This allegory captures the fundamental difference between a Montessori education and others. Our first premise is that children enter this world with a powerful drive to learn and to be productive. Techniques that focus learning on external rewards (gold stars, reading for pizza) or on beating others (class rank) are designed, we believe, to "motivate" young people to do what they’re born wanting to do—well-intentioned "motivation" that drains students’ efforts of self-direction and intrinsic satisfaction. Overt focus on testing repositions learning (worthy in itself) as a means to an end—a slippery slope in our view. When learning becomes predominantly a means to test scores, and test scores a means to college placement, and college placement a means to good employment, life itself is reduced from something worth living to a series of pressured prerequisites.
Our second premise: Montessori sees learning as active, not passive. We view children as competent beings capable of self-directed discovery. Students start with hands-on tools and progress through exercises that rely on active experience more than on textbooks. Teachers are guides, gently opening a path before young people as they achieve greater competency and responsibility. We focus on the whole personality, so you’re as likely to see a Montessori pre-schooler learning grace and courtesy as learning the alphabet; middle schoolers analyzing literature and working in soup kitchens. In the classroom, students move from activity to activity—both independently and in groups—rather than sitting still to face a teacher. (This is consistent with psychologists’ understanding of the powerful link between physical movement and cognition, and stands in sharp contrast to students’ traditional seated-at-a-desk pose.) Teachers move around too, observing, guiding, facilitating—asking questions far more often than providing answers.
Montessori classrooms are very different from traditional classrooms in several important ways:
They are places of beauty, simplicity and order. In Primary and Infant Community classes, you won’t see the clutter of whimsically-designed plastic implements so often associated with young children, but instead handsome, well made objects of wood, glass, fabric (and children using them skillfully). In the Elementary and Middle School classes, order and discipline are evident in collectively cared-for surroundings, and in the self-control of students who are well on their way to becoming their own masters.
They are busy places. Montessori and developmental psychologists agree: people learn by doing. (Try teaching a child to tie her shoes by talking to her.) So, in contrast to classrooms where learning’s derived from texts and lectures, a Montessori classroom features materials specifically designed to make abstract concepts real. A 3-year-old gains visceral understanding of 62 by counting six strings of six golden beads each, then bending the strings into a square—a practical, comfortable foundation for increasingly complex mathematics later. The time-honored Montessori guideline is "Never give more to the mind than you give to the hand", and we’ve seen that knowledge so built is not forgotten.
Each class is a diverse, multi-age group. You’re likely to see students from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (Post Oak’s student body represents more than 53 nations). Each class group spans three years, so you will see 3-year- old and 6-year-old students inhabiting the same classroom—the younger children learning from their peers, the older children learning to guide others, each child gaining valuable life skills from time spent at both ends of the spectrum.
The bell never rings. Each Montessori classroom, from the Infant Community up, is designed to support individuals working alone in long periods of focused concentration. There’s no unnecessary interruption, and (surprising to some) no unnecessary help. Letting children choose their own work and do it at their own pace liberates the class from advancing lockstep through a pre-set curriculum in one-hour sessions (too short, researchers agree, for deep engagement). Students stay with one teacher for three years, further enriching important bonds. The cultivation of "undivided interests" is one of the most striking differences between Montessori and traditional educational methods.
Knowledge is de-centralized. In a primary classroom, you might overhear a teacher gently decline to answer a question, encouraging a child instead to seek answers from his peers (fostering not only a collaborative community but a resourceful child!). Listening in on a middle school group discussion, you might hear the group-appointed "chair" keeping the conversation on track. The teacher’s role is not to dispense knowledge and enforce discipline, but rather to guide students in learning to cultivate both for themselves.
The Big Questions are on the table. Young minds aren’t divided neatly into subjects, and neither is the world. So Montessori begins early on to present the whole universe as a context for students’ growing knowledge. What we call the five Great Lessons are stories formally presented to students entering lower elementary school, about age six. Starting with The Creation of the Universe and the Coming into Being of the Earth and ending with The Story of Numbers, these lessons are driven by the questions that have inspired awe and wonder in people since the beginning of time.
Students are cultivating many kinds of smart. We all know it: people that know how to "get along" go further in life. According to the Harvard Business Review, they go further in business, too. In fact, emotional intelligence is widely agreed to be at least as important as IQ and education in defining a leader. And emotional intelligence is seeded in childhood. Its cornerstones (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and people-skills) are as much a part of Montessori curriculum as reading, math and science; they are the DNA of the Montessori method.
No one’s studying for a test. Educators and psychologists agree that if we want to find out what people know, examining them in artificial ways in artificial settings is a poor way to find out. Yet traditional education remains intensely focused on doing just that, to the detriment of real learning. Grades and tests are not the way Post Oak students (and teachers) measure competencies. Our teachers don’t "teach to test", and our students are correspondingly free to learn rather than to prepare. It’s not that we don’t issue standardized tests—we do. (Interestingly, Montessori and specifically Post Oak students are shown to have performed very well when those tests are scored.) But we hold our students to different (non-numerical) standards for success, and our teachers to clearer ways of measuring the skills that matter most.
Cooperation is designed in. Montessori classrooms are created with a unique focus on the individual student. At the same time, each is a cooperative—a consciously-designed community where young people jointly maintain their environment, work together in problem-solving teams, and govern themselves appropriately for their developmental stage. We strongly believe that academic competition (by way of peer comparison) has no place in this setting. It replaces personal interest and intrinsic motivation with outwardly-focused striving, and discourages students from exploring and taking risks. It sabatoges the community by positioning peers as opponents rather than collaborators. And it posits knowledge as something to be gained at another’s expense—an notion increasingly at odds with the way the world works.
It’s worth saying twice: cooperation is designed in. The smallest Montessori children begin their education with lessons in Grace and Courtesy—lessons that teach them how to make life comfortable for others. They learn from experience that responsibility is reciprocal. They come to value cooperation, not because teachers say it’s important but because it’s how they’ve learned to engage the world. They’re grounded in the knowledge that each of them is unique and at the same time a functioning part of the whole. And that knowledge, we believe, is the beginning of wisdom.