At this time of year, parents and children alike are preparing for the beginning of the school year. Many parents are looking forward to a return of routine and to the hope that their children are learning the skills they will need to be contributing and successful adults. Children at Montessori schools are eager to get back to school, for in their Montessori classrooms, they are encouraged to follow topics of interest, enabled to learn from and with their peers, and are guided through methods that are at once innovative and time-tested.
There has been a great deal written about the “21st century school.” The Executive Summary of the Report “Tough Choices, Tough Times” (The New Commission On The Skills of the American Workforce, the Center for Economy and Education) states that people in the 21st century will need to develop:
A “deep vein of creativity that is constantly renewing itself… a myriad of people who can imagine how people can use things that have never been available before…. A world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is key…A world where people think creatively and innovatively while working with people from many different cultures.”
Traditional schools of the 20th century could not meet this mark. A woman ahead of her time, Maria Montessori understood that children already think creativity and innovatively. What child is not constantly asking, “Why?” The sad fact is that many children loose that curiosity during their school years. Dr. Montessori understood that education needed to look and sound very different if people were to be innovative thinkers who tackled world problems. She stated:
“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?”
It should come as no surprise that a study of successful, innovative business leaders published by the Harvard Business Review , noted that many of these leaders attended Montessori schools. The researchers stated,
“We also believe that the most innovative entrepreneurs were very lucky to have been raised in an atmosphere where inquisitiveness was encouraged. We were struck by the stories they told about being sustained by people who cared about experimentation and exploration. A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity. To paraphrase the famous Apple campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).” (Fryer, 2009)
Indeed, the founders of Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia are all the products of Montessori education as are Julia Child, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Montessori education encourages learners to think outside the box, to follow their interests, and recognize their place in the world, and to respect themselves, each other, and their surroundings. In short, Montessori creates innovative, contributing, life-long learners.
Today, there are Montessori schools in all 50 United States. Indeed, about 40 states have Montessori public, magnet, or charter schools. Montessori schools in the US serve children from infancy through high school. In Delaware, there are about a dozen independent Montessori schools, primarily in New Castle County serving children from infancy through sixth grade. Though there is as yet no Montessori public option, the Montessori community in Delaware envisions public options being available to children and families in the next twelve to twenty-four months making this quality educational approach accessible to a wider group of families in the state.
A typical Montessori classroom is overseen by a Montessori certified teacher working in tandem with a highly-trained assistant. The class will be composed of a mixed-age group of about 24 students housed in a classroom filled with shelving holding materials and activities to be used independently by the students. These materials, designed by Dr. Montessori to help children develop a strong conceptual base on which to construct future knowledge, are displayed in an inviting manner, are colorful and enticing, and have built-in points of delight designed to help children connect intellectually and even viscerally with the materials and ideas.
At any given moment in a Montessori classroom, a visitor might see a small group of children in a lesson with a teacher, individuals working throughout the classroom on mats on the floor or at tables, a child watering the plants, children reading quietly, a pair of children enjoying a snack together, a child sweeping the floor or washing a table. Montessori materials cover the full range of academic concepts; math, language arts, history, social studies, zoology, botany, grammar, geometry, physical science, and art materials are all part of the core Montessori materials. In short, while a visitor may be astounded by the quiet in the classroom, he will also be mesmerized by the amount and variety of work going on, most of it without direct involvement from a teacher and the harmonious relationships existing among everyone in the class.
It is these Montessori children who are, this week, thrilled to be going back to school where, yes, like most children, they are excited to be seeing their friends, but more than that, they are excited to be back in an environment that challenges and nurtures their intellectual and emotional sides. Their parents know they are learning the organizational, social, conflict resolution, and critical thinking skills they will need to be successful throughout life. But more than that, their parents are thrilled to be sending their children back to environments where their children clamor to be. Their Montessori children have been counting down the days to school’s start. It’s nice to have parents and children on the same page for once!
E. McCrae Harrison is the Vice President of the Board of the Montessori Teachers’ Association of Delaware and an Advisory Board member of the First State Montessori Academy. She is also a Commissioner on the School Accreditation Commission of the American Montessori Academy. Ms. Harrison is the Director of the Elementary Workshop Montessori School in Downtown Wilmington and holds Montessori certification at the 6 – 9 level.
Theresa Conaty and Linda Zankowski also contributed to this piece.