K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

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The Montessori philosophy is a holistic view of children that builds on natural curiosity and develops a love of learning by creating environments which foster the fulfillment of children’s highest potential.

History of Montessori

In her medical practice, Italian physician Maria Montessori observed that children build knowledge and skills based on interactions with their environment. Dr. Montessori modified the teaching strategies and materials developed by two French physicians and educators, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and Eduard Seguin, who worked with children with mental disabilities.1 The Montessori method was first used with non-developmentally disabled children by Montessori, who opened her first school in Rome in 1907.2 Montessori’s philosophy was that if teachers help develop a child who can think freely, the child would be prepared for life in a democratic society. After designing educational environments and lessons to encourage positive human behavior, Dr. Montessori field tested the materials on students from various ages, socio-economic backgrounds, and cultures and concluded that children learn through active exploration within their environment based on developmental stages.3

The teacher’s role in the Montessori classroom

Multi-aged grouping based on developmental ability is one of the fundamental characteristics of Montessori education. In the Montessori model, children are grouped together in three- or six-year spans beginning at birth and continuing through high school. Classes are developed around a three-hour work period in which all students are required to attend and participate. Within the work period, the lessons or activities focus on “the Human Tendencies,” which include the need “to explore, move, share with a group, to be independent and make decisions, create order, develop self-control, abstract ideas from experience, use the creative imagination, work hard, repeat, concentrate, and perfect one’s efforts.”4

The Montessori method engages students in activities in each of the three stages of discovery learning: introduction, processing, and knowing. In the introduction stage, the teacher presents new material through lecture, readings, or a lesson.5 Then, students gain a better understanding of the concept by experimentation or creation of a product. Finally, students demonstrate their understanding through a test, teaching to other students, or expression of concepts with some authority.

The teacher’s role in the Montessori method is to “prepare and continue to adapt the environment, to link the child to it through well-thought-out lessons, and to facilitate the child’s exploration and creativity.”6 The Montessori teacher creates the appropriate educational environment by providing basic didactic materials, as recommended by The Association of Montessori International. The teacher constantly observes and analyzes each child’s development and creates work centers in each subject that assist in the child’s development at his or her own pace. The teacher certified in Montessori methods is trained to recognize developmental readiness according to age, ability, and interests.

The Montessori classroom design

Typically, a Montessori classroom has an open floor plan with no desks. There are tables and rugs on which children can work, and the classroom is very orderly. Most of the materials are designed to appeal to the child’s natural curiosity, and each day, there are opportunities for children to participate in art activities and outdoor play.7 According to Michael Olaf (2008), the ideal class size for students at ages three through twelve is 30-35 children, one teacher, and one non-teaching assistant. Olaf suggests this class size is possible because students get to know each other well over the years, and students can work both independently and collaboratively. The multi-age classroom, grouped according to specific areas of development (ages three through six, six through nine, nine through twelve), provides the opportunity for children to learn from their older peers, and later, to model and teach their newly mastered academic and social skills.8 The Montessori classroom is divided into work centers, which are developed around the daily curriculum in a variety of interrelated subject areas. Groups form based on the students’ interests, and children complete tasks in these work centers in three hour blocks.

Although there are no academic requirements for children ages three through six, they are often able to read, write, and calculate at rates above their peers in traditional school settings. Students between the ages of six and 18 adhere to the curriculum requirements of the state, but most often these students are ahead of their state-determined grade levels.

In addition to the academic tasks of a Montessori classroom, the curriculum also focuses on developing students’ learning styles, creating opportunities for character education, and encouraging students to participate in a democratic society.

There are no letter grades in a Montessori classroom; instead, teachers assess student growth through evaluation of a portfolio of work.

No Child Left Behind and challenges to Montessori

According to Linda Jacobson (2007), “the testing and accountability mandates of the NCLB law run counter to the beliefs Maria Montessori held about how children learn,” and classroom activities are being pushed aside for more worksheets and practice tests.9 In an article analyzing the challenges NCLB presents to Montessori schooling, Jacobson presents data from one such school in Maryland where children are scoring well above the district average on both reading and math end-of-year tests across grades three through eight.

Jacobson suggests that the instructional techniques and philosophy of the Montessori method align with the goals of NCLB and prepare students to achieve grade-level proficiency, while encouraging creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.