Montessori: criticism of a philosophy misunderstood
I will be the first to admit that first knowledge I had of Montessori left a bad taste in my mouth. I was a teenager at the time, tutoring a couple young children who had recently been pulled from a Montessori school by their parents. The children were unruly and mentally lazy, or so I thought. Coming from a traditional schooling background, this led me to decades of Montessori criticism.
I had little knowledge of what Montessori education entailed and very little knowledge of early childhood development or early childhood education in general.
I was just a teenager, hired to get these young children “up to speed” in their academic performance.
Now, as a parent and a Montessori educator, I have a deeper understanding of these things. I do, however, understand where the critics are coming from.
Many critics of Montessori’s method so, however, understand how the methods work and they have extensive backgrounds in early childhood education.
And some don’t.
So, what are the points of contention with the method?
1) The misunderstanding of the term “child-centered learning”. Many take this term to mean that children are being taught they are the center of everything; that no one or nothing in the classroom is more important than them.
This is absolutely untrue. Children in a Montessori environment are taught to be respectful of others, to mind the teachers, and are encouraged to work in groups.
Children are involved in their immediate community and their community surrounding them.
Child-centered learning isn’t specific to Montessori and it simply means that children are given the opportunity to follow their own interests and not a set curriculum.
While Montessori does not encourage teacher or parent-led imaginative play, children are free to use their own imaginations. Building materials, colorful hands-on materials, and music, art, and free-play are present in every quality Montessori program.
Materials provided for “work”, as long as they are treated respectfully may manipulated however a child pleases, encouraging imaginative play and creativity.
One of my first observations of a Montessori primary class had children bathing dolls, building with Magna-Tiles, and putting words together on their own using the Small Movable Alphabet…All creative activities!
The term “work” in Montessori and its criticism
3) It’s all work and no play.
Ok, so Montessori schools use the term “work” to refer to all Montessori activities. While this may give many parents the impression that children in these schools are being controlled by task-master teachers, this is just not true.
Play really is the “work” of childhood, and that is what these children are doing. While there are developmental and cognitive benefits to their “work”, children are often unaware of it and are simply just enjoying themselves!
Alright, you got me on this one. Things are changing, though!
There has been a massive upcropping of public, charter, magnet, and sliding-scale fee Montessori schools all over the country. This is making Montessori schools increasingly accessible to children of varying socioeconomic statuses. It’s very exciting to see!
This self-discipline is evident in Montessori classrooms across the world. Children do get to roam the classroom in search of a desired activity, but this is not a case of lack of structure.
In fact, a brief observation of a Montessori classroom will immediately cure you of this mindset. Desks and a teacher at the head of a class aren’t an indicator of self-discipline, only of adult imposed discipline.
Montessori classrooms have a different type of structure, and you’ll find that children listen attentively to the teachers/guides and obey with joy. Children are absolutely capable of creating their own structured communities in a Montessori environment.
6) Children are allowed to focus on the things they are interested in, but are not encouraged in subjects that will benefit them later in their academic careers.
This is a legitimate concern expressed by some graduates of Montessori high school programs. Some people feel they were able to follow their own interests to the point where they missed out on some topics they could have used knowledge in later in life.
Others, however, have expressed just the opposite, and feel like exploring other interests would have been a waste of their time. They feel they were given the opportunity to excel in what they love.
Since there is a marked lack of Montessori high schools, this shouldn’t be a concern for most parents.
7) The ratio of teachers to children is too low.
This may seem to be the case, but Montessori classroom operate differently than traditional or private school classrooms. Children in Montessori classes have a special community structure.
Mixed age groups provide younger kids opportunities to learn from older children and, inversely, they provide the older children a chance to reinforce their knowledge by teaching the younger set.
Another reason for the lack of an abundance of teachers in a large Montessori classroom is that most Montessori materials have a build in control of error. This means that kids can work with, and learn from, the provided materials all on their own.
8) There is too much emphasis on Practical Life Activities.
This comes from a basic misunderstanding of the purpose of Practical Life Activities. People see children sweeping floors and washing dishes and tend to think, “Why do little kids need to be wasting their time doing these things when they could be learning something?”.
These activities, however, have aims beyond the obvious. Of course kids can learn to do these activities at home or later in life, but that’s not the point. Practical Life Activities promote concentration, hand-eye coordination, small and large muscle development, teamwork, care of their immediate environment, and so much more!
Some may see them as mindless “chores”, but children enjoy them and there are so many benefits to these activities.
Other Montessori criticisms
9) Transition to public schooling may be difficult.
This may be true for some kids. Montessori schools operate very differently than public schools.
Children who attend Montessori schools are used to a lot of freedom in their learning and in their physical movements. It’s quite different than sitting at a desk and reading books along with a teacher.
This can prove difficult for some children.
There are areas wherein children who transition from Montessori to public schools have an advantage, though. One of these areas is mathematics. Montessori math does a great job of preparing children for “Common Core Math”. Group activities and self-initiated work are also areas where Montessori children should have no trouble at all.
10) Students aren’t given exams to test their progress.
This is only true for private Montessori schools. Public and other Montessori schools that receive government funding are subject to state exams.
This doesn’t mean that private Montessori schools do not track students’ progress, though. Logs are kept by Montessori teachers to ensure students achieve proficiency in all academic areas.
The criticism of Montessori education is fairly widespread. There is much evidence to support this style of education, though.
I encourage you do read the studies, visit a Montessori classroom, and come to your own conclusions!
I’m always looking for feedback! Did you attend Montessori school or does/did your child attend?
If so, what are the pros and cons in your opinion? Do you have a Montessori criticism you’d like to share?
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