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Joss Delage

What distinguishes Montessori schools?

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Hi,

I am curious: I don't have children and have no specific knowledge on education methods in the US. I would love to get a brief explanation of what distinguishes Montessori schools from other private schools as well as public ones. Also, I would like to know if there are links between the Montessori organization and Objectivism.

Thanks,

JD

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This is The Montessorian's reply to the question posed by Joss Delage.

Dear Joss,

I apologize for taking so long to answer your question. The end of a school year can be a difficult season for an educator. Thanks for your patience.

There are no connections that I know of between Objectivist organizations (I guess you mean ARI) and the two major official Montessori organizations, AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) and AMS (The American Montessori Society). Many Objectivists have found much to admire in the Montessori philosophy, although others have not. I can speak only for myself. One truly excellent Montessori school run for many years by an Objectivist, Anne Bussey, is on the outskirts of Baltimore. The website is: www.chesapeake-montessori.com.    My own school has a website where I have made an attempt to explain Montessori philosophy in non-technical terms for prospective parents. There are pictures there to illustrate some of the points I want to make, although (I regret to say) this website has not been updated in 5 years, and does not reflect some of our current curriculum.

Certainly not every Montessori school is a good one, not even schools fully accredited by AMI or AMS, and, as with anything, the buyer should beware. Many committed Montessorians are nuns, and the Catholic School interpretation of Montessori often involves silent classrooms and children who wait in disciplined lines with their hands behind their backs. On the other extreme one can find Montessori schools run by "Peace Garden" types, where the teachers dress like hippies and stress tree-hugging and multiculturalism. But in schools run by Objectivist Montessorians, one can see the potential for synergy between these two powerful philosophies.

The most important element, to me, of Montessori's philosophy is her respect for the creative, active, individual mind. She eschewed the traditional teacher-centered classroom where children sit in rows and are told, "Open to page two and read the first paragraph." Instead, she designed a classroom where each individual child works through a structured curriculum at his or her own pace. In effect, a Montessori classroom is like a library, where independent learners are working on assignments alone or in small groups, where children have to learn to budget their own time, and where the teacher is, not a dictator, but a facilitator and a resource, who checks the children's work, gives new lessons, and, above all, keeps track of just where each child is in the curriculum so she can encourage moving on to the next step. Montessori teachers learn to "follow the child," that is, to assess each child's strengths and weaknesses and to introduce new concepts at just the right pace for that child, so that gifted children are never bored, and children who take more time to master a particular concept are never frustrated. 

In a well-run Montessori preschool classroom, children feel free to choose materials from the shelves and to use them appropriately, as they have been taught. They are unaware that the teacher, through careful observation and record-keeping, has guided them to all the areas of the classroom: Language, Mathematics, Sensorial, Practical Life, and Cultural, and has assessed their levels of competence, introducing new lessons to each child just when that child is ready for a new challenge.  In a well-run Montessori Elementary classroom, children are given individualized work contracts, and must learn to budget their time, completing their assigned reading, math, history, science, and other work (which means having it checked by a teacher, and, often, being tested on the material). They may, within limits, choose how to budget their time, so they must learn important psycho-epistemological skills such as planning ahead.

At no times does a Montessori child sit passively. A Montessori child needs to learn to be in focus, to make choices, to take responsibility for her own learning, and to explore her natural curiosity.  Understanding becomes a pleasure, not a duty.

A second Montessori tenet of great significance to Objectivists is that the abstract must be made concrete. Throughout her lifetime, Montessori invented a wide variety of materials to teach particular concepts, and this work has been continued by her son, Mario, and by many other Montessorians. Beatrice Hessen, an Objectivist, was struck by the way in which many of the preschool sensorial materials embody important principles of Objectivist concept formation, such as highlighting differences and similarities, and omitting measurements. ("The Montessori Method" in the May, June, and July 1970 issues of The Objectivist.) Montessori materials involve as many of the senses as possible, and engage children in learning "by doing," (a phrase later terribly misconstrued by John Dewey, who hated Montessori for focusing on children's minds, rather than their "social skills.")

Montessori preschool materials which teach perceptual concepts such as color and size were of particular interest to Beatrice Hessen. The solid cylinders, for instance, consist of a series of ten cylinders which vary in certain dimensions, such as height and diameter. The ten diameter cylinders, for instance, teach the concept of "width" by showing the child ten instances of width, from a narrow cylinder one centimeter in diameter to a wide one with a diameter of ten centimeters. The ten cylinders fit, in order, into ten holes in a wooden block, and the child must remove them and then put them back by exploring and experimenting.  Can you see the relevance to Objectivist concept-formation as explained in ITOE? The cylinders are all the same material, wood, the same color, brown, the same texture...They vary only in diameter. This highlights the dimension of interest: width. Within this dimension, a range of measurements is given, putting the child on the path to seeing that measurements can vary, but their exact dimensions can be omitted. What's more, the child sees the width, feels the width, even hears the width as the cylinders clunk into place. The material contains its own "control of error," so that the child can learn through his own experimentation and at his own pace.

But materials which make the abstract concrete are not just for preschoolers. Mortensen fraction materials, for instance, (invented by a modern-day Montessorian) teach children around 9 or 10 years old what it really means to multiply fractions. Imagine a square divided into five vertical columns of equal size, or fifths. Now imagine another square divided into four horizontal rows, or fourths. Now imagine superimposing these transparent squares, to find what it means to break each of the fifths into four equal parts. There will be twenty little squares, won't there? This is what it means to take 1/4 times 1/5: to find one-fourth of a piece which is itself one-fifth of a whole. The answer:  1/20. Now, doesn't that make much more sense than to learn a rule about multiplying the numerators and multiplying the denominators of the fractions? That's what Montessori math is all about. Montessori materials have been designed to take children all the way through algebra. Ayn Rand would have especially loved these materials, I think. She believed in connecting mathematics to reality through the perceptual level.

Extremely clever hands-on materials such as these are found at every level of the curriculum, from preschool through middle school, and in every area, as well, from the first sensorial concepts of a two year old to the advanced scientific or historical studies of a thirteen year old.

Another Montessori principle is to teach the "big picture." That is, in Objectivist terms, Montessori believed in integration. Many traditional schools -even the best private schools - teach a fragmented curriculum.  One week on plants. Another week on planets. Then a week on Native Americans. Montessori instead believed that children need to answer the big questions. How did the Earth get to be here? How did there get to be humans on it? She designed a Timeline Curriculum to tell the "History of the Universe." This curriculum involves astronomy - but astronomy with a purpose. Instead of isolated facts about the planets, children learn the history of the formation of stars and planets, and how the universe has developed over time. Instead of isolated facts about animals (or, worse yet, endangered species), children learn the integrated story of the evolution of life on earth, from its beginnings in the oceans, through one-celled organisms, and all the way through the six kingdoms of monera, protista, fungi, animals, and plants. They learn about anatomy and botany in detail, through dissection and experimentation. As they study each era of Earth History, they learn what life forms are new: vertebrates and jawed fishes in the Devonian Era, for instance, or flowering plants in the Cretaceous. The crowning culmination of the Timeline of Life is the appreciation of human intelligence through the in-depth study of primate and hominid evolution. The emphasis is on the human mind and the stages in the development of tools and language. Ayn Rand would have loved it.

I myself, an Objectivist and a Montessorian, have taken this Timeline curriculum one step further (in the spirit of Montessori experimentation) to make it a three-year timeline. After human evolution, we study the history of Great Civilizations, with an emphasis on science, technology, and ideas.

I hope I have given you a bit of the flavor of what a fine Montessori classroom can be like. Structure combined with freedom: children who are free to choose, but who work their way through a highly structured curriculum in a highly structured environment. Encouragement for children to excel, while learning at their own pace. A respect for the mind of the child, and a respect for the rational faculty of humans.  Discipline, a calm atmosphere where children learn to focus and to ask and answer their own questions. All these are Montessori at its best.

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Great introduction, thank you very much for taking the time!

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I'm very interested in the materials such as the Mortensen fraction materials which you mention. Did Maria Montesorri indicate what her principles were in constructing these? If so, do you know where (citation?).

I ask this in the context of another product, "Hands-on-equations" which introduces children to algebra.(http://www.borenson.com/). He uses the metaphore of a balance beam with rules about placing and removing weights, while keeping everything in balance. I just wonder if this couldn't be improved even more by using Montessori's principles, so that there was an actual physical balance beam, which one couldn't help but place and remove correctly.

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