When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I had just started working as a teacher at a Montessori school. I had previously observed at several Montessori schools, including mine, and overall, was thrilled by the unusual teaching approaches. I thought the philosophy was brilliant; I couldn’t understand why every school in the country wasn’t a Montessori school. It was only as my pregnancy progressed that I came to realize the Montessori education wasn’t what I wanted for my son.
Montessori is a method of teaching that’s based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. It’s split into three groups: infant/toddler (which is ages 0 to 3), primary (which is what I was teaching, ages 3 to 6) and elementary (ages 6 to 12). There are usually up to 30 children and two teachers in each classroom. There are plenty of positive aspects of a Montessori education. Children can learn at their own pace and pursue what they are interested in. They aren’t beholden to any sort of classroom structure, and they’re taught skills that foster independence, such as how to prepare their own food.
When I first started at the school, I loved our classroom. I felt like Alice in Wonderland when she grows too large — everything in the classroom was child-sized, as per the Montessori philosophy, and everything was “real.” No plastic cups; the children used real glass cups. No plastic butter knives; they used real sharp knives. The thinking is that if a child drops a plastic cup and it doesn’t break, he will learn that he can drop things and nothing will happen.
Originally, that made a lot of sense to me, but as soon a I thought about giving my future child a sharp knife and glass dishes as a 3-year-old, I balked. Montessori methods that had initially seemed advanced and forward-thinking to me just started seeming unsafe.
Although the Montessori classroom is set up with a lot of interesting materials, for her first year in Montessori school, a child won’t be using any of them. Instead, she will spend most of her time doing what’s referred to in the modality as “practical work” — shoe polishing, flower arranging, pouring water from cup to cup, spooning beans, folding clothes, polishing silver, etc. With the price tag that comes attached with Montessori schools, it’s surprising to discover that parents spend all that money so their 3-year-old can polish silver all day. If a younger child wants to explore other materials in the classroom, whether they know what to do with them or not, they are told “no, you haven’t had a lesson on that,” and are redirected to something in which they have had a lesson — most likely “practical work.”
One of the most well-liked aspects of the Montessori method is that the education is child-led. If a child is particularly interested in something, she can focus on that instead of being forced to do things she has no interest in and therefore probably won’t do well (if I could’ve skipped math in school, I absolutely would have). However, I witnessed firsthand just how badly that backfired — one 2-1/2-year-old student, for example, could write her name without a problem, but an almost-7-year-old student in the same class couldn’t write his name at all. His name was only three letters, but because he had no interest in writing, according to the Montessori philosophy, he didn’t have to do it. The teachers weren’t supposed to push him on the subject or tell him, “You’re 7 years old; you should probably know how to write your name.”
As far as the teacher-involvement goes, I remember literally sitting on my hands to keep from “interfering” with the students. Montessori teachers are not supposed to give approval, give grades or make corrections; they are instead supposed to offer suggestions, encourage and redirect — merely guiding children through the materials, while the children make their own choices. The idea is that this way, a child will be able to feel successful without anyone telling him, “Good job!” Still, I think it’s really important to get positive reinforcement.
Finally, there is no Montessori high school and certainly no college. The biggest complaint I heard from former students was that switching to a “normal” school later in life had become an incredible challenge for them after growing up in the unstructured Montessori classroom setting.
All in all, my experience teaching Montessori taught me that while it is a great form of education for some very independent, very self-motivated children (who don’t need reinforcement or praise and who learn best by hands-on learning with very hands-off adult supervision), it definitely isn’t for everyone. With my due date looming, I left the school with a completely different idea of how I wanted my son to be educated.