Montessori is a revolutionary teaching method. Named after Dr Maria Montessori, who pioneered the approach in 1907 to teach poor kids in Rome, Montessori is a familiar one to Singaporeans.
But if you’re planning to enrol Junior in a Montessori preschool, read on to find out what it’s really about.
Montessori was allowed to work only with younger kids
“And those were children between the ages of two to five years old, who were too young to attend school (and) were typically kept in a room the entire day while their parents worked,” explains Sharon Grace Alcantra, an academic coordinator at Brighton Montessori.
“They were fed two meals, showered and given basic medical care – childcare services started even way back then! Dr Montessori slowly introduced her ideas and methods that transformed a disorganised and impatient group of children to become caring and peaceful.”
Mentally challenged children paved the way forward for the Montessori method
What’s often written about is her work with mentally challenged kids. They proved to her that everyone is capable of learning. Her experiences and interactions with special needs children pushed Dr Montessori to try out her methods – fine-tuned over time through observation, trial and error – on other children, shares Sharon.
Montessori is suitable for every child
This is an individualised learning approach that builds on the intrinsic motivation to learn, says Grace Yong, founding principal of Character Montessori. “Dr Montessori developed her teaching approach based on the observation that all kids desire to learn. She designed her curriculum to feed this hunger to learn in a way that’s natural and suitable for children.”
Grace explains that in a conventional classroom setting, lessons are delivered to a group of kids who would most likely grasp the information differently and at various rates. There will be gaps in learning.
“In the Montessori approach, such learning disparities do not exist. The materials are carefully designed and graded in such a way that the progression from introduction to the mastery of a new concept is seamless,” she adds.
In other words, each child will work on a set of materials – and master the concept. Then, they progress to the next, which takes him to the next level of difficulty. Kids therefore always have control of their own learning process. They also have the satisfaction of achieving mastery in the tasks given to them. This naturally results in the development of their intrinsic motivation to learn.
It’s a well-established fact that preschool children mature at very different rates, and their periods of readiness for academic subjects vary a great deal, adds Ivy Kwan, supervisor at Tulip Montessori.
“Because interest is stimulated and the materials are at hand whenever a child is ready, some youngsters in a Montessori class begin to read and calculate at an unusually early age.
However, very early learning is not the norm, nor was it ever Dr Montessori’s objective. Her ideal was only that the learning experience should occur naturally and joyfully at the proper moment for each individual child.”
Dr Montessori empowered child-friendly classrooms
Through observation, Dr Montessori realised that children had the ability to decide what they wanted to work with. They would do so with a strong focus from start to finish, shares Sharon.
“Children need routine and order to help them make sense of the world around them, and this is well embedded in the Montessori curriculum,” says Grace. “Young children feel secure when their world is well ordered and structured because they know what to expect and what’s expected of them.”
She highlights that the Montessori classroom allows children “easy access” to the equipment. And because of their in-born need for order, they very quickly learn to put the items back in place after use. In fact, children as young as 18 months are capable of managing this routine when properly inducted into it, she adds.
A lot of the beginning Montessori activities centre around the exercises of Practical Life. These include spooning objects like dried beans or pasta from bowl to bowl, says Audrey Choe, founder-director of Pink Tower Montessori.
She explains that even a simple task of spooning things helps develop eye-hand coordination, independence and concentration. “To the untrained eye, this may seem somewhat trivial and mundane a task, and may even lead some parents to question why they should pay so much just to let their children ‘play’. However, upon closer inspection, one will realise that there are always learning objectives behind every Montessori activity.”
Montessori provides a conducive learning environment
This condition is specially prepared so that it cultivates independence and helps development of physical (gross and fine motor skills), creativity and social skills, says Sharon.
“Kids are encouraged to socialise with each other to facilitate peer teaching and emotional development,” she adds. Children also learn how to do things for themselves, and build confidence and self-esteem through such interactions.
Pupils are given time to come up with their own solutions when they encounter a problem. This allows them to enjoy the process of troubleshooting, she adds.
“The learning materials used in the Montessori approach are typically multi-sensory, sequential and self-correcting, so that kids will learn things through their own without having to rely heavily on the teacher.”
This sense of self-discovery is apparent when a child successfully completes a task on his own, says Anne Valli Hill, the Montessori directress mentor for Rainforest Schoolhouse. She explains that repeatedly completing a task successfully gives a young child the feeling of accomplishment (especially when there’s no assistance from an adult) and joy.
“That’s why Montessori children in the classroom are so happy, at ease and confident.”
Montessori teaching is done in small groups or one-on-one
“Teaching is mostly done one-on-one or in self-selected small groups; large-group teaching is rarely done in Montessori classrooms,” says Sharon. The teacher-to-pupil ratio is also kept small, to ensure quality and holistic care is given to each child.
“But all these come with a price, which is why Montessori classes cost substantially more than regular preschools. The materials are custom-made as well.
Quips Sharon: “The building of kid-sized furniture started here! After closely observing the daily movement of the children who struggled to manipulate adult-sized furniture, Dr Montessori decided to build child-sized furniture that was more appropriate for their stature and weight.
“It was only in the 20th century that such furniture began to be made for the mass market. Prior to that, they were only for those who could afford it.”
Teachers are designers and more
“Dr Montessori once wrote: ‘We can only give each individual the chance to fulfil his potential possibilities to become an independent, secure and balanced human being.’ With this thought, a Montessori teacher will give each child time and pace to develop her physical, intelligence, emotional and social development,” says Ivy.
Sharon notes: Montessori educators are effectively classroom designers, demonstrators, recorders and observers of children’s behaviour and development – readily adapting external environmental factors to suit the kids’ needs.
How to tell if it’s the real deal?
Unfortunately, the name was never legally protected, so there’s no official governing body to check on the authenticity and operation of such schools.
“It’s really up to parents who are keen on putting their children through a Montessori method of education to do their own homework and due diligence, visit schools and select the one that they feel is the closest to their understanding of a Montessori school,” advises Audrey.
Aside from the points listed in this article, an authentic Montessori classroom should be equipped with the full range of Montessori learning apparatus. These should cover the five major areas of Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics and Cultural.
“The cost of equipping a preschool with Montessori materials is without a doubt comparatively high. But without the proper range of such stuff, it would be inaccurate to term a school as such,” reminds Audrey.
Adds Grace: “Parents should find out how many teachers in a school have Montessori diplomas, so that it’s not a case where there’s only one Montessori-trained educator in the whole school and all the others are trained by her.
Some Montessori centres have theme-based content for co-operative learning activities or group teaching. These can be taken by teachers with diplomas in early childhood.”
Montessori prepares him for primary school…
Audrey notes that many Montessori schools here integrate elements of the traditional teaching approach, so their Kindergarten 2 children will have a smoother transition into Primary 1.
“This may not be a bad thing, as I feel it’s only fair to prepare the children who will be entering the local primary schools, and equip them with the skills to succeed not only in a Montessori setting but in other environments, too.”
… and for life
Grace shares a quote by Dr Montessori: “The undisciplined child enters into discipline by working in the company of others, not by being told that he’s naughty.” This emphasis on routine and structure in the Montessori programme creates a stable, secure environment in which children are able to cooperate well with adults, she explains.
Self-assured kids with a strong sense of self-worth are much more ready to show kindness and respect, accept correction and extend forgiveness. Self-management and reflective skills enable them to make the right decisions even when they’re upset.
“These are the reasons why I believe a Montessori education has the potential to benefit children for life,” says Grace.