Why Montessori for the Kindergarten Year?
By Tim Seldin, President of The Montessori Foundation, with Dr. Elisabeth Coe
So here are a few answers to some of the questions parents often ask about Montessori for the kindergarten child:
Q: What would be the most important advantages of keeping my five year old in Montessori?
Montessori is an approach to working with children that is carefully based on what we’ve learned about children’s cognitive, neurological, and emotional development. Although sometimes misunderstood, the Montessori approach has been acclaimed by some of America’s top experts on early childhood and elementary education as the most developmentally appropriate model currently available. One important advantage that Montessori offers the five year old has to do with how it helps the young child to “learn how to learn.”
Over recent years, educational research has increasingly shown that students in many schools don’t understand most of what they are being taught. Howard Gardner, Harvard psychologist and author of the best selling book The Unschooled Mind goes so far as to suggest that, “Many schools have fallen into a pattern of giving kids exercises and drills that result in their getting answers on tests that look like understanding. Most students, from as young as those in kindergarten to students in some of the finest colleges in America do not understand what they’ve studied, in the most basic sense of the term.
They lack the capacity to take knowledge learned in one setting and apply it appropriately in a different setting. Study after study has found that, by and large, even the best students in the best schools can’t do that.” (“On Teaching for Understanding. A Conversation with Howard Gardner.” By Ron Brandt. Educational Leadership Magazine. ASCD. 1994.)
Montessori is focused on teaching for understanding. In a primary classroom, three and four year olds receive the benefit of two years of sensorial preparation for academic skills by working with the concrete Montessori learning materials. This concrete sensorial experience gradually allows the child to form a mental picture of concepts like: How big is a thousand? How many hundreds make up a thousand? And What is really going on when we borrow or carry numbers in mathematical operations?
The value of the sensorial experiences that the younger children have had in Montessori have often been underestimated by both parents and educators. Research is very clear that young children learn by observing and manipulating their environment, not through textbooks and workbook exercises. The Montessori materials give the child concrete sensorial impressions of abstract concepts, such as long division, that become the foundation for a life-time of understanding.
Because Montessori teachers are well trained in child development, they know how to present information in developmentally appropriate ways.
In many, many American schools, children do exercises and fill in workbook pages with little understanding. There is a great deal of rote learning. Superficially, it may seem that these children are learning the material, however, all too often, a few months down the road, little of what they “learned” will be retained, and it will be rare for the children to be able to use their knowledge and skills in new situations. Learning to be organized and learning to be focused is as important as any academic work. Doing worksheets can be impressive to parents, but there is rarely any deep learning going on. More and more educational researchers are beginning to focus on whether students, young or adult, really understand or have simply memorized correct answers.
Q: In a class with such a wide age range of children, won’t my five year old spend the year taking care of younger children instead of doing his or her own work?
The five year old in Montessori classes often help the younger children with their work, actually teaching lessons or correcting errors.
Anyone who has ever had to teach a skill to someone else may recall that the very process of explaining a new concept, or helping someone practice a new skill leads the teacher to learn as much, if not more, than the pupil. This is supported by research. Experiences that facilitate development of Why Montessori for the Kindergarten Year? Tomorrow’s Child© Page 3 of 4 independence and autonomy are often very limited in traditional schools.
Q: Isn’t it better for kids to go to school with the children from their neighborhood?
People used to buy a home and raise their family in the same neighborhood. There was a real sense of community. Today, the average family will move two or three times before their children go off to college. Many public schools expect a turnover of more than 20% of their population each year. The relationships that once bound families together into a community have grown weak. In many Montessori schools, families who live in different neighborhoods, but who share similar values, have come together to create and enjoy the extended community of their school. Children growing up in Montessori schools often speak of how closely knit their friendships were with their schoolmates and their families.
Q: Since most children will eventually have to go to the neighborhood schools, wouldn’t it be better for them to make the transition in kindergarten rather than in first grade?
The American Montessori Society tells of one father who wrote, “We considered the school years ahead. We realized a child usually does his best if he has good learning habits, a sound basis in numbers and math, and the ability to read. We realized that he has had an excellent two-year start in his Montessori school. If he were to transfer now to another kindergarten program, he would probably go no further than he is now; whereas if he stays in Montessori, he will reap the benefits of his past work under the enthusiastic guidance of teachers who will share his joy of learning.”
By the end of the kindergarten year, Montessori students will often have developed academic skills that may be beyond those of children enrolled in most American kindergarten programs. However, parents should remember that academic progress is not our ultimate goal. Our real hope is that the children will have an incredible sense of selfconfidence, enthusiasm for learning, and feelings of being closely bonded to their teachers and classmates. We want them to honestly enjoy school and feel good about themselves as students.
Once children have developed a high degree of self-confidence, independence, and enthusiasm for learning, they normally can adapt to all sorts of new situations. While there are wonderful and exciting reasons to keep a child in Montessori through elementary school and beyond, by the time they are in first grade, they will typically be able to go off to their new school with not only a vibrant curiosity, but also an excitement about making new friends and learning new things.
Q: If I keep my child in Montessori for kindergarten, won’t he/she be bored in a traditional first grade?
Montessori children by age five are normally curious, self-confident learners who look forward to going to school. They are engaged, enthusiastic learners who honestly want to learn and ask excellent questions.
What teacher wouldn’t give her left arm for a room filled with children like that? Well, truthfully, over the years we’ve found some who consider these children “disruptive.”
Disruptive? You ask. A polite, independent Montessori child disruptive? Well, first off, let’s remember that Montessori children are human beings, and not all children who attended Montessori fit the idealized description; however, enough do that the generalization is often fairly accurate.
Montessori children by age six have spent three or four years in a school where they were treated with honesty and respect. While there were clear expectations and ground rules, within that framework, their opinions and questions were taken quite seriously. Unfortunately, there are still some teachers and schools where children who ask questions are seen as challenging authority. You can imagine an independent Montessori child asking his new teacher, but why do I have to ask each time I need to use the bathroom? Or why do I have to stop my work right now?
So the honest answer is that it depends on the teacher and the school.
From and academic viewpoint, Montessori kindergarteners will generally be doing very well by the end of the school year, although, once again, that is not our ultimate objective. The program offers them enriched lessons in math, reading, language, and a wide range of lessons in science, geography, and other cultural areas. If they are ready, they will normally develop excellent skills and become quite “culturally literate.”
When one of these children enters a traditional first grade, they may have already mastered the skills that their new school considered first grade curriculum. Some Montessori children are still more advanced. Once upon a time in America, elementary schools had only one course of study for every child at each grade level, and the only option for children who were academically gifted was to skip them ahead one or two grade levels. This created all sorts of resentments and social stresses on children who socially and physically still belonged with their own age group. However, as Dr. Montessori’s educational strategies have been incorporated by more school systems, it is becoming more common to find elementary schools that are willing and able to adapt their curriculum to meet the needs of individual students who are ready for accelerated work.
The key concept in Montessori is the child’s interest and readiness for advanced work. If a child is not developmentally ready to go on, she is not left behind or made to feel like a failure. Our goal is not to ensure that our children develop at a predetermined rate, but to ensure that whatever they do, they do well. Most Montessori children master a tremendous amount of information and skills. Even in the rare case where one of our children may not have made as much progress as we would have wished, she will usually be moving along steadily at her own pace and will feel good about herself as a learner.
¨ Dr. Elisabeth Coe is the Past President of the American Montessori Society and Director of the Houston Montessori Center in Houston, TX. Tim Seldin is the President of the Montessori Foundation and co-author of Celebrations of Life and The World in the Palm of Her Hand. This article appeared in Tomorrow’s Child.