A Q&A: Lessons on Montessori

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As one of Higher Ground Education's founding members, we sit down with Lindsay Journo to discuss Montessori pedagogy. Her work today focuses on teacher training, program quality, and curriculum education for elementary.

How do you know if a child is suitable for Montessori?

First, understand that just as children have universal needs for healthy food and physical exercise, so, too, exist universal needs for optimal learning and human development. To reach their potential, we would argue that all children need what Montessori has to offer: scaffolded independence, choice, engaging, hands-on learning materials, etc. Montessori enables children to flourish academically and personally – regardless of race, language, culture, socio-economic status, or particular personality.

That being said, a child might have serious learning challenges that makes a Montessori environment difficult for him. For example, if an elementary-aged child has tremendous difficulty with attention and is distracted easily, he might find it hard to be in an environment that has more fluid seating and conversation, and such varied and interesting projects going on around him. (On the other hand, children with attention issues are well-served by Montessori’s individualized programming and freedom of movement, so this has to be judged on a case-by-case basis.)

If my child follows instructions well, does that mean he’s better suited for conventional school versus Montessori?

No. All children and adults need to be able to follow instructions; it’s a life skill that Montessori children, too, acquire. The question is: Is the ability to follow instructions all you want for your child? Do we want to raise children who passively wait until an authority tells them what to do? Will that set them up for success in pursuing post-secondary education, furthering their career, selecting their life partner, finding fulfilling hobbies? Montessori children learn to make informed choices, to pose questions and research answers, to problem solve creatively, to manage their time, to set goals and evaluate their progress.

Whom would you want to hire and promote – an employee who knows how to follow instructions? Or our Montessori elementary children, who are setting their own weekly learning goals, planning their day, requesting lessons in academic areas of interest to further their understanding, and suggesting the work they want to complete to demonstrate mastery?

How do you know what the child is learning and whether the child is up to standard if there are no tests or exams?

Montessori is a mastery-based approach with a highly sequenced curriculum in every subject area. We know what a child is learning because we carefully plan our lessons, and then observe and track whether the child is practicing the skill/concept, or has achieved mastery. The child demonstrates mastery in a variety of ways – through his work with the hands-on materials, through his participation in lessons, through his written work and oral presentations. Every lesson begins with children demonstrating mastery of the prior concept.

We do have benchmarks (e.g. At what age should a student have his multiplication tables memorized? When should he know how to analyze a compound sentence?) but we also have the luxury of time in our 3-year cycles, since children do not develop according to an exactly uniform timeline.

Remember that Montessori lessons in preschool/kindergarten are one-on-one; in elementary are small group (1:2-6). With this very low instructional ratio, it is abundantly clear whether each child has mastered the lesson and we are able to clarify confusions immediately.

What do you think is more effective? A test that shows your child has 80 percent mastery of operations with fractions and then the whole class moves on to the next topic? Or a method where the child demonstrates his understanding directly for the teacher, confusions are immediately noted and retaught, and the child has 100 percent understanding before moving on? Which child will be more successful in math, in the long run?

We are very familiar with the Common Core so are aware whether a child is “up to standard” for his grade level, though we hold this as a very minimal benchmark to meet. We do incorporate standardized testing (e.g. MAPS) so parents have an external benchmark, too.

How does Montessori teach the required “common core” subjects like math and science?

NOT “memorize and forget” or “follow the pattern,” but with the best practices that apply across the Montessori experience: Begin with engaging, hands-on materials that allow the children to understand in a first-handed, concrete way. Isolate one discrete concept/skill at a time. Offer ample time for practice, and choice in timing. Encourage open-ended assignments to demonstrate mastery. Plan for individualized pacing so they can move ahead as soon as mastery achieved. Ensure the child has a conceptualized grasp (with language/terminology) once they’ve experienced concrete exploration. With these conditions, children will surpass our expectations.

Why is there no homework in Montessori? How do you ensure the child is really maintaining knowledge if they aren’t constantly practicing it or reviewing when they leave school?

Let’s flip the question: If children are in school for roughly 7 hours/day, why is additional homework necessary? Is it truly beneficial? The answers are a) Traditional schools are teaching in an ineffective manner within an ineffective structure, so children are not learning enough at school. This requires individualized attention and repetition at home. And b) Research is compelling that traditional homework before middle school does not raise academic performance or standardized test scores.

But, is it true that Montessori children don’t work at home? No! Every aspect of your child’s academic and personal development can be enriched at home, while also enriching your family life and building foundational traits for success (discovering a passion, refining fine motor skills, developing personal responsibility and executive functioning skills -- concentration, task completion, organization, etc.)

For example, you can develop mathematics in real-world applications by cooking, baking, and shopping together. Think about how much math you can practice simply by baking cookies with your child: Measurement (1/2 cup of flour, 2 teaspoons of vanilla), counting (let’s put 20 blueberries in the mix), estimation (how many cookies will fit on this baking sheet?), telling time (when will the cookies be ready if we have to bake for 30 minutes?).

Physics, geometry, and engineering can be explored in a maker-space with woodworking tools and loose parts (paper towel cylinders, foam boards, etc.).

Children’s vocabulary and literacy skills flourish when you read to them every night. Most important, their curiosity and sense of wonder are fed by time in nature, visits to the library and local museums, as well as watching live cultural performances, and quality educational videos. Science, history, architecture, art and music: get out into your community and discover the world with your child. Ask questions, research answers, experiment, and explore. Lifelong learning can be ignited by you, at home!

What happens after sending a child to Montessori preschool? The child must continue to a Montessori elementary school or can he/she go back to traditional school?

Clearly, we think it’s optimal to continue in Montessori. But this question is really asking – in which settings will my child be academically and personally successful? To answer, ask yourself: Which qualities are needed for a child to be successful in any setting?

Children need strong academic skills and a comprehensive knowledge-base, self-motivation, executive functioning (concentration, task completion, organization, etc.), the ability to collaborate and problem solve, personal responsibility, self-confidence. These are the traits that our graduates develop, that enable them to flourish wherever they end up.

If your child transitions to a traditional setting, you will need to help prepare her for superficial differences (raise your hand before speaking or leaving your seat; be prepared to follow the teacher’s schedule for what you work on, and when). Children typically adapt to these differences within weeks.

How does the Montessori approach handle bullying?

First, we make clear what the behavior is: Is it rudeness, meanness, or actual bullying? The first two categories, while undesirable to adults, are actually age-appropriate behaviors that lead to important learning experiences. We support social-emotional development as an integral part of our pedagogy. Children who are rude or mean are not “bad children.” They have an unmet need or undeveloped skill that we work to support.

  • Teachers present “grace and courtesy” lessons that involve role-playing and guiding for real-world situations, e.g. What do you say if someone asks you to play and you don’t want to? What do you do if something someone has said hurts your feelings
  • Teachers run “community meetings” where children have a chance to voice concerns that affect the larger community, and to brainstorm solutions.
  • Teachers implement a “conflict resolution” that teaches respectful voicing of disagreements, active listening, etc. It begins with a teacher mediator but, as children build their skills, is graduates to peer-to-peer resolution.

If the situation is actual bullying (i.e. a relationship with a clear power imbalance where physical or verbal aggression is used repeatedly to intimidate and control) then the teacher and administration would partner with parents and children to swiftly address the situation.

How can my child deal with competition in the “real world” when Montessori is so peaceful without any competition?

Montessori is more like the “real world” than any traditional educational setting. In the real world, you are always competing first and foremost with yourself, to be the very best version of yourself you can be. At work, is the question whether you can outperform the other 38-year-olds on your floor, and if you’re better than them, that’s what matters? Do you stop striving and learning because your boss puts a B+ on your latest project? Do world-class innovators (Elon Musk, Bill Gates) succeed because they were trying to beat the other kids in their class?

No. Our environment and approach conveys to children that the sky is the limit, and that we are never going to stop helping them stretch to outperform our expectations.

We had two graduates get into a highly-competitive charter school for the arts, not because they somehow were motivated or elevated by competition, but because they were able to demonstrate creativity, excellence in oral/written communication, and maturity.

As Montessori consists primarily of individual learning, will my child be social?

First, it’s important to realize that we mold our approach to the universal characteristics of the child.

Under 5’s are much more interested in learning individually, so that is our approach. Children over 5 become much more social, so later Children’s House and Elementary lessons are small group, and projects require a lot of collaboration and communication.

I heard Montessori is very unstructured and “play-like.” Does this mean the child will fall behind students in subject areas compared to more traditional schools?

No, and this is not accurate. Montessori has all the virtues of play, in that there is freedom of choice, ability to move, self-motivation, problem-solving, collaboration, and – most importantly – JOY. But this freedom is given within a highly structured environment and with the demonstration of responsibility. If, for instance, a child avoids doing his math work, the Guide would brainstorm with the child about ways to ensure this responsibility is met. For instance, they might decide that math will be done first thing every morning, and then the child has free choice among his other work options for the rest of the day.

Guidepost Montessori is a nationwide network of schools currently serving 3,000+ families. We're now enrolling for infant, toddler, pre-k, kindergarten, and elementary spots at our 45+ locations. We also have a parenting app called Guidepost Parent, featuring Montessori inspiration and activities for your family. Download in the App Store today!

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