Authentic Montessori

Authentic Montessori

We are an authentic Montessori school. What do we mean by that and why is it important?

Ask a dozen different people, including so-called experts in the field of Early Childhood Education and Montessorians themselves, and you will get twelve different answers. Montessori is a philosophy to some, a method of education to others. Some will focus on the Montessori manipulatives – the didactic materials – and the proper techniques for demonstrating their use to the children. Others will trumpet the amazing head start a Montessori program gives students who learn to read, write, and do four-figure math before they are old enough for Kindergarten. While all of these are important, none alone define an authentic Montessori program.

Perhaps unfortunately, the word “Montessori” is in the public domain. Anyone can incorporate the word in their school’s name or advertising, whether or not their program even remotely resembles a real Montessori school, has a complete complement of Montessori equipment, or employs properly trained Montessori adults (teachers/guides). While caveat emptor puts the onus on parents to do their due diligence before selecting a preschool for their child, in the modern world of internet communications between parents from widely diverse communities, negative experiences with pretenders are starting to give the venerable Montessori Method too many undeserved detractors.

Thus, while conventional wisdom dictates that a business should simply ignore shoddy competition and focus on providing quality to its own loyal customers, it may be time to rethink that strategy before the word Montessori becomes meaningless, or worse – negative. A couple of recent experiences reinforce this viewpoint. A nice couple had their child enrolled in our program last year and all indications were that they were happy with the experience, because they had reenrolled for next year. Unfortunately, they had to drive a dozen miles to get here. Recently, the mom called to cancel for September, all excited to say they had found a Montessori school closer to home.

When asked which one, she named a well regarded private elementary school, which also has a preschool component that they claim to be a Montessori program. It simply is not. It does not have anywhere near the full complement of Montessori didactic materials, it separates out five-year-olds into a Kindergarten class, and the head teacher has had no Montessori training, although she did work as an assistant for us for a few months several years ago. Had she asked before making the commitment, I could have explained this; but since she had already made it, I graciously accepted her decision and wished her the best. She may continue to be very happy with it; but her child will not get the same benefit, which undoubtedly would have been worth the extra drive time for the stay at home dad. Caveat emptor?

Then, there was Ann’s experience this summer. She was enticed to spend it in India, by an operation that has been surprisingly successful in selling Montessori school franchises in northern region near the Pakistani border. So successful, in fact, that they needed to establish some teacher training institutes to supply the requisite teachers for the fast selling schools. Ann’s task, under the auspices of her Montessori Teacher Training Institute of Laguna Beach, was to help set up proper teacher training programs and train some trainers for them. Once there, she was stunned to discover that none of the sixty or so franchised Montessori schools even had a single properly trained Montessori teacher among them, and their programs were not even close to being Montessori.

They had only a few basic Montessori didactic materials and their so-called teachers had not a clue in how properly to use them. They separated children into yearly age groups, and all received a monthly curriculum with workbooks from the franchise headquarters that were the antithesis of Montessori. She could train no trainers, because there were no experienced teachers to train. She ended up training basic teachers instead, who now realize that what they had been doing was all wrong. What a mess. The franchiser is a master at selling the “concept” of Montessori, without delivering anything close to a Montessori program.

While they seem to mean well and genuinely appreciative to learn from Ann how to do Montessori authentically, they couldn’t have done more damage to their business model if they had dropped a hand grenade in their headquarters. Now with more than a dozen teacher training institute franchises with expensive new purpose built facilities, expecting to start training teachers this fall – without any trainers – it is problematical whether they will survive the turmoil. If not, Montessori, which is a magical word at the moment in India, will be irreparably damaged in the process. More the pity.

Montessori is a “Method,” not just a “concept.” It is as valid today as it was a hundred years ago. It works as designed, and a hundred years of further experimentation has only reinforced the validity of Maria’s discoveries and work. While she admonished us to further her work and “follow the child,” it is time to recognize that she was probably referring to the high school and college years. Rather than tinkering around with the preschool 2 ½ to 6-year-old program, we Montessorians would do well to go back to basics and realize there is little improvement to be made in it anymore. Modern educational tools and techniques are simply inappropriate for this age group, and must be eschewed.

There is a reason one does not find a TV or computer in an authentic Montessori prepared environment at the preschool level, and why we regularly admonish parents to severely limit their child’s exposure to them at home. These devilish devises, in conjunction with a hectic family lifestyle, are the very cause of ADD/ADHD. Cartoons, Sesame Street, and video games are veritable poison for developing young minds. Computers are my passion. There is more computing power, memory, and disc space on my desk than existed in the entire world back in the ’60s, when I first started messing with these things as an engineer/programmer for Univac. Trust me, I have investigated it carefully, and if there was the slightest chance that they could be beneficial to our preschool students, I would have a computer network all over the classroom.

They simply are not. If one is inclined to challenge this wisdom, a well articulated explanation can be found at: WHY OUR MONTESSORI CLASSROOMS ARE COMPUTER-FREE. See also: FAILURE TO CONNECT: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds — and What We Can Do About It

At this age, children learn with their hands. They need precisely the tools a traditional Montessori prepared environment offers to develop their burgeoning minds. They need adults who understand their need to discover and learn to do things for themselves, at their own pace, to create and lovingly maintain that special environment.

They need the freedom to move about in it and select their own work as their inner drive directs them, with adults to maintain order and security so they can relax and concentrate on their tasks. They need short individual and timely “lessons” in how to use the material; but then they need the adult to back off out of their way to allow them to assimilate the concepts for themselves through concentration and repetition.

They need this adult to understand the proper sequence for presenting these materials, who will unobtrusively observe their progress and notice when it is time to give them the next little nudge along their path of self-discovery with a new presentation. Occasionally, when they become distracted by social interaction about to lead to mischief, they need an adult competent at quietly redirecting them into more productive and less disruptive endeavors.

Because California’s Department of Social Services regulates preschools only up to the age of four, it has become fashionable in this State to separate out the five-year-olds into a Kindergarten class that does not require the mandated 12/1 child/teacher ratio. This is not authentic Montessori, and it severely cripples the program. The dynamic in such a class is entirely different. The younger children deserve the advantages of the role model of the five- year-olds reading, writing, and figuring, to encourage them to progress. The five-year-olds deserve the opportunity to be upperclassmen developing mentoring skills helping the little ones, which reinforces their learning and self-esteem considerably.

This has become so pervasive that parents have a hard time recognizing that Montessori preschool is a three year program. Those who intend to put their children in public school anyway, are frequently difficult to convince of the value of paying another year’s tuition instead of taking advantage of the “free” Kindergarten. This is a tragedy for their five-year-olds who are just exploding into reading, writing, and figuring and entering the most important year of the program. Instead, they must take a giant leap backwards into a class designed around socialization, which they already mastered when they were three. A not surprising number of these parents call after a couple of months, hoping for an opening to return; because the model student they were so proud of is bored to tears, miserable, and starting to get into mischief in the necessarily chaotic environment of Kindergarten. When one has arguably spent more time than his harried parents nurturing a young mind-in-the-making for two years, it is difficult to accept that he will now miss out on that all-important third year, because his dad wants a new truck. I’ll always remember a lad named Joel several years ago. He was the class clown, and rather talented at it. He was always goofing off for attention until he learned to read, and found his life’s passion. It became difficult to pry him out of the reading corner.

He didn’t lose the desire for attention, he just re-channeled it. We inadvertently developed a tag team sales pitch that was a winner. When I would give a tour of the facility to a prospective parent, I would stop just inside the classroom door to quietly explain the layout. Joel would sidle up to us and politely introduce himself. I would then pick up an adult level novel and ask the visitor to open it to any page and ask Joel to read it. His ability to do so never failed to stun the visitor.

He became rather nonchalant about it, and would calmly walk away rather than bathe in their praise. I really should have been paying him a sales commission. When he left us for the first grade, he was tested as reading at a ninth grade level. Just imagine the difference it would have made in his life, if he had been thrust back into an environment that would have encouraged his less productive talents in Kindergarten.

Yes, there is a good deal of difference between Montessori programs, and it is time for those of us who implement the Montessori Method authentically, to speak out. We need to defend the good name of Montessori from the detrimental effects to the reputation of our life’s work, by
those who don’t know how – or worse – know better; but allow expediency to overrule standards. The children entrusted to our care deserve no less.