montessori, revisited

Some years ago, Dan Myers wrote a series of posts on his awesome (now invitation-only) blog that inspired me to send my kid to Montessori school. Kid was 3, and school was just around the corner anyway, so I looked into the local options, and I found a great school. He went all though pre-school there and is still there, just about to finish Grade 1 (Canadians would want you to notice that they say Grade 1, not first grade).

One of the things about Montessori is that they don’t evaluate the kids’ learning in the usual way with tests and report cards and notes home. There is good research on this that shows that the love of the gold star or the A+ will undermine the love of learning itself as kids want to get praised rather than learn more. It’s a strikingly different approach than public school, which gives near-constant feedback to kids and parents about how they are doing and whether they are ahead or behind.

So, Kid’s teacher evaluates the students’ progress in ways that are invisible to the kids and mostly to parents, too. Unless there is an issue that requires parents’ attention, we remain rather clueless until the end of the year, when there is a big reveal of all the things learned and progress made. Even then, it’s a private conference to which the kids are not privy.

From parents’ perspective it’s like a home renovation show where they take off your blindfold in your totally re-designed kitchen. Our chat with the teacher is scheduled for tomorrow, so who knows what this crazy 7-year-old has been up to, learning-wise? But we got a sneak peak this week, when we got to sit in on his class for 20 minutes. We spent the entire time gawking at him and his hidden talents (piano? fractions? French? Seriously? Did he seriously just multiply 3/7 by 4, because half my undergrads cannot do that!)

We are flabbergasted and amazed, but we must keep it to ourselves, as the secret to his  accomplishments is that no one makes a fuss over what he can or can’t do. They just show him (or let him discover) how cool it is to figure these things out, and he just keeps going, and the school just lets him go, learning as much as he wants. It is unbelievably awesome.

So, the whole Montessori thing is working out really well so far. We will keep him in in this school as long as we can. It is a fantastic system that is just what he needed. And just one more thing I owe to the blogs. Thanks, Dan!

10 thoughts on “montessori, revisited”

  1. Look out. The key word in your post was “7-year-old.”

    Up until that point, Montessori don’t believe children can deal with fantasy/imagination, so they concentrate on teaching the quotidian/concrete (3/7 of 4 will always be 12/7, and the ability to hit the notes for “Ah Vous Dirai-Je Maman” in the proper order is similarly defined; “a rose is a rose is a rose” or adding different tones/color to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” is another question).

    Short version: don’t expect future performance to mirror past performance. And that’s probably a good thing, since the reality of “development” often means periods of slow “growth.”

    It’s a kick start, not a sustained burn. Which, again, is probably as it should be.


  2. don’t expect future performance to mirror past performance.

    That it is not a race is one of the things that I like most about Montessori, but I can see how my post would lead you to believe I feel otherwise.


  3. One of the beauties of Montessori is that it recognizes that different kids go through sensitive periods, accelerations, slow downs, changes of interest, etc. as they move along–and this is not only fine, it is good! Especially in comparison with the approach of keeping everyone in lock step with each other at the same pace. Just as it encourages quick starts, it allows for slow ones too. This was a tough lesson for me to learn when the Montessori teachers were trying to help me chill out when my daughter just could not seem to get the slightest bit interested in reading. I trusted them and later, she bloomed into such a reader she couldn’t put her books down and was walking into walls and doors reading stuff way beyond her years.

    So glad your son is flourishing in the school, Tina. Heartwarming story.

    (Oh, and sorry blog is off line–facebook friends know why I had to do it…)


  4. What a great story and wonderful post, Tina!

    My kids have been at a Friends’ school for the past several years, which shares some things in common with Montessori. We’ll be moving them to public school this fall, for a wide variety of reasons only some of which are educational. But one of them is my nagging uneasiness with the “don’t praise or mark achievement” ethic. The “all children are special” belief (which is ABSOLUTELY true and WONDERFUL) can too easily morph into “don’t let your kids feel proud of what they have done because that might make another child feel bad.”

    This is definitely not a pervasive problem, nor is it the principal reason we made the decision to move our boys to the Chapel Hill public schools; but I do feel that it’s a concern.


  5. I have been thinking about Montessori, but I’ve gotten some very negative feedback on it from non-Montessori teachers. I know a few people who went through the system or sent their kids through it, but that group is a very mixed bag. I’d be curious to hear your opinion.

    The non-Montessori teachers have led me to believe that Montessori kids don’t do well when they move to non-Montessori systems in two respects: (1) I’ve been told that they lack some set of (unspecified) core skills, and (2) they don’t do well working in structured environments. One friend told me that she’s seen kids get locked into these kinds of Montessori-type systems, because they can’t hack it in the public system. I’ve heard these criticisms from three teachers (two public and one private) whose opinions I respect. These criticisms have put me off an idea that I once found quite exciting.

    I like the idea of sending my kids to a school where they learn to think outside the box, build on their personal gifts and all that. However, I would like my kid to have all these qualities without sacrificing basic academic, social or coping skills.

    I’m assuming that you think these criticisms are without merit, but can you please tell me why? I’m asking the question in earnest, because I really do like some of the basic idea of Montessori.


    1. Oh, sorry, I forgot to answer this question. The resistance is to telling the kids how they are doing. If I picked my Kid up from school on time, I could get a quiet chat with the teacher every day, if I wanted. But Kid is in an after-school program, so I see his teacher seldom, so I only get hints until the big reveal at the end of the year.


  6. JN, I don’t feel qualified to answer, really, but I can imagine how, if the Montessori kids are allowed to go at their own pace, some might be behind the schedule set by the public school. That said, there definitely isn’t anything core missing from the academic curriculum at Kid’s school, so I don’t know what your friends might mean. But we haven’t yet had to transition, so I don’t have any experience with that. Sorry!


  7. Maybe it’s a question of them confusing school- or system-set benchmarks with more absolute ones. They might think that any student who doesn’t know “X” by age “Y” is behind in some absolute sense, without considering the possibility that these skills will ultimately be acquired or aren’t necessary to acquire.

    It’s a really complicated decision. I’d be more than willing to spend that kind of money if it had a clear payoff for my kids – and in some ways it seems that it could really have such a big payoff. On the other hand, sending a kid to a place like Montessori means sacrificing something (e.g., fully-paid college, extra-curricular activities, family vacations, summer camps, venture capital for a post-grad startup, or whatever).

    Who knows? On some level, the decision of where to send your children is probably a coin flip. I suppose that you have to stay engaged with your kids and do your best to supplement whatever skill set the school isn’t imparting well.


  8. @JNCohen: I was a montessori student back in the 80s and now my toddler is in a Montessori program. So I should probably confess I’m “drinking the kool-aid” so to speak. I love what the Montessori experience has given to me, and now to my son. In my experience Montessori provides many things that are critically lacking in the mainstream public school systems– including instilling intrinsic motivation to learn, which Tina mentions. The programs not only allow for the child to move at his or her own pace, but they also foster greater levels of independence and concentration than are typically seen in children. My 18 month old child learned to set the table, eat from regular (breakable) dishes at a regular chair, and clear the table when he was done. He learned to sit and be attentive to interesting work for 20 or more minutes at a time.

    As a child, I did not have trouble transitioning to a “regular” school, except that my math skills were a year or more ahead of my grade level but I was made to sit through the standard coursework with my grade-mates, so I learned quickly the social skills of not volunteering the answer so I wasn’t labeled “that nerdy girl.”

    Montessori did not prepare me well for mainstream high school where our “homework” was paging through the text book and filling in blanks about what picture was on page 65 (actual freshman high school experience). However, the intrinsic love of learning, the self discipline and extended concentration I learned in preschool did more to endow me with the needed skills for graduate school. NYT did a piece on the “Montessori Mafia” and you might be surprised how many founders of big, innovative companies say that their early training in Montessori profoundly shaped them for life.


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