experiences. This cyclical learning process, however, finds a uniquely nurturing medium in the prepared environment of the Montessori classroom. The foundation of the Montessori method is the prepared environment, which is the physical space of the classroom that is designed with student-driven experiential learning at its core: learning tools are available and accessible to motivate students' engagement, furniture and items needed to manipulate the environment are engineered for students’ cognitive and physical developmental stage, and teachers are observers who offer guidance in learning with minimal disruption to a student’s experimentation.
Self-teaching and love of learning
Learning by doing in a Montessori elementary school classroom has two valuable outcomes: skills in self-teaching and a love of learning. These outcomes are part of the larger goal of Montessori education to teach the whole child with the aim of growing into a self-aware, capable adult. The independence and agency students gain in their learning process comes from the confidence and efficacy they develop in an unfettered experiential learning program. Unlike in traditional classrooms where external factors direct the content of learning, the pace and ways of engaging that content, and the measurement of mastery of that content, Montessori classrooms recognize that a student’s innate curiosity and drive to understand and contribute to the world around them is the most authentic, enduring, and ultimately empowering, way to learn.
Montessori elementary school is significantly different than the public school system. It focuses on the entire child, promoting self-esteem and responsibility, life in the real world, and encourages a love of the learning process. Since the Montessori method involves every aspect of the child’s life, your role as a parent is part of the process as well.
Encourage Your Child
Offering moral support and encouragement is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Talk about her Montessori elementary school experiences and offer her guidance and advice. You are her most important role model, and how you react to her questions and daily routines will promote enthusiasm and build her self-esteem.
Montessori is a holistic approach, meaning that it involves everything about your child and the world they live in. Including your children in your daily activities gives them a sense of belonging and helps them feel important to both you and the community at large. Your children are the most important thing in your world, and they need to feel like it.
Courtesy and Community
Through your actions, your children will learn to respect others and demonstrate grace and courtesy to others. This in turn will help them prepare for larger roles in the community such as helping those in need and doing what is expected without being told to do so. Be what you want your children to be, and they will follow suit.
A Child’s Space
Set aside part of the home as your children’s domain. Furnish it with child-sized desks, tables, bookcases, and place pictures on the wall at the children’s eye level instead of your own. This gives children a better sense of belonging, and encourages them to be more comfortable in the tasks they take on. To get a better idea of how the children’s house should be arranged, take a tour of your child’s Montessori elementary school.
The Montessori Method relies on a triad of participants: The child, the teacher, and the parents. All three have distinct roles to play and the process will only work when everyone participates. Unlike traditional public schools, a Montessori education is about embracing the learning process and discovering the wonders of the world as part of that world rather than an outside observer.
Music education is often thought of as an extracurricular activity with isolated educational objectives and outcomes. But within Montessori schools, even as early as Montessori preschool, music education is held in the same esteem as the other elements of the classroom curriculum.
Music as a learning tool
The founder of this unique method of education, Dr. Maria Montessori, held several key beliefs about children and their capacity to learn based on her years of experience and research as an educator. Montessori felt that children have an innate curiosity and the ability to self-educate that, given the right environment and guidance, develops into independence, confidence, and a love of learning. Montessori saw music as yet another valuable tool in cultivating these characteristics and the Montessori method of education sees the potential in every child to learn, create, and express themselves through music.
The benefits of music education
As any musician will tell you, music education integrates and reinforces many academic subject areas, including mathematics, anatomy, physics, history, anthropology, and even the study of languages. Additionally, there are the social-emotional skills which music education cultivates such as engaging in a creative process and working with a group to create a harmonious collective outcome. Unfortunately, many traditional schools choose not to or aren’t able to support a robust music education program and children are left to discover and refine their innate musical capabilities outside of the shared space of the classroom and on their own time, if they have the opportunity to do so at all.
The Montessori method and music education
Within Montessori elementary schools, music education is woven into the school day and is approached in the same way as the other subject areas. Children are encouraged to choose how they want to engage with music and teach themselves, learn from peers, and receive guidance from a music specialist (who is often someone other than their Montessori teacher). The curriculum focuses on music literacy, singing, movement, listening, and the playing of instruments. Ear training is introduced early on in the Montessori Primary program through the standard classroom tool Montessori bells. For children in the first stage of their music education they will learn in a group setting with their usual mixed-age peers, while students who have progressed in their music education will have opportunities for private lessons with practice time incorporated into their classroom schedule.
A child’s formative years are the most important educational years of his life, and attending kindergarten at a Montessori elementary school is considered to be an essential part of the learning cycle. The American Montessori Society points out that children are constantly being observed and assessed in the classroom, and teachers use those observations to provide intuitive individual guidance which helps children learn more and develop essential social and real-world skills.
The 3-Year Cycle
Children who attend Montessori elementary school will stay in the same classroom from the time they are 3 until they are 6 years of age. This is known as the 3-year cycle, culminating in their kindergarten year when earlier lessons solidify into more complex education and exploration. This is the year that children are expected to put their earlier lessons and experiences into action and take on a more concerted role as responsible young members of the school and community.
Children Blossom in Kindergarten
Kindergarten is an explosive year for child development and is a critical step in Montessori education. This is the year that students become the critical thinkers and problem solvers the gentle lessons of previous years have prepared them for. In the prepared environment, materials which were once used as playful and exciting games become tools for learning directly about their world, their abilities, and their community. All of their efforts take on a new focus and their holistic education begins to take a definitive shape.
Self Development and Interaction
In kindergarten, children will learn to apply themselves in new ways, becoming more decisive and exhibiting self-control. They will develop more pronounced social skills and explore new ways to interact with their classmates, their student guides, and with the world at large. They will discover how to deal with setbacks and explore new ways to apply themselves to the projects they undertake.
Montessori kindergarten is one of the most important years for young students. That is the age when children become more self-aware and develop the skills necessary for applying themselves to many different facets of their education, from language and fine motor control to math and personal interaction.
At the heart of the Montessori philosophy is respect for the child, which has profound implications for the way children are taught in a classroom. In a Montessori Pre-school, this translates into the understanding and support of children’s developmental stages, versatile curriculum throughout their elementary school career, and a more hands-off role for the teachers, all of which encourage children to learn at their own pace.
Support of developmental stages
In Dr. Maria Montessori’s research and experience in education, she developed* the concept of developmental planes, a timeframe in which children are more apt to adopt certain behaviors and learn specific skills. Instead of thinking of development as linear and universal, Montessori’s concept of developmental planes posits that the path to mastery and access to the next plane is particular to each child, and supporting that child in their path is the most natural and effective way for them to learn. She observed that these stages of development span several years and for this reason, Montessori schools are organized into mixed-age groups that share the same developmental plane. Children have the opportunity to explore in the same classroom for three years, allowing them to pursue their interests and develop their skills at their own pace.
The three Montessori elementary school programs are the primary (3-6 year olds), lower (6-9 year olds), and upper (9-12 year olds) programs. Each program offers a different approach to curriculum, but all offer flexibility and diverse ways to approach the topics. In the primary program curriculum, children acquire knowledge through exploration and hands-on practice in practical life skills, sensorial, math, language, and cultural studies. For the lower program curriculum, children are introduced to the Five Great Lessons: the story of the universe, the timeline of life, the story of language, the story of numbers, and the timeline of civilization. As children move into the upper program curriculum, they will focus on research projects and group work of their choosing that deepens their knowledge and understanding of the subjects they’ve explored in the previous programs, letting their innate curiosity and love of learning guide the way.
Teachers as observers
Lastly and importantly, Montessori teachers are positioned in the classroom as observers and guides. Due to the intentional design of the prepared environment and the emphasis on self-directed learning, teachers do not have to uniformly govern a classroom full of children with diverse interest, skills, and needs. Instead they can observe the child as they explore, question, and engage subjects and encourage them to own their learning process, while offering support and their presence as a resource.