Parents often ask: What are the real benefits of sending a child to a Montessori school? They seek assurance that it will prepare them to survive in the ‘real world,’ by which they really question: Will Montessori prepare their children to succeed in a conventional school?
My favorite answer to this question is a simple No!
No, Montessori is not designed to prepare children to think, act, and learn the way most children do in most traditional classrooms!
Will Montessori children succeed in a traditional classroom? The odds are that they will do just fine.
But, is Montessori designed to prepare children for the sort of classroom experience that they are likely to find if they transfer from Montessori to a traditional school program before they go off the college? The answer is, of course, no. If Montessori were designed to prepare children for the next rung on the conventional schooling ladder, then Montessori would be like other traditional schools, and that is precisely what Montessori schools were designed to challenge and replace!
Now, is Montessori designed to prepare children for the ‘real world’?
First we have to ask ourselves what do we mean when we think about the real world? What most people mean by this phrase is a world of people who are driven high achievers. In the real world, many so-called successful people live lives that are centered around competition instead of partnership, where relationships are structured around hierarchies of power and influence, and where people are thought of as being part of a group or outsiders. In the real world that we live in, many people, who we think of as ‘successful,’ tend to be self-centered, materialistic, and not terribly happy and balanced. Many conventional schools teach children, perhaps non-verbally, perhaps overtly, that the world is made up of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’. Sadly, these ideas tend to be woven into what many people think of as success in the ‘real world.’
Montessori schools are generally focused on a more balanced and more spiritual approach to life. Montessori is not anti-materialistic. It does not teach children that they should not aspire to have a beautiful home or a successful career. What we do say is that there are other things that have a deeper value. If we own a home and somehow it is lost, our lives have meaning that is much greater than the things we own.
So, to return to the original question: “Are we oriented, as is a typical prep school, to prepare children for university and for a career?” My response would be that we prepare children to think, create, imagine, design, collaborate well with others, and to live a balanced life.
So then, what do children tend to get out of Montessori?
Firstly, what children get out of their years in Montessori is an incredible sense of self-worth. They become fiercely independent. They get a sense of their own ability to learn new things, master new skills, solve problems, and to do things well.
Secondly, children in Montessori schools learn non-violence and conflict resolution. They become spiritually alive—in the highest sense of what that means. This is not simply a fear-based approach to religion but, rather, an approach to living based on love and faith.
Montessori was always intended to create conditions in which children, even children whose lives had been impoverished, can develop their full, unique potentials. The original group of children with whom Dr. Montessori worked were fifty street urchins, whose families lived in conditions of extreme poverty, with all the negative factors that go along with it: crime, drugs and violence. As we know, those children blossomed.
In Montessori education, no matter what the home conditions might be, we try to create conditions at school that give children a sense of joy, a sense of celebration, and a sense that they are part of something bigger than themselves, without taking away their sense of personal empowerment and personal responsibility. We aim to inspire in them a sense of awe and wonder. This is not done in a way that makes children feel small and powerless, but rather to say “you belong on this Earth!” Montessori creates an understanding that each life has value and each life has purpose. Our children learn that we need to honor ourselves, honor our parents, honor all life, and honor other human beings. Like all great spiritual traditions, Montessori helps children to discover their own dignity in the midst of our imperfections and personal limitations.
Montessori children learn that their ideas have merit and that their decisions are important. They learn that people make mistakes, but that we can learn from them. It teaches that we need to take responsibility for our actions and, where appropriate, to try to rebalance the scales.
What we focus on in Montessori schools around the world is helping children to grow to be more spiritual, more empowered, and more balanced in all aspects of their lives.
Montessori teaches children how to live in a community and how to re-solve conflicts peacefully. We teach them to support one another emotionally. Our children learn how to lead and also how to be part of a team.
These are very powerful lessons, which go far beyond the simple memorization of facts and formulas, and far beyond the mechanics of the basic curriculum. We are engaged in teaching children to think deeply, to figure things out for themselves, and to be their own best teacher. We teach them how to bring abstract ideas, along with things that they have never seen, to life. We help them to see the real connections between things.
These are just some of the things that children gain from Montessori.
All of this comes along with Montessori children’s famous sense of humor and a tendency to not be all that impressed with authority. They learn to question everything and everyone. They, sometimes, tend to ask embarrassing questions. There is an old saying among Montessori parents that “It takes brave parents to raise a Montessori child.” These children think and speak for themselves. They don’t really see themselves as children.
There are all kinds of Montessori schools: big and small, public and private. Some offer a more ‘adapted’ version of Montessori than others. But there is one thing that all true Montessori schools have in common: they tend to graduate children who are very much like the ones I’ve just described. Even though, in some schools, Montessori would work better if their programs more completely followed the full Montessori model, and even though Montessori schools would be more successful if they had more enthusiastic support from parents, most Montessori schools produce incredibly bright young people, who think for themselves. Our schools tend to turn out children who have terrific self-confidence and who can be trusted to ask all the right—and, sometimes, the most embarrassing questions.
And that’s why we are Montessori educators, regardless of where we trained.
Written by Tim Seldin, of The Montessori Foundation.