When my son finished his nursery school we had the luck of being able to choose from a variety of preschools in our town. Of course, he would need to be accepted or even put on a waiting list, but it’s nice having a choice. Some were more modern, had newer equipment, smaller classes, and were quite close. But in the end, the one we chose had something different about it.
However, when we first visited it we weren’t particularly impressed. It was old, small with a very basic playground and not much space to run around in. But a couple of things caught our attention. First, it had a garden. The kids were planting lettuce, onions, and other vegetables and taking care of it quite well.
Kids helping kids
The other thing was the way the kids were playing on the playground. It wasn’t your usual cliquey big-kids-are-superior-to-little-kids scene. No, the big kids were showing the little ones how to play football, to catch a ball, even how to climb the jungle gym. It was a very strange sight at first.
But when we had our first meeting with the director he explained how things worked at the school. He is a big fan of alternative education and had gone to great lengths to integrate several Montessori principles into the philosophy of his school. This includes a sense of community and respect among all ages of children towards each other in the entire school. We were sold.
There was respect among all ages of children towards each other in the entire school
However, this article is not a comparison of Montessori and conventional public schools, rather a guide to recognizing the opportunities for schools to adopt the same Montessori mindset that my son’s school has. Even if it’s not possible to integrate fully the methodology itself, schools and teachers in public schools are becoming more aware of the benefits of utilizing alternative methods of education while maintaining the standard curriculum.
This article is split into two segments: Areas where my son’s school is aligned with the Montessori mindset and areas where it is not. This is not because they don’t find these points important, but they are limited by government regulation and curriculum requirements. By the end, I hope you will be motivated as well to facilitate a change in your child’s school if you are unsatisfied with the level of quality education it’s delivering.
Areas of alignment with Montessori mentality
Each classroom has a dedicated coat and backpack areas. Learning to take off, hang up and put back on jackets is a part of their morning routine. After they go to the bathroom, they wash their hands and face in sinks built at their level.
Daily routines such as hanging up jackets, straightening up toys or doing gymnastics and yoga every morning, help a child’s mind learn structure, self-discipline, and order. It’s this lesson,
which frees their minds and allows them to concentrate on tasks and activities, which contributes greatly to their independence.
Putting away toys and lunch boxes is very much a part of their daily training. Taking care of their garden, helping each other put on jackets and feeding the classroom hamsters are all ways of learning responsibility.
The fact that the older kids act as mentors for the little ones on the playground, at special events and field trips show that the school really places a high value on learning responsibility as well.
Within the class, there are significant age differences between the kids who were born in January and December creating the need for flexibility when presenting lessons. My son’s teacher is sensitive to these variances and adapts activities to the appropriate stage of their development. Some kids will take longer to learn numbers, the alphabet, and colors than others.
Older kids from other classes help younger kids, chaperon to class in the morning, and show them how to take off and hang up jackets and backpacks.
They make sure all grades engage and get to know each other.
Respect for the different stages contributes to confidence building, leadership skills, and encourages peaceful conflict resolution.
They take field trips together to local museums, cultural centers, and the Biopark, which is our local zoo. All the kids look out for each other and their teacher ensures a full experience. Community is the priority and bullying at this school just doesn’t exist at his school.
Freedom of choice
They have Montessori corners by topic (math, fine motor skills, pretend-play with a kitchen, etc) in his classroom. Kids can choose every afternoon in which corner they want to play. The ‘ground rules’ enforced by the teacher are there to provide self-discipline, motivation and encourage concentration.
Though the kids can choose whichever activity they want, they can’t dominate a group or take as long as they want when completing a task. They can make a mess if they want but when it’s time to straighten up an orderly environment is the last impression they have of the area. This is important for kids creativity and self-discipline.
There is only so much space in each corner, so limits are set as to how many kids can occupy the different areas. They all need to agree together which one they will use inspiring teamwork and peaceful conflict resolution if needed. Especially since the teaching leads nothing in this area, he is only there for guidance and support.
Montessori activities are more concerned with the process rather than the result, working at tasks on the kid’s own terms. The ability to choose which activity they would like to participate in, even if it’s only in the afternoons, leads to a more creative and joyful experience.
This creativity is what his teacher is encouraging when he gives them the many options for the free or pretend-play areas.
Self-correction and self-assessment
When our son refuses to, say put on his jacket, his teacher doesn’t allow him to go outside until he has decided for himself what’s important, staying inside with no friends, or putting on his jacket and playing with his friends on the playground.
He is constantly giving them the option to make their own choices and make corrections after some assessment of their own. This is classic corrective behavior.
Areas of non-alignment with Montessori mentality
Though many of the tasks, as stated above, assist in developing independence, some drawbacks are unavoidable in a public school. For one, they are working on a limited budget and can’t afford most Montessori learning materials. The child-led elements of the Montessori method are absent due to the lack of these materials.
The other aspect, which they aren’t able to apply, is the pace of learning. They have 25 kids with one teacher and only an occasional assistant. So taking their time to master a task just isn’t feasible.
Individual learning plans don’t exist in public schools. Though some attention is paid to special-needs children, the older a child gets in a public school the more they need to conform to the class pace. Every child needs to learn the same material regardless of its temperament and learning style. The school district decides the curriculum and learning objectives, not the child.
Though there is a small amount of age difference in his class, the range of ages is nowhere near that of a Montessori school. In a traditional Montessori class you can see differences in age of up to 3 years, which means the young ones learn from the older kids.
But the philosophy behind the public school system is much more a traditional one and mixing ages just doesn’t meet their requirements.
Freedom of choice
As I said, only in the afternoon are the corners available. In the morning the teacher decides what they learn or play. Nevertheless, this seems to be a good balance for the teacher to meet both the school and children’s needs.
Supports active knowledge seeking
Though his teacher is open to the children selecting books with different topics for learning during their afternoon session, there is no deliberate effort on the school’s part to foster this environment.
Self-correction and self-assessment
His teacher gives them the opportunity to self-assess in behavioral situations, as with my son’s jacket wearing. But when it comes to the learning material or style of teaching, there hasn’t been much of an emphasis put on self-correction.
They still say, “no, that’s wrong” or “not this way, but that way”.
I would like to see more hands-on activities, as with Montessori materials, which teach the children to transform abstract concepts into concrete concepts, such as learning math or the alphabet. They still practice writing numbers and letters, rather than showing them what they represent.
To wrap things up, I think it’s important to mention that, though this is a conventional public school we’re talking about here, they have made many efforts to incorporate a superior pedagogical methodology. Montessori education enables children to develop their full potential and cultivates their natural desire to learn.
If we as parents can influence this gradual shift away from a one-size-fits-all system of education, and direct it towards a caring, supportive and respectful environment, one that provides the foundations for future growth, then it’s our obligation to do so. For the good of the children.