The Montessori difference

A child-centred environment, mixed-age classes, focus on freedom and personal responsibility, and activity-based learning are among the core tenets of the Montessori educational philosophy. James Gordon explains.

Ask Montessori teachers and administrators what makes their educational strategies different from those used in traditional classroom settings, and you’ll get a lot of different answers.

Everyone, of course, acknowledges the core beliefs espoused by the originator of the philosophy — Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori — and overseen by the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators. That is, a child-centred environment, mixed-age classes, a focus on freedom and personal responsibility and tailored, activity-based learning.

But the many various aspects, benefits and outcomes of an accredited Montessori school education stand out in different ways to those who deal with them every day.

For Jonathan Robinson, principal of Kanata Montessori School, the biggest difference between a Montessori education and a traditional one is the focus on “soft skills” that transcend simple knowledge.

“When you look at hard skills, people say ‘can they add and subtract, can they read and write,’ and of course children need to know those things,” Robinson says. “But the reality is in today’s world, we have no idea what the typical 10-year-old boy or girl will be doing in 20 years. We always kidded ourselves that we did know, and maybe in the ‘40s and ‘50s that was true.

“With the world changing so much now, we have no idea of what jobs, what careers a child may have,” he explains. He argues that the educational “industry” is the only one that hasn’t changed all that much in the past 100 years.

“Montessori is the exception to that, so when we talk about soft skills, we’re talking about critical thinking, questioning; just because you read it on the Internet, does that mean it’s true?” he says. “They’re interpersonal skills, they’re reliability … actually caring for the environment. Our children actually have their own garden, for example. Those are what we consider the soft skills that are critical. Working in teams. All those sorts of things.”

That’s not to say “hard skills” are tossed by the wayside. Robinson says that, in fact, Montessori kids test, on average, a grade or two ahead of kids in the public school system. It’s just that they’re taught in a way that’s more engaging for the child.

“We believe that if children are engaged in their work, if they’re free to pursue their interests, and if they get the lessons in short bursts, they can actually do really, really well and absolutely love school and love learning,” Robinson says. “And you leverage what that child is interested in. If they’re interested in hockey or Star Wars or dinosaurs, you leverage that interest to say, ‘OK, let’s write a story about those dinosaurs and let’s do the research.”

It also involves modelling not only adult behaviour in a work environment — shaking hands during morning greetings, taking responsibility for keeping the classroom tidy, having meetings to solve conflict — but also the behaviour of fellow students.

For Katherine Poyntz, executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators, that stands out the most. Montessori classrooms have kids within an age range, rather than everyone being at the same level. A class may include, say, six- to nine-year-olds.

“This is because Montessori was a doctor, she was a scientist, and she felt that it was a learning community, and that children learned from each other and because of each other,” he explains. “There’s a lot of mentoring and role modelling with older children—it isn’t just the adults that can correct or help or soothe or even provide positive reinforcement discipline for other children.

“And that is really such a beautiful thing.”

Each Montessori school is unique. Kanata Montessori issues laptops to all Grade 7 and Grade 8 students and stays active on social media, reflecting the Ottawa high-tech community that many of its parents work in.

And Ottawa’s Bishop Hamilton Montessori School is CCMA accredited, for example, but it’s also a Christian school that integrates those teachings into its curriculum. Much in the same way Montessori schools adapt to the needs of the child, they adapt to the community as well.

Bishop Hamilton school director Renette Sasouni says it’s also key that children are encouraged and expected to take responsibility for their environment and education, which serves them well down the road.

“There’s self-directed learning and there’s ownership that has to come with that,” she says. “It’s all about making the right choices. Children learn from a young age that, if you use your time appropriately, you can move on to something bigger.

“The whole Montessori approach to education, as they get older … they’ve been exposed to such a variety of experiences, a gifted academic program, but all of those other soft skills where we’re building character and attributes, where they’re actually in an environment that is closer to what you would see in a university setting.”