Wednesday, 14 June 2006

Montessori, the rational alternative

As an enthusiast for the Montessori method of education, I get a little annoyed when the Montessori philosophy of 'freedom within a prepared environment' is mis-characterised as un-schooling, as I've seen recently from someone who should know better.

It's about as far from the truth as it's possible to be. In fact, it's downright insulting.

Montessori education is not 'chalk-and-talk' - except when it needs to be, such as in some aspects of the adolescent programme -- instead it sees teachers as guides who direct children to the 'prepared environment' of the classroom, within which they will find materials from each part of the curriculum that allows them to teach themselves. Such is the unique nature of the Montessori materials, and the Montessori classroom. You can get an idea of the Montessori pre-school classroom in this video transcipt. And an example of how the materials work for one part of the curriculum, maths, can be found here.

Dr Maria Montessori began her work in education almost by accident. Graduating as a doctor in 1896, she was assigned to care for retarded children, for whom she devised a method of education that allowed them to sit, and to pass very well, the state education exam. Praised for her mentally-deficient charges doing so well, Montessori was more concerned with why so-called 'normal' children were doing so badly. Thus, her life's work began. The Montessori Method is the result.

The Montessori classroom -- what Montessorians call The Children's House -- is as unlike a 'normal' classroom as it's possible to be. Children work quietly and in full focus, on their own or in small groups. Work is self-selected, self-completed, and self-cleaned up afterwards. The prevailing classroom management technique is respect for the children, and the idea: "Help me do it by myself." Explains one Montessorian, "At no times does a Montessori child sit passively. A Montessori child needs to learn to be in focus, to make choices, to take responsibility for her own learning, and to explore her natural curiosity. Understanding becomes a pleasure, not a duty." The Method and the Montessori materials are the means through which this is achieved.

The materials are unique to Montessori, and -- almost unique to any educational philosophy -- they fully reflect the hierarchy of knowledge that is at the basis of learning. As Montessorian Marsha Enright explains,
Like all thinkers in the Aristotelian tradition, Montessori recognized that the senses must be educated first in the development of the intellect. Consequently, she created a vast array of special learning materials from which concepts could be abstracted and through which they could be concretized. In recognition of the independent nature of the developing intellect, these materials are self-correcting—that is, from their use, the child discovers for himself whether he has the right answer. This feature of her materials encourages the child to be concerned with facts and truth, rather than with what adults say is right or wrong.
I would recommend Marsha Enright's article as an introduction to the Montessori philosophy.

Why is this important? At a time when the state's factory schools approach philosophic and pedagogical bankruptcy, the need for a rational alternative becomes ever more urgent -- Montessori schooling is that rational alternative, as Ayn Rand herself once argued:
The academia/jet-set coalition is attempting to tame the American character by the deliberate breeding of helplessness and resignation-in those incubators of lethargy known as "Progressive" schools, which are dedicated to the task of crippling a child's mind by arresting his cognitive development. (See "The Comprachicos" in my book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.) It appears, however, that the "progressive" rich will be the first victims of their own special theories: it is the children of the well-to-do who emerge from expensive nursery schools and colleges as hippies, and destroy the remnants of their paralyzed brains by means of drugs. [NB: This was written before the 'progressives' took over the Teachers Colleges.]

The middle class has created an antidote which is perhaps the most helpful movement of recent years: the spontaneous, unorganized, grass-roots revival of the Montessori system of education -- a system aimed at the development of a child's cognitive, i.e., rational, faculty.
The Montessori Association of New Zealand website will give you an indication of where you may find such a rational alternative for your child. NZ's Maria Montessori Education Foundation (MMEF) has a summary of the history of Montessori in NZ [go here and then click 'New Zealand']. Unfortunately, there are too many 'Monte-something' schools about, (something MMEF are aiming to change with good Montessori training) so do be careful in your choice.

Former head of the Ayn Rand Institute Michael Berliner is also a Montessori educator, and he has bewailed for a long time the misundertanding of the Montessori philosophy, even by its practitioners. Explaining in 1982, he said:
Despite the success of Montessori schools, there is amazingly little understanding of the reasons for that success. As a consequence, the method is either dismissed as nothing more than a series of clever techniques for teaching specific skills, or attempts are made to ground the method in Maria Montessori's personal philosophy, a mixture of Catholicism and Indian mysticism.
At present, the supporters of the Montessori method are unable to defend it against either the educational establishment or compromisers from within Montessori ranks. Teachers and parents need to understand the real philosophic meaning of the Montessori method. Ayn Rand's philosophy makes that understanding possible.
This is true, and Berliner goes on to give a ten-point summary explaining how, specifically, Ayn Rand's philosophy makes it possible. Good reading.

Welcome to the Montessori adventure. Un-schooling it's not.


Education, Philosophy, Objectivism


  1. If you are referring to me why don't you say so. I don't recall saying anything about Montessori - I was talking bout un-schooling. I am aware of the difference.Do people hate you because you are paranoid?

    I firmly believe children should sit down, shut up, and do their work. I would be interested in how many of the Fortune 500 CEO's are from Montessori vis a vis chalk and talk though. Perhaps you can tell us all and prove how successful the system is.

  2. No, AFAIK you didn't say anything about Montessori. But a commenter did at the link you posted.

    You can firmly believe whatever you like, but belief alone doesn't necessarily fit children's learning needs. Reality is the test of that, not your belief.

    Not that Fortune 500 membership is a measure of success, but would the founders of Google impress you?

  3. PC,

    I have debated with you in the past regarding the subject of a 'bad lecturer' and a 'good lecturer'. I argued that at University level, I would not preferably want to call any lecturer a bad one. If a varsity student cannot comprehend the specific subject he enrols in, be it Maths, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, etc,... , then the student should rethink if he/she is in the right place (institution) or perhaps they might be better off in a polytechnic to do vocational courses that suit their intellectual capability. University do run their courses in an accelerated manner. This means a huge amount of subject topics are compressed and taught in only perhaps 60% number of weeks out of 52 weeks. That is why it is being called University because anyone who enrols must understand that there is no spoon fed in there. Lecturers are there to point capable students in the right directions and not spoon-fed them. When student don't get spoon fed, then they complain that some lecturers are bad. The student should remember that it is they themselves who are not up to the University accelerated standard way of learning.

    You have argued that there are bad lecturers and good ones. One of your good lecturers was late Professor Orange from Physics Department. You did mention some names about the bad ones but I forgot those names.

    Now University learning is similar to Montessori as I can see. Meaning, you are not spoon-fed, the lecturer is there to point you out in the right direction, but the majority of learning task is solely the responsibility of the learner (student). Therefore, you can’t call some lecturers as bad lecturers. They are all good. Anyone who regards anyone as a bad lecturer does not belong there.

    Don’t you think that your view about learning as in Montessori and University (bad versus good lecturers) are contradicting? Montessori students are encouraged to self learn and self discover on their own where teachers can only point them out in certain directions of how to learn which is exactly how University learning is run. To sum it up, there is no spoon-fed involved. When students demand to be spoon-fed then they call the teachers or lecturers as bad lecturers. If you think that your view is not contradicting, then you must accept that Montessori students can accuse their own teachers as all bad teachers, since the teachers just left them to their own device to discover things on their own with minimal help given.

  4. If you are having difficulty in Math or Science help is available. An up-to-date periodic table with detailed but easy to understand information for kids in science class.

  5. Gee, the quality of spam is certainly improving. New Haven High School? Really?

    FF, I'll reply to you properly over the weekend , but you've made two errors. 1. Montessori learning is not identical to university learning -- there are too many differences to use that even as an analogy.

    2. I never agreed with your point about good and bad lecturers. We all know what a bad lecturer looks like, and we all know how desperately unusual are the really good ones.

    And as far as Montessori goes, the need for a a skilful guide is at least as important as the need for good lecturers. Knowing when to intervent and when not to is nly where it starts. Knowing how to intervene and to what end; how to prepare the environment for learning; which materials a child should be working with ...

    There are a million differences between a GOOD Montessori Directress and a no-good or 'Monte-something' one.

    I suspect that's one reason MMEF was set up.

  6. It was quiute unneccessary to repost this criticism of me on SOLO.

    Not only was my post - which *I* have reposted nothing to do with Montessori - I know for a fact that what has happened regarding my son would never had occured in a traditional, structured environment - it would have been noticed immediately and nipped in the bud. The anarchy is just about at tipping point at these large secondary schools with massive brawls and teachers being punched in the face on a near daily basis - a lot different to your sanitized private school for easily controllable little kids.

    Like every parent, I don't appreciate being mocked for trying to do my best for my children. No matter what you do, what school you send them to, how much time and money you spend - things often don't turn out the way you plan. One's happiness and success in life depend on a lot more than what sort of education one had, or didn't have.

    Instead of criticizing maybe you could try being a bit more positive - it's a benevolent universe remember? Youth need to be told life is good and full of promise - they don't need to be bombarded with negativity ie being constantly told such things as our civilization is under threat, that there are terrorists waiting to blow us up under every stone, and the only way to spread democracy is by the point of a gun. And people wonder why so many young males are suicidal.

    The only person who "should know better" than to think they know what is best for everyone else's children is YOU.


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