Montessori as Preparation for Later Learning

By Jesse Paul, Head Guide of Willow Class

Frequent concerns of parents who choose Montessori schools often fall into two categories. The first is: what is my child learning? And, the second is: are they just doing whatever they want? It is also often the case that these concerns come out of a background of assumptions about the nature of education, which are very dominant in our culture. Since, Montessori schools break with these traditional assumptions parents are quite reasonably worried about “where the child is” or “if they are being prepared for later learning.” It’s hard to get a grasp of what exactly is going on in the classroom, and what kind of results one should expect.

So, it is understandable that the most popular question was exactly that: how is this preparing my child for later learning? Before I answer that question directly, however, I think it is important to understand why this question often comes up. A large factor driving these concerns is simply the fact that eventually the child in primary will enter a traditional school and so the worry is about this transition. Is this preparing them, and how do I gauge whether or not it is?

Now, the almost instinctual way to go about this is to look at other curriculums. And so, many people look at what is being taught in a traditional school at a similar age, or at a later age, and they compare that with what is going on in a Montessori classroom. And, at this point they have a minor heart attack!

What’s going on here? The kids in this school already know addition on paper, and the children at the Montessori school are playing with colorful bead bars, building pink towers, and waddling in circles! What is this hippy stuff anyway?

Well, it is this exact chain of reasoning that I want to unpack. The crucial assumption here is that children must know certain facts at certain points in their life if they are to successfully transition to the next level, and if they are to be successful in general.

But, why do we think that? It’s as if we believe the child’s mind is a blank slate onto which teachers must imprint facts at certain stages. When the child has internalized the right facts and ideas, they can then proceed to the next stage, for more thoughts and ideas to be imprinted onto their minds.

It almost sounds crazy when said explicitly, but it is the dominant view of education in our society, and I think it has a large effect on how we think. It’s powerful in part because it’s an old view, about 150 years old, coming out of the industrial revolution. So, we’ve become accustomed over the years to thinking in these terms.

It’s an interesting history, but to summarize a great deal, as more and more of human life became mechanized, we started to look at schools as essentially giant factories.

We divide children up based on their age, or date of manufacture. We send them through a Ford style production line. We ratchet together new pieces of knowledge onto their minds at each stage, and then we ship them out into the world to find a job.
And so everything in school is seen as a step for something else. Instead of the pursuit of knowledge being an end in itself, or human beings being ends in themselves, knowledge and human beings are seen as means for other ends. In other words, we go to kindergarten to go elementary school, we go to elementary school to go to middle school, we go to middle school to go to high school, we go to high school to go to college. We go to college to get a job, we get a job to make money, and so on and so forth.

The important point is that the Montessori view breaks with this notion in a radical way. Instead of seeing education as some cog in the wheel of a larger machine, Montessori saw education as a help for life. In other words, the primary function of education was to help human beings develop in their richest diversity and potentials.

Montessori’s ideas were very much influenced by her profession. She was a biologist, anthropologist, and physician, and so she was in awe of the fact that a tiny group of cells held the potential to differentiate into a human being, with an enormous range of biological and cognitive capacities. Movement, art, music, math, and science were all seen by Montessori as ultimately deriving from biological development. And so, a school in her view is tasked with basically two goals. One is to transfer all of the accumulated cultural knowledge from the past to the present generation, who will carry civilization forward. And, the second goal is to do this in a way, which is specifically geared to developmental needs.

Needs will differ at different stages, but in Primary the child is going through major growth in terms of motor coordination, ordering stimulus in the environment, language development, cultural absorption, and the development of concentration.
It’s a cliché in science not to generalize from a few examples, but luckily no one has explained this fact to infants, because somehow a tiny child will internalize, based on hardly any data, the culture they are being raised in. So, a baby here will have a sort of California culture, but raised in Manhattan will grow up with New York accent, if it was raised in Japan it will speak Japanese and in Boston it’ll park the car in the Harvard yard. The child will learn all of this based on the most impoverished and scattered data, somehow. And so, contrary to the dominant view, the mind just can’t be a blank slate. The child has to contain within it the potential to develop these astonishing capacities and the real question is how can we make sure that these capacities flourish?

This is why we can’t make the comparison between traditional schools and Montessori schools in the knee jerk way. When another school is visited and we see kids doing math on paper, it doesn’t mean those children are more advanced or are being better prepared for later learning. What it means is that they have been trained to accomplish a certain task, and probably at the expense of cultivating other human abilities. We want to make sure that after a full Montessori experience in the first and second planes of development, the child will be a fully developed person capable of solving a whole range of problems, and not only the ones they’ve been trained to do. Also, we want to cultivate the inner discipline needed to master things that require training and skill. And so it’s more important, from this point of view, to be worried about the natural developmental process instead of the conventional linear process where children have to know things at a certain point in time. Humans go through growth spurts, and plateaus. We have ah-ha moments, and we have moments of laziness. The natural cycle of development is not a linear one and so even though public schools are based on this linear view, and we may feel in a kind of knee jerk way that the child ought to know such and such by a certain age, biologically it’s just not true.

The best preparation for later learning is to make sure the child’s natural capacities are developed to their fullest, and that’s what a Montessori school will do. In short, Montessori prepares the child for later learning because it cultivates the whole growth of the child, social, emotional, physical, and intellectual.