There are approximately 4,434 public, charter and private Montessori schools in the United States (Public School Montessorian, n.d.), with tens of thousands estimated worldwide (Seldin, 2007). As the number of Montessori schools continues to grow, a clarification of the components essential to an authentic Montessori education is important in order to preserve and maintain Montessori’s vision of education.
I first became interested in Montessori education while observing children in a Montessori charter school in Arizona. While the instructional styles used by the teachers were, perhaps, novel to me in a classroom setting I was most impressed by the children themselves. They appeared curious, self-confident, eager and energetic; that is, full of interest and intention.
My own background at the time was one of outdoor experiential education. As a child I had been steeped in the notion that there was wonderful learning to be had in the forests, prairies, mountains and streams around me - and not just as a casual tourist, either. Rather, through immersing myself in these natural places I got to know them fundamentally – an experience I had rarely felt in elementary school. I spent my summers at nature camps. Later, following graduating from high school, I worked as a counselor at these same camps and then, during college and after, worked as a back country guide and educator throughout the American west.
I was a child for whom doing was my entrance to learning. While I grew to develop the more academic skills required for secondary and higher education, my instincts for getting my hands on and in what I was attempting to understand as a child has continued to be my preferred method of interaction with new ideas. Montessori, herself, believed that “the hands were the instruments of a man’s intelligence” (Montessori, 1949, p. 27). So it had been for me. In my youth, getting to know what was new through my senses first allowed me build a relationship between myself and what was novel. I wasn’t able to intellectualize it right away; I had to feel it first. As an adult, I can see the deeply significant role that manipulatives play, that “the materials are the means to personal formation for each child. … [They] lead the children to exploration beyond the classroom walls, out into the community and world beyond” (Lillard, 1996, pp. 57-58).
What I saw on this first day of observing multiple primary, lower and upper elementary classrooms was exactly what I had done as a child and then taught as a young adult: using the senses to lead the mind. In addition, what I also observed was the control the students had of their learning. The teachers were not instructing so much as they were leading the children toward an experience and observing their responses. When the offer came to assist in one of these same upper elementary classrooms I eagerly accepted.
I have been working with 9-12 year-olds in Montessori classrooms for ten years, now, in charter Montessori schools in the United States and New Zealand. In that time, I have refined what I think are some of the core principles of an authentic Montessori education. I believe that Montessori teachers must necessarily believe in the child as a spirit-filled being; that children first interact sensorially with their environment to understand it, and then grow to explore the relationship between themselves and the world around them; that impressionistic stories need to be employed to ignite children’s curiosity, matched by hands-on materials for them to explore and experience for themselves; that teacher’s observations can guide instruction; and that we, too, can experience the universe anew as the children do for the first time. Indeed, Montessori education “is about freeing the child in a prepared learning environment where they can act independently and set their own goals in learning, and where trained adults relate to them in a guiding, helpful, positive way around the love of learning” (Schaefer, n.d.).
The issue of authenticity in Montessori comes to me in those moments when I am teaching or proctoring an activity that seems antithetical to these fundamental concepts. It is that nagging feeling that something isn’t right; that, we appear to be surrounded by some of the atmospheric components of Montessori education, but the children aren’t yet truly normalized and the deep work has come to a halt.
The metaphor that keeps returning to me is the image of a clear white line, pictured vertically on a monitor: that’s the core of Montessori’s vision. Then, repeatedly, as distractions enter into the school and classroom this line buckles and folds, dancing back and forth – occasionally returning to that initial vertical line, but only just long enough to catch a glimpse of what was there before.
When we speak of authenticity, we are focusing in on being faithful to an original. Regarding authentic Montessori education, we are therefore looking at the translations and interpretations performed in the spirit of Montessori’s own practices. Montessori knew what indigenous peoples have known for millennia: that “how we teach is as important as what we teach” (Schonleber, 2008). She understood that all humans are endowed with tendencies that instinctively direct our actions (Volkman, 2008): orientation, order, exploration, communication, activity, manipulation, work, repetition, exactness, abstraction, and perfection. When and how we meet the need-filled expressions of these tendencies in the children whom we serve is a measure of how closely we are following Montessori’s tested and refined scientific approach to education. It is through paying attention to these tendencies that teachers can authentically teach as Montessori intended : they are real to us and to them.
I believe that authenticity in Montessori matters. If we are to fulfill Montessori’s vision of education as “the bright new hope for mankind” (Montessori, 1949, p. 17) then we are duty-bound to follow her core principles and practices, and to carry them forward in the face of new challenges.
The Public Montessorian. (n.d.). Jola database. Retrieved August 21, 2009, from http://www.jola-montessori.com
Lillard, P. P. (1996). Montessori today: A Comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood. New York: Schocken Books
Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Schaefer, L. (n.d.). Authentic Montessori. MediaSite Recording. St. Paul, MN: St. Catherine University
Schonleber, N. S. (2008). Ancient ways and lessons learned: What Montessorians can understand from native educators [Electronic version]. Montessori Life, 20(3), 32-38.
Seldin, Tim, Ed. (2007). The characteristics of an authentic Montessori school. The Montessori Foundation. Retrieved July 24, 2009, from http://www.montessori.org/story.php?id=265
Volkman, J. (2008). Classroom tendencies: An Exhausting joy. Public School Montessorian. Retrieved August 23, 2009, from http://www.jola-montessori.com/psm/78/articles/volkman.html