The Montessori Method


Children Are Their Own Best Teachers, According to Hundred-Year-Old Approach

The Franklin Schools started with a meager seven students learning in a cramped space inside a Montgomery County church in 1977.

Now, three decades later, the flagship school in Rockville, Md., is spread out on a three-acre campus educating 280 students, with seven Franklin campuses throughout the Washington area.

To say that the schools have experienced growth would be an understatement.

Nationally, they’ve become models for the burgeoning Montessori movement of learning, an early education method emphasizing self-pacing and self-awareness that was once considered ahead of its time and is now gaining major traction in the mainstream.

“I wish I’d been a Montessori student back in my younger days,” Franklin administrator Sharon Gilder told The Washington Diplomat. “It takes the learning materials from the concrete to the abstract. Children are exposed to so many different things and most thrive because of the special attention paid to them.”

The fundamental premise is that children are better educated through their own experiences rather than by another person. The Montessori approach varies, but it is characterized by self-directed activity on the part of the child, and clinical observation on the part of the teacher, to stress the importance of adapting the child’s learning environment to his or her developmental level and to their individual interests. The Montessori method also incorporates physical activity to help a child absorb abstract concepts and learn practical skills. The overarching goal is to spur a child’s natural desire to learn, think and act independently.

At Franklin that means lessons in geography and the universe, creative movement and yoga, Mandarin Chinese and the performing arts, all as a way of building independence and self-confidence.

Montessori, though, is not so much about what is discussed in the classroom as much as how the learning unfolds. Students — in classrooms with peers in a range of ages from 2 to 6 — often guide each other rather than relying on a formal lesson plan from a teacher standing at a blackboard in the front of the room.

“A lot of the parents will ask, ‘Will my child learn to read?’” Gilder said. “We go through the process of talking about letter sounds but we would never just say it’s an ‘A.’ Once they have the letter sounds down, they take their hands and feet and draw in all senses. Then they’d go to a moveable alphabet on a mat or table and spell out three-letter words before moving on to simple books,” she explained.

Outside the classroom, Franklin administrators have developed an outdoor enrichment program so that youngsters develop environmental literacy. An untamed forest-like area behind the school is used for classes to track the prints of animals passing through during winter.

“It’s fun to see them work out what the animals are and come to conclusions for themselves,” Gilder said. “We like to think of ourselves as a community. It’s not a co-op situation by any means, but it’s totally involving everyone working together like a family.”

The Montessori concept recently hit the 100-year-old mark. Its founder, Maria Montessori, was one of the first female physicians in Italy at the end of the 19th century. According to the American Montessori Society, in her private practice, Montessori analyzed how small children — especially those deemed “defective” — learn, concluding that they build themselves from what they find in their environment.

Her desire to help children became so strong that in 1906 she gave up her practice and a university posting to work with a group of 60 children in the slums of Rome. That effort turned into Casa del Bambini, or Children’s House. The Montessori method ultimately developed from the doctor observing children and the natural way they behaved at their own pace without adult direction.

Maria Montessori first came to the United States in 1913, at that time founding the Montessori Educational Association in her D.C. home. Today, there are thousands of Montessori schools throughout the United States along with hundreds of Montessori programs within public, charter and private schools dedicated to the notion of creating environments that foster development for the whole child.

The concept is also catching on around the globe.

Fifteen years ago, the Franklin Schools entered the business of training other teachers to implement the Montessori method. A few years later, Franklin’s development director, Dona Allen, developed a Web-based tracking program that eventually became available worldwide.

Unlike other styles of learning, Montessori does not believe in using report cards or other standard grading systems. But through the tracking mechanism, teachers can communicate with parents and follow their students’ progress. Allen also uses the program as a database to accumulate information from hundreds of schools about what skills students are developing at various ages.

“A newsletter is generated automatically from a teacher putting in her plan, so it’s a great communication tool,” said Allen, a former Montessori teacher. “They can present the information in a bar graph or chart. That’s the big deal — how involved parents are. You’d think from the image of Montessori sometimes that the teacher would be tied up with duct tape in a chair, but that’s not the case at all. There’s innovation but also accountability.”

The next step after the tracking system was for Franklin administrators to reach out to communities around the world and help support their Montessori programs. First on the list was Saudi Arabia, where a contact at a local school system asked Franklin staff to establish a teacher training program.

Allen said plans are in the works to provide similar assistance to schools in Israel and India and to turn the effort into a separate nonprofit venture.

The Montessori model is an ideal “portable education,” she said, noting that if a family moves from one country to another, the child can fall right in line without missing a beat of their education in the transition.

“It can be adapted culturally to fit almost any situation, from Korea to the jungles to Haiti,” Allen said. “There are Montessori schools worldwide, but it’s not everywhere and the standards are not always the same. Some are happy to meet local standards rather than Montessori standards. So that’s where we can step in.”

Over the years, both Allen and Gilder have witnessed a surge in interest and awareness of Montessori schooling as research about the unique method has increased and families have told others about their experiences.

What hasn’t changed, though, is how curious and motivated the children become, according to Allen.

“There’s just a little buzz in the classroom. They’re busy, engaged, learning time management at 3 and 4 [years old],” she said. “They zip through an activity because they’re coming in with an agenda and want to finish it. They’re independent and motivated.”

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.