Montessori Education: It’s Science – Not Daycare
All early childhood education programs have a common goal: To help children grow, learn, and develop in a safe and nurturing environment. However, all such programs do not succeed equally in attaining that goal. This disparity results in large part because many daycare environments are not grounded in the science of how young children actually grow and develop. Montessori education is based on scientific observations of how children interact with their environment and leverages their natural desire to learn and gain mastery; the results of a Montessori early educational program are dramatically different from those of typical daycares.
Maria Montessori was the first female Italian physician, and her work immersed her in the world of poor children in Italian tenements. There, she closely studied how children learn, and developed a method of educating children based on her observations. Her method, which today we call “the Montessori method,” revolutionized early childhood education, and was literally a century ahead of its time. In fact, her methods have since been proven by advances in neuroscience and child psychology. Dr. Angeline Stoll Lillard, a research psychologist at the University of Virginia, tested the Montessori method against new neuroscientific understanding of the brain; the result was her seminal work Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. In it, Dr. Lillard identifies eight major principles of the Montessori method, and lays out the scientific research which now supports them. These principles allow one to clearly see why a Montessori pre-school is deep education, not daycare.
Cognition is optimized when movement is consistent with thinking. Humans learn best by doing. In Montessori classrooms, movement is inherent within every activity, whether practical or cognitive in nature, whether it is fine-motor or gross motor, or a combination of the two. In short, the physical action supports the growth of the cognitive area involved in the activity. In traditional daycare settings, many learning activities are presented in a passive, whole-group, sit-down fashion. This is directly contrary to how young children learn best.
We learn best when we are interested in what we are learning about. In Montessori, children are given significant freedom of choice in their activities after having the material or activity demonstrated to them. Children are free to explore the material in a safe and appropriate way, and extend their learning according to their interests. Teachers serve as learning facilitators or “guides.” In a traditional daycare setting, teacher-created themes are taught according to a pre-determined schedule and the teacher, not the child, is at the center of activities.
Extrinsic rewards reduce motivation and level of performance once the rewards are removed. Montessori classrooms do not give stars, stickers, or other external rewards to children as rewards for their achievements as many daycares do. Nor will one find “behavior charts” and the like. Instead, children are rewarded by the intrinsic satisfaction gained by working through an activity and accomplishing the task they set out to do. This brings deep, meaningful motivation to a child to continue his or her learning, while also fostering independence and autonomy. Behaviorally, children are taught the concepts of “Grace and Courtesy” throughout their daily interactions; shame and punishment are not used. This gentle approach helps children learn how to navigate their environment peacefully and work through any conflicts that may arise between students.
People thrive when they feel a sense of choice and control. In a Montessori classroom, children are empowered to manage their learning by having the ability to choose the activities in which they are interested, and spend as much time as they like working with the material they choose. They move on to the next concept as they are ready. This is in contrast to daycare centers in which children learn in whole group lessons on topics chosen by the teacher, and are pushed through a pre-determined set of activities whether they are ready to move on or not.
We learn best when our learning is situated in meaningful contexts. Children love to emulate the adults around them, and to learn to do things for themselves. Children in Montessori classrooms use real dishes, utensils, and tools – not “toy” versions of these things as are found in many daycare settings. Through them, they learn real-world practical life skills to further their sense of autonomy and independence, and confidence that they can learn and master their real environment. Learning is tailored to the individual child, his needs, abilities, and interests.
Children can learn very well from and with peers. Montessori classrooms are deliberately mixed-age groups, spanning a developmental cycle, or “plane,” of three years. Children often work together to complete an activity. Older children lead by example, and are even capable of directly teaching their younger peers concepts which they themselves have mastered. Remaining in the same environment with the same teacher for up to three years allows the teacher to deeply know the child and minimizes disruptive transitions. Daycare centers typically group children in six-month to one-year increments, causing them to have to start anew every 6-12 months. As all of the children in those settings are generally the same age, they lack the interplay between children of different developmental levels which facilitates peer modeling.
Children thrive on order, routine, and ritual. Have you ever noticed that young children like things to be “just so”? They line their cars up in a particular way, notice tiny things on the sidewalk, and get upset if something is out of order. Montessori environments are set up to nurture this sense of order by intentionally setting out and presenting the materials in a logical, understandable manner. Classrooms are uncluttered, lighting is natural, and materials are organized to promote a peaceful atmosphere. A sense of calmness and serenity are hallmarks of a Montessori classroom. By comparison, typical daycares are cluttered and hyper-stimulating, with bright lights, loud interactions between children, and a frenetic atmosphere that is at odds with a child’s desire for order and routine.
Certain ways of adult interaction with children (as described by Montessori) are associated with better child outcomes. Research has shown that certain types of adult interactions, such as attachment, high expectations, warmth, and calm control all positively affect child outcomes. Montessori teachers are trained to provide a well-ordered, intentional environment, clear, consistent, warm guidance, allow for children to problem-solve and self-correct, and interact with the children in a respectful way. Daycares – teacher-centered and with short-term groupings, a hectic environment, and reward & punishment-based behavior management systems – simply do not create the adult-child interactions which help young children thrive.
Overall, while “traditional” daycare programs and Montessori programs have a common goal – that of the development of the child in order to prepare him/her for future educational and life experiences, the approach varies widely both in approach and outcomes. When the research is examined in relation to the Montessori approach, its strengths become clear. As a research-based, child-centered, success-oriented school, Charlotte Preparatory School recognizes that a Montessori foundation is the best possible way to begin a child’s educational career, and to set him or her on a path for future success in education – and in life.