Educate or Accommodate? Montessori at a Crossroad

By: Crystal Dahlmeier

Several years ago, while researching children’s understanding of place value in both Montessori and non-Montessori environments, I made a surprising discovery, but not about math! As I worked with the children, I observed that the children in Montessori environments responded to my questions with assurance and confidence (even when they were wrong). Conversely, many of the children in non-Montessori classrooms were hesitant, unsure of themselves, looked at me to confirm their answer and often changed their answer if I didn’t tell them that it was right.

The experience reaffirmed for me some important qualities of the Montessori approach.  What an enormous gift for children who are in environments that have concrete learning materials with a control of error embedded in the design, that support independence, engage the child’s interest and provide individual challenges.

Over time, I have observed changes in some Montessori environments.  Worksheets are taking the place of hands on work with materials, teachers are becoming the control of error rather than the material itself, and work is assigned by the teachers.

These examples are just some ways that Montessori teachers, administrators and teacher educators at all levels are facing increasing pressures to compromise Montessori philosophy in daily practice. 

A key question that needs to be addressed in response is:   How much of the philosophy and methodology can Montessori professionals compromise before the proven success and child outcomes of this educational system are lost? How long will it be until it can’t be distinguished from other educational methods or curricula?

Many factors contribute to the trend to dilute the application and implementation of Montessori principles.  These factors are both internal and external. 

External pressures are often quite easy to identify:  conflicting state standards and licensing regulations, emphasis on test results, expectations of parents, school schedules, a highly technological culture that values measurable results, speed, and future goals.

Identifying internal pressures, however, may require some soul-searching and reflection.  How committed are we (as teachers, administrators, instructors) to Montessori principles?  Do we truly believe in and trust the child and the prepared environment?  Have we continued to engage in professional and personal growth, keeping track of the current trends in education in order to both understand them and adapt (when appropriate) or challenge (when not)?  Can we clearly articulate not only what we practice but, more importantly, why we do so?  Does our central focus continue to be each individual child in our care?

If we are going to call ourselves Montessorians and our schools Montessori, then we are obligated to implement and follow all of the principles that comprise Montessori philosophy.  In our schools and classrooms we may not be able to make changes this week, this month, or even this year.  The real danger emerges when we lose the vision, stop trying, and begin to justify inaction.

Accommodation and compromise are easy.  It is easy to shrug our shoulders and find numerous reasons for not acting.  The result of that?  For many it means losing the passion that drew us to this incredible and revolutionary vision of the child and our hope for “an education capable of saving humanity.”  (Montessori, Education and Peace, p.34)

Will there ever be a perfect Montessori school?  Probably not.  Will the return to the principles happen overnight?  Nope!  Will it be challenging?  Definitely.  Will it take lots of conversations and persuasion?  For sure.  Is it worth it?  Most definitely.  The children are dependent on an environment that reflects Montessori’s vision, and supports the planes of development and each child’s unique personality.

The alternative to accommodation is education.   Our work is to revitalize ourselves by diving deeply into Montessori’s writings, exploring current research (both Montessori and non-Montessori sources), initiating conversations with parents, administrators, legislators and licensing agencies to demonstrate that our Montessori classrooms not only meet but exceed expectations and requirements when practiced holistically.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1840 essay “Education” wrote, “It is plain that the right education of youth requires a wise society as well as wise individuals,” and “All difficulties and perplexities solve themselves when we leave institutions and address individuals.” 

Much of our work to educate will be individual and one-to-one conversations with other teachers, parents, administrators, and legislators.  But what a wealth of words we have inherited from Montessori to plead our case.

           “Education should not limit itself to seeking new methods for a mostly arid transmission of knowledge:  its aim must be to give the necessary aid to human development.  This world, marvelous in its power, needs a “new man.” It is therefore the life of men and their values that must be considered.  If “the formation of man” becomes the basis of education, then the coordination of all schools from infancy to maturity, from nursery to university, arises as a first necessity: for man is a unity, an individuality that passes through interdependent phases of development.  Each preceding phase prepares the one that follows, forms its base, nurtures the energies that urge towards the succeeding period of life.”  (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 84)

Crystal Dahlmeier September, 2017