It’s back to school time in many parts of the world and I’ve been asked this question often in recent weeks: how do I choose a Montessori school? How do I know if a school is ‘real’ Montessori?
It’s a great question.
Dr Montessori didn’t trademark her theories or her schools and, as a result, literally any school can put out a ‘Montessori’ shingle and call themselves the real deal.
The fact is, while there are thousands of Montessori schools around the world, they still make up a very small percentage of the global education footprint and while the number of pseudo Montessori schools is not known, based on anecdotal evidence alone, they are prevalent – and in some countries more than others.
It really is up to us parents to educate ourselves about what Montessori is (and what it isn’t) and to do our own research on the schools we are considering for our children to make sure we make the right decision.
And before you even start asking any questions, you should also ask for an opportunity to observe the classroom for a period during the school day. If you don’t see Montessori materials on open shelves accessible to the children, child-sized furniture and children moving around the room independently – AND guides speaking to children with grace and respect – run, don’t walk to the nearest exit!
OK, assuming it LOOKS like a Montessori school – materials are clean and the classroom looks organised – it’s time to ask the right questions before you even think of enrolling your child. So here’s my list of 9 questions (at least – I’m sure you’ll have more!) that you should ask:
1. What ages do you have in each class?
Multi-age classes are a fundamental aspect of a Montessori environment. Having children of varying ages (usually at least a three year age span, sometimes six years or more) allows children to teach and learn from each other. It also provides opportunities for older children to mentor younger ones.
2. What training and qualifications do your guides have? Is this school affiliated with any Montessori organisation?
It’s a hotly debated topic in Montessori circles as to which Montessori training is the ‘real’ training and which is not. Essentially, though, you want to hear that your guides are AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) or AMS (American Montessori Society) trained. Most training centres require a bachelor’s degree for admission.
There are many, many training organisations around the world that claim to train Montessori guides. I’ve seen eight week courses, online courses – you name it. While that is fine for us parents who want to know more about Montessori to provide our children with the best support a home, the training that a Montessori guide undertakes is a completely different ball game. It’s in person, it’s intense, it’s taught over many months (usually up to 10 months straight or an equivalent amount of concentrated time, broken up into several weeks or months at a time) and it is hands on. If the answer you get is that the guides at the school have done a correspondence course or equivalent, your alarm bells should be ringing. There should be at least one AMI or AMS trained guide in each classroom.
3. What freedoms do children have?
Are children free to move around the classroom and choose materials (provided they have had a lesson on using that material)? Do they need to ask permission to eat a snack or go to the toilet? Do they have freedom to collaborate, interact and teach one another?
4. What opportunities are there for learning in context?
Dr Montessori said: “Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”
In a Montessori school, learning is in context and where possible is based on real world experiences, rather than abstract concepts such as from a text book or a teacher speaking.
So children should be involved in activities like cleaning the classroom, researching a real-life project that is of interest to them, growing vegetables in the garden and perhaps even selling them to parents or the community. They actually do these things, they don’t just write about it.
5. Does this school offer 3-hour work cycles?
Three hour work cycles are a fundamental part of a Montessori environment and is in stark contrast to other more traditional school settings where there are often 40 minute lessons and then a quick changeover. In some traditional early years’ environments, it is often assumed that children can only concentrate for 15 or 20 minutes, however these quick changeovers actually shorten a child’s attention span. The 3-hour uninterrupted work cycles in Montessori classrooms build deep concentration and any guide you speak to will tell you that this time is actually considered quite sacred.
6. Do you offer rewards such as gold stars or certificates when children do well?
Dr Montessori believed that children have an innate desire to learn and that intrinsic motivation is a key driver of a child. External rewards are discouraged in a Montessori classroom as a child’s sense of achievement when completing a task is reward enough. Competition – the ranking of children against one other – is also avoided as collaboration is preferred. These external rewards and comparisons – along with the 3-hour uninterrupted work cycles – are often hardest for traditional schools to step away from, even if they are operating under the name ‘Montessori’. If the response you receive to this question is not satisfactory to you – or you can see for yourself that external rewards are being used with reward stickers or charts to track progress or compare children – this could definitely be a sign that you need to investigate this further.
7. Does your school participate in standardised testing and do children sit tests and exams and do homework?
Here in Australia, every school that receives government funding is required to participate in a federal standardised testing system and I expect the situation might be the same in other countries. However, beyond this requirement tests and grades are not a part of everyday life in a Montessori classroom – your child should not be coming home with papers covered in red marks, corrections and a score out of 10. With testing of children at traditional schools escalating at an alarming rate in recent years, it might pay to listen very carefully to the answer to this question as a school that is not ‘true’ Montessori is perhaps quite likely to fall prey to what is, unfortunately, becoming a cultural norm in mainstream schooling. And if homework is set on a regular basis before high school you may have a problem.
8. What rules are in place in the classroom and how are they communicated to the children?
In a Montessori classroom there are usually as few rules as possible. Often they relate to care and respect for self, for others and for the environment. Children learn to manage their own classroom community within these parameters and excessive rules are avoided. If your school has an unending list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ plastered on walls and doors, that could be another sign that this school is not as ‘Montessori’ as you might like.
9. How are life skills taught at this school – so skills outside of academics?
What you’re hoping for here is a reference to character education and practical life activities including self-care, care of the environment and grace and courtesy instruction which are all core aspects of the Montessori curriculum. Do guides eat with the children? Are children encouraged to care for their environment themselves with appropriate, child-sized tools to do the job? How are conflicts resolved? Observe how guides greet children in the morning and farewell them in the afternoon. Eye contact and a handshake is often the norm, but not always. It’s more about how the guide makes the child feel as he enters the classroom, that the child is welcomed warmly and with respect.
The list of questions you could ask is endless – and I encourage you to ask as many as you need to, to feel comfortable with your decision.
My guess is that a ‘real’ Montessori school won’t tire of your questions. It is in the school’s best interest as much as yours to make sure your family is a good fit – so another aspect to be aware of is how open the school is to your enquiries. If they seem edgy or hesitant – and certainly if you’re not allowed to observe a classroom during a school day – it could be sign as in my experience, Montessori schools are only too happy to accommodate an enquiring and passionate parent! 🙂
And a final tip from me. Spend some time at the school at pickup times in the afternoon. Look carefully at the children as they leave the school gate. If they look happy, organised, they are carrying their own bag and lunchbox and they have a light in their eyes – you just might be in the right place.
Until next week,
PS- Are there any questions I’ve missed? Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!