I remember reading about Denmark’s schooling system when Ella was a couple of years old and I mentally filed it away for something to contemplate all those years in the future when my child reached school age. Well, how quickly that time arrived, and how little further research I did until we were six months into mainstream schooling, looking for answers.
Our question was the same as every parent’s, in every aspect of parenting: Is this right?
Education, particularly, is something we don’t necessarily contemplate too much; children go to school because that’s what they do, and they become privy to the education system because that’s what’s available. Everybody else is doing it, after all, so it must be right. We did it; we turned out alright.
This kind of thinking, I believe, isn’t enough to base any decision on at all. It’s half the problem, actually; our ability to critically evaluate what has become mainstream a vital component in creating any kind of free thought or positive change.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
― Jiddu Krishnamurti
The Education Index listed Denmark as having one of the highest educational levels in the world.
Here’s what happens in Danish schools:
- There is no competition at school. If your child is better than the others at a certain subject, her job is to help the students who are not as good. The kids work in groups. There’s almost no standardized testing until the kids are 15 or 16.
- In Danish schools, your child’s social life is considered equally important to their academic one. Does she have friends? Can she get along with the other children in the class? Does he fit in? This supports the idea that education follows a “whole child” approach, that her spirit and emotional life is just as important as her mind, and that if a child is socially comfortable in school – if he or she wants to go to school – then academic success will not only follow, it will be nestled beside other hugely important aspects of adult life and success: Emotional intelligence, working in groups, conflict resolution, empathy, resilience, etc.
- Kids don’t learn to read until age 8 or 9. There is no rush to drill sight words into children at age 4. What’s remarkable is that they catch up as they become developmentally ready, and they surpass literacy levels by and large.
- There is a huge emphasis on independence. The children are expected to sort out their own problems to the extent they can, without intervention from adults. Even when they’re small, they are ready to take responsibility for themselves. As a result, they become very self-assured and self-directed.
- School is compulsory from age 7, and for the first three years of schooling they go for 4 hours a day only. This leaves plenty of time for play outside of school, and learning through play, which is how they best learn anyway.
These differences are, of course, striking when compared to our current mass schooling system which uses standardised, testing-based, highly competitive, curriculum-driven, academically weighted, 30-hour week, externally-motivated and passive (non self-directed) “learning” which begins at age four and ratchets up with each passing year. There is little play. Children are spoon-fed information someone else has decided that at that age is essential to know. They learn through repetitive, teacher-at-front-of-classroom styles, they are asked to regurgitate the information back and are then assessed via pressure-filled and largely ineffective testing methods and given a ranking on their performance. Much of the information is forgotten later; as a result, it’s hard to justify it’s true learning to begin with. School children are micromanaged in every aspect of their schooling day, and the motivation for their learning is competitive- to be better than someone else – or fear based – to not be the worst at something. Their parents’ motivation? To not have their child get left behind. A child’s reward for learning is a gold star, an “A”, the absence of punishment: emotions like shame and failure — a bad grade. A child’s reward becomes the approval of a teacher or parent instead of themselves. We rob from them the simple but very deep self-satisfaction which comes from figuring something out themselves. Learning is a natural, spontaneous occurrence in children but their love of learning so quickly dies by dull and repetitive learning methods, and by being forced to learn things that at that particular age they are jut not ready to learn. Who says that a five-year old has to know 100 sight words? It makes me furious. Their spirit, social and emotional schooling gets close to zero attention. They are punished if they don’t academically perform via bad grades, comparison and the sense of failure and they are punished if they don’t socially perform by attending detention and visits to the principal’s office. Bullying is rife on the playground as children are left to navigate the complex world of social interaction on their own; parents in the dark because they’re not at school to witness it.
The list continues.
“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.” ― John Holt
“One of the tragedies of our schooling system is that it teaches students that life is a series of hoops that one must get through, by one means or another, and that success lies in others’ judgements rather than in real, self-satisfying accomplishments.” Peter Gray
The problem is not with parents, or teachers, or schools themselves. This is a national and global education epidemic and is perpetrated by a government body who wants society out in the workforce as quickly as possible and who values obedience, passivity and conformity so that society at large is made up of an unthinking and unquestioning people. The goal of education currently is not to release each child’s human potential, but to condition them.
“When we become aware of how the school system is a conditioning agent to instill in children obedience to authority, passivity, and tolerance to tedium for the sake of external rewards, we begin to question school performance as a metric of well-being. Maybe a healthy child is one who resists schooling and standardisation, not one who excels at it.” Charles Einstein
“Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.” Doris Lessing,
It’s so difficult to answer the “Why” question in a sentence or two when someone asks about Montessori education. How is it different? What do they do? What’s wrong with normal school? We are only six months into our experience and as such still learning about what the education approach truly offers, but here are some key differences and how they compare to mainstream schooling.
One: Self-directed learning instead of passive learning
Traditional schooling is based mostly on two models: the Austrian military and the American factory/assembly line, both of which were designed to create certain traits in the populace, including essentially, obedience. The models were also designed to ensure a basic level of what was considered essential knowledge.
In the traditional system, children are expected to learn passively what is presented to them; what someone else has chosen at that age is necessary, how they should learn it and at what pace. In other words, they are taught what to think and not how to think. They are drip-fed information, given sight words to memorize, asked to regurgitate it back, then given a ranking based on how well they perform. This is not true learning, in any capacity.
We are so used to thinking of learning as a teacher giving information to a student, but not all learning comes about from someone imparting knowledge on another person. Think about how you learn as an adult. Say you’d like to learn how to grow a vegetable garden. What do you do? You do a Google search, you might watch some YouTube videos. You buy some books or read some articles. You talk to other people who know about it. You might enrol in a short course. You practice and make mistakes and try a little differently and then eventually, you master the skill. I learned photography in my early 30s and the process was exactly the same. Why is it any different for a child? Why is the process of learning any different in a child’s mind? The truth is: It isn’t. Self-directed learning is the only true learning, in my opinion, and given the chance, children are absolutely capable of teaching themselves, seeking out the right information and following their natural curiosities given the right resources and the right support. Children WANT to learn to read when they are developmentally ready. We don’t have to force it upon them. This is a myth we’ve been programmed to believe.
“We teachers can only help the work going on, as servants wait upon a master.” Maria Montessori
“We discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.” Maria Montessori
In a Montessori classroom, a teacher’s role is vastly different. The “teaching” per se, comes from the very specific classroom materials they have. The teachers demonstrate how to use the materials in a small lesson, and the materials themselves provide the teaching and self-testing capabilities so the children can check themselves if they got it “right”. For example, in one of the mathematic resources, if there is a piece left which doesn’t match up, the child knows they went wrong somewhere so they themselves problem solve and work back to discover where they went wrong. It is not simple regurgitation (3 times 3 equals 9) but very sophisticated methods to allow the students to work out for themselves what 3 times 3 equals. Or how to read the word “birthday” when they’ve never seen it before. They are taught HOW to think, not WHAT to think. Last night, Ella read a book aloud to me from front to back, able to work out and read words she’d never seen before and I was shocked to watch her capabilities. One day, she can’t read, the next day she’s reciting the words “chocolate” and “pudding”. To look over and see the self-pride and satisfaction she had for figuring it out herself was remarkable to witness. I was truly gob-smacked. And so, in a Montessori classroom, a teacher’s role is to teach less – that’s what the specific resources are for, and the children themselves – but to observe, to step in where needed with a certain resource, to redirect and give guidance, to inspire and to watch and understand their student so well that they know when to step in and offer a new resource for the child to challenge themselves, continually working at the child’s pace. It’s an amazing system.
“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavour to always keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” Maria Montessori
“A teacher in class is like a man in the woods at night with a powerful flashlight in his hand.
Wherever he turns his light, the creatures on whom it shines are aware of it, and do not behave as they do in the dark. Thus the mere fact of his watching their behavior changes it into something very different. Shine where he will, he can never know very much of the night life of the woods.” John Holt
“To think is the beginning of a real education.” David Polis
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” Albert Einstein
Two: The day’s structure
In a Montessori classroom, the children have work they need to complete over a week, a term, and a year. This work is from the range of subjects also found in mainstream schooling: science, english and literacy, mathematics, etc. However, the children are free to choose which work they want to focus on each day, and can be found working alone or in small groups. They enter the classroom at the beginning of the day, they make a plan and schedule for the day’s and week’s learning, at the same time learning self-management, self-organisation and self-direction, and eventually, the work gets completed over the term, and therefore the year. They work at tables, on mats on the floor, outside, with shoes on, with shoes off – however they feel most comfortable and where they learn the best. The day begins with a three-hour cycle which is a key principle in Montessori education; they work for three uninterrupted hours to allow focus and concentration to flow freely, for concepts to integrate in their minds, and they can take a break and eat whenever they feel hungry instead of at allocated times. After their three-hour work cycle, they play, followed by lunch, and then in the afternoon they do sport or music or Italian, or have class meetings or sharing time where they talk about things such as social learning: jealousy and inclusion, or working through conflicts — life skills kinds of things. Sometimes they have another hour or so of classroom work like the morning.
“It is not the teacher’s proper task to be constantly testing and checking the understanding of the learner. That’s the learner’s task, and only the learner can do it. The teacher’s job is to answer questions when learners ask them, or to try to help learners understand better when they ask for that help.” John Holt
Three: Academic VS whole child education
As demonstrated by the structure of the day, while there is an emphasis on academic learning and progress, Montessori education facilitates a whole child approach: their feelings, social identity and life skills are also addressed in the vision of what makes up a successful, healthy and fulfilled human being via class discussions and meetings. Staff are on duty at playtime specifically to make notes of social behaviour because, like Ella’s school principal once told me, “If you want to know who your child is, watch them in the playground.” Social behaviour is watched not as a way to “crack-down”, but as a guiding place for then more learning to occur in classrooms: strategies for conflict management, appropriate social behaviours including kindness, empathy, inclusion and resilience, the naming of unhealthy behaviours and how we can substitute them. These are all addressed by the teacher during class discussion times. Basically, Montessori education views the child as a spiritual, mental, social and physical being and guides these aspects of them equally. Teachers are addressed by their first names – there is no forced authority in that regards – and a mutual respect quickly begins because of it. Children are greeted by their teachers with eye contact and a handshake at the start of the day – a crucial step in feeling seen and respected. In addition to the eight traditional teaching subjects (maths, english, science, LOTE, etc), there is an extra subject called Practical Life where children become familiar with looking after themselves and the environment. Self-control are included in this learning area and here they learn to complete personal tasks so they become independent of the adult and are able to recognise their own abilities and level of growth. Practical Life is one of the most important areas in a Montessori class. The young child may learn to tie their shoe laces, whilst the older student organises the school assembly. Each stage of development is given opportunities to manage tasks that will enhance their personal development and their self-esteem. Overall, there is a mutual understanding and respect between all staff, parents and children that is rare to witness in a school.
“Joy, feeling one’s own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul.” Maria Montessori
In a Montessori classroom, the children are directly responsible for their learning. They are working for their own personal satisfaction and enjoyment, and the “reward” is that sense of self-pride when they figure something out on their own and advance academically on their own terms. “I did it!” being the reward rather than a gold star, a name on the blackboard, an A+. This change from learning being intrinsically motivated instead of reward and testing based is the distinction between learning that enters to a deep part or someone, over something which will just be forgotten if the repetitive nature of the learning stops. Once Montessori children have reached a level of mastery, they tend to ask for more, because they get hooked on learning, on exploring and on expanding their abilities. It is truly inspiring to watch. There is absolutely zero testing – no grades, no performance charts. Because the teacher is so free to watch and observe each child, she knows exactly the capabilities and limitations they have and so in a way the child is “tested” just by being known. Feedback is given to parents during parent teacher interviews each term and this is how everyone is on the same page with exactly where the student is at academically. The children do sit Naplan, but they understand it’s just a marker and to not get too concerned with it.
“Everyone in the world ought to do the things for which he is specially adapted. It is the part of wisdom to recognise what each one of us is best fitted for, and it is the part of education to perfect and utilise such predispositions. Because education can direct and aid nature but can never transform her.” Maria Montessori
Five: Age groups
Montessori classrooms cover a three-year age group, Cycle One being 3-6 year olds, Cycle Two being 6-9 year olds, and Cycle Three being 9-12 year olds. A huge part of a child’s learning is through other children, and these class room age groups means everybody gets a chance to be a teacher or mentor – further cementing their own knowledge, and everybody gets a chance to be a ‘junior’ where they learn through watching the older students and look up to them. This means they also have three years to understand concepts, to revisit information, to further advance on ideas; they are not simply rushed through content and ticked off on it. It also validates the idea that not all five-year olds should know exactly the same thing – that there is no such thing as a “standard” child, and that they should be free to learn at the pace they need to, moving up to different cycles when they are ready.
“It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method…I have studied the child; I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is called the Montessori Method.” Maria Montessori
Though there are many reasons we choose Montessori, it is largely based on this quote by Maria Montessori herself: “Education should no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentials.”
YES. Seeking the release of human potentials. I can certainly say that my education did not inspire the release of my human potential – that all happened after I left it. Perhaps it’s far time we direct education away from a damaging curriculum and harsh testing requirements and towards growing each and every one of our children’s human potential. Because we are all good at something and we all have the capacity to contribute to the workforce in a uniquely ours and very meaningful, satisfying way.
Thank you for all those who have reached out with questions – I know so many of you are genuinely curious about this method of education. I’ve tried to answer your main questions as best as I could, but if you have something else you’d like addressed, please direct message me on Instagram or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- What about transitioning to high-school? How will they cope? Yes! Valid question! Will they just freak out when the time comes for them to sit an exam? These are all legitimate concerns! Here’s my thinking. Firstly, Ella’s current Montessori school is undertaking plans to open a Montessori high school, so there’s the hope of that. Secondly, if that is not an option, I have done extensive research into how Montessori primary graduates cope and perform in a mainstream secondary institution and the results have been incredibly inspiring. What I can assume boils down to their maturity, self-direction, self-motivation, and self-control, they thrive in a mainstream secondary setting because the right foundation has already been laid. I used to believe that the secondary years were more important — that’s when you send your kids private; primary was all the same, really. How wrong I was. The foundation years are MOST CRUCIAL in shaping how a child learns and his relationship with schooling itself. As for testing and sitting exams, I can’t say from Ella’s experience obviously, but my assumption is that by ages 13 and up, children will have more maturity and emotional control to deal with them than ages 6 and 7, when they are tested now and are crippled, understandably, because of it. Also, Montessori kids have experienced and therefore understand that the testing is not the reason you learn, nor is it a true judgement on what you know. I believe all these factors contribute to the reason research shows they do better academically in mainstream secondary school. Thirdly, I know other high school students who left mainstream altogether and completed high school education online through distance education programs, which appeals to teenagers who are incredibly self-directed and thrive in this manner. As for us, we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
- Do I do Montessori at home? The short answer: No, not really at all. In fact, buying all the Montessori classroom materials and having them at home can interfere with their process at school, so: No. I don’t actually even know what half of them do. I’m still learning. HOWEVER, the general ethos and way of thinking is something we have definitely adopted at home. One of the guiding principles in Montessori is: Never do for a child what he can do for himself. This doesn’t mean never helping them out when they’ve had a big day. It means never helping a child at a task he feels he can succeed at. It means not taking that pleasure and learning away from him. Don’t take over when she’s tying her shoelaces. Don’t point out which puzzle piece goes where. Stand back a lot more, respect them and, after some time, ask “Would you like it if I helped you?” if you see they are struggling. Or better yet, wait for them to ask you. No one wants to be micromanaged, and children are so capable if you give them a chance! They love to contribute! They want to learn without pressure! It might not be to the standard or time frame you like but that’s your problem, not theirs. Get them to chop veggies for dinner, choose outfits and dress themselves. After Billy’s first week of kindergarten, his teacher came up to me and said that Billy was the only one who could fit his cot sheet to the bed and make it correctly, and that he ended up teaching the other children how to do it. This is not to brag, but to demonstrate how capable children are given the chance. They don’t want to be babied! They want to be independent and they want the space and freedom to work things out themselves. I believe this is true learning, and it lays such a good foundation for the school years and any future learning. Which brings to me to the question: Is Billy at Montessori, too? No, he’s not. He goes to a C+K kindergarten. Our decision for this is because we don’t feel we want him in school 5 days a week just yet. We want him to play and we want him to have more time at home. His kindergarten is 2 days a week, we love the kindergarten program and it is nearly all play-based, which feels right for us.
- Why did you switch in the first place? Was Ella not coping? How is she now? Prior to changing to Montessori, Ella had no problems at school nor was she unhappy. She is compliant by nature, and would have performed well in any school environment, to be honest. The motivation came from us, her parents, as after six months in the mainstream system we could foresee the route she would go down and we didn’t want just a “good performance” for her. We wanted for her things she would never receive in the current education system; virtues and traits not fostered there. She began Montessori halfway through last year; her transition was smooth, she adapted with little fuss and she quickly loved it.
I hope this has answered some of your questions and perhaps given you a few things to ponder. Please get in touch if you’d like to know anything more or if I can help in any further way.
This is a FABULOUS short film which summarises what Montessori education is all about and defines its key differences from mainstream schooling.
You can also visit the website of the two Montessori schools in Brisbane for further information:
- “Montessori Madness: A Parent-To-Parent Argument for Montessori Education” by Trevor Eissler
- “Montessori Today” by Paula Polk Lillard
- “How Children Learn” by John Holt
- “How Children Fail” by John Holt
“Thank goodness I was never sent to school; It would have rubbed off some of the originality.” Beatrix Potter