Inside the Montessori Classroom

Many of us have at least a vague idea of what Montessori education is about and that Maria Montessori was an expert in child development and education, but some of us—even parents of Montessori-educated kids—still have questions. Or, maybe you have tried to explain Montessori education to curious friends and family members and have been met with blank stares or frank puzzlement in return.

colorful materials and inviting tableaux comprise a TNCS class layout

The Montessori classroom invites and inspires

In this post, we’ll compare a Montessori classroom to a traditional one to characterize The New Century School educational experience and gain some insight into how the classroom works, why Montessori students love learning, and why the Montessori method is so wonderful for our kids. In fact, despite obstacles (e.g., budgetary, legislative), the U.S. public educational system has begun to show the Montessori influence here and there, as educators wake up to the fact that students graduate from school and are at loose ends for how to live enriched, fulfilling lives. The traditional model has certain shortcomings that the Montessori education inherently prevents. (However, this discussion is not intended to belittle traditional education, only to investigate how Montessori can enhance learning for many by virtue of a radically different approach.)

children work independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning primary Montessori classroom

Children working independently and in groups in the smoothly functioning Montessori classroom

At TNCS, pre-primary classes (ages 2–3 years) follow the classic Montessori model; primary and elementary classrooms (ages 3–5 years and 5 years and up, respectively) use a Montessori-based approach. Classes comprise mixed age groups quite deliberately, and this is the first big difference between Montessori and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in Montessori education is that older children assist younger ones and that younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element in Montessori education is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for 3 years, developing trusting, long-term bonds. The teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.

practical life materials teach kids everything from proper handwashing to garment buttoning

Practical Life materials

Another difference an observer would note immediately on entering a Montessori classroom is the room itself. Students are not seated in rows facing a teacher who is lecturing at a chalkboard as in a traditional classroom. Rather, individuals or small groups either completely independently or with the aid of the teacher are each engaged in separate activities that they have voluntarily chosen. They might be seated at small work tables or kneeling on rugs as they go about their tasks, which vary from sensorial (such as tracing sandpaper letters with their fingers) and practical-life activities (such as practicing folding towels) in the pre-primary and primary classrooms to working at computer stations at the elementary level. The point here is that students be inspired to learn by engaging in what draws them instead of required to sit passively and be lectured to. Not only will the consequent learning be deeper and richer, but the student will look forward to learning as the natural extension of his or her innate curiosity. School should not be something our kids dread, after all!

having completed work with the number rods, this child surveys his work before putting away the materials

A child in the Primary classroom works intently on the number rods

More importantly, this room for individual concentration and focus is the hallmark of Montessori education. It fulfills the child and allows him or her to become the person who intrinsically wants to help others and to make a difference in the world. Although it’s easy to imagine that a classroom full of kids each doing what he or she individually wants would be chaotic and noisy (a very common misconception), the complete opposite is true. TNCS classrooms are warm and peaceful places. The children are engaged in their work, and the atmosphere is one of pleasant, purposeful exploration. It goes without saying that passive, rote memorization–based learning has no place here. Learning is a dynamic, absorbing experience. It’s truly a marvel to see the self-discipline TNCS kids exhibit as they go about their daily work.

Yet another difference is the breadth of the classroom. TNCS extends the classroom to encompass the surrounding neighborhoods, fostering a sense of community and instilling the importance of community involvement—“our extended campus is the city.” And, for that matter, the world. TNCS has a very diverse student body, and students are encouraged to share their culture, promoting mutual respect and a broad, global perspective. Getting outside and seeing what’s going on around the school is a regular part of TNCS curriculum.

A final difference to be discussed here (though there are many more) is in the approach to “success.” AT TNCS, the product of the work done is not the focus; rather, the doing of the work is what’s important. Making mistakes and having another try is all part of the process. Students learn to relish the endeavor, of trying over and over, instead of being afraid to make those mistakes: “They welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again.” (This hearkens back to an earlier post on “grit”; see “Getting the Education Nitty Gritty” in Recent Posts, top right.) This also touches on another concept fundamental to the Montessori classroom—work cycles. Although Montessori methods are often criticized for not allowing imaginative “play” and focusing all on “work,” children do not make this distinction. If they are doing what they themselves have chosen to be doing, it follows that they will be enjoying it. The work cycle, though, by having a beginning (choose work), a middle (do the work), and an end (put away the work), additionally teaches them commitment, focus, and persistence. The rhythm of the work cycle has applications in all areas of daily life, not just in the classroom.

In The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori wrote, “The child is endowed with unknown powers, which can guide us to a radiant future. If what we really want is a new world, then education must take as its aim the development of these hidden possibilities.” And this sums up the difference between a Montessori and a traditional classroom best. All too commonly, the traditional classroom, even at its pinnacle, can do no better than produce test-takers, albeit skillful ones; the Montessori classroom, by contrast, yields happy, inquisitive, well-rounded citizens of humanity.*

playing on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall dayplaying on the geodome on a beautiful, sunny fall day

For more information, including articles and videos, visit The Montessori Foundation’s website. And, find some hard data on the learning experience delivered by traditional versus Montessori approaches here.

*You want proof, you say? Consider this illustrious list of well-known folks, from silicon valley entrepreneurs to great chefs to princes, who were either Montessori educated or educators, and see for yourself!