Montessori Myths

Montessori Myths

Montessori Myths

The words we use ought to make sense.

One of my great joys at Evergreen is pointing out that in a Montessori environment words like “play” and “work” don’t make a whole lot of sense.  Children are born makers, doers, touchers and learners.  I frequently say that working and playing are merely adult constructs. To a child, there is only the imperative:  figure out the world around him.  Such activity is stimulating, gratifying, and vital.  It can’t quite be called work, and it can’t be called play.

Imagine your life if you found work to be satisfying and meaningful.  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  In the Montessori world, all children are confronted with compelling tasks, challenges and puzzles just at the right level of difficulty.  We need a new vocabulary to describe what children do here.

Likewise, words like “materials,”  “objects” and “toys” don’t make sense at Evergreen.  Should an interesting mineral in the rock jar a called a toy?  Is an anatomy puzzle a toy? A map puzzle? A button frame? Or a paint  brush? These are things to be touched, explored, considered and mastered— enjoyed like toys and used like tools of learning.

In the same vein, two other terms that don’t add up at Evergreen are “structured” and “unstructured” learning.  In a traditional classroom, there is a great deal of obvious structure.  Every child has an assigned seat at a desk that faces in the same direction as all other desks: toward the teacher and the whiteboard.  There is one lesson (or learning objective) for all children.  The classroom structure is as psychological as it is physical.  Uniformity is valued.

What about at Evergreen?  At first glance, our classrooms look unstructured.  A few children here using alphabet letters to build words and sentences.  A few children over here making landforms with water and clay.  Children over there counting or sewing or tracing or painting.  Here, difference is valued. There are many different activities happening at once—does this mean there is no structure? Here structure is found in the classroom norms, procedures and rules.  Learning is child-centered and child-directed, but follows a logical progression set up by the teacher.  For example, learning letter sounds proceeds learning initial word sounds.

For us, it starts with our faith in each child’s natural desire to learn and understand. As Maria Montessori said, “Above all it is to be noted that the child has a passionate love for order and work, and possesses intellectual qualities superior by far to what might have been expected.” The key is to ensure that the environment is conducive for the free child to make good choices.  When every choice is a good one, it will be much easier to make good decisions.  And freedom within the classroom is one of freedom within limits.

When Montessori schools break from the constructs of traditional education and rewrite its central vocabulary, we achieve more harmonious classrooms and deeper learning.  It’s the “magic Montessori fairy dust” that enables us to soar. What we once considered “limits,” we now call “possibilities.”



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