When someone says “Montessori” there can be many different reactions. The most common being a slightly blank look, with just the beginnings of a sentence-- “Oh, yes. I know what it is. It’s when you…” And that’s where we usually fill in the blanks. Yes, Montessori is where we “follow the child.” Montessori uses hands’-on materials to teach all concepts. Montessori does not box anyone in to any particular ability, but allows everyone to explore all aspects of their interests, both academic and artistic. It’s where every part of a person is valued, yet no part is overlooked. And, that, in a nutshell, is Montessori.
But how is that different than the traditional education?
In Montessori, each child is taught at his/her own level, with no one ever really noticing whether or not a specific work is a specific level. So, for example, if we have an extremely bright second year student working at a fourth year level, her work plan will simply show what work she is on, but not what level it is at. The parents will be informed the level of the work, but the students will simply continue to be encouraged to give their absolute best at everything that they do. Likewise, if we have an older student needing to revisit younger level works, no one in the classroom -- not even the student herself -- will know that she is not yet working on grade level. She will simply be doing the work that challenges her to the best of her ability. No boxes. No labels. No being pulled from the classroom for remedial work.
The students in Montessori are continually taught a natural and inclusive form of peace education. Each student’s gifts and challenges are honored by the community. And as each one of us is valued for our uniqueness, we begin to see ourselves in a whole new light. We are not just our challenges. A student with dyslexia is not simply “dyslexic.” Instead, he is also the gifted violinist or artist or athlete or scientist that is there inside him. No one in his community sees the disability or the challenge. This is just one area where he has to work a little harder than his peers to succeed in that one area. We all have one. And, we can all identify with one. Where is your challenge? When is it a little harder for you to do something than for someone else? Once we see ourselves in each other, we stop judging and start connecting.
The ability to not judge, but to see the total person instead, is aided by the fact that there are no grades in Montessori. Now, that does not mean that there are no evaluations. Evaluations happen continually. We are always looking to see where the student has mastered a specific topic. Once mastery is demonstrated, it is time to move on. As the child moves through the curriculum, they realize that never once were they penalized because they needed to revisit a work a few times. The word “fail” does not exist in the Montessori system. There is no such thing. A child never fails!!! It is the system or the teacher that fails the child--not the other way around. The Montessori system as a “fail-safe” way of allowing every child to succeed. Each child works at their pace. If they need a little extra repetition on a work, that’s no big deal. Let’s look at this one again. If, on occasion, the student gets frustrated with the repetition, we find another way of approaching the same concept. Eventually, the student masters the concept and moves on. It just happens at different times for different students.
Because there are no grades in Montessori, there is also a plethora of ways that we encourage intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation would be working for the grade. Working for the reward. Working for the medal, the trophy, the honor’s list. Intrinsic motivation, as is found in the Montessori system, is working because the joy of learning is the impetus. “When can I learn the racks and tubes? The geometric solids? The Bohr Model?” Each of these are questions that the students ask at very different levels simply because the joy of learning those works is tangible. The students can’t wait to get to them and when they do, it’s as if they captured some magical talisman that was waiting just for them. It starts from deep inside and shines brightly through their smiles, their excitement, and the enthusiasm for the work. Where else are students disappointed when the weekends come and dread the “last day of school?” Where else do the students skip into the school building anxious to see what they will accomplish that day?
Finally, what makes Montessori unique and different from traditional education? Students come to MSEO for a variety of reasons, some of which have been damaging to their sense of self. Many of the students who walk through our doors (especially when they come to us a little later than others) already have a sense of their limitations, their differences, their challenges. And while their parents have often enumerated their strengths, the ones that have most often been pointed out to them at school are their challenges. As protected as we try to keep them, they know what others have said. And it has started to define them. Yet, they enter the Montessori classroom and in almost no time at all, the inner star that exists within each child begins to emerge. How many times have we heard from parents--I can’t believe that’s my child up on stage giving that speech. I can’t believe he volunteered to ask that question in front of everyone. I can’t believe he went on that field trip without me. I can’t believe she stood up in front of all of those parents and recited that poem. And, finally, I can’t believe that he is going to go to college to become an actor. Who knew that was inside him? This has been said so many times that it has become a constant refrain in our school. That inner child was always there. It just took the right environment to bring it out.