For decades Montessori has historically been subjected to two diametrically opposed critiques: some feel it gives children too much freedom in the classroom, while others argue it gives them too little. That's because Montessori is typically seen as a progressive alternative to mainstream education. In fact, Montessori transcends the false choice between progressive and traditional education. It represents a fundamentally different way of approaching human development. To help explain how we think about the core principles of Montessori, Higher Ground CEO Ray Girn and VP of Pedagogy Matt Bateman joined Jonathan Torosian, the host of the New Liberals podcast, to discuss the educational practice and in particular, how Higher Ground uses the Montessori Method to help children flourish. Here are a few highlights of that conversation:
What is Montessori?
Ray Girn: The way I think of Montessori is that it's three things. First, it's a brand, which is in the public domain—anyone can hang up a shingle and call it Montessori. Second, it's a specific set of practices that happen inside the classroom. And third, it's a set of principles. The principles are what we regard as timeless, because they speak to the science of human development.
Can you tell us more about Montessori principles?
R.G.: The core one that springs to mind is mixed-age classrooms. The majority of children in the world are still segregated by age in their education. Seven-year-olds in one room, eight-year-olds in another. But in a classroom of mixed ages, you see older children occupying positions of leadership as they guide the younger children in their endeavors, and you will also see the inspiration take hold in the younger children when they see what their elders are capable of.
Another core tenet of Montessori is the idea of self-directed learning, and the view that the human mind cannot be forced to learn. So all anyone else can do is set the stage: to enrich the child's environment as much as possible, and to inspire him so that he will feel compelled to explore it and get the most out of it.
Montessori education instills a deep appreciation for received knowledge while simultaneously encouraging educators to respect the role of the child as the creator of himself.—Ray Girn, CEO of Higher Ground Education
In Montessori, the independent adult is viewed not only as self-directed but self-created. I think—and this is a view that is perhaps unique to Higher Ground—that Montessori education instills a deep appreciation for received knowledge while simultaneously encouraging educators to respect the role of the child as the creator of himself.
Higher Ground Education CEO Ray Girn, above: "Montessori is like poetry. If you do it, you have to do it well, or it will fall flat on its face."
What does Montessori look like in action?
Matt Bateman: Let’s take, for example, a classroom with an age range of three to six. This is our primary or “children’s house” Montessori classroom. You would see children working diligently by themselves or with a friend on different things. More or less independently. You might see a child cleaning a table or making himself a snack. You would see an older child laying out a bunch of beads—a math material—on the ground and counting to a thousand. You might see a couple of children working with a geography puzzle, kind of putting a map together. There'd be a hum, like low-grade discussion or activity. Children will be moving about.
Montessori is a method of determining what children can do independently and what children can know independently. At the three-to-six age range, this means children will prepare their own snacks, figure out how to resolve conflicts themselves, practice math, learn how to read and write. So there's a lot of freedom, but it's not anarchic.
It's a method built around what children can actually do without the adult being the one who is really doing it—if we prepare the environment for them in the right way. It’s full of particular learning materials and child-sized furniture. You give children a lot of freedom in that environment and the role of the teacher is to systematically connect the child to the environment, to make sure that they understand how to use everything within it and are inspired to do so.
From this, independence and creativity blooms in children, because they're navigating and working in this rich environment designed for just for them. So, it's totally child-directed. At the same time, it's structured—at no point are children abandoned to go and figure things out by themselves. They are guided in a way that suits their age and developmental needs.
Higher Ground Education VP of Pedagogy Matt Bateman, above: "We want to make it easy for children to be the best they can be."
From what you've said, independence is clearly a characteristic that Montessori education seeks to develop.
M.B.: It's not so much that Montessori seeks to help children achieve independence—more that Montessori education seeks to support natural human development, and independence is something that human beings naturally strive for. It's not as though you are unable to grow into an independent adult if you didn't attend a Montessori school. However, there's no question that methodology matters.
Our work at Higher Ground is about how to systematically bring out the greatness in every child.—Matt Bateman, VP of Pedagogy at Higher Ground Education
Can you explain what you mean when you say "methodology matters"?
M.B.: If you think about the best people that you know, the people who are the most resilient, the happiest, that do the most meaningful work—the people that you admire, or people in history who are like that—they're usually very eclectic in terms of how they were raised, and certainly in terms of what kind of education they had.
Frederick Douglass, one of my favorite people in history, was a slave, and also one of the great autodidacts of history. He got a kind of anti-education, and had to educate himself to then become one of the great humanists of all time.
So it can seem like education methodology doesn’t matter. On the other hand, almost everyone has the experience of wishing that they learned something, some body of knowledge or some skill or some habit, earlier in life.
It's easy to both understate and overstate the importance of education and education methodology. The way I see it, our work at Higher Ground is to systematically bring out the greatness in every child. We don't want to leave it to chance. We don't want to leave it to the exceptional few who make it despite all odds. We want to make it easy for children to be the best they can be.
That's the core of what I mean when I say that methodology matters. Schooling can be something that supports a child immensely in achieving everything they want in life, or it can be something that holds them back. But we don't see why children should struggle against their schooling in order to gain an education and lead successful, happy lives.
What are the greatest weaknesses of Montessori education, and how are you addressing them in your network of schools?
R.G.: Montessori is like poetry. If you do it, you have to do it well, or it will fall flat on its face. In order to do Montessori well, you have to develop a different type of educator who is oriented to education in a different way. Staff training has been our focus from the outset, which is why we have created our own accredited teacher training institute, The Prepared Montessorian.
One challenge for Higher Ground is that we are approaching Montessori education in a systematic way. While many successful education providers have successfully tackled one piece of the puzzle, no one has succeeded in conquering the whole.
Education is an unavoidably holistic system. And so for us, we are focused on getting curriculum and pedagogy right, getting culture right, getting training right, getting even real estate and whole-school management right. There are so many facets of childhood development, it makes sense that the business of childhood development is complex. You have to look at all the factors and how they interact in order to give parents and children what they deserve. And we’re working on that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Listen to the podcast in full here:
For more reading on assessing the authenticity of a Montessori you might be considering for your child, dive into the following Guidepost blogposts: