Misconceptions About Montessori

It’s pretty common to hear lots of misconceptions when talking to people about Montessori. Maybe their brother’s mail carrier’s aunt’s stepsister said that in Montessori schools, kids run wild! Maybe they just have a tendency to reject any idea that is a little bit “outside-the-box”. Whatever the case, I like to view those comments as teachable moments for me and the person making them.

For instance, one woman I know told me recently that her college textbooks (an infallible authority!) said that Montessori was dangerous because kids worked mostly independently, and because Maria Montessori discouraged creativity. I have to confess, I bit my cheek to keep from laughing. She gave an example of a Montessori 3-6 preschool class that she once observed where the children worked mostly alone without talking.

To this woman, herself a traditional preschool teacher, it seemed like the very reasons for attending preschool – socialization, communication, play – were missing. What, then would be the point of Montessori? From her perspective, I can see how it would be puzzling.

I began to explain to her that that the difference between Montessori and traditional preschool went deeper than what you see on the surface. At first glance, it’s easy to sum up traditional preschool as “children playing together” and Montessori as “children working alone”. Is that all that’s happening?

The true differences are not outwardly observable; they are philosophical, and can only be discovered by asking, “Why are the children in traditional preschool playing?” and “Why are the children in Montessori working independently?” That gets to the heart of the matter.

In Montessori we begin with the Tendencies of Man (or of Humans, as I like to say). These tendencies are dispositions towards certain actions – forces that will operate unless they are deliberately stopped. I hope to write an article on them at some point, because they deserve a detailed look, but for now I will list them. As you read – whether they are new to you or you’ve heard about them many times – let them resonate with your own observations of children from infancy to adulthood:

  • Orientation (to forge a relationship to the environment)
  • Order (brings predictability and security)
  • Exploration (using the senses to make discoveries)
  • Communication (includes touch, gestures, written & spoken word, art & music)
  • Activity (the body expresses the thoughts of the mind)
  • Manipulation (taking ownership of the environment by doing)
  • Work (work helps us feel worthwhile)
  • Repetition (to achieve control and mastery)
  • Exactness (to clarify knowledge)
  • Abstraction (visualize something that does not yet exist)
  • Perfection (what we can achieve after moving through the other tendencies)

For young children, the best way – maybe the only way – to fulfill most of these tendencies is to work alone. Indeed, you can only be sure that you have mastered a task by doing it completely alone. Otherwise there is always the other person to take into account, and how can you know how much of it was their doing?

Children in a Montessori classroom are moving through these tendencies day by day, and doing so requires an enormous amount of concentration. Naturally it is easiest to concentrate when working independently. There’s nothing wrong with play – and all children should – but play alone doesn’t lead a child from orientation to perfection. There’s more to it than that.

Imagine that a child is given the chance to work towards order, repetition, exactness, and perfection. Will this child be an automaton, devoid of creativity? By no means! Such a solid foundation of learning will lead to an enormous amount of creativity. But the foundation must be there first. My son, if I may use him as an example, is one of the most creative kids I’ve ever met. From the very beginning, he has been encouraged to take hold of his environment, labeling and classifying everything he sees. Rather than stifling his creativity, it’s been encouraged because he has so much information at his fingertips.

Why, then, are the children in a traditional preschool playing? Do they lack the desire to fulfill the Tendencies of Humans? Not at all! They are reacting to their environment, which is mostly filled with toys, crafts, and games. Again, nothing is wrong with toys, crafts, and games, but they are not the tools needed for the refinement of the senses and mastery of the environment. In one famous example, a Montessori directress (Paula Polk Lillard) put out a box of toys in her classroom every year, and every year the toys went virtually untouched as the children pursued the Montessori materials.

At Montessori for All you’ll find some common misconceptions about Montessori, and answers for each one. The better informed we are, the better we can explain why we do what we do!