Teach Like a Montessori Champion

Montessori independence poster

In 1907, Maria Montessori was asked to set up a daycare centre in San Lorenzo, a district in Rome. The centre was located in a housing project in a slum area. 60 children, aged three to seven, joined the centre, while their illiterate parents were working. Montessori described her pupils:

Tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak; their faces were expressionless, with bewildered eyes as though they had never seen anything in their lives. They were indeed poor, abandoned children who had grown up … with nothing to stimulate their minds. (Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, p. 129.)

More than 100 years later, many educators working in disadvantaged communities might recognise such a description. However, today’s solution looks very different to what Montessori came up with. Most academically successful schools in low income communities nowadays rely on direct instruction, where every detail in the learning environment is controlled by the teacher. One such approach is described in Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion. This book has been an invaluable source of guidance for thousands of educators around the world.

However, having worked with teachers in low income communities across England, the United States, many communities in India, Peru and elsewhere, a few questions were bothering me. I was thinking about the six year old student that struggles to pay attention and keeps disrupting others in the classroom every day. If this boy is regularly told off by the teacher, asked to sit separately in the corner or outside in the corridor, how is this affecting him? Why is he behaving this way? His teachers do not want to exclude him, but feel they have no other option. They have to think about all students in the class and support everyone’s learning. So what to do about it?

And then think about the rest of the students in the classroom tightly controlled by the teacher. What happens when the teacher leaves? How would the students behave? If life is based on choice, then students need to learn to make their own choices. Are they learning to make choices independently?

Questions such as these sparked an interest in me to look for alternative solutions. It took me many years to begin understanding the basic ideas of Montessori education – because her approach is so different. I would like to share some of these ideas I have explored on this journey. Please don’t misunderstand me: I do not consider myself an expert in Montessori education. However, I thought it would be worthwhile to contribute to a conversation about teaching and learning in low income communities. Based on my understanding, I do think that Montessori has something unique to contribute to the challenges we have been discussing for many years.

To understand Montessori’s contribution to our current challenges, it is helpful to begin with a very brief historical account.

Maria Montessori with a childMaria Montessori was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School. She began working with children in mental health hospitals. A special school was set up for them in 1898 and Montessori became its director. She used many teaching materials developed by Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, two leaders in the field of special education at the time, whose approach she had studied in London and Paris.

A few years later, Montessori took her students to be tested in exams alongside children that attended mainstream schools. Everyone was shocked that Montessori’s students with special needs were able to read and write just as well as the other children!

In the daycare centre in San Lorenzo, Montessori was able to observe how ‘normal’ children would respond to the learning materials she had used with children that had special needs. The response was amazing. Children showed an incredible degree of concentration when working with the materials. Afterwards, they seemed rested, satisfied and happy. Initially Montessori had no plans to teach reading and writing to such small children, most of them aged four or five. However, the illiterate parents begged her and she gave children some sandpaper letters. They showed great enthusiasm. Some of them began sounding out the letters and putting together words. Soon, they had learned to write. It took them about six months to begin reading words. They began reading with a real explosion of energy. All of this was unexpected to Montessori. However, she set up three more schools in the next two years and observed similar results there.

Nowadays, Montessori schools are usually viewed as an expensive alternative available to families that can afford private schools. Anne Frank, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, P. Diddy, Prince William and Prince Harry all learned in Montessori schools. However, being aware of the roots of Montessori education can help us understand how this unique approach might be relevant today, as we’re trying to serve all children from diverse communities.

Montessori The Science Behind the GeniusAngeline Lillard, one of the pre-eminent Montessori scholars of our time, characterises the basic principles of Montessori education. Largely relying on Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, I would like to summarise each idea, say a few words about how it works and why. (The first chapter from the book can be downloaded here.)

When the basic principles work together, the result is beautiful. The teacher can teach students either individually or in small groups (usually of two to five students). At the same time, other students learn independently. This can be observed in this short video, recorded at Cornerstone Montessori School which serves a community of multicultural and economically diverse families. More than half of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school is located in St. Paul, Minnesota: https://youtu.be/S0HlI7dmOzU.

The first key idea of Montessori education is multi-age classrooms: children learn together typically in three year groups. 3-6 year old students learn in one classroom, 6-9 year olds in the next and 9-12 year olds in yet another classroom. This multi-age grouping is important for a few different reasons. Children learn through observation and imitation. When they see other children, and especially slightly older children, work with materials, this will be an important source of learning for them. Montessori recommended having about 30 children in one classroom; one of the reasons: this ensures there is enough stimulation through observation. Learning by observation is an accepted idea today, but it was initially proven in the early 1960s by the psychologist Albert Bandura. Children were shown films of an adult hitting a “Bobo” doll (see caption below, picture source: Wikipedia).


Researchers observed that shortly afterwards, children were likely to behave toward the doll as the adult had. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

When one child learns from another, this is valuable to both: including the one doing the teaching. In one experiment, college students were divided into three groups. In the first group, students were read a passage and were then tested. In the second group, they were told that they would have to teach the same ideas to other students, but in fact they did not have to. The third group were taught the idea and asked to actually teach the content to other students. Not surprisingly, the students who prepared to teach and did actually teach it did best when they were tested for understanding. The second group that prepared to teach it but did not were second best. Those who just read the passage performed worse than the other two groups. (Annis, 1983, cited in Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius).

Here is a short video showing children of different ages learning together: https://vimeo.com/78630288#t=782s

The second key idea is that Montessori classrooms include a special set of educational materials. The materials have been carefully designed and tested. Montessori observed how children engaged with the materials. Some of the materials appeared much more interesting and useful to children than others; Montessori discarded or redesigned materials that were not engaging for children. She paid close attention to making materials simple and engaging.

Pink towerTake the Pink Tower, for example. The only thing that changes is the length of the side of each cube. This draws the child’s attention to the variable that changes. Many of the materials are also self-corrective. The child will notice when he has made a mistake, such as placing a smaller cube underneath a larger cube in the Pink Tower.

The cylinders help the child to learn visual discrimination of size. The cylinders progress in height and diameter from small to large. When the child picks up each cylinder, she is also preparing herself to learn to write, and to hold the pencil in her hand.

Theorem of Pythagoras

Many of the materials combine a concrete or sensorial aspect with an abstract idea. For example, the sensorial material to learn the Pythagoras’ theorem is quite fascinating. The child can visually see that the square of the hypotenuse (the opposite side of the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

In primary school (or elementary, in the US), the curriculum is structured around Five Great Lessons. The themes include: the Story of Universe, the Coming of Life, the Coming of Humans, the Story of Writing and the Story of Number. These lessons provide coherence to the curriculum and help children organise ideas they learn about. A similar principle is used in the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

The third basic principle in Montessori education is student chosen work in long time blocks. This is probably the one idea that was most difficult for me to begin to understand.

I could not understand why children should choose their learning activities instead of teachers. The first reason has to do with motivation. In one study by Iyengar and Lepper, 7- to 9-year-olds were asked to solve anagrams. One group could choose what they made anagrams of: they were given categories such as animals, foods, parties; six categories in total. A second group was told that the category had been chosen by the experimented. A third group was informed that their mothers had made the choice. What had in fact happened was that all children solved anagrams representing the group that the free-choice group had made. Children in the group that had chosen the category solved twice as many anagrams as children in the other two groups. Another interesting finding was this. After the anagram task, children had some time to play freely. Children in the first group that were able to choose the category spent much more time freely choosing to solve anagrams compared to children in the other two groups. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

Another reason for allowing children to choose their own work is provided by the research of Richard De Charms. He distinguished between “origin” and “pawn” classrooms. In an origin classroom, the students appear to have some say about what is going on. Teachers in such classrooms are like “authoritative” parents. They are warm and accepting, but they also require children to follow clear and consistent rules. In “pawn” classrooms, children are controlled by the teacher. Again, if we use the parenting analogy, this teacher uses an “authoritarian” parenting style. De Charms found out that in “origin” classrooms children are much more internally motivated and feel a greater sense of personal responsibility. (Lillard, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.)

This sort of research is aligned with what Maria Montessori observed when she developed her teaching model. She saw that children were thrilled to work with the same learning materials over and over again. Sometimes children aged three to four would spend half an hour working with the same material. Older children could spend a couple of hours working on the same materials, or even a couple of days.

However, to say that the child chooses freely each learning task is not entirely accurate. There are many specific rules that need to be followed. Children need to choose among the material that is in the classroom, and among the materials that they have been taught how to use. Also, they are required to be constructive and responsible. What happens when children misbehave?

Do not apply the rule of non-interference when the children are still the prey of all their different naughtinesses. Don’t let them climb on the windows, the furniture, etc. You must interfere at this stage. At this stage the teacher must be a policeman. The policeman has to defend the honest citizens against the disturbers. (Montessori, 1989, p. 16)

If a child misbehaves, one of the things the teacher might do is to restrict her choice. She might have to stay by the side of the teacher for the entire morning, without the right to choose what she wants to work on.

Another key point is this: the teacher’s role in guiding students’ choices is vital. If a student has not chosen to work on mathematics (or any other subject) for a while, the teacher would talk to her about it. The role of the Montessori teacher is to observe and inspire an interest. For example, here is a video of a weekly meeting that the teacher has with the student to discuss the work she has done: https://vimeo.com/78726178#t=336s

The fourth basic principle of Montessori education is collaboration. Children aged three to six tend to work side by side, without really working together. However, children aged six and older want to work together with others. Here is a video with some examples of collaborative work: https://vimeo.com/78630288#t=8s

Current educational research supports the observations that Montessori made 100 years ago. The Nature of Learning is a recent book that summarises the basic conclusions about effective learning environments. One of the conclusions is that learning is a social activity. “Effective learning is not purely a ‘solo’ activity but essentially a ‘distributed’ one: individual knowledge construction occurs throughout processes of interaction, negotiation and cooperation.” (Dumont, Istance, Benavides (eds), The Nature of Learning, p. 15.) Neuroscience also shows that the human brain is primed for interaction. Self-study and personal discovery are valuable, but learning mainly depends on interacting with others.

There is, of course, also a more sceptical view of collaborative work. I recently came across a funny picture on social media about group projects. It had a pie chart and responses to the question: What I learn from group projects? The answers were: how to work with other people – a tiny slice of the pie chart; the information – a little bit; how to do entire projects on my own – a lot; how much I hate people – a lot. Although this pie chart was just made up by someone as a joke, there is probably some truth in it. If children are not taught how to work together, they don’t know how to do it. This skill does not appear miraculously. It has to be modelled, practised and analysed: for example, how they can divide up tasks in a way that is helpful and sensible. Without explicit instruction, children are likely to struggle with truly collaborative learning tasks.

The fifth principle of Montessori education is the absence of grades and tests. This is a complex topic, especially in today’s environment, where schools are held accountable through standardised tests as well as external evaluations. Self-assessment and formative assessment by the teacher play an important role in the Montessori classroom. How this works exactly is a bit complicated, and I am unable to explain the ideas briefly.

One might wonder whether students that have learned in Montessori schools without any grades and tests struggle once they join a traditional secondary school later on, where they would be certainly tested and examined. A study by Dohrmann and colleagues explore the high school outcomes for students that came from public Montessori elementary schools. This was conducted in Milwaukee Public Schools from 1997 to 2001. One group of students had participated in public Montessori schools from preschool through 5th grade. They were matched with a comparison group on the basis of gender, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity and high school attended. The Montessori group had significantly higher scores in Mathematics and science. No significant differences were found in English, social studies and grade point average. A recently published longitudinal study by Angeline Lillard which concluded that Montessori pre-schools elevate and equalise child outcomes can be found here; various other research summaries of Montessori education are here.

The final basic principle of Montessori education is individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills. This is where I come back to the question that had been bothering me: how to support the six year old boy who is struggling to sit down, track the teacher, and learn at the same pace as the rest of the class?

This principle is well aligned with decades of educational research. The Nature of Learning, cited above, describes one of the key features of effective learning environments as this: the learning environment needs to be acutely sensitive to the individual differences among the learners in it, including their prior knowledge. This idea is quite obvious. Every teacher has probably experienced that when students are asked to do something that is far too difficult for them, they are likely to struggle and give up. If students are asked to do something that is far too easy for them, they are likely to be bored and might also give up. So every learning task, in an ideal learning environment, is appropriately challenging for students.

I am not naïve to think that this happens all the time in a Montessori school. It would be fascinating to study whether students freely choose learning activities that are appropriately challenging to them. However, the Montessori environment makes it possible to take individual differences in prior knowledge into account. Students can choose, with their teacher’s guidance, different learning tasks, and work on these individually or in small groups.

To summarise, Montessori education is characterised by the following six principles:

  1. Multi-age classrooms
  2. A special set of educational materials
  3. Student chosen work in long time blocks
  4. Collaboration
  5. The absence of grades and tests
  6. Individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills

I believe Montessori education provides an inspiring vision for the future of learning. There is evidence that this approach would work with children from diverse backgrounds, including from low-income communities. This makes me think that more high quality Montessori schools are needed. More research is needed too, in order to evaluate how these principles work in practice (e.g. do students in fact choose appropriately challenging tasks).

I would like to finish with three recommendations. First, Angeline Lillard’s book Montessori: The science behind the Genius is a great place to start exploring the philosophy and practice, and how this is supported by decades of research on teaching and learning. Montessoriguide.org is a video resource where you can see what this practice looks like. Finally, Wildflower Schools are an ecosystem of decentralised Montessori micro-schools that support children, teachers and parents (a picture from Wild Rose school in Cambridge is below). The Wildflower Foundation is led by Matt Kramer, the former co-CEO of Teach For America.

Montessori Cambridge

I am working with a group of friends and colleagues to set up the first Wildflower Schools in London. Please reach out to me if you want to join this effort.

So what do you think: could Montessori education be a different answer to supporting student learning and independence, including in low income communities?