Why Montessori? The broken models of traditional schools

This post forms part of a series on why we have chosen to send our children to a Montessori school. The series is a summary of Dr Angeline Lillard’s book, “Montessori: The science behind the genius,” which covers the research supporting the Montessori method.

There are two poor models which have a strong influence on how schooling is traditionally done: the school as a factory, and the child as an empty vessel.

The rise of mass schooling coincided with the age of efficiency, which resulted in schools being consciously modelled on factories. In the factory model children are the raw material being shaped into products, teachers are “mid-level managers.” This factory model resulted in a few things, such as:

  • Single aged classrooms
  • Moving between classrooms at defined intervals. This means that classes must fit a schedule, rather than following children’s learning needs – if there are too many questions either the learning (from the questions) needs to be cut short, or more needs to be squeezed into the next lesson to compensate. Other implications are that there is little or no time left over for learners to follow their interests, and if you’re engaged in something you have to stop at the end of the period and go to the next lesson with the rest of the class (e.g. a learner might be engaged in solving a hard maths problem, and then have to abruptly stop at the sound of a bell.

The empty vessel model views children as a blank slate, ready to filled by the teacher. Learners are drilled to make certain mental bonds, and well formed bonds are rewarded while poorly formed bonds are punished (this model is based in behaviourism). Along with this went Thorndike’s belief that knowledge is not transferred between different situations, leading to the teaching of disconnected facts and work examples with no real context.

Much of this continues in schools today, even though there is a growing body of research which shows there are much better models and methods. For example, rewards have been show to actually demotivate people (more on that in another post).

If the existing models are poor, why do they persist even when research shows there are better ways? Inertia, and the fact that the poor models are so deeply embedded into every aspect of traditional schooling. To change the way things work requires different models for both the school and the child, and for the system to be built up around those models.

Maria Montessori watched the children in her school closely, experimented with all aspects of the environment and work materials, and empirically discovered a system which modern research supports.

One Comment

  1. Reply
    Lisa W January 27, 2015

    Enjoyed the read, thanks Duncan.

    Jodi is just loving school and thriving. She is currently in PreK4 (age 4/5), and her school, Cayman International School, use the HighScope approach. It’s amazing reading about how things were (are still are) done and I’m so glad that Jodi’s school have adopted the HighScope approach, you can have a quick read here if you wanted to get an idea of what it’s about =) — http://www.highscope.org/Content.asp?ContentId=746

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