Guiding Children to Learn at Their Education Own Pace
By Phil Keeling
Navigating Atlanta’s educational landscape means discovering manytypes of schools with descriptions that may sound somewhat familiar; magnet, charter and special needs are just a few. One type of school that’s gaining more popularity in the metro area is Montessori education, named for Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator. These independent schools are rooted in the concept that children learn best through hands-on exploration that they follow at their own pace. The first such school, the Casa Dei Bambini (Children’s House), opened in Rome in 1907. The Casa was so successful that Montessori shared her methods with other educators, resulting today in more than over 20,000 Montessori schools in 110 countries around the world.
While they are perhaps best known for educating children at the preschool and elementary levels, Montessori schools and methods have been implemented up through the high school level. At each level, the focus is as much on social, physical, and emotional development as academics. Life skills, responsibility, and respect for the environment are taught alongside more traditional subjects, such as science, mathematics, history, and language, creating a student that is truly well-rounded in both academic studies and emotional maturity. Learning objectives are accomplished through experiential, practical, and sensory activities in an organized setting.
A MIX OF FREEDOM AND STRUCTURE
Montessori schools differ from traditional public or independent schools in several fundamental ways. Generally speaking, classrooms are less rigid, and the student, not the teacher, is the focus. You won’t see rows of children sitting at desks. Instead, students are grouped by age ranges rather than grades, and allowed to work and think independently. Montessori students are given the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes and grasp concepts at their own pace. Rather than the traditional focus on a student getting an A in a class, Montessori education puts far more effort into the mastery of a given subject.
Essentially, this comes down to the child learning, understanding, and using specific skills, rather than focusing on tests and forgetting that information the moment the exam is finished. Instead of giving a lecture or handing out assignments, teachers work one-on-one with students, providing guidance when necessary, like presenting a new topic or a new challenge to meet when a child is ready. No grades are awarded, and there are no limits on how long a child follows a particular area of interest.
At Johns Creek Montessori, children work in one of three classroom community age groups. These groups range from 8 weeks to 15 months, 12 months to 36 months, and 2 and a half to 6 years old. Children are free to explore activities that interest them and may work on as many activities as they like.
That mix of freedom and structure allows teachers to pay attention to changes in the development of their students and to adapt their lessons accordingly. It’s an approach that helps students grow not just academically, but personally.
Allowing young students to choose the activities that interest them most has led to many misunderstandings about Montessori education: specifically, that it lacks the structure and out-of-school opportunities that students in public or private schools receive. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth, says Lucy Bennett, director of communications at Arbor Montessori School.
“There’s a common misconception that with Montessori education we let them be completely independent; that there’s no discipline or guidance,” she says. “But we give freedom and limits.
TEACHING THE WHOLE CHILD
One of the main foundations of the Montessori experience is the concept of educating the whole child. That extends to topics that may not be part of a textbook curriculum, explains Patricia Craft-Heuer, director of education at Village Montessori School in Roswell.
“It’s about learning socially—learning grace and courtesy lessons,” she says. “It’s learning about the world, that people are the same and have the same needs—housing, food, clothing. That sort of approach helps alleviate prejudice, which is important if the goal is to create children of the world. They need to learn about other countries and how people live there.”
Part of that understanding comes from learning and emulating positive character traits such as respectfulness, kindness and helpfulness. “All of us here try to be good examples by living character education,” says Craft-Heuer. “It’s not just someone saying, ‘Do this, and you’ll be a good person.’ Children pick up on examples. They see the respect we have for everyone, from the youngest child to the principal. Even concepts of being helpful and loving are ingrained at a very young age.”
In addition to cultivating children’s minds, Montessori schools make physical activity a priority, as well. Instead of taking in information from textbooks or computers, students learn by working with materials in a tactile, hands-on environment. That may involve stacking blocks, organizing movable letters or learning to count with tiny animal figures. Montessori materials engage children’s different senses, helping them to comprehend through activity and experience.
Montessori students learn across a wide range of subjects, just like their counterparts at more traditional schools. “Another misconception is that Montessori doesn’t have extracurriculars,” says Lucy Bennett with Arbor Montessori School. We have art, music, Spanish, and an athletics program. Montessori schools in the area are very robust in the same way that independent schools are.”
CHOOSING A MONTESSORI SCHOOL
Parents who are considering a Montessori education may wonder whether this approach is the right fit for their child. After all, every child learns in his or her own way. Montessori educators encourage parents to ask questions and talk about their child’s learning style, habits, and home environment when visiting a school. Does your child learn better in a group setting or on their own? Do they like to stay in one place or do they need to move around? Children who operate with few limits at home may not flourish within the structure of a Montessori school, and children used to very strict guidelines may have trouble adapting to a self-directed setting that allows them the freedom to explore on their own.
If and when parents do decide on a Montessori approach, it’s important to understand that not all Montessori schools are the same. Since the term is not trademarked, any school can refer to itself by that name. Some may claim to follow an “alternative” or “hybrid” Montessori program, or offer Montessori instruction for just part of the day.
The most reliable sign of a school’s adherence to Montessori principles is certification: Montessori teachers are trained and certified in the Montessori method. What’s more, schools that have been accredited by organizations such as the Association Montessori International (co-founded by Maria Montessori) and the American Montessori Society have been determined to operate in accordance with Montessori standards.
PREPARING FOR WHAT’S NEXT
In the end, says Julie Strickland, assistant to the head of school at Springmont School, the Montessori approach helps prepare students for the rigors of high school and higher education in ways they might not learn in a more traditional setting. “Last year, my son who attended Springmont from age 2 through middle school was surprised to be invited to join the small team of undergraduates representing his university at an exclusive business case-study competition,” Strickland says. “He was not convinced he was the most qualified of his classmates to serve. The professor listened to my son’s concerns and replied, ‘Yes, but you actually think, you’re curious, you ask good questions and communicate well, and most importantly, I have watched you lead a group. These are skills our team needs.’ These are skills my son developed in his Montessori environment and was able to build upon in high school, while his peers were just starting to develop those skills.”
For More Information
Arbor Montessori School | 404-321-9304, arbormontessori.org
Johns Creek Montessori School Of Georgia | 770-814-8001, jcmsog.com
Springmont School | 404-252-3910, springmont.com
Village Montessori School | 770-552-0834, vmschool.com
American Montessori Society | 212-358-1250, amshq.org
Association Montessori International | USA 703-746-9919, amiusa.org