A fascinating aspect 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. Connect with local educators to learn more about the philosophy, and the important place a Montessori education could be for your child.
Montessori: An Education for Tomorrow
by Dan Orawiec
Dr. Maria Montessori was a forward thinking woman, way ahead of her time. Born in Italy in 1870, she broke gender barriers and expectations when she enrolled in classes at an all-boys technical school, wanting to become an engineer. She soon had a change of heart and began medical school at The University of Rome, where she graduated — with honors — in 1896. Upon graduation, she continued her research at the university’s psychiatric clinic, and became co-director of the Orthophrenic School, an institute for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children, with an attached laboratory classroom. In 1906 Montessori was invited to oversee the care and education of a group of children of working parents in a new apartment building for low-income families. She was interested in applying her work and methods to typical children, and the Casa dei Bambini, or Children's House, opened in 1907. The rest, as they say, is history.
Montessori’s philosophy, methods, techniques and child-centered approach to education are as relevant and beneficial to children today as they were more than 113 years ago. The American Montessori Society explains that in a Montessori classroom the teacher, child and environment create a learning triangle. The multiage groupings foster peer learning, students have uninterrupted blocks of work time with a guided choice of work activity.
With a Montessori education, growth starts early. Those formative years are a critical time to set a strong foundation in determining who a child will become, and the role she or he will play in the future. A Montessori education develops students who are capable, accountable and knowledgeable people who will be able to thrive in the real world.
Each year, Connecticut Parent Magazine (CPM) has teamed up with local Montessori schools to give you a comprehensive, inside look into this “educational philosophy of the future.” This year, CPM has broached several questions to Valerie Lishnoff, Director of the Whitby Montessori Children’s House (WMCH) in Greenwich.
CPM: What are some of the defining traits of the Montessori philosophy that you have discovered really pique parents’ interest in educating their child?
WMCH: Parents come with a keen interest in fostering their child’s natural desire to learn about and investigate the world around them. They come for a visit to our classrooms and see children navigating the inviting, child-sized environments and note each child’s learning and development is happening on the child’s terms. The children are actively engaged in a wide variety of self-selected activities that allow them to develop practical skills while fulfilling their need for order and independence.
CPM: In a Montessori classroom, teachers truly act as facilitators, as opposed to an “all eyes on me” classroom arrangement. Can you talk about the benefits of this set-up, especially as it relates to teacher-student interaction?
WMCH: By allowing the child to take the lead in his or her own learning and “following the child,” as Maria Montessori taught us, we can take advantage of natural development, rather than work against it. A teacher’s role is to meticulously observe the children's behaviors and development, prepare the classroom environment to meet their needs, stretch their learning, and provide lessons at each child’s moment of necessity. A skilled, experienced teacher knows to look for that window of readiness. When optimal timing is achieved, there is no need to stand on a stage and perform for the class's attention. At that moment, you have a self-motivated, captive audience, and the makings of a formative learning experience for an individual child at one stop on their learning journey. I often think of the metaphor of the gardener and the seed compared to the relationship a teacher has with a child. The seed already has the potential to grow into a flower, the gardener’s job is to nourish and care for that seed and help it along its natural development.
CPM: It is stressed that the classroom is really the domain of the children. How does this environment foster traits like accountability and responsibility, and how does this arrangement benefit the educational process?
WMCH: This idea that ownership fosters a desire to care for one’s environment is true, no matter the group's age. A sense of belonging to a classroom community is also a key feature here. When a child understands in a real sense what it means to count on someone, and be relied on in return, a natural feeling of responsibility occurs. Each child has had the experience of selecting an activity, entirely prepared for them with all the materials they need, beautifully arranged, and have felt that satisfaction. Alternatively, each child has also experienced selecting an activity only to find pieces missing or in disarray and have felt the disappointment that this causes. To create more satisfying moments for themselves and others, children are inspired to return materials to their places the way they were found.
Parents often ask teachers how they get the children to clean up after themselves, to which they often get an amused response because in reality the main role of the teacher is to set up the environment and get out of their way. When there is a spill in a Montessori classroom there is a surge of activity with the group working together to sweep it up, use the dustpan to dispose of the mess and return the room to a state of beauty. When we set up the materials, including brooms and mops, and provide real-life opportunities for children to practice the skills they need to care for their own environment, they will happily do it because they are motivated by their own desire to help.
CPM: How do your education methods and philosophy tie-in with the original teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori? How do they resonate in this modern, high-tech world?
WMCH: We focus on preparing our teachers and our environments to meet each child's needs. We know that each child is an individual on his or her personal learning journey, and our job as educators is to foster a
deep, ingrained love of the whole experience. Curiosity in the world around them and a profound sense of community are two hallmarks of a Whitby education from Stepping Stones up through Grade 8.
Dr. Maria Montessori knew that we had to allow our children to be the directors of their own learning. She observed sensitive periods and natural inclinations throughout child development that we still see today. Technology may change month-to-month or minute-to-minute for that matter, but a child is still a child. We can change the world around a child, but brains will continue to develop as nature intended. We can best meet those developmental needs if we provide real-life experiences and foster relationships, enabling true engagement with the world around us.
CPM: One of the key questions parents ask is “How will this benefit my child, in terms of overall growth and development?”
WMCH: We offer a rich learning experience, tailored to the needs of each individual. When children enter our school, they quickly learn that they will be challenged but also supported and nurtured throughout their time here. We strive to create lifelong learners, inquirers, and explorers who can work with others while accomplishing personal goals. They leave feeling deeply rooted in a community with the foundation and confidence to pursue the next challenge of their choosing. Our graduates feel proud of their accomplishments and well-prepared to handle the next steps in their education.