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Thu Dec 27, 2012, 06:19 AM

The Great Montessori Schism


students gardening at a Berlin Montessori school, 1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

True to its nature as an essentially religious institution, the kindergarten has undergone schisms, been rent with heresies, has been divided into orthodox and heterodox, into liberals and conservatives, although the whole body of the work has gone constantly forward, keeping pace with the increasing modern preoccupation with childhood.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, A Montessori Mother, 1916

I have fond memories of my Montessori preschool and kindergarten. Every day was like a be-bop performance -- there were structures, but the players got to improvise within them. A typical Montessori day -- in an American Montessori school, at least -- includes large chunks of time for students to explore the classroom. Nobody told us how to play with our toys, or when. There were occasional moments of inspired weirdness (burning incense when we learned about ancient Egypt; making fake whale blubber out of marshmallows), but our teachers were sweet, the atmosphere was lovey-dovey, and I didn't have any concept of the quasi-religious fervor that can underlie alternative education theories.

Then, a few years ago, I wound up doing some in-depth research into the history of Montessori in the U.S. The infighting I turned up may say more about the true believers of alternative education in general than it does about Montessori in particular.

At least when it comes to early education, Montessori is in some ways the least alternative of the alternative education methods. Students play with carefully designed toys that a parent can easily see leading to more abstract concepts. Golden beads that teach her to count! Little round weights that introduce volume and shape! Shoe-tying! Pouring juice! This makes Montessori palatable to parents like mine, who would have allowed me to go feral sooner than send me to a Waldorf preschool to make woodcrafts and learn about Geist.

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Response to xchrom (Original post)

Thu Dec 27, 2012, 07:14 AM

1. I was an assistant teacher at a Montessori preschool and Kindergarten 30 years ago.

I learned "The Method" with the kids. We were able to provide discovery and education to 30 children between 2-1/2 and 6 years of age.

The classroom is structured, that is true. The child learn rather than are taught. They observe, they perform small tasks, they are responsible for their materials. It's quiet and serene. Some children just watch others perform their tasks and learn from them.

I was amazed how many concepts they picked up: spacial geometry, color gradation, small motor skills, addition/multiplication. We used a combination of tactile squares with letters in sandpaper and phonetics to teach reading.

I loved where I worked. I even considered getting a Montessori certificate and becoming a full-fledged teacher. However, I encountered an instructor who left me cold. She was mostly theory and oblivious to the child.

I agree with the article that no all Montessori is the same. It depends on the training and the teacher. All I can comment on is what I experienced. The teachers provided ample opportunity for creativity through art and music. I don't consider Montessori to squelch imagination and creativity if a child is discouraged from picking up a number stick and marching around like it's a sword or a gun.

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Response to no_hypocrisy (Reply #1)

Thu Dec 27, 2012, 11:29 AM

2. A lot of Montessori ideas have been incorporated into public education


largely through the theory of Jean Piaget's "constructivism." "Hands-on" science and math are outgrowths of constructivism. I know that a few charter schools are Montessori or Waldorf schools, but their education philosophies are not compatible with the current "reforms" being shoved down the throats of regular public schools. Because often their students, especially Waldorf students, can't possibly pass the standardized tests required of students in their age bracket (especially in the lower grades), I am opposed to those schools receiving any taxpayer money whatsoever.

It's a matter of fairness. These kinds of schools should remain private and charge tuition.

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Response to xchrom (Original post)

Wed Jan 2, 2013, 11:09 PM

3. Interesting. 3 magnet schools (read: public) in my district

are dedicated Montessori, and I am considering sending my youngest to one of them.


Montessori is huge in my area.

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Response to xchrom (Original post)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 02:03 AM

4. off-topic, but: Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote one of my favorite childhood books:


Understood Betsy is a 1916 novel for children by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

The story tells of Elizabeth Ann, a 9-year-old orphan who goes from a sheltered existence with her father's aunt Harriet and cousin Frances in the city, to living on a Vermont farm with her mother's family, the Putneys, whose child-rearing practices had always seemed suspect to Harriet and her daughter. In her new rural life, Elizabeth Ann comes to be nicknamed "Betsy," and to find that many activities that Frances had always thought too demanding for a little girl are considered, by the Putney family, routine activities for a child: walking to school alone, cooking, and having household duties to perform.

The child thrives in her new environment, learning to make butter, boil maple syrup, and tend the animals. When Frances announces she is to be married and has come to "save" Elizabeth Ann from the dreaded Putney cousins, she is amazed to discover that the little girl is quite content to stay. The story ends after Frances has returned home, with Betsy, her aunt Abigail, uncle Henry, and cousin Ann sitting quietly and happily around the fireplace enjoying the knowledge they will now be a family for good.


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