Montessori: The Student-Centered Classroom

When I was between my undergraduate and graduate work, I worked as an administrative assistant for the Applied Math department at the University of Colorado. The associate chair (now the department chair) and I often had long discussions about teaching and why I wanted to go into museum education. He suggested at one point that I look into Montessori as a possible career direction, and I balked. At that point, I knew very little about Montessori outside of what we’d learned in the teacher prep program, that it was some sort of weird, lawless preschool program. Dr. Curry tried to assure me that Montessori was nothing like that, but I couldn’t shake the image.

Several years later, I actually had the opportunity to interview with some local Montessori schools for assistant positions, and saw the classrooms were anything but lawless weirdness. The students were quietly lining up to go outside. The only person talking was the director who was showing me around. Then I had the opportunity to work with some Montessori-trained students in the learning center, and it became clear that I needed to learn more about Montessori.

A lot can be, and has been, said about Maria Montessori, but honestly what should be focused on is the work she left behind. The Montessori curriculum takes the child at a very early age and teaches them life skills and traditional content materials in a very hands-on manner that moves the student from guided practice to independent, willing practice at the student’s own rate. A student will stay with the same classroom for three years (assuming they entered at the earliest age available to that classroom), reinforcing the ability to learn skills at their own rate because they don’t have to master a specific set of skills in nine months. Because students work on the skills that interest them, it’s unusual to have a whole class working on the same skill at the same time, which also reduces the competitive nature of the traditional classroom. There’s no one to compare grades with.

Montessori students maintain their own learning journals, which the teacher monitors. They are presented with projects and topics and given the opportunity to explore and develop them in a way that makes sense and brings meaning to them. All the while, the teacher keeps their own journal on what students are doing to track their progress, as well as to see where they might need a gentle (and I do mean gentle) redirect.

I could actually keep going, as I recently had the opportunity to work with a new Montessori teacher who kept me well supplied with reading material, but this is really about the overview. Montessori is hands-on, student-centric, and enables students to develop at their own rate and to create their own reaction to their work for larger projects. It’s time we stopped looking at it funny.

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