Montessori Schools Part 1

Montessori schools can be found in many parts of the world. During my time in Taiwan, I remember coming across the occasional school with Montessori proudly displayed on its sign.

Test Tube MontessoriToward the end of my four years of teaching ESL, at a time when I was feeling somewhat frustrated with the typical education system that focused entirely on desk work and test scores, my curiosity about Montessori was piqued. I knew just enough about it to know that it was an alternative education method that seemed to suit my personal education philosophies much better than the traditional schools I worked for.

I have been incredibly lucky since moving back to the United States to have the chance to work at a Montessori elementary school, and I wanted to share some insights gleaned from being in a totally different style of classroom, and my thoughts on how those insights might be useful in an ESL classroom.

What is Montessori?

Montessori refers to the educational system created by Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. While working as an educator, she developed an extensive philosophy and curriculum, backed up by her observations and research on children’s learning and development.

Most of Maria Montessori’s original writings focused on early childhood, up through about 9 years old, but the methods and philosophies have been extended through high school, although it’s still most common to see Montessori pre-schools through elementary schools.

A few of the key components of the Montessori education system are:

Educating the “whole child.”

In Montessori schools, the curriculum focuses on social skills, practical life skills, and community building as well as traditional academic subjects. Real life skills like cooking, gardening, personal responsibility, conflict resolution, and caretaking of pets, are considered just as important as more academic subjects such as math and literature.

“Discipline” is based around helping the child understand the consequences and effects of their actions, and is really viewed as just another opportunity to teach important life skills. The key is that each child is viewed as a whole and multi-faceted

The key is that each child is viewed as a whole and multi-faceted individual and that educators have the responsibility to shape every aspect of a student’s life, from social skills to self-esteem to creative thinking to overall happiness, instead of just building up their academic knowledge.

Uninterrupted student-centered work time

This means that for large chunks of the school day, the student is more or less independent, although guided by a teacher if needed, in choosing what they work on and how they spend their work time.

Students will, for example, have a certain number of works and lessons spanning a variety of subjects that they need to complete by the end of the week, but they are free to plan their work time however they like, with a little bit of supervision from teachers to make sure they are using their time productively.

A specifically arranged classroom environment with specially designed Montessori materials

The classroom environment is a crucial part of Montessori. The environment is designed and laid out to foster learning, independence, and comfort. Often, soft music plays in the background while children work, and various workspaces exist, including tables, rugs, desks, and pillows, of which students have their choice.

Each material in the classroom is specifically designed or selected as part of the curriculum and learning environment.

Mixed-age classrooms

Another hallmark of Montessori is mixed age groupings in classes.  Students are grouped in ages based on their developmental stages. This fosters peer learning, role modeling, community, and social skills. Classes typically span 3 years, leading to Montessori curriculum being taught in 3-year cycles.

Now, a lot of ESL cram schools will put Montessori in their name, but are most likely not true Montessori schools. They are more likely Montessori-inspired, making use of some of the ideas and methods but not following the full Montessori curriculum.

This might mean that they are as true to Montessori as they can be, but don’t have the funding to get accredited as a full Montessori school or to hire officially trained Montessori teachers; or it might mean that they have just slapped Montessori onto their name as a marketing ploy and barely pay lip service to the actual curriculum, or they might be somewhere in between.

If you are looking into working at one of these schools, ask a lot of questions about how classes are structured and what their philosophies toward education are, and try to observe a class or two to find out where they sit on that spectrum.

Working at a Montessori, or even a Montessori-inspired, school can be a fantastic experience, but even in a more traditional cram school setting, you can definitely incorporate some of these concepts and methods into your class. In part 2, I’ll go over some ideas for how to do that.

Finally, since the best way to understand Montessori is to see it in action, here are some great introductory videos to give you an idea of what the classroom and works look like:

  • Front page shows some great descriptions of some basic Montessori materials, which you can find here.
  • A beautiful video showing a Montessori student’s daily work cycle can be viewed here.
  • A video comparing Montessori philosophy to traditional schools can be found here.
  • Another beautiful video that shows what Montessori works look like, and captures the variety of works that children can do in the classroom is here.

Have you ever worked in a Montessori school? What were your experiences like? How do they compare to other teaching environments you have worked in? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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