The Season of Misgivings
We're beginning a new calendar year, and here in the US, the start of the admissions season. For new parents, this means time to visit lots of schools, Montessori and otherwise. For parents of experienced Montessori children, it means revisiting their commitment to this model of education and, often, questioning whether their children might need to go to "real school" next year. Especially for parents whose children are approaching typical transition times, like Kindergarten or Middle School, the question of "How Much Montessori," is likely foremost on your mind.
So, "How Much Montessori?"
Montessori is a pretty easy sell for parents of very young children. Visit the classrooms and you see children curiously engaged in a variety of activities. There's a peacefulness and a mindful calm. Children are completing lessons that are academically advanced, caring for their environment and their peers, joyfully engaged in their work. Parents of children in early childhood are generally less concerned with the trappings of traditional schools like grades and standardized tests, so an ungraded, individualized environment feels like less of a risk.
When those same children are approaching Elementary school, especially when there are quality public Kindergartens in the community or private schools that are more likely to admit new families in Kindergarten, it's easy for parents to second guess their commitment to Montessori. Maybe they need to have grades? Will my child really be prepared for (Middle School/High School/College) if I let him stay in Montessori? Could it possibly be worth the cost?
Don't children need to have grades?
It depends on what you're trying to measure. If you think learning is best understood in single-moment snapshots, if you think content is something you master in quantifiable percentages and that children all demonstrate their knowledge in the same ways, grades are appropriate. In Montessori, however, we take the long view on learning: children master content at different paces, and mastery is the goal. We don't think it's sufficient to know 84% of a subject and then to abandon it for a new unit. Rather, we offer continuous opportunities for children to engage in content in dynamic, individualized ways. If a child doesn't master content the first time it's presented, we re-present. We offer the child time to explore the material and to discover its self-correcting properties. When children master foundational content, we move them immediately into the next challenge. Meanwhile, they observe children learning more advanced skills and practicing more basic ones around them all the time, so the comparison of one learner against another become motivational instead of competitive. So, while learning a particular content may not happen in concise, three or six week "units," when that content is mastered, it sticks. It's meaningful and relevant to children because it's been mastered in a deeply authentic way, driven by the child's own readiness rather than a calendar determined by curriculum designers far far away.
Will my child be ready for (Elementary school, Middle School, College, Life) if I let her stay in Montessori?
It depends on the environment she's entering. While it's less likely that your child will struggle with academics, or motivation, or courtesy, she may be the first to notice the rules in traditional school settings that are arbitrary or irrelevant. If your child is transitioning to a classroom that's rigid, that requires silence or stillness to "learn," or that is highly authoritarian, you'll probably notice some transition stress. Luckily, the core character qualities that Montessori helps to protect are also the same ones that will make these transitions smoother. Montessori kids understand rules and they're generally happy to talk about issues that are important to them. You can support your child when that transition happens by acknowledging which of the "rules of school," are both arbitrary and non-negotiable. You're right, little one, there really isn't a reason why we should study Math right before lunch time every day, but that's how the schedule works at this school. Let's talk about ways you can also do the math that interests you at home.
More importantly, though, Montessori prepares children for what's coming outside of the traditional school setting. Children develop the ability to persist through challenges through the mastery of the Montessori materials. They learn self-reliance and develop their social consciousness, understanding that they are both responsible for themselves and for others. They learn peaceful resolution of conflicts and understand the commonalities that unite people across communities and cultures. They are self-directed, independent, attentive and conscientious, innovative and creative. In other words, while they may have some bumps in transitioning to environments that are less developmentally appropriate, less child-centered or more authoritarian, adulthood isn't actually that way... they'll be well prepared for life beyond school.
Could it possibly be worth the cost?
Simply, yes. While most Montessori schools are private and require tuition, the benefits of Montessori far outweigh the costs. When you pay tuition, you're not buying a product: you're supporting a community of like-minded thinkers who, together, can make some pretty wonderful things happen. You are saying, with your dollars, that you think every child should be valued for his or her unique contributions to their communities, that being a part of a community in which individuals are valued regardless of their age, in which children can be both learners and teachers, in which they are active and inquisitive, peaceful and collaborative, joyful and rigorous, matters. You are benefitting personally from the expertise and guidance of well-trained teachers who understand both child development in general and the special development of your own child, and who will use that expertise to prepare environments for learning unparalleled in their responsiveness to individual children's growth and needs. You are giving yourself the access to other parents who also want different futures for their children, to support and fellowship that encourages each other when outside pressures challenge what you believe about children and learning, to a band of adults who each is willing to sacrifice a little to be able to contribute to something priceless for their children.
When you commit to a Montessori education beyond preschool, your child gets all the academic and intellectual benefits of the Montessori materials and curriculum, but, more importantly, you and your family get the envelope of a community that believes we can do this school thing better and is willing to work together to make it happen. Priceless.