Demystifying Montessori

A few weeks ago Montessori Dad and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of Montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?

I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about Montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.

Disclaimer – I am writing about Montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Montessori Dad always says, “trust but verify”.

Here are two of my friends’ comments in response to the question, “what do you know about Montessori?”:

“Something about making choices and centers for play. I do remember I didn’t totally agree with the philosphy behind it when I originally learned it in college. But other than that, I have no idea.”

“No idea… something about “accidental/experiential” learning vs being taught? I just know(/think) that it’s expensive. ;-)”

The first thing that struck me when I read these responses was the use of the words “play” and “learning”. When K arrives at school, her teachers ask “what work would you like to do today?” or “what materials will you work with first?”. At Montessori, what the children do is called “work”. “Learning” is not a word that is avoided, but it’s more common to ask, “what work did you do today, tell me about it?” than “what did you learn today?”

The repeated use of the word “work” when it comes to toddlers and preschoolers puts many people off. Work has an unpleasant connotation in our society: it’s the thing we have to finish doing before we can play. But Maria Montessori saw work very differently, as the productive activity undertaken by people in their day-to-day life. Cooking, playing music, gardening, woodworking – these are all forms of creative work. Reading and researching new ideas is academic work. Setting the table, tidying up, fixing things – these are the work of maintaining and beautifying our environment.

Kids love work. Why else would there be so many replicas of adult tools? Toy lawnmowers and vacuums, play kitchens, tiny watering cans and even toy laptops are ubiquitous. Children have an innate desire to imitate the adults in their life and contribute to the productive work of their family. In our society, we shelter them from real work for a variety of reasons: it would be too messy, they can’t handle the tools, it will take so much longer if I let them do it. Maria Montessori, however, believed that given the right-sized tools and taught at the appropriate times, children can learn to do productive work and will participate enthusiastically.

Here is a rundown of some of the work that K has done at school that transfers to her life at home:

  • wiping up spills
  • pouring liquids without spilling (accidents happen, but they’re rare)
  • spooning food from a serving dish into individual plates
  • setting the table
  • putting her plate next to the sink at the end of a meal
  • spraying and then wiping down the furniture
  • stirring and whisking
  • washing and cutting fruits and vegetables (with close supervision, but little interference)

She is, I’ll remind you, three years old. This is the age where “I can do it myself” and “I want to help” and “let me do it” are the commonly heard refrains (sometimes spoken, often whined). Nothing pleases K more than being “allowed” to pin diapers to the clothesline or crack eggs for challah. She even seems to prefer these activities to “play” most of the time. Of course she has a dress-up box and crayons and dolls and stuff, and she does like to play as well, but she’s eager to work. Thanks to Montessori, she knows how.

Working in their classroom also gives the students a sense of ownership and responsibility. Snack is not just put out for them – they are responsible for preparing it, planning and making signs to explain how much everyone can take, and cleaning up after themselves when they’re done. If something in the classroom gets dirtied, the kids clean it up. In the older classes they plan their own field trips (more on that later), including recruiting parent chaperones. The teachers do nothing for the kids that they are capable of doing for themselves.

Have I mentioned that I believe strongly in child labour teaching independence? Some effort on the adults’ part now will reap huge rewards later… I hope!

Next time on “Demystifying Montessori”: choice and experiential learning

If you have any comments or questions about this, I’d love to hear them… and answer them in another post.


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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Demystifying Montessori – part 2 « Jewish Montessori Mom

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