What is Montessori Education?

Xavier Jesuit School currently uses Montessori blended curriculum K1-G3 (age group: 3-9). Montessori is an educational philosophy that can apply to children of any age, gender, culture and social contexts. It was espoused and popularized by an Italian Physician, Dr. Maria Montessori in the early 1900s. She developed the Montessori Pedagogy to help all children reach their fullest potential at their own pace. Montessori focuses on the nature of children and adolescents as learners: “how they think, what they experience, how their brains work, how developmental characteristics change over time, how the innate human intelligence of language and mathematical thinking unfold, what the connection is between the hand, the brain and language, how a fundamental need for choice makes the difference in engagement, how freedom of expression and creativity unleash human potential, how social interaction is a developmental human right, how purposeful work, freedom of movement, and time to explore, think and reflect promote lifetime joy in learning” (AMTI).

First, the dignity of the human person; every child, every man and every woman is valuable and worthy. While all humans can make the wrong decision sometimes, this does not diminish their value. Dr. Maria Montessori points to the essential conviction of all children’s value and worthiness even when they are merely behaving as children. She states that we must have faith that child who is not yet there in front of us will reveal himself one day to us.  Furthermore, Montessori asks the adult to engage in self-reflective practices to ensure that this simple but deep truth of human dignity informs our outlook, words and actions during all instruction.

Second, Montessori education is fully hands-on learning. In alignment with Teilhard de Chardin, Montessori recognized that humans have a special role in collaborating with creation and she observes that the human hand makes this possible. No other species has the gift of the hand; which Montessori calls the instrument of intelligence. Our hands allow us to manifest our uniquely human endowments: ability to create, reason and love. Utilizing our imagination, free will and rational mind, we use our hands to lead purposeful lives full of contentment and joy.

Finally, the Montessori philosophy grounds this purposeful activity in relationship. We all belong to a community whether as intimate as a family or as extensive as a culture. We each have the potential to ameliorate our community and work for what Montessori calls “a new humanity.” Thus, Montessori education is based on human flourishing and educating the whole person – the head, the hand and the heart.

Given this philosophical foundation of human development, Montessori pedagogy springs forth from three fundamentals: freedom which comes with limits and is proportionate to personal and communal responsibility, choice or interest-driven activity and finally, independence and personal autonomy. Freedom, choice and independence are possible when we have a specially ‘prepared environment’ (the Montessori term for ‘a classroom’) furnished with Montessori materials, marked by a community culture of respect and collaboration rather than competition, and where instruction is grounded in self-construction and intrinsic motivation. Within this ‘prepared environment,’ instruction becomes highly individualized; most subjects are integrated and available at all time as hands-on activities. In the primary and elementary grades, all areas of teaching come from one Montessori teacher and the work cycle of lessons and follow up practice lasts about three hours at a time.  The Montessori classroom has a multi-age span of three years so the children often support each other in this student-centered learning environment. We often see the Montessori trained adult frequently sitting on the floor giving lessons in small groups as the other students work independently or in small groups teaching and learning from each other. Lastly, the multi-age classroom underscores the dignity of the children who struggle with learning and/or may not be at “grade-level.” This ‘gap’ is rendered nearly invisible thereby allowing them to flourish at their pace and normalizing their unique needs. In Liberia, given the tumultuous 20-year history of political and public health struggles, the range of children’s abilities vary widely thus making multi-age settings particularly applicable here and now.