Dr. Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori movement, was not an educator by trade — she was a pediatrician and psychiatrist at the University of Rome. After studying a group of learning disabled adolescents and the way they were able to learn successfully from an environment designed just for them, Montessori wanted to experiment with mainstream public schoolchildren as well.
Since the Italian Ministry of Education didn’t take to the idea, Montessori decided in 1907 to open a day care center for working class children in a low-income neighborhood in Rome. The children varied in age from 2 to 5, and though they seemed like quite the rowdy, aggressive bunch when the school’s doors opened, they quickly flourished under Montessori’s tutelage. (Although if she were here today and reading this article, she’d probably say they did it on their own.) She provided them with hands-on, language- and math-based manipulatives that she developed based on the children’s interests and taught them daily self-care skills that helped foster their independence.
To quote Montessori: “… Education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child.”
The Montessori method soon exploded in popularity, and schools cropped up across many continents within just a few years. In America, the movement largely fizzled out in the 1920s, following World War I and the criticism of the model by a few influential educational leaders.
But in the last few decades, Montessori and its child-centered approach to learning have seen a resurgence in popularity. Additionally, studies that have shown that students in a Montessori school are at a higher academic level than their peers at a traditional school.
Deciding on Montessori has a lot to do with your child as well as the specific school that your child will attend. Each Montessori school interprets the Montessori model of learning in its own way, and each Montessori classroom can differ, based on the makeup of the students, the teachers' own training, experience and personality, and the resources they use to implement the curriculum.
Some critics are also concerned about a child’s ability to transition into a traditional, competitive school environment since most Montessori schools focus on a child’s early years, topping out at kindergarten or first grade, and there are no grades or tests. Others have been concerned about a child's socialization, since individual discovery is emphasized.
Additionally, it’s important to know your child and what environment would suit him best. If you’re considering Montessori versus a traditional school for your child, do your research, both in person and online. Check out this website — a valuable Montessori resource and visit the schools you are considering. Sit in on a class one or more times, and talk to parents who’ve sent to both schools you’re considering. Your child’s education is the most important gift you’ll give him, so choose wisely.