Social and Emotional Learning

Bursting the Montessori Bubble

“At what point do you burst the Montessori bubble?” a friend recently asked.  She has two young children in Montessori, but is considering enrolling them in a traditional private school after they finish Primary.

My first thought (as a former Montessori child and current parent and teacher) was, Why would you want to burst it?

Why leave Montessori if you don’t have to?Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 8.20.05 PM

But my friend is not alone in her concern: many parents feel that Montessori shelters children from tests, grades, and competition.  Based on their own childhoods, these parents believe that only a conventional approach to education can provide the tough experiences that will prepare children to be successful when faced with the hardships of real life.

Finding myself at a loss for a coherent answer, I posed the question to pediatric neuropsychologist and Montessori parent Dr. Steve Hughes over dinner.  He looked at me from behind his glasses for a moment, and then asked:

“Which is the real bubble?”

His question was all the answer I needed.

Because the truth is, success in life is not built on a foundation of standardized tests, but on the freedom to make difficult choices and experience their consequences.

Success in life is not built on grades and percentages, but on self-awareness and self-improvement.

Success in life is not built on artificial competition among same-aged peers, but on genuine collaboration between generations.

Success in life is not built on cheating the system, but on having the wisdom and courage to transform it.

In Dr. Maria Montessori’s words…

“If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?… The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future.  If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” 

26 thoughts on “Bursting the Montessori Bubble”

  1. I would add that in traditional schools teachers speak of “natural testers.” Other children must be taught how to think like the test writers – not to question too much, not to ponder too much, how to anticipate what the question is seeking. (Yup – sad. Because that is what you want in friend, employee, citizen of the world.) Montessori eliminates that issue, however, the first couple of tests can be rough if your child leaves a Montessori school and isn’t a “natural tester.”

    We put AV and JV at a two year college for some of their middle/high school classes.* This helped ease them into the stressors of tests – one natural test taker and one totally over thinking test taker. Our logic proved correct for our children. Society had trained them to be stressed by tests. They have friends who went to traditional school; they’ve watched TV; they’ve read books.

    Still I wouldn’t change our Montessori choices. The kids still want to learn at 16 and 18. They love looking at all the facets of a problem. They are responsible and provide thoughtful responses for situations. They don’t objectify people but look for the soul of each person. They attempt peaceful resolutions but will speak up for justice. They are focused and work to true completion of a job not just “enough.”

    They’ve chosen to walk between a traditional and non-traditional path. They are attending American College of the Building Arts​ (4 year liberal arts college but very non-traditional). One in Architectural Carpentry and one in Forged Architectural Iron Work. One because he loves wood and the other because he wants to travel the world and blacksmithing is a job he can use to supplement his income after he gets an archeology degree.

    We went through quite a bit of questioning of our schooling decisions every step of the way from family, friends, even random people in the grocery store. There are times you question what you are doing because it is so different or because you’re worried about how they’ll do later because of learning differences or not. There are times we wanted to chuck it all and go mainstream and be “normal” – sometimes for our own sake and sometimes for our children’s.

    We didn’t. It was hard. But we stayed true to our children’s needs. Now, as we continue to open our hands and release the children into their full service to the world, we don’t regret our decisions, and the questions from others are quieting as they see the qualities associated with mature adults being demonstrated by our sons in ways that are not often seen in their peers.

    Being a Montessori parent, whose children are in college. I would yell at the top of my lungs – “Don’t forget which is the real bubble!”

    *We didn’t have money to send them to a Montessori Erd Kinder and nothing in our city/region past Upper El. So a bit of Montessori homeschooling and then an online public high school that was mastery based.

    1. EV, you and your boys are truly an inspiration for those who might not have the opportunity to stay in a Montessori school for the long haul. How amazing to read about your journey and the outcome! Thank you for sharing, I hope everyone reads your comment and becomes inspired to find a Montessori path for their children, even if it means getting creative!

    2. EV, I know the School of the Building Arts very well. It is a great program with exceptional craftspeople. Your children seem to be a perfect fit for the school. I wish them well in their life’s journey.

    3. EV, Thank you so much for posting your comment! I am currently homeschooling my youngest who has only had Montessori education. He started in private, then went to a public Montessori. We are doing some Montessori at home (final year of Upper El), mixed with some things that I find here and there that work for him. A lot of it is child-led learning, almost unschooling, you could say. But I see in my son some of the very same qualities you describe in your sons. It helps so much to hear what you have to say. Sometimes I feel like I’m on my own. Not many are homeschooling older children with Montessori, and there aren’t any in our homeschool community using it. I know I’m doing the right thing, but sometimes the self-doubt and questions from others get me wondering. Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Nice article. My daughter is in a montessori school now, and we plan to keep her there, but only to a point. To play former-middle-school-teacher-devil’s-advocate with your article, when I was teaching middle school, my colleagues and I always knew the kids who had spent too long in montessori programs. We were a part of a highly innovative charter school based around entirely thematic learning, narrative assessment (no grades there either), and other strong, progressive practices, so we could all appreciate the good in montessori, but only up to a point. Too much time in montessori, in my opinion, meant that kids developed too large of a bubble of self-importance around themselves. After too long of a “follow the child” approach, they did not know how to follow authority figures or in many cases, how to employ the “grit” that is crucial to success – two of the most important factors in anyone’s personal success and satisfaction. I love the benefits of montessori for young children, but I believe that past around age 8, it’s drawbacks overshadow it’s benefits.

    1. My comment is in no way intended to try and invalidate your experience.

      My kids started Montessori in 2nd/4th grades. In my children’s montessori school grades and tests were introduced in 7th grade. This was perfect for my two perfectionist kids. Giving back to the larger community was integral to my children’s education. My eldest is 18 and is #1 in his class at a private prep school. My 2nd is in honors classes at our local high school. Both of my kids are generous, kind, kids who do not have a bit of self-importance to them. They work hard, contribute to their family, and their community. They speak comfortably to adults and take ownership for their own work. Most of the other children in their school shared the same academic success and good character development. In my experience, Montessori education through 8th grade can provide a safe place to learn and grow during those highly vulnerable early teen years. I realized many Montessori schools do not offer tests or grades, but ours considered it part of the “practical life” education and I think that is the best way to go with older kids.

    2. In Montessori there are boundaries and authority. The principle of following the child does not remove that. One of things they do learn in Montessori is self-reliance and independence. I don’t know what you mean by not knowing how to follow authority figures. Maybe those from Montessori lack the conformity training that forms an integral part of the usual school system, but which makes them idea candidates for success in the real world. As for grit, again not knowing what you’re trying to say, it is difficult to assess exactly how you think Montessori fails, but I know from experience that along with independence they learn determination.

      I also had the misconception that Montessori is about children being allowed to do whatever they please with no authority, no discipline and no structure.

  3. My daughters were Montessori educated through 6th grade when they moved to a Quaker school and a public high school because Montessori was not available. During the time they were in the more traditional schools they found they were limited in their knowledge about test taking but looked at it as a new skill to be learned. Now, as young adults, the Montessori foundation is clearly what they rely on and consider themselves life-long learners.

  4. Interesting post Ty, we were grappling with this issue recently. In the end we decided to listen to what our daughter wanted which was a more conventional education. And maybe for that we have to thank Montessori.

  5. Matt, I can see why Montessori could be problematic in a traditional school setting. But one must determine what is better for their child. Yes, they may not obey authority figures, but it may be important to ask if they are critical thinkers. Are they not obeying the authority figure because the give a sense of unintelligence or lack of authority? Or are they just not meeting their needs? Unfortunately in traditional schools becoming “too curious” is not good. That is why you can tell the Montessori kids from the rest. And we have been screaming this for years, but standardized tests or even traditional tests in schools do not measure full mastery, but observation and hands on experience do. Critical thinking is the underlying aspect to a successful child. Does Montessori education provide this? Yes. They do not intend to train their children to be the “OBEY THE AUTHORITY BECAUSE THEY SAID SO” type of person, but work through the problems because their is a reason for everything. We all know that this is not viable democratic thinking. We need to teach them to understand themselves and others.

    1. Bravo, Bailey!!! Montessori children will “obey” authority figures who can provide them with keys to continue opening doors to knowledge and understanding of their world. They won’t just obey because it’s what’s expected. As a friend of mine (who works with adolescents in a Montessori program) says, true Montessori children are a pain in the butt to work with. Because they question, they push back, and they’re not satisfied with the status quo. Nothing wrong with that!

  6. We home school and follow Montessori but we also take on board a lot of other great ideas. The children have gone from babes to adolescents and have avoided any tests other than the ones they set themselves. We kept an eye on where they were at but nothing too serious. They are just great human beings with a love of learning for themselves. If they want to pursue something, e.g. learning a new language, they have the confidence, the motivation and organisation skills to do that. Steve’s comment ‘which is the real bubble’ resonates with me. we believe that our boys have truly experienced the reality of life and we stand in the background in awe at this wonderful metamorphosis we have had the privilege to witness taking place over the last 15 years we home schooled them. Home school isn’t for everyone. Many play the ‘they don’t socialise’ card but our children are the most sociable children in the neighbourhood. Home schooling after primary is an option worth considering.

    1. Alan, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! I am seriously considering a home school co-op with a couple of other friends after Primary, and your comment was exactly the words of encouragement that I needed to read. It means a lot that you commented and shared your journey, and it sounds like your children are doing beautifully thanks to your dedication!

  7. Both my kids are well beyond their Montessori years. They both attended Montessori until high school, at which point they both moved to a very traditional Catholic school. Although they are very different people, they both have done remarkably well. They know who they are. They are intellectually curious for life. THAT is what Montessori does. The argument that there is a “too much Montessori” point is ridiculous. The observations that middle or high school teachers make about Montessori kids being too self important is a comment on the personality of the child, not the result of a Montessori education. These just happen to be the students that Montessori skeptics notice. I wager that if they looked at all of the students in their schools that came directly from a Montessori education, they would see equally as many who are gracious with others and possess global understanding and patience for the goals of their teachers. On the other hand, they might notice that there are several self important children who have never set foot in a Montessori classroom.

  8. Ursula, it’s also important to acknowledge the comments from teachers about Montessori kids being too “self important” is also a comment on the personality of the teacher making the comment. The very nature of the adjective is extremely judgmental. Some traditional school teachers feel threatened by a student who will want to explore “why”, who will ask questions, and who will pursue learning beyond that which is being dictated in class. Most traditional school teachers are absolutely delighted to have Montessori children in their classrooms, but the few that aren’t usually have pretty strong opinions about that and many, many other things as well.

  9. The Montessori school our son attends goes to the end of high school. We have no plans to remove him to head to another school. We started at the school around eight weeks ago and our boy is getting towards four and a half. Our boy has ‘tests’ often. He is not phased by ‘tests’. I tell him ‘tests are fun. They are a chance for you to shine and tell people what you know. Mummy used to love tests and school and university’. The template you view the world through alters your perceptions and outcomes. Montessori is in essence another educational template. For some of us it is not the template we had when we grew up and thus it is new. It is easy for us to revert to the comfortable education system we know. For the young child who enters Montessori it is all they know and it is their whole world. I only wish I had gone to a montessori school. When I saw what Montessori was about it was an easy decision to send our boy to the school. It is an easy decision for us to keep him there until he leaves for university.

  10. I have been reading an interesting book for work called The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. The book is a New York Times bestseller and it discusses the impact digital technologies have and will continue to have on the future of work. Just as the steam engine was the catalyst of the industrial revolution, the MIT-based authors of the book argue that we are in the midst of a “digital” revolution.

    They make a compelling argument – definitely worth a read if you are interested in that sort of thing.

    They ponder what will happen to “work” as it becomes more and more possible to automate the activities that humans can do… Google and Ford have teamed up to create driverless cars; IBM is using the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer Watson to create the world’s most effective medical diagnostician; the Associated Press is using software designed by Automated Insights to generate 30% of their news. What seemed very much like the territory of science fiction seems much less so as “Moore’s Law” marches on. It’s unnerving.

    Anyway, one of the things that I found interesting was what they had to say about preparing for the “Second Machine Age.” As a parent of an almost-two-year old – I was both pleased and surprised to see reference to Self-Organized-Learning-Environments (SOLE’s) and Maria Montessori’s methods as a means of establishing the kind of mindset required to interact with (and hopefully succeed in) a world shaped by digital technologies. Essentially, they argue necessary skills include “ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication instead of just the three Rs”… Google’s founder Larry Page credits part of his success to a Montessori foundation… stating “part of that training [was] not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”

    I *love* that.

    Anyway, if you’re curious, I found the chapter that references Montessori online – The chapter starts on page 86.

    1. Awesome information, thank you! I’ll definitely take a look at it when I get a moment and hope other readers will, too! Yes, I think Montessori is timeless, mainly because it’s based on human development, not on a fluctuating set of arbitrary expectations meant to satisfy an ever-changing industrial landscape.

    2. Thank you for sharing that resource Molly. My husband and I had been talking about this for a while but hadn’t realized that somebody had written a book on it!

      Looks like there is going to be a lot of change and political upheaval going forward with the self-automated trucks…etc.

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