Margaret Whitley, Montessori Consultant

Margaret Whitley, BA, AMI, MFA, is a speaker, writer, consultant, and lifelong learner.  After completing her teacher training in Italy, she spent more than 35 years in Montessori education, including teaching all levels of elementary and establishing the first Montessori middle school in Canada in 1988.  She embraced many other roles in Montessori leadership including head of school, teacher trainer and the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators Director of School Accreditation.  Guided by her belief that all humans have incredible potential, she continues highlighting education that supports and celebrates each community and individual’s uniqueness.

Each year new “Montessori” schools or programs appear across the globe.  These schools vary tremendously, often successfully embracing the uniqueness of each community. Still, many differ significantly in their commitment to Montessori pedagogy, despite the term’s use in their name or program descriptor.

Like anything tremendously successful, there will always be some that choose to loosely label, without maintaining the integrity associated—the knock off syndrome. But like any knock off, you do not get the same capacity, product or in this case experience that you hoped for because of compromises.

One of the overarching principles of Montessori education is the importance of maintaining all the qualities Dr Montessori herself wrote about and promoters of Montessori today continue reinforcing.  Montessori education is a system approach to learning at all ages. Although extremely adaptable to different children, ages, circumstances, it is generally more effective when all the principles, rather than a couple of cherry-picked ones are implemented.

More than ever, the recent pandemic, makes explicit our planet is one extensive system, and what happens in one place impacts another dramatically.  A system understanding includes economics, education, and indeed the environment and health. The rapid deployment of organizations and governments to address the crisis from a systems perspective is what has mitigated even greater disaster. Inherent in mandates requiring isolation is the human tendency toward connection.

To tackle many challenges today requires reverting from siloed, single disciplined, specialized thinking, and Montessori education offers this to children from the beginning, rather than delaying until higher education or adulthood. 

“Here is an essential principle of education: to teach details is to bring confusion; to establish the relationship between things is to bring knowledge. Dr Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

So, what do most Montessorians agree are the requirements of a program adhering to the principles. Montessori is based on respect for the potential of all children, ideally addressing even racism, sexism and bigotry. Montessori pedagogy requires the integration of the following qualities in classrooms to honour a child’s innate being:

  • Educators trained in Montessori philosophy and methodology
  • Mixed-age groups of students in one class-ideally three years, e.g. 3 to 6, 6 to 9
  • Long blocks of uninterrupted time each day (without disruption for other activities)-2-1/2 to 3 hours
  • Higher than expected student/teacher ratios
  • Uniquely designed Montessori learning materials suited for each level (with limited supplementation)
  • Carefully prepared developmentally appropriate environments, accommodating many needs for student learning

In addition to these qualities, the teachers (often referred to as guides or directors) are skilled in observation, protecting student concentration, ensuring the availability of choice of activities and ultimately guiding the child toward independence and autonomy rather than dependencies on direct teaching.

Although varied, depending on the part of the world, some Montessori schools adhering to the fundamental principles also pursue Montessori accreditation or recognition to assist the public and other educators with knowing their commitment to the pedagogy. Organizations like AMI, AMS, IMC, CCMA and MACTE are a few bodies that assist with this.

In contrast to what Montessori education is, it is not a head start program, or exclusively for children with different learning styles, or only for children of privilege, or affiliated with any specific culture or religion. These are some of the many misunderstandings the Montessori world continues disputing.

Montessori education respects the needs of every child but paradoxically within the context of community.  Many families might consider a Montessori program, at least for their young child because it might give them an advantage over peers, but this is the antithesis of the Montessori philosophy.  It is about helping each child understand what their gifts and interests are, to establish what their contributions to the world will be. Ultimately, Montessori education is about a better future, but through better individuals.

Dr Maria Montessori, the physician, educator, promoter of the rights of all, founded the method based on observing the universal characteristics of children at different stages.  After fifty years during her lifetime and another sixty-plus year, these same developmental characteristics continue to be seen and studied in students today. Young children thrive with order, attachment to reality, and most effortlessly develop language.  Elementary age children can draw on their incredible imaginations, wrestle with moral dilemmas and often rely on their social connections.  Our adolescents look for heroes, their personal value, and purpose while needing physical engagement.  Education needs to access these characteristics and not snuff them out, declaring them as forms of defiance. Montessori’s method, including the lessons and material work hand in hand with these characteristics.

During Dr Montessori’s life, she did not protect the use of her name, hoping it would allow a greater spread of her scientific method.  After over a hundred years of Montessori practice, its reach is more significant than ever. Still, without protection, there is much done in the name of Montessori that does not offer children and families its potential.

So that means when you walk into a preschool and see some of the beautifully designed Montessori materials, it may be a Montessori school, in the recognized sense or it may not be. Looking for evidence of the principles is critical if the goal is to pursue Montessori as an educator or a parent.

Montessori consultant, Letty Rising, recently stated while offering support for educators and families trying to do Montessori at home, “You can deliver Montessori without the materials, but you can’t deliver Montessori without the philosophy.”

Thousands of children who attend Montessori schools for an extended period emerge with their innate characteristics intact and nurtured.  They are curious, creative, critical thinkers.  They are also communicative, compassionate and collaborative.  And more important than ever they are adaptable and resilient, all necessary skills for today and tomorrow.

Life in a Montessori classroom if faithful to the principles enables a child’s development of the essential skills to survive and thrive, for the benefit of all.

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