Ask me about kindergarten and I can tell you about how the rough feel of sandpaper letters created the alphabet, how five beads on a wire plus another five on a wire exchanged for ten in a square, and how I could focus on plucking seeds from a sunflower or polishing silverware for an indefinable amount of time. Each lesson was a new adventure, and I could explore for hours.
Ask me about seventh grade and a gray scale, lethargic mass of memory enters my mind. The days were monotonous and intangible. I sat at my desk as flat instructions and words on a whiteboard guided my learning. The classrooms were uniform and unimaginative, with flesh colored cinderblock walls and large windows with the blinds pulled down.
The transition from the colorful education to the dreary learning occurred when I transferred from eight years of Montessori school, to a traditional Catholic school. The structured classrooms imbued a vast sense of boredom, lack of focus, and minimal desire to learn. I admit that I am among a minority of students in America who have had the opportunity to attend above average schools, and have actively sought a higher quality education. However, even the classrooms of private schools are not immune to the mediocre performance seen in most American schools.
The challenges students face with study habits and forming a positive mentality towards school begin in their elementary education, and gradually accumulate until even the collegiate level. These are often overlooked by the American school system, which has taken ineffective measures to resolve the problems. I believe that the solution lies in Montessori education.
Montessori speaks to the student. It inverts the traditional classroom to where each student becomes the initiator and center of their learning, instead of the teacher. According to the American Montessori Society, “[Montessori] is a view of the child as one who is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment.” Developed by Dr. Maria Montessori in 1906, the Montessori method is built upon the students’ own development of independence, responsibility, and ambition.
In Montessori classrooms, the students learn alongside different grade levels, where communication is open and encouraged. Each student is expected to fulfill a certain number of lessons each week, but may create their own schedule and pace at which they learn. Classrooms lack the competition to be at the top of the class, because students do not take tests or receive letter grades. The competitive spirit comes from each student’s own will and desire to learn, and their progress is assessed by their personal achievements.
In an environment without the wilting pressure of getting the A+, students are able to blossom and be appreciated for their own unique blooms of knowledge, instead of being compared to others’ growth. Self-motivation and the desire for knowledge are nurtured within each child. In second grade, I once forged my teacher’s signature in my reading log because I was so eager to advance to the next reading lesson, and needed my assignment signed to do so. I was so hungry to learn, because each lesson was understood as great progress. Learning was invigorating, instead of draining.
Many parents claim that their children need more structure in their education; that the freedom Montessori offers would be distracting, but I disagreed when I was eight, and I continue to disagree with their logic now. Montessori is one of the most personalized methods of education, and therefore adaptable for any child. On his blog for Psychology Today, Peter Gray, P.h.D., claims that the methods with which the American school system teaches its students is an evolutionary mismatch. He states that since the hunter-gatherer days of human existence, “Our children have instincts that drive them to educate themselves through their free play, exploration, and socializing.” Placing a child in a traditional classroom stifles their instincts to learn by being active and exploring. Educating children through methods that cater to their innate learning habits requires schools to create a certain environment. Gray explains that this environment requires, “access to lots of children of mixed ages to play with, access to the tools that are crucial to our culture, and access to caring adults—all within the context of a moral community that embodies the highest values of our society.” These factors all aid in Montessori education. It allows the children’s nature of curiosity to be fulfilled in their learning.
Another concern among parents is that the small class sizes limit social aspects of adolescents’ lives. Although true to an extent, the Montessori environment fosters strong collaboration skills among the students it serves. Interacting among various ages breaks boundaries that traditional schools supports.
However, I believe there is a time limit for how long students should stay in Montessori school. The real world concepts they learn in the open classroom can apply to structured situations, like when I transferred into traditional schooling. It would be difficult to dive into the SAT or college lecture halls without having previous experience dealing with testing or sitting at a desk for hours at a time. Montessori is a foundation for concepts, habits, and learning styles to be built upon, which will last a lifetime.
Groundbreaking creators like Larry Page and Sergei Brin, founders of Google, Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon, and Julia Child, iconic chef extraordinaire, attended Montessori school. Peter Sims of the Wall Street Journal dubs them, among other highly successful Montessori alumni, the “Montessori Mafia.” These individuals carried the inquisitive and experimental spirit of their elementary education into their professional lives, and discovered brilliant ideas. In a 20/20 interview Larry Page and Sergei Brin in 2004, Page shares that their Montessori education greatly contributed to their success. Page tells Barbara Walters, “We both went to Montessori school, and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.” They were able to lead themselves to such a breakthrough product, because they did not hesitate to explore and develop. Instead of attempting to find an answer to a strict set of criteria, they allowed themselves to evolve from their initial starting point and make discoveries during their process until they found a strong business model.
Montessori education armed each of the “Montessori Mafia” with the proper tactics to survive and excel in their endeavors. It continues to ignite the desire to learn and foster the curiosity that follows. Instead of putting up boundaries for learning like traditional schools, Montessori lets the learning occur organically, with each lesson adaptable to each child. Montessori prepares the students not for finding the right answer, but asking the right questions. With those, we never stop learning.
Sophie Shaw is a senior at Bellarmine Prep High School in Tacoma.
Gray, Peter. “Why Children Protest Going to School: More Evo. Mismatch.” Psychology Today. 10 Nov. 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201111/why-children-protest-going-school-more-evo-mismatch>.
“Introduction to Montessori.” American Montessori Society. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. <http://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori>.
“Maria Montessori History of Montessori Training.” North American Montessori Center. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. <http://www.montessoritraining.net/what_is_montessori/history.htm>.
McAfee, Andrew. “Montessori Builds Innovators.” Harvard Business Review. 25 July 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. <https://hbr.org/2011/07/montessori-builds-innovators/>.
Sims, Peter. “The Montessori Mafia.” The Wall Street Journal. 5 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2014. <http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/05/the-montessori-mafia/>.