The Montessori Method for Adults

A reader sent me an email today wondering it there is any research about using Montessori for adults. Great topic! I’m just going to brainstorm here, and we’ll see what happens.

First: what did Maria Montessori think of adults and how they learn? We already know about the learning cycles most evident in ages 0-6 and 6-12: the 0-6 period is a time of intense internal growth and the 6-12 period is a time of reaching out and learning about the outside world. Montessori believed that those two types of growth periods repeated over and over again throughout a person’s life. If you look for those patterns in your own life, you can usually find them.

Another observation is that adults often seek out “hands-on” hobbies and tasks just like kids do. Someone who wants to unwind after a long day at the office may put together a model airplane or knit a sweater. Older people, particularly, want to return to the earth by gardening or building with wood. This tactile stimulation satisfies a need in adults just like it does in children. There is satisfaction in work, exploration, mastery, repetition, and perfection.

Should Montessori principles be used with adults? This is another question entirely. There are companies that use Montessori principles (or at least what they think are Montessori principles) to design their workplaces. Certainly companies like Google, which have free-flowing office spaces, creative toys available for employees, and non-linear organizational structures end up being some of the most creative companies out there (and it probably isn’t a coincidence that Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both attended Montessori schools as children).

But should Montessori methods and materials be used in adult education? My personal opinion is that it’s not always effective. The reason is that the goal of adult education is different from that of child education. The child is constructing the adult; the adult is adding to an already-existing completed personality. The difference between these goals should not be underestimated.

One great example is the Montessori training. Sure, during the training we had plenty of time spent in hands-on experience with the materials. It was much easier to learn to present the checkerboard by trying it ourselves rather than reading about it or watching someone else do it. But when it came to theory, lectures were the best way for us to learn. We didn’t need nomenclature cards for the tendencies of humans, or impressionistic charts to understand the balance of liberty and discipline. Again, we were adding to our body of knowledge, not refining our senses the way a child does.

One place that Montessori materials and methods can be used with adults is for rehabilitation. In cases of stroke or dementia, the adult is now reconstructing the person just a like a child constructs his initially. Even then, the actual Montessori materials may or may not be used; the therapy may simply be conducted in a Montessori-style manner.

I don’t know of any definitive studies showing that Montessori works (or doesn’t work) with adults. Most definitely the principles of respect and self-directed learning, and hands-on activities last a lifetime. Whether Montessori-style learning materials are needed for adults is doubtful. Perhaps some of you have experience with this?

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16 Responses to “The Montessori Method for Adults”

  • Kim at Montessori House said at March 14th, 2007 at 11:52 pm :

    Since my elderly mother has needed help, I noticed that organizing her living space using Montessori concepts has worked very well. I stripped out all the non-essentials that could create confusion — figurines on the windows that she knocked down opening the windows, duplicate products were narrowed down to one shampoo bottle and one bar of soap, and so forth.

    Everything now has a special place. A drawer for this and a shelf for that…it has dramatically changed her ability to navigate the house without frustration.

    I have also pared down my dialog when explaining new medications or activities. Hmm, what else? Mom is much happier when she can do things on her own, so I focus on helping her do that instead of doing things for her!

  • montessori_lori said at March 15th, 2007 at 7:11 am :

    That’s a fantastic idea, Hanya! I think things would be easier for both young and old if more people simplified their lives.

    I’ve read that children who grow up in an organized home are more likely to be organized as adults, so I try to keep things really neat.

  • Melissa said at March 27th, 2011 at 6:23 am :

    We are starting an adult basic education program using Montessori techniques this summer (2011).
    The research shows that most people who drop out of school have some type of learning disability – though many are not diagnosed until they are older. Since Montessori developed her methods on children with learning disabilities, we expect that the students will make faster gains with this approach. I am a trained Montessori teacher. I currently work in a public library. Since our local school corporation has decided not to continue providing adult education, GED or ESL classes, the library has joined a consortium with Work One, Vincennes University and the Literacy Center to create a seamless adult education system.

  • Lori Bourne said at March 27th, 2011 at 7:32 am :

    Wow, that sounds like a great idea, Melissa! I hope more places start programs like yours. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Laura said at January 11th, 2013 at 1:50 pm :

    Dear Melissa, I’m a language teacher from Italy and my Institute is involved in a LLP programme (from the EU Community – Bruxelles) called MMLT – Montessori Methodology for language training. The partnership’s aim is to verify the possibility to apply Montessori method to adults (+16) for languages. We are now doing the Research which will be followed by the drafting of a Manual. I read your post dated March 27th 2011 and I would like to now the outcomes of your experience. Please contact me, I couldnt’ find your e-mail address. Thanks

  • Melissa Davis said at April 18th, 2013 at 7:21 am :

    Hello Laura,

    My email address is melissad@evpl.org
    I would love to talk to you about our adult Montessori experience.
    We are presenting at an Adult Education Conference next week.

    Melissa

  • Michael said at April 19th, 2013 at 3:47 am :

    Hi Melissa.
    I’ve been wondering how this might apply to adults who didn’t form properly. My own experience was as a dyslexic who was un-diagnosed in 50′s & 60′s. Its left its mark as I know many others have found too. I know from latest thinking that our memories and old patterns can be changed with talking therapies, NLP and Hypnotherapy. Is it possible to apply Montessori in some way to help reconstruct a healthy adult who has been through the troma of a distorted school experience? Maybe a question for your conference. Thanks

  • Lou Duckwall said at April 20th, 2013 at 6:13 am :

    Hello Lori and/or Melissa,

    I am thinking about applying Montessori methods (which I do not know) in my teaching of Sunday School classes…my “students” are adults of all ages, and at varying levels of spiritual development — from “baby Christians” to mature Christians seeking life-long learning…preferred learning methods vary widely — I have hands-on eager learners, and skeptical deep researchers, all in the same class of up to 20 students.

    My primary interest is in making Sunday school FUN…would you say that Montessori learning is more FUN than traditional methods? I already try to be more of an engager than a lecturer…My vision is an hour of Sunday School where the class can group in ways that best fit their learning method, their Spiritual gifts, and their Spiritual pathways — the way in which we most effectively connect with God…

    What do you think?

    Lou

  • Lori Bourne said at April 20th, 2013 at 7:31 am :

    Hi, Lou! There are two Montessori-based curriula for Sunday School – a Protestant one called “Godly Play” and a Catholic based one called “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd”. You can find info about each by Googling them.

    That said, you don’t have to use Montessori materials (or hands-on materials) for it to be Montessori-minded. If, in your class, the primary vehicles of teaching are large-group lecture and small-group discussion (the way my church does it), it can still be “Montessori” if you respect where everyone is at, follow the lead of the group when it comes to discussion, let everyone mature at their own pace.

    Basically, use the philosophy of Montessori rather than try to use materials. If you do use materials, I would suggest something simple, like if you are talking about God shaping us the way a potter shapes clay, give everyone a small container of play-doh. I would not make it super complicated or introduce a lot of materials.

    I would also not have the majority of the time used for hands-on exploration over lecture or discussion. There are certain things that can be reinforced by hands-on activities but not necessarily inferred from them, if that makes sense. I would have the hands-on activities reinforce the lesson, but not BE the lesson.

    At our church there is a hands-on activity (related to the lesson) for the kids to use for the first 15 minutes of class, then we leave that and it moves to a large-group lesson time and then a small group discussion. It seems to work really well.

    I don’t think that Montessori is more “fun” than other learning methods, although that depends on how people define “fun”, which can vary. Montessori is certainly more deeply satisfying than other methods, because of the way it engages the learner and allows for freedom in learning.

  • Melissa said at April 23rd, 2013 at 5:06 pm :

    Yes, I think it could be more fun, because it is engaging in different ways. I used the approach in a children’s bible class. For example, we were talking about the Walls of Jericho and how the army marched around them. I had the children pretend to be the soldiers and march around the room and them stop. We did it again and again. Before the proverbial walls fell, we talked about how they felt. Some felt silly, others said they were bored because they had to keep doing the same thing. Then we talked about how the soldiers might have felt – maybe embarrased since they were supposed to be fighting a battle instead of marching in circles. When the walls fell, do you think the soldiers were surprised? We talked people who lived in the walls and looked at different perspectives.

    I think it is a different way to engage adults and make them think about things they had not thought about before.

  • Melissa said at April 23rd, 2013 at 5:25 pm :

    Hello Michael,

    You sound very much like many of the students in our Montessori Adult Education class. In construction, you cannot build a skyscraper without a solid foundation. In education, you may have to go back to make sure the foundation is solid before you can build on it. Some of our students cannot read, others have trouble with reading comprehension, some don’t know the multiplication tables, some don’t understand fractions or decimals, and some do know how to create a paragraph. I have personally have difficulty with spelling. Everyone has learning challenges, but everyone also have strengths. When you share those strengths and challenges, the become easier. The students help each other and there . I would say the biggest challenge most of our students face is they do not think they can do it. They have been told so long that they can’t do this or that and they have come to believe it.

    One of my students who came to us last year saying “I can’t learn math and I cannot write”. This week, she told “I am smart.” I already knew that, but she did not. Humans are complicated beings and we are very resilient.

  • Michael said at April 24th, 2013 at 1:14 am :

    Thanks Melissa.

    I managed to overcome many practical things around dyslexia, maths spelling writing. I’m now approaching retirement and still feel I’m missing out on my natural gifts. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to fit in and now I need to be “me” but struggle with what that means from a practical creative point of view. I’m a “jack of all trades master of none” person. I’ve been wondering if an adult montessory approach would help me find my true creative gifts. I’m imagining something like a weeks break where one could try all sorts of things, with guidance, and come out with a sense of what to run with…….. back to a sense of play and fun!

  • Melissa said at April 29th, 2013 at 5:22 pm :

    Michael,

    It sounds like you might enjoy other hands on programs – that are not necessarily associated with Montessori. Our library is doing a program called “learn 100 things at the library” in honor of our 100 th anniversary. You may discover something you would love to do. A lot of libraries have free programs. Also, as you reach retirement age, many universities offer free or low cost classes including art, music or whatever you enjoy. You might also think about volunteering to help others with dyslexia. You can relate to what they are going through.

    Melissa

  • Michael said at May 8th, 2013 at 3:30 am :

    Thanks Melissa. Very helpful on the courses front and I have had some contact with our local university dyslexic team and have been wondering if I could help. I needed a nudge!

    Michael

  • Renae said at February 6th, 2014 at 9:36 pm :

    Hi Melissa,

    I am 19 years old and I have been struggling to live a normal life even though I have a high IQ. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia 3 years ago, and I have just discovered that I have Sensory Processing Disorder (the overstimulation kind). I have been researching Montessori and I think it sounds great. I wonder whether it could help me (as an adult) to develop my sensory, cognitive and motor skills (which are somewhat lacking). I saw your post about a Montessori class for adults with learning disabilities, and I was wondering if you could tell me how successful the program was?

    Regards, Renae

  • Lori Bourne said at February 6th, 2014 at 10:12 pm :

    Hi, Renee! I didn’t notice that you were asking Melissa, not me :) Melissa left her email address in an earlier comment, please contact her directly for info about her adult Montessori program. Thanks!

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