Maybe Montessori

Posted on Mar 4, 2010 in Featured, Learning | 6 comments

This is Part VII of the series Kindergarten Considerations in which I have been discussing (and wrestling with) the considerations behind the seemingly innocuous decision of where to send my four year old son to school. The next three posts are dedicated to a discussion of our top three options. This post looks at Montessori.

Amber from Strocel.com recently pointed out that it’s going to be impossible to find a perfect school and I know she is right. I am aware in some deep recess of my brain that I can’t be too picky. I have to be realistic. I think we all choose the best option for us, for our circumstances. The director of Rain’s preschool has also reminded me (rightly) that no matter what school we choose, it’s going to come down to the teacher whether or not it’s a good fit for him. With that said, let me warn you that in the next few posts I will be picking apart all of our options. Which isn’t to say that I won’t choose one of them in the end.

I should add my little disclaimer here that my comments about particular schooling philosophies represent my impression based on preliminary research and reflect our own family educational goals. My comments are not intended to suggest that a particular philosophy may not be the right choice for your family.

Montessori

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that we were attending an info session for the local publicly run Montessori program. I went to the evening with an open mind and felt excited about checking it out. I only knew the bare minimum about Montessori. I knew that it had been around for about 100 years, that it was started in Italy by Maria Montessori and that it’s generally regarded as a very good alternative schooling program.  I also knew that the children are allowed to roam freely around the room and choose materials to work with as they like. So far so good.

The first thing they did at the info session was show us this video to introduce us to the basics of Montessori education.

The learning materials and environment are intriguing and beautiful. I was encouraged by some aspects of the philosophy: the emphasis on self-directed learning and the addition of non-academic units like practical life. The staff, teachers and our local society seem sincere, dedicated and earnest.

But the reality of the program here didn’t mesh with the fairy tale in the above video. The school, a former middle school, was large and imposing. The room on the second floor, though filled with Montessori materials was utilitarian with only two windows at one end of the room, located above a 3 foot counter. I tried to imagine my son trying to see out the windows or walking to his classroom, through wide corridors and up long flights of stairs. It didn’t feel very accessible to a five year old.

In and of themselves those issues could be dealt with. It would only take a few weeks for Rain to get used to the immensity of the place. I feel more bothered by the lack of accessible windows really. But I also think back to when I would pick up my niece from Kindergarten. Everything in that whole wing of her school was kid size: tiny toilets, tiny water fountains, coat hooks at knee level, bright windows. Taylour’s kindergarten reminded me of my own and I wonder how is it that school has changed so much in the last 10 years that we no longer try to approach the child on their level?

Moving on though. My impression of the space quickly bled into my impression of the philosophy. Keep in mind that I was there in the evening so I wasn’t able to observe children in the classroom, but to me, the program felt cold. Though the video talks about how much fun the children have while they are learning, we also heard repeatedly that the children would not be playing with the materials; they would be working. This word work came up many times over the course of the evening. The program seems structured around solitary work. Sure, it’s great that the kids can work at their own pace and there is an admirable dedication to kids problem-solving. I loved looking at all the Montessori materials but I didn’t see very much opportunity to be creative, to play, to use imagination or to be artistic. For instance, the children’s books on the book shelf were about math.

What’s more is that my impression upon listening was that this devotion to letting kids work at their own pace seemed to hold a subtext of hope that your child would outpace his/her peers. I felt it like a passive aggressive form of pressure. This feeling even persisted a week later when I read an article on a local community news site that was intended to raise awareness of the program and presumably, encourage parents to consider it. The article, Is Montessori Right For Your Family, contained a rather long list of things to ask yourself to determine if your family was a good match for Montessori. It felt very much as though it was more about if we were right for them than the other way around. The whole tone of the piece seemed to subtly discourage families from considering Montessori education, and seemed to suggest that Montessori was only for certain people. In fact, at the time I read the article I was still actively considering signing Rain up for Montessori and that article certainly did make me question if we should. I wonder how many other families decided against the program upon reading it?

I know that Montessori programs around the world vary greatly in their implementation and I’m sure there are fabulous schools and not so fabulous. I’m not sure where our local school fits in that continuum. The images I’ve seen online of Montessori classrooms certainly don’t seem as cold as the ones I visited. Overall, the philosophy seems like a rich learning experience and a wonderful alternative to mainstream public schools. I love seeing multiple options available to families but in the end, I don’t think Montessori is right for us. At least not right now. At this point, I’m not ready to put my 4.5 year old in a program that seems to put so much emphasis on work and academics. In a couple of years maybe it will be perfect for us.

How about you? What’s your take on Montessori? Has your family enjoyed Montessori education? (I realise that Montessori is very well regarded and that most families love it. I’m happy to hear about your experience, positive or negative).

6 Comments

  1. This is so interesting. We only have private Montessori programs in our area (which we can’t afford) but I have been quietly lusting after them anyway. But reading this it seems like it’s not all roses and sunbeams. Food for thought.
    .-= Zoey @ Good Goog´s last blog ..Cheeky =-.
    Twitter: zoeyspeak

  2. My daughter attended a Montessori preschool for 6 months. Now, I should be clear that I’m not sure that the Montessori method was implemented properly in her school, which is one issue with Montessori. It is not trademarked and most anyone can use the term. However, I did not feel it was a good fit for us.

    My daughter is very social, and likes to move from activity to activity. At the Montessori school it WAS very much all about solitary work. The idea was that a child would choose a material, and then master that material before moving on. It was self-directed, but in a very structured fashion.

    When we removed my daughter we put her in a play-based school with a focus on social and emotional development, and she is much happier. She can move from activity to activity to activity in a 5-minute time span. There is built in time for open play with her peers. There are open-ended and creative toys.

    I know that Montessori is a great fit for some kids. Some children like doing their own thing at their own pace. Mine doesn’t, and so any thoughts I had about our own public Montessori stream have been dismissed at this point.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Blogging Your Dreams =-.
    Twitter: AmberStrocel

  3. I’ve been an ostrich with my head in the sand about Montessori ever since a roommate of mine years ago told me that during her ECE Montessori practicum she got in trouble for helping a child who was crying learn how to hold a pair of scissors. I thought it sounded like a cold type of education and I have never really learned much about it since. In fact, I learned more about it reading your post than any other time. Anyway, my friend was fantastic with children. I had seen her in action and I knew I wanted teachers for my future kids to be more like her than the style she told me about at the Victoria Montessori school.
    .-= Melodie´s last blog ..Poll: How Old is Your Nursling? =-.
    Twitter: bfmom

  4. I have two sets of friends that have their kids in Montessori and have been for years and years. Both our friends and their kids seem to absolutely LOVE Montessori. They just rave about it.

    On the other hand, I know someone who sent their son (who is really super active and social and not particularly good at working on his own) to a Montessori school and it did not work out at all. The teachers felt he was disruptive because he was always running around getting something new and he wanted to chat with kids who were trying to do work. He still has some similar issues in regular school but has seemed to do best the years he gets a teacher who leans heavily on the traditional/old school form of teaching.

    As for me…The Montessori school in my area is really tiny and off in the literal middle of nowhere. It sits in the middle of a farm in a series of trailers. Just from an aesthetic point of view it doesn’t appeal to me and I don’t think I’ll be sending my kids there.
    .-= Marilyn @ A Lot of Loves´s last blog ..Worms and Dirt: Wednesday of Few Words =-.
    Twitter: MBels

  5. I’m biased, but here goes…
    I. Love. Montessori. I regularly visit my childrens’ classrooms & wish I was a kid again so I could be doing what they’re doing! My kids have grown so much, learned SO much I wouldn’t have even THOUGHT to teach them. My daughter at 5 now can read pretty much anything, write in cursive, multiply and divide, does addition & subtraction in her head faster than me, can identify the majority of countries in the world on a blank map, and is starting to read & write music. And she loves it – I mean, she truly truly enjoys her work; yet it isn’t work in the sense that we adults think of work. Its a sense of self-direction, personal accomplishment, goal setting & reaching. It isn’t laborious; its fun… she learns that learning is just… awesome!

    My children both look forward to school every morning. My son is still in the toddler class, so there is no focus on academics yet, just learning the materials, how to choose work, and real life skills. At 2 he could turn on the sink, fill a watering can, and water the plants. At three now he helps the smaller children with mastering their activities. The mixed-age classrooms are such a joy – it gives the older children a chance to teach & lead, and the younger children a chance to learn from their peers, as opposed to always from a “big adult”.

    As for the two windows & cold space of the school you describe… that’s not about Montessori, that’s about a lack of planning in that specific school, unfortunately. And I wouldn’t be comfortable with that either. My childrens’ spaces are open, filled with light & access to the outdoors. The school itself is located on a working farm so the children are always exposed to nature. On a daily basis they do things like feed the animals, tend to the gardens, study the leaves & trees, and just run around on the playground.

    Its really a wonderful place, and the closest to homeschooling that I can think of. We’re hoping to keep them there until high school, which feels like such a blessing to me.

    If you have another Montessori school around you, I encourage you to look at another – that one just might not be the right fit. Is it a certified AMI school?
    Twitter: kellynaturally

  6. well, we have enrolled our son at the Montessori run out of the local elementary school- so far not very impressive. the teacher had the right spiel but her approach is really cold and distant. my son has come back crying two days in a row and is not looking forward to going back. we are going to try and get him switched to another class and another teacher.
    i think the main problem with this particular school is trying to forcefully stuff a philosophy that is supposed to value individuals into the public system which so clearly does not. it isn’t working from what i can see. my son likes to work alone, and do his own thing, eager to learn and so on, a perfect fit for the Montessori system you’d say. although gregarious and social, he does not like being forced to participate in group activities because he finds the size of the class unnerving [22kids] not to mention the size of the school. he has got into trouble with the teacher, who already seems to have labeled him a disruptive and a troublemaker, because he did not clearly understand what was expected of him. and for two days in a row he had to walk back to his class at the end of the line, bawling his eyes out- i found it really horrifying that a teacher who could make 20 children wait for ten minutes while one student went to the bathroom could not take five minutes to comfort a crying child so he wouldn’t be embarrassed and humiliated as he walked back to class. i am NOT impressed, though i have the greatest respect for the Montessori philosophy and we have had good experiences with a Montessori preschool as well as day care. i think how good the experience is, is very much dependent on the teacher and not the system.
    if switching classes doesn’t work we are looking at withdrawing him altogether and putting him elsewhere because we don’t really want our son to be traumatized by such experiences.

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