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How to identify an Authentic Montessori environment?

Updated: Jun 27, 2019

When schools put ‘Montessori’ name on their buildings, parents often can't gauge the fidelity of their programs to the real Montessori method. Let's understand how to check their authenticity.

Dr. Montessori developed a complete system of education from birth to 24 years by scientific observations of children. She began her work with 3-6 age group in Casa di Bambini - this approach is still one of the most popular methods for early childhood education across the world but Montessori's overarching goal was to cater to the needs to every developmental stage of the child from the birth to adolescence. The education system that resulted from her life's work involves 3-year age groupings (0–3, 3–6, 6-9, 9-12 and so on) where self-guided learning occurs in a prepared environment with guidance from an adult.


In the last 100 years since its inception, this method continued to grow in popularity and got wider adoption across the world. Since, the term Montessori is not trademarked, major distortions have happened due to commercial interests, inadequate training of the educators, lack of awareness among parents etc. For example, Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago as a spiritual path and there are several major distortions of Yoga done within India or abroad which invoke strong condemnation. Similarly, Montessori has also been heavily distorted and these distortions affect the learning experience of a child. Dr. Montessori developed each and every aspect of this method in fine detail by keen observations and a clear scientific basis grounded in child psychology and the original approach as she devised has been proven with over 100 years of practice in all parts of the world. But these careless distortions are often done by people who want to cash in on the popularity of this method and have no regard for the revolutionary movement in education that Montessori represents. These distortions have no basis or merit and thereby, fail to provide children the right environment.


Dr. Montessori knew that the method may deviate from principles over time and therefore, she established strong institutions during her lifetime to preserve the sanctity of her method and further institutions were established over time by Montessorians devoted to this movement in education. These institutions publish guidelines for establishing authentic Montessori environments and also train adults in a rigorous way to prepare them to work in an authentic Montessori environment.


Given that there is a lot of misinformation about Montessori, parents looking for an authentic Montessori education need to inform themselves and understand these guidelines before they choose a Montessori environment for their child. Below are the guidelines published by AMI (Association Montessori Internationale - a global institute headquartered in Netherlands. and constituted by Dr. Montessori in 1929 to develop her pedagogy and maintain standards) :


1) Carefully Prepared Environment with full set of Montessori Materials covering all curriculum areas

After years of observations of children, the developmental stages they go through and their innate drive to auto-learn from their environment, Dr. Montessori invented many specially-designed instructional materials or didactic materials intended to introduce concepts about the world - many of which are hand-made. There is a detailed list of what should be and what should NOT be in the learning environment. It is necessary for schools claiming to be Montessori to have all the necessary Montessori materials designed for the age-group they cater to. For 3-6 age group, there are over 300 activities using the materials displayed actively in the environment catering to the needs of children in this age group. One of major distortions by schools is when they reduce Montessori to a small sub-set of materials bought by them and not invest time, effort and resources in preparing a full and complete environment as Dr. Montessori prescribed. There is a logic and order to how these materials should be arranged in the environment and in what sequence. Schools which treat these materials as just another set of toys have no regard for this order and purpose. Since, these materials are like scientific equipment for the child to explore concepts, they should be of the right quality and should be very precise. Schools that are not serious about Montessori approach usually go for cheap quality materials which are poor in design and are often inaccurate. They also end up buying wrong materials sold by bogus vendors which are not prescribed as per the original method. There are growing instances of schools claiming to be Montessori using smart boards/TV screens/tablets in their classrooms. In authentic Montessori environments around the world, children learn by working on the materials with their hands and not by starting at the screens.


2) Montessori Credentialed Directresses

There are professional training courses ranging from 6 to 12 months for training adults to become Montessori Guides or Directresses. The role of the adult is to guide individual children towards purposeful activity based upon her observations of each child’s readiness, pace and interests. It is crucial for an adult working with children in Montessori Environments to have undergone the rigorous Montessori Training from a reputed training institute which upholds authentic Montessori standards themselves. They must understand the purpose of the materials, their presentations and the child's psychology and developmental needs to effectively guide children in Montessori Environments. If untrained adults or adults with questionable training are working with children in the environment, the child is at a loss and the institution is doing injustice to the child and the parents.


3) Mixed Age Grouping

As per Dr. Montessori, a child moves through different stages/planes of development i.e. 0-3, 3-6, 6-12 and 12-18 years. And thus, it is one of the hallmarks of the Montessori Method that children of mixed ages work and learn together in the same environment i.e. the children from 3-6 age group work in the same learning environment as opposed to different classrooms/groups divided based on their age. Multi-age groups allows younger children to learn from older children and experience novel challenges by observations; older children are role models for younger ones, they reinforce their learning by teaching concepts they have already mastered to younger ones and develop leadership skills. Children progress at their own pace because each child’s work is individual; there is cooperation rather than competition between them. This model mirrors the real world, in which individuals work and socialize with people of all ages and personalities. Montessori schools offering playgroup/pre-nursery/Nursery/KG or Mont 1/Mont 2/Mont 3, Red/Yellow/Green levels etc. are all inauthentic. If a school claiming to be Montessori doesn’t follow a 3 year mixed age grouping, this is a very major distortion of the method as Montessori principles can't be implemented unless children's community with mixed age groups is established.


4) Uninterrupted Work Period - freedom to explore and think concepts more deeply rather than feel rushed and pressured to fit more into their time

Children need to work with Montessori materials for a major part of their school day. Guidelines recommend that 3-6 age group works for a full 3-hour work period with Montessori materials every day apart from other group activities such as physical activities, meals, free time etc for which additional time is built in the schedule. Within the prepared Montessori environment, children are shown to complete a work cycle including 1) choosing a work; 2) completing and perhaps repeating the work multiple times; and 3) cleaning up and returning the materials to the proper place. Children experience a deep sense of satisfaction to have fully completed the work. They are allowed to work on the materials as many times and as long as they wish. Children achieve deep states of concentration and a state of meditation while working with these materials which forms inner peace. This requires non-interruption and non-interference by the adults in the environment. It is a distortion to keep children separated from materials in other classrooms and convert Montessori into just a lab where children are allotted only limited time slots (e.g. 20 mins a day or just once or twice a week). A Montessori environment will full set of materials can accommodate a maximum of 35 children of mixed ages. Schools which run Montessori labs don't invest resources in creating multiple different environments as children increase in number - each with full set of materials. To cater to a large number of children (often over 200 plus) with only one set of materials (for commercial reasons obviously), they would keep the children separated in classrooms and follow a lab model where children are allocated periods to visit. This distortion completely destroys the essence of the method.


Often, children's day in an inauthentic or non-Montessori school is packed with so many adult driven activities that there is no room to breathe and no room to grow based on their inner drives. The children are pushed into a race to become super kids while in an authentic Montessori environment, they are given space and time to learn how to learn and be lifelong joyful learners. Montessori is a way of life for children and adults in Authentic Montessori School and not a limited time activity for children in the school.


5) Respect for Children - Freedom of Choice, Independence, Cooperation, Intrinsic motivation

Dr. Montessori emphasized on the importance of respecting children at all times. Respecting children means acknowledging their needs, allowing them to exercise choices in their environment and giving them freedom within reasonable limits. This is how they become responsible and self-disciplined - character qualities which manifest over time. Their activities need to be self-directed and intrinsically motivated. In authentic Montessori environments, children are given ample opportunities to practice and learn to become independent, they are not praised or applauded for their work allowing intrinsic motivation to develop and they are not negatively reinforced so self-discipline can arise from within. In a mixed age environment, children form their own spontaneous groups and learn to collaborate and cooperate with their peers in a community as opposed to a competition to race ahead of others. There is a conscious effort by the adult to set clear limits, allow for choice and uninterrupted concentration of the child and create an environment where a child can exercise these crucial life skills. A Montessori setting which does not focus on developing these core life skills is only doing a lip service to the method and in this distorted environment, the child's potential in the crucial early years is lost.


It is quite instructive for all parents interested in Montessori education to watch this advisory below from Global TV in Toronto, Canada about "How to identify a real Montessori school":

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