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Proud Traditions & New Ideas: Montessori for the 21st Century
by Joe Zibell

Photo courtesy of Whitby School.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Montessori education’s success in the 21st century is how it has been able to both adapt to a more technology-centric world, and yet still remain deeply rooted in the original teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori, which date back more than a century. At first glance, it could be easy for one to assume that this transition for Montessori schools could be a bumpy one, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. By staying true to core principles, it turns out that many of the original ideas of Dr. Montessori are more relevant than ever.

Connecticut Parent Magazine recently connected with local educators to reflect on both the universal truths of their philosophy, and the important place Montessori holds in a rapidly changing, hectic world.

Marci Martindale, head of school at The Children’s Tree Montessori School (CTMS) in Old Saybrook, recognizes the potential of offering a perfect blend of “old ideas” and “new technologies.

“Unlike traditional models, Montessori education has virtually gone unchanged in over 100 years because it naturally follows the child,” says Martindale. “At CTMS, we are able to meet most children’s needs in our changing world.

“The same principles and foundations are still valuable as they develop order, coordination, independence and concentration,” she says. “When a child possesses these traits, their self esteem goes through the roof and they are ready to take on the world!”

Photo courtesy of The Children’s Tree Montessori School.

Whitby School in Greenwich was inspired by the essential connection between the core of Montessori and the modern world as it enhanced its program offerings within the last decade.

According to Simone Becker, head of Lower School at Whitby, the school engaged in an in-depth study that took into account current best practices, the latest research in education and the Montessori approach when it looked into merging the International Baccalaureate (IB) with Montessori philosophy. The integration took place in 2007, and they couldn’t be happier with the results.

“Whitby combines IB and Montessori within its early education program, which results in a powerful program that allows even the youngest learners to gain confidence, understanding of themselves and passion for learning that will fuel the rest of their educational journey,” says Becker. “We found that Maria Montessori’s teachings from 100 years ago resonate loudly with current 21st century ideas about learning, and in many ways are complimentary to International Baccalaureate principles.”

In her correspondence for this article, Becker laid out five examples of how they are implementing these two core ideas:

  • Constantly assessing the academic, social and emotional needs of students to determine their next steps in learning and adapting instruction accordingly.
  • Ensuring that learning is individual and collaborative — allowing for flexible groupings.
  • Developing broad, balanced, connected and conceptual curriculum — ideas worth exploring.
  • Fostering students’ ownership of learning — engaging students to be the problem posers, to engage in inquiry and develop critical and creative thinking skills.
  • Developing internationally minded people who recognize their common humanity and share guardianship of the planet, helping to create a better and more peaceful world.

Photo courtesy of Whitby School.

Inside the Classroom

For parents who aren’t familiar with Montessori, typical questions might be: How is the classroom set up? What is the nature of the teacher-child interaction? What is a typical day like?

The Windsor Montessori School has an excellent “Guide to the Montessori Method” available on their website, which not only details information specific to their school community, but works as a great primer to introduce families to this educational option.

As part of the guide, authored by Laura Casey, school director, there are several identifying markers that set Montessori apart from other philosophies and methods. Specifically, the guide notes that an “authentic Montessori classroom must have these basic characteristics at all levels:”

  • Teachers educated in the Montessori philosophy and methodology for the age level they are teaching, and have the ability and dedication to put the key concepts into practice.
  • A partnership established with the family. The family is considered an integral part of the individual’s total development.
  • A multi-aged, multi-graded heterogeneous grouping of students.
  • A diverse set of Montessori materials, activities and experiences which are designed to foster physical, intellectual, creative and social independence.
  • A schedule which allows blocks of time to problem-solve, to see connections in knowledge and to create new ideas.
  • A classroom atmosphere which encourages social interaction for cooperative learning, peer teaching and emotional development.

As the guide states, “the best environment for a child’s development and learning is one where the child is free to make choices within a clear framework of reasonable expectations, and with the guidance and support of knowledgeable and caring adults.”

Photo courtesy of The Children’s Tree Montessori School.

Becker’s descriptive language and the details she provides offer a snapshot of what it would be like to step into the children’s space, which is truly their own, and see how it all comes together.

“When you enter a Whitby classroom you will be struck by the purposeful hum you are encountering,” says Becker. “Our classrooms are designed for the children and their developmental needs at that specific time in their life. You often have to look for the teachers as the classroom contains many defined spaces for individual, small group or group instruction.

“There is a practical life area with utensils, sinks and tables where students learn to confidently complete everyday life tasks, like cutting fruit, pouring liquids, serving others and cleaning up after themselves. You will find freshly cut flowers, natural materials and students who move about freely, engaging in activities of their choice. The students own their environment as they recognize that it is truly theirs and they learn from an early age to partake in taking care of it.”

Martindale notes the important connection between two central ideas: the teachers acting as facilitators in the classroom, which then encourages students to take ownership and responsibility.

“In a Montessori environment, children are recognized as truly capable humans,” she notes. “This mutual respect leads to deep, trusting relationships with their teachers, which build each year in the multi-aged program. When a person feels safe, respected and loved, they are free to develop to their full potential.”

And when it comes to fostering accountability, Martindale concludes, “Children value what is theirs. By giving the classroom over to the children, they take ownership, become responsible for maintaining and beautifying it, and even hold each other accountable for the care and behavior of their shared space. This responsibility builds a child’s sense of self worth and self esteem, providing them [with] the confidence to challenge themselves in all areas of their life.”

Photo courtesy of Whitby School.

Beyond the Montessori Years

One of the key questions a parent will ask when deciding on any educational option for their child is “How will this benefit them, in terms of overall growth and development, and how will this set them up for success in the future?”

According to Casey’s handbook, “Montessori children are unusually adaptable. They have learned to work independently and in groups. Since they’ve been encouraged to make decisions from an early age, they are problem-solvers who can make choices and manage their time well.”

Martindale also honed in on the importance of each child working at their own pace, and things happening naturally.

“[By] developing at their own rate, instead of trying to fit a child into a mold, children are able to learn at their own speed often times excelling in different areas each year and discovering what they are truly ‘good’ at when they are young instead of when they go off to college or grad school,” Martindale says.

Becker concludes that this spirit of independence, an idea at the core of any Montessori classroom, is what ultimately will help set those students apart.

“A Whitby education is about allowing students to define success on their own terms by inspiring their love of learning, broadening their sense of responsibility, developing their critical thinking skills and empowering them to take action in a global community,” says Becker. “These are the ideals that we value and they inform our teaching, learning and curriculum development each and every day.”

When Dr. Montessori first began developing her philosophy and methods in the late 19th century, it would’ve been hard to envision a globally-connected world and the impact that technology has had throughout the 20th century into the current day. However, because of the timeless nature of her ideas and her keen understanding of how children think, feel and experience the world around them, Montessori remains a viable education option.

Editor’s Note: The full “Guide to the Montessori Method” prepared by Windsor Montessori School, that is referenced in this piece, can be accessed at Click on “Primary Program” on the right and scroll down to access the full .PDF.

Photo courtesy of The Children’s Tree Montessori School.




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