I’ve noticed a flashy message about Montessori education: It’s a path that will get your child ahead. This is strong messaging, especially in the early preschool years, when parents want to give children the best possible foundation. So we buy into this widespread concept of “academic head start.”
But when we frame Montessori in particular as something we do for academics, I fear we belittle what makes this path so transformational. Montessori is for “the whole child,” and I think we need to talk about this more as a Montessori community.
What does this really mean? It means that learning is not treated as a simple transfer of knowledge. It means each child’s educational path is one where they are seen in context of their individuality and role beyond “student,” but as a community member. It means that education is not limited to something we do in a classroom, but honored as the holistic experience that it is from sunrise to sunset, involving us as parents in a beautifully balanced way.
“Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.” – Maria Montessori
I chose Montessori first as a boost to my parenting when my littles were 22 months and 3 months old. I chose it again when it came time to enroll my now-preschooler in a program, and I plan to choose it again for my daughter when the time comes.
Choosing Montessori had nothing to do with perceived “academic advantage” and everything to do with wanting a path that treated learning as something holistic and unique to my children. My end-goal is not to get them ahead; it is simply to nurture a lifelong love of learning. Yet, the comments I get from well-meaning loved ones often go something like this, “Wow! Your son is probably going to be brilliant!”
Maybe. Maybe he will follow the paths of famous entrepreneurs associated with Montessori education, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, celebrity chef Julia Child, or former Washington Post owner and editor Katharine Graham. Or maybe he will define success in a much more humble way like the most of us.
Here’s the thing. Montessori is not a path to push children to do more in order to be more; it is a path that honors the potential and passion within each child. Therefore, it reveals more of the child than we would normally see because we drop our own agendas. And when we see more of the child, we unleash more possibilities.
Where the association to academic success is sometimes over-emphasized and misunderstood within Montessori circles, it is most dangerously misunderstood when it gets lumped in with today’s mainstream interpretation of “academic head start,” – which looks like pushing complex concepts on children way before they are developmentally ready.
A Washington Post article titled, “Why pushing kids to learn too much too soon is counterproductive,” sheds light on this:
“Given the nationwide push to teach children more and more complex concepts at earlier and earlier ages, you’d think that there surely must be an extensive scientific literature to support these efforts. Not only does no such data exist, but an emerging body of research indicates that attempts to accelerate intellectual development are in fact counterproductive.”
The article goes on to say that this is also potentially damaging. It concludes with two major areas that parents should address in education today: the “irrational, accelerated curriculum,” and the “one-size-fits-all assembly-line process” that groups students by age rather than ability.
With this issue in mind, it is easy to see how the impressive academic component within Montessori can be misconstrued as another outlet to get our children to do more sooner. This couldn’t be further from Montessori, though, which simply encourages children to do more for themselves – but never before they are able.
For the past century, Montessori has mastered the art of meeting children where they are in their development. This is reinforced by the fact that Montessori counters the faulty assembly-line approach and instead groups children by those valuable mixed-age communities. There are no teachers giving one-size-fits-all lessons, rather guides who cater to the unique circumstances of each child – yet still magically within the bigger context of a classroom that functions as a real community.
Whatever perceived gains we see from this cannot be minimized to some sort of early academic rigor. When we hear in Montessori context, “Education begins at birth,” we are not referencing a race to acquire skills and knowledge. We are referencing a respectful belief that the ability to learn is born naturally within life itself, and that in order to best nurture that, we must slow down and refrain our own judgments.
Knowledge is power, but self-discovery and intrinsic motivation are crucial to ensure this exchange is truly meaningful. I choose Montessori.
“Our care of the child should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” – Maria Montessori
About the Author
Jenna Wawrzyniec is a writer and Montessori-inspired mother of two children under the age of four. Her two dogs also count as children. Read more of her work at itslittlebird.com.
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