Montessori in the 21st Century

Love the child unconditionally. Give the child what it is they need to thrive – Tim Seldin

Now that I’m a class parent (teacher’s pet alert!) I seem to get talked into attending all sorts of things at the school, and usually I really enjoy them. As I think I mentioned previously, I am loving being a library volunteer and fine tuning my arts and crafts skills! This week the school is hosting an International Montessori Conference, and as part of that the PTA sponsored a parent discussion panel this morning, which I was talked into attending. Actually I’m always willing to learn more about Montessori and am genuinely interested in these kinds of things, but with a new baby and busy life I found myself dragging my heels.

I ended up being so glad I went (of course) and was genuinely inspired and uplifted by the speakers. These included Adam, the school principal, and Arthur, a school parent, but also Tim Seldin, the head of the Montessori Foundation worldwide, and Lorna McGrath,  Director of both the IMC’s School Accreditation programme and Family Resources at the Montessori Foundation. All the speakers were excellent but Tim was particularly inspiring – it’s great to see that such an articulate, interesting and intelligent man has dedicated his life to promoting and enabling Montessori education throughout the world.

Obviously there was a lot said over the 90+ minutes, but I thought I’d write down what I found the key takeaways for Montessori parents or those considering Montessori education for their children. And my advice is to at least look into it – many traditional schools are now adopting a more “Montessori-esque” approach to learning as the old way of teaching is simply failing many children, and I’ve seen this first hand. Education comes first and foremost from the home, and there’s a lot you can do within your home to see the benefits of the Montessori way.

Parent Discussion Panel: Key Takeaways

Montessori Creates Independent Thinkers and Keen Learners

With Montessori children we see a blossoming – a quantum of happiness. 

I think anyone who lives in Hong Kong has seen the effects of the Hong Kong school system – these individuals who are so learned and intelligent but can not problem solve, can not think creatively and can often not even ride bikes! Hong Kong is an extreme example, but we see the same thing in Australia; kids who are not interested in learning, but want to know rather “Will this be in the test?”

All the speakers touched on this, particularly Arthur Yuen who himself was a product of the Hong Kong school system and did not want his son to have the same blind respect for authority and brain packed with facts “you can easily google”. He wanted his son to ask why, to connect ideas, and most of all to want to learn.

He used the push/pull marketing approach as an example, the concept that there are two ways to market a product – to push ideas at you, or to give you a taste of the idea and get you to “pull” the idea towards yourself. The first you can compare to a traditional school environment – the teacher at the front, controlling the lesson and pushing facts – while the second is more like the Montessori approach.

None of this is to say that if your child studies in a traditional school they won’t be able to problem solve, or they won’t be genuinely interested in learning, but all the speakers touched on this being the key difference among adults with a Montessori background: they were all free thinkers with excellent problem solving skills.

Montessori is About Relationships and Community

This was mentioned a lot throughout the discussion and it really resonated with me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because the schools I’ve been involved in have had such a strong community culture, and secondly because I find Montessori kids to be much more compassionate because of the strong relationships they form in school.

This I think comes down to one, the respect and love children are shown by their teachers (they are not labelled as “naughty”, “disruptive”, “shy” – all kids are different) and the mixed age classrooms. Three year olds are doted upon by six year olds, and grow up to be six year olds who dote upon three year olds. Nine year olds are patient with six year olds, who grow up to be nine year olds who show patience. And so forth.

Heike in particular is naturally loud and bossy, but if she sees a smaller child hurt or needing help, it constantly amazes me how gentle and kid she is with them, and it’s not a trait that comes naturally to most five year olds. I really put it down to the Montessori education.

The Traditional System is Failing Children

6-12 is the most important age – why do we abandon Montessori then? This is the age of the little rabbis, the young scholars who ask: why?

This point exactly is what led me personally to Montessori – as a high school teacher I saw so many children who were being failed by the system. A typical example is a very bright child with a behavioural disorder. Another is a less academic child who excels at, let’s say, art. All these kids are marginalised by the current school system, and it’s disheartening to see.

Again, I don’t mean to say “Montessori is the best and only way and anything else is failing your children,” as most loving parents are doing the hard work at home anyway. But an example I often give is that of J and I.

J went to a Steiner school, which is entirely different to Montessori but embodies some of the same core values and is nonetheless not traditional. One of the schools he attended at one point didn’t even offer a graduating qualification, just a watercolour certificate. But he thinks differently, is self-motivated, creative and incredibly successful in his career.

I on the other hand went to an academically selective school and learnt from a young age the value of competition and good grades, which normally meant memorising facts; often kids would try to steal tests prior to taking them in order to get good marks. I got excellent grades and proceeded to flounder at University, and to this day can’t decide what I want to do with my life. I feel like the system failed me by not preparing me for the real world (although of course I’m completely happy, I feel I could have done better).

Tim made this exact point, saying that two out of three extremely bright college students will flunk out of Harvard, purely because they have not been prepared for college life. He cited conversations with eminent professors who lament that kids are trained to get grades that will admit them to prestigious colleges, but are never told what is actually expected from them once they arrive. They’re simply not equipped, and instead “drink their way through college” never reaching their full potential.

High School Choice is given Too Much Importance

School only really needs to teach you to think, to read and basic problem solving. A good school can teach you to prepare for change and understand the society you’re living in.

Do not be caught up in embarrassment, fear and competition – celebrate being alive, and face life’s challenges together. 

A few parents asked about what high schools would be best given the absence of Montessori high schools, or about how these kids go from this environment to that of a competitive international school. And the speakers confirmed my own beliefs: it doesn’t matter.

I often tell parents this myself, that if the child wants to learn and is well loved and supported at home, they will succeed in any school environment. I think paying the big money for the top private schools is worth it only for the experience and connections it can bring. A child who wants to succeed and is supported by their family, ultimately, will.

With Montessori children the idea is that they are even more well equipped with those first few years of education – even the first three makes a huge difference. The speakers really drove home the point that parents these days compare their children to others far too much, and place far too much value on competition. Honestly, what does that matter? It is more important to accept who your child is and teach them to understand the society they’re living in.

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So, a morning well spent in terms of getting me to think and making me feel fairly zen about life. At the end of the day, I truly believe any child who comes from a loving home has a massive head start. But why not put them in a loving school environment too, where we can? I hope that explains a little more of why we love Montessori education, as I often get asked about it.

Z x