"Montessori" can mean a lot of things: the Montessori Method, Dr. Montessori, a philosophy of parenting, of teaching, of life, the materials we use in the classroom... this is a complicated philosophy that's far more than just a curricular package. In brief, Montessori is a philosophy of education that believes that children are born with certain intrinsic qualities that, if protected and supported through carefully prepared, responsive environments, will persist into adulthood and ultimately change our society for the better.
But specifically? What about all those special words? Here's a cheat sheet:
The Montessori Method is a model of education that is comprised of multiage classrooms matched to specific qualities of children's development within which teachers practice the norms of scientific inquiry to prepare materials and lessons responsive to the observed, evidence-based developmental needs of the individual child.
Montessori as a philosophy expands beyond the classroom, to include parenting, social structures, community engagement and other factors influencing how individuals and groups interact. It presumes that children are born intrinsically good, intrinsically motivated to learn and intrinsically driven to contribute in meaningful ways to the communities around them.
Freedom with limits is a guiding principle of both the Method and the philosophy, describing the balance between personal choice and social responsibility instilled through Montessori practice. One's own freedoms are limited by their influence on others. In the classroom, you'll see this principle influence how many materials are on the shelf, expectations for children's behavior, teacher language and lesson design.
Society by cohesion describes the social structure believed to be preserved through Montessori, in which children come to rely on each other for the functioning of their classroom, increasing their own agency as meaningful contributors to this micro society and increasing their awareness of the interdependence of all learners. Montessori classrooms modeling this structure are noncompetitive, allowing each child to progress at his or her own pace without pitting learners against each other.
The prepared environment describes the physical, social, emotional, and intellectual space of the Montessori classroom or home, within which design elements prioritize the developmental needs of the learner and are crafted based on evidence-driven observations of the members of the community. The prepared environment is prepared to allow learners full agency as they practice independence, concentration, order and coordination toward the mastery of content across five primary areas of the classroom: Practical Life, Sensorial, Math, Language and Cultural materials.
Montessori materials are the concrete manipulatives available in most Montessori schools. Montessori materials share certain qualities: they are beautiful, simple, self-correcting, didactic and focused on a single concept to master. They are presented on the shelf from easiest to most complicated, and in most countries from left to right and top to bottom, in the same pattern that language follows. Some are universal: the Pink Tower, Broad Stair, Number Rods, Golden Beads, Moveable Alphabet. Others are designed by classroom teachers to meet needs of the children in their communities: three-part cards, Practical Life materials, Cultural materials. In either scenario, they share the same self-correcting, simple, elegant design.
Role of the Adult refers to the special responsibilities Montessori teachers often apply to their work. Montessori teachers carry three primary distinctions to their role: Teacher as Scientist, Teacher as Servant and Teacher as Saint. As Scientists, Montessori teachers analyze the classroom after careful, unbiased, systemic observation to determine the specific needs of individual children and the larger shared needs of the community. As Servants, Montessori teachers design learning opportunities that reflect the scientific observations, preparing the environment for the children to engage. As Saints, Montessori teachers strive to model the kind of respectful, collaborative learning that we seek to protect in the children. Montessori teachers will often quote Dr. Montessori's original guidance, " The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist." In visiting Montessori classrooms, it is often hard to find the teacher at first. Unlike traditional rooms, where the teacher may be at the front of the class instructing children all at once, Montessori teachers (or directors, or guides, or ...) are likely to be on the floor with a small group of children or an individual child, focused on a single lesson rather than standing at the center of attention.
Maria Montessori founded the Montessori Method in the first decade of the twentieth century, after years of study as a medical doctor and research in asylums and other institutions in Italy. As one of Italy's first female physicians, Montessori was a woman of great personal strength and courage. While her initial work focused on the educative benefits of the Method, she ultimately came to recognize that children in these settings were not only able to learn content others may have thought too advanced for them, but that they did so while maintaining their peaceful dispositions, collaborative and noncompetitive natures and motivation to learn. As, in the years following World War II, more schools across the planet adopted her Method, Montessori lectured still on the academic benefits but expanded her lens to address the potential for world peace that could come from a change in teaching and parenting. Ultimately, Montessori saw herself, and the children in the classrooms bearing her name, as "children of the world," unfettered by political boundaries but committed to a peaceful future through education. Even as her legacy grew, Montessori did not prefer that the classrooms carry her name, arguing instead that her method was better described as "Pedagogical Anthropology." (We're kind of glad that name didn't stick!)