Montessori, Why Not?

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I choose a Montessori school for my son almost as an act of faith. At that time my knowledge of the method was null, besides having heard of small chairs and colored beads. But seeing my son happy day after day encouraged me to study and deepen the Montessori’s ideas. What I had discovered astonished me as a father and as a scientist. As a father, I found how children are really respected and prepared for the future. As a scientist, I found solid scientific foundations for everything Maria Montessori proposed.

And now, that my son completed his Montessori experience, I have many examples from these years to show that, I hope, could convince other parents that their fears and concerns have no reason to exist and that sending their children to a Montessori school is the best gift they can make to them.

I’m a Montessori father and I’m here today to share with you the reasons why I sent my son to a Montessori school and why I’m convinced this had been the best gift I ever had done to him.

To begin, I confess that my knowledge of Montessori was almost null, and…

…this is more or less all that I knew about Maria Montessori till few years ago: her image on the old Italian “mille lire” banknote.

But before explaining how and why I moved from total ignorance to being here speaking about Montessori ideas, let me tell you a story.

The story begins when my son Nicolò, just before 3, had to be enrolled in the kindergarten.

I and my wife agreed to take the most obvious choice that was…

…the public kindergarten two minutes walking from our house. Well, so far so good. But, …

…after a few weeks, our son started crying and didn’t want to go to school any more. Worse, I saw his enthusiasm and energy dimming day after day.

At the beginning, we were convinced they were whims. We were thinking: “He will change, he will be accustomed to the new environment…” and so on.

Unfortunately, after a few months, we discovered that his teacher was absolutely incapable of working with children and literally destroyed my son’s self-esteem and, worse, was not respecting his needs as a child.

After one humiliation too much, we took him away from the kindergarten convinced that any other choice would be better than this.

Soon we started searching for another school. At this point we were not interested at all in the pedagogical method. We wanted a school in which our son will be respected as a person.

One day my wife said: “I heard there is a Montessori school ten kilometers from home. I remember from my studies — she is a teacher — that they first of all respect children as persons”. OK, let’s go and see.

We were so amazed by what we saw: the order, the smiling children, the silence… that instantly decided to put Nicolò here.

For me this decision was an act of faith, as I say earlier that for me Montessori was only small tables and chairs, nothing more. For my wife was even worse, because she is a traditional school teacher that this way “betrayed” her working place. But the decision was right, because almost immediately…

…he flourished! We regained the child we knew.

Then, after the Children’s House, was no question to send him to the Montessori Primary School. Almost every day he returned home with incredible stories, …

…telling us: “Today I «played» with mathematics”, or…

… “Today I discovered this and that”. …

…And we heard the same stories from the parents of his classmates.

In summary, he painted a picture of his school’s experience completely different from mine. For me the school was a neutral place in which I go, do things, sit still, return home where I could do things that really interested me. Instead…

…he was happy to go to school, learned a lot and, most important, regained confidence in himself.

(He asked me to put on this slide: “Here is the happy face of every Montessori student”. It never was so true).

Well. I could just stop here. The story I presented, and many other similar experiences, should convince you that Montessori is the best gift you can make to your sons and daughters and that you can trust Montessori even if you don’t understand exactly what it means.

Don’t worry, I don’t stop here because at this point I was happy, but not satisfied…

…because I’m a scientist that works at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre in Lugano where few of the most powerful…

…supercomputers of the world are hosted. Like Piz Daint that today (September 2015) is by the power the sixth in the world and the first in Europe. …

… And where I work very often with renowned scientists.

A scientist wants to understand why. Why this school is so different from the public school? Maybe it depends on the school cost, or on the teacher? Or the area where the school is or what? So I started collecting data and fragments of ideas. But soon realized…

…that my son was pushing me into an unknown territory where there are more questions than answers. Why are these students so happy and so concentrated? How colored pearls could teach arithmetic? Why they work without computers? So…

…I started attending all the presentations organized for parents,…

…read books, especially the ones of Maria Montessori, visiting sites of Montessori schools — there are plenty of them on the web — and, more important, exposing my questions to the school’s responsible for pedagogy …

…Grazia Honegger Fresco, that soon discovered is one of the last living direct students of Maria Montessori.

Here is a photo of Grazia at twenty attending the Montessori International Congress in 1949. Besides her, I had the honor to meet wonderful persons that were students of a direct student of Maria Montessori: Luana Gigliarelli and the others in Perugia, Miss Paolini students, Donatella Pecori, Flaminia Guidi student, Costanza Buttafava, Giuliana Sorge student. Fantastic persons that have shown me, without words but with their lives, what it means to have absorbed Montessori spirit and ideas. Unfortunately, I met also teachers that have Montessori only on their diploma. Poor children!

By the way, Grazia wrote a book titled “Montessori: why not?”, full of interesting papers and testimonies, that gave me the title for this presentation.

After hearing my story, with its “happy end”, I want to show you the results of my scientific investigations. That is, why I’m convinced Montessori is the best educational idea ever.

First reason: Maria Montessori was a scientist, a real experimental scientist that…

…explored the child’s mind by observing him, not by putting forth a theory and then forcing the facts to match it. No, she observed, experimented with the materials, pondered what she had seen and only then she draws conclusions. This way, all her ideas were rooted in the reality, as every scientist should do. Yes, there are no tables of numbers, statistical tests or charts in her books, but the scientific basis of her ideas are there, only they are written in words and not in numbers. …

…But don’t forget she said: “I just started the work”, so today…

…there is a sizable number of scientists that are studying with the tools of today, Montessori’s ideas. For example Angeline Lillard that …

…validate what has been foreseen 100 years ago, …

… or the work of Professor Kevin Rathunde studying concentration in a Montessori school, …

… or in Italy Donatella Pecori that studied normalization using high speed cameras, producing impressive charts that at the end say exactly what Montessori wrote in her books with the language of the first years of the 20° century.

What really convinced me as a scientist was the perfect match between Montessori ideas and the brain functioning.

At the end of a conference in Carpi (Modena) approached me a man who works in the recovery of people with serious neurological problems. He told me: “After all the courses that I did on the human neural system and the brain functioning, I can say that Montessori works because that’s how the brain works”.

Yes, this is a strong argument to choose Montessori: “Montessori works because that’s how the brain works”.

Now I want to show you a few examples of this, because an entire conference is not sufficient to cover everything.

First example. What you see here is quite common in a Montessori school. Instead, in a traditional school the teacher surely yelled: “Return to your desk! You are wasting time and disturbing!”

But the watching girl is working hard here as a consequence of a recent neurophysiological discovery: …

…the mirror neurons. They are motor neurons that are activated when we do an action, but also when we watch the same action done by others. This means that when we watch an action we are really simulating the same action internally. …

… Here the yellow dressed child is really working and learning.

Also the presentation of a material by the teacher is conceived, with motion analysis, the slow pace and the breaks, just to facilitate the work of mirror neurons to capture and acquire a new movement.

Why children take the “length bars” this way? Shouldn’t be more comfortable to take them in the middle with one hand as to lift a suitcase? But this way their muscles and their minds learn how long is one meter, because…

… we have a hierarchy of accuracy in acquiring quantitative measures. And length is one of the most accurate. The volume, that is the weight that you perceive taking the bar with only one hand, is much less accurate. For me this is another intuition of Maria Montessori.

Here is another example. Children put numbers on a mental line that for Westerners goes from left to right. But the numbers are not uniformly distributed. The bigger ones are more squeezed, the smaller are less concentrated. The authors of this study discovered that …

… the more children are able to make uniform this line, the more they are able to remember numbers. And what do you see in a Montessori school? …

… Children that put labels on the “chain of thousands” exactly in reverse order respect to the mental line: more concentrated at the beginning, less at the end. In some sense this compensates the concentration differences, making the mental line more uniform. Is it just a coincidence? I don’t think so.

Concentration is something that shocks those who visit a Montessori school for the first time. They see children completely immersed in what they are doing, …

…something that is distilled in four lines in the writings of Maria Montessori: “The first premise for the child’s development is concentration. The child who concentrates is immensely happy.”

The same results found few years ago by Professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that studied this condition of deep concentration and called it Flow. He studied the conditions needed to enter Flow, its results and benefits.

Later, one of the Csíkszentmihályi students started studying Flow in Montessori schools and produced some very interesting works. Besides the content, in this one I found two interesting premises: one, he says he is outside the Montessori community, so his conclusions are not influenced by preconceived ideas (every scientist should do this). Second, he states that the Montessori ideas on concentration deserve a much deeper study because this is a hot theme today in psychology research.

Interesting, but, what are the conditions to establish Flow? First, to enter this state you need clear rules. And what do you find in a Montessori school? Clear rules!

Second, you need immediate and clear feedback on where you are in the chosen job. And this is exactly what the material provides you. For example, here the string length is exactly what is needed for the task, so the kid sees at a glance where he is in his work.

But the most important condition to enter Flow is that the challenge, the difficulty of the task (the red dots) should be balanced or just a little above the person’s skills.

In this way the person enters Flow and stays in the so called “flow channel” because…

…if the task is too simple, it is boring (1). If it is too complex respect to the person’s skills, it generates anxiety (2). Instead the correct balance induces Flow (3).

And what happens in a Montessori school? The teacher proposes an activity, see it is too simple, so she proposes another one that is just slightly too complex, so she proposes others activities that finally makes the kid stay in the flow channel and thus being “immensely happy”.

How the teacher arrives at this result? By carefully observing each child. In this activity the teacher is acting as a scientist, testing out hypotheses about what kind of assistance might be most helpful to this particular child or if she is ready for new challenges. It is not easy to do. It takes training to become a scientist.

Another example is given by the Executive Functions. These are a set of mental functions that help us manage new and unexpected situations. At its core these functions include: Self-control, Working memory, Cognitive flexibility, plus others, more complex ones: Planning, Reasoning, Problem-solving.

The psychologist Adele Diamond has published a study in Science comparing some educational methods in terms of how they help the development of Executive Functions. Nothing to say, Montessori comes out with flying colors from this study because it has many activities especially targeted to the Executive Functions development. For example: limitation of materials, silence game, walking on the line, math activities, memory games, all practical life and many, many more.

From these few examples you should be convinced, as I was, that “Montessori works because that’s how the brain works”. And this alone makes me happy about having chosen the Montessori School. But feel the wonder that shines through the words of an expert. …

…Dr. Steven Hughes, President of the American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology and in charge of the AMI Research department, said in an interview: “Maria Montessori really got everything right… She anticipated so much of what we know about neuroscience, brain development, and optimum models of education”.

But there is a much more important reason to choose a Montessori school. …

… In the words of Maria Montessori: “Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us because of their innocence and the broader possibilities of their future” (from “The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the Children’s Houses”). This respect comes before the materials, before the school routine, before the presentations. It is respecting the times of the child, his aspirations and desires by guiding him, not training him. This is the reason why the Montessori’s ideas are relevant, not the techniques.

I found all this intelligently summarized in what a parent once said: “Montessori is an attitude, not a type of school”.

Yes, the parents. They — and I — have doubts as they often don’t understand what happens in the Montessori school. I, as a parent, tried to help my colleagues and discovered one interesting fact: all parents have exactly the same set of concerns. For this reason…

…I collected a few of them and, with the help of Grazia Honegger Fresco, tried to give an answer. You can find this collection on my site in Italian and English. So here I try to cover the most popular ones.

First concern: What happens after the Montessori school?


My son even thrived the first two years due to the preparation given him by the Montessori school.

Nothing happens because the children have been trained to exercise responsible free choice since childhood and so they are stronger and more aware of their environment. They have acquired a sense of responsibility in the way of working and acting with others, the ability to regulate by themselves, to criticize and cooperate.

On the other hand, in the last year of the Primary Montessori School the teachers try to prepare them to cope with the diversity that awaits them: the system of votes, competitions, tests and especially the inability to choose. To achieve this, in the Montessori school it is essential to strengthen the children, making them live in a non-anxiety-provoking, non-judgmental and non-competitive environment at least in the early years.

Second concern: Is the Montessori school producing children who do not live in the real world? And related to this the “brilliant” idea: I think children need competitiveness and the frustrations of the world that awaits them.

As a Montessori teacher said: “«Public school is the real world» is one of the most ignorant things I have ever heard. It’s real if you’re gonna work in a cubicle the rest of your life, that’s about it”. The real “Real life” needs other skills: cooperation, creativity, imagination, communication. Not frustration. If you want to see where the “brilliant” idea takes you and if you want to become depressed by the sore status of education (at least in the USA) read…

…the article by Alfie Kohn titled: “Getting Hit on the Head Lessons”.

The title comes from an old Monty Python sketch in which the teacher hit the student head with a big hammer. When the student recoils and cries out, the instructor says: “No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go, ‘Waaah!’ Try it again” — and gives him another smack. Exactly as do people that ask for more frustration at school!

The thesis of the article was precisely this: politicians and planners justify bad educational practices as a preparation for more of the same.

Another concern: Montessori seems old and did not follow new technologies. Its materials are not abreast of the times, they are old and do not evolve.

Before answering this concern, ask yourself the real, fundamental question: what we want our children become? Do we want button-pushers that use technology, but don’t know it?

Then consider that a tablet in the classroom does not make a school digital. An interactive whiteboard (IWB) in a classroom does not make by itself a school modern when used for traditional lectures. Consider instead that, for example, the developers of the latest smartphone applications use paper, pens and Post-it to design them. It’s not the technology that makes it a school modern, what makes it so are the ideas and principles that the school embodies.

For example, at my son’s school there was a computer, but the children queued to use this old mechanical typewriter. Why? Maybe because they see what happens, when they push a key. Again is not technology that matters, but what satisfies their curiosity.

My colleague John has never seen live a Francis turbine like this. Yet he had to imagine it and manipulate it in his mind to find the best representation of the water motion that could help the scientists understand where and how vortex forms in the turbine drain.

Or my chemistry visualization in which I can only manipulate representations of the molecules behind a glass screen. But this manipulation still needs my ability to handle these models in my mind.

In both cases we are able to manipulate objects in the mind if we are able to manipulate physical objects in real space. And what could be better for learning this than “puzzle maps” at the Montessori school? And there is a reason why this works.

The famous psychological test by Eliot and Smith has determined that we rotate mental representations as if they were physical objects. How they have realized this? The test consists in finding which item of the bottom row corresponds to the top one and the time it takes to determine whether a couple is formed by the same object is proportional to the angle that exists between the two objects. That is, we rotate in the brain one object to match the other as they were physical objects. (In the stated problem, the upper configuration corresponds to object B).

Very simple technology, but the child learns how to formulate the right questions. Today is simpler to obtain answers than to pose interesting questions.

Again, this is another example that shows how Montessori schools prepare children for the future by focusing on the really important skills.

Another concern: in the Montessori school children do whatever they want?

The willingness of a child to be active, to work intensely is closely related to being able to make free choices among the many offerings on display in the environment, without the adult telling him what to do.

In addition, the child or the boy, along with free choice, also takes responsibility for the materials’ use. These should not be spoiled, they should be put back in place at the end and should be used in a congruent manner. Few rules, but rigorously followed with responsibility.

This responsibility is not just the “do what I want” in the usual, ambiguous and arrogant, sense of the phrase.

A Montessori student once said: “Here we do not do what we want, we want what we do!” Nice and clear summary.

The last concern is perhaps a misplaced expectation: will the Montessori school make my son a genius? Could be, but this is not the goal of the school because, …

… as Maria Montessori said: “The primary goal of Montessori education is to prepare the whole child to reach his full potential in all areas of life”.

Even the famous montessorians put the focus in the right place. One of them, the video game pioneer Will Wright, says Montessori was the “imagination amplifier” that prepared him for creating The Sims, Sim City, Spore and Super Mario Brothers. “SimCity comes right out of Montessori… It’s all about learning on your own terms”.

I hope you are now convinced parents (or teachers). I bet your first question will be: “What can I do to know better this Montessori world?”

First of all, observe. Go to a Montessori school and see what they do, as these mothers of the first Montessori Children’s House did from the garden fence. Ask to go to the school and observe without disturbing or speak.

Exchange experiences with other parents. I found really interesting this book that exposes the experience of a father that found, after various problems, the Montessori school.

On the web there is even a short movie taken from this book to present the Montessori core ideas.

What else can you do?

Go to the presentations of material or various aspects of Montessori organized for the parents. In Brescia (Italy) the local association even organized a “Parent’s school”.

Then check the teachers as the Secret Service does if you have to start to work in some sensible place! Your son is much more valuable than a “Top Secret” dossier. If the teachers have not absorbed Montessori, they could wreak havoc on your son’s development. I don’t speak of technical experience, I speak of their ability to put the child at the center.

And, last but not least, the atmosphere at home. If the child is not respected at home as she is at school, half of the Montessori’s benefits vanish. I’m not speaking of big issues or shameful situations. Think about cutting the meat in your child’s plate when she wants to do by herself as she does at school.

Is it clear?

As I said before: “Montessori is an attitude, not a type of school”. Because it is “simply” revolutionizing adults-children relationship. Nothing less. And good, well prepared teachers help and guide this revolution with the cooperation of you, the parents.

We are ready to finish now. I hope to have succeeded to transmit at least part of my enthusiasm in a way that urges you to …

… change the “Montessori: why not?” question to a…

…resounding “Montessori: yes!” Because this is the best gift you can give to your sons and daughters. And to yourself.


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