Why Is Montessori Different From All Other Education Methods?

Why Is Montessori Different From All Other Education Methods? June 18, 2014

My esteemed Patheos co-blogger and talented artist Sam Rocha may be one of the most important Catholic intellectuals today. Education is one of the principal missions of the Church, in the school and outside, and Sam and I agree (“This man is smart, he agrees with me!”) that the way the Church typically views education has been infected by Modern and secular ideas in ways that should not go unquestioned. It is high time for a renaissance of Catholic education, and we cannot do it without intense theological and philosophical spadework, and I suspect in time history and Tradition will record Sam as one of the heralds of a new springtime.

This fatuous prolegomena to say this post is a response to Sam’s gentle and very smart critique which he wrote after a multi-threaded Twitter conversation that followed my sketching out an idea for a liberal arts program for high schoolers. (I’m writing this while listening to Sam’s excellent album.)

Sam flags problems he sees with Classical, Great Books and Montessori programs.

I’m very interested in his critique of the Great Books programs and I wish he’d flesh it out a little bit. I agree with him that such programs can lead to a fetishization of the Book, and that this can be problematic because it doesn’t integrate the full human person. My response would be that such a program would have to take place within a context where there are different modes of education, and that while wrestling with books-qua-books cannot be seen as the summum bonum of education, probably(?) it should be a part of it. One way to look at it: the monastic motto is Ora et Labora. The monks spent lots of time praying, lots of time tilling the fields–and lots of time sitting reading books. The history of monasticism shows how the physical, spiritual and intellectual components of the Christian life can be properly integrated.

That being said, I want to focus more specifically on his critique of Montessori, because it gets at a very common misunderstanding about Montessori–and about education curricula in general. I suspect, but can’t know, that this is a critique that gets at the heart of our respective views on education in an interesting way, because I suspect that while Sam and I would tend to really like what Montessori does we might disagree about what it is and why.

Here’s what Sam writes:

Montessori is more difficult to critique, since it directly refers to a person, Maria Montessori. Suffice it to say that, unlike the other two, there is an even stronger ideological temptation in a Montessori curriculum that can only be resisted by a thorough and critical study of her sources.

I am fascinated by the rather beautiful combination of Romanticism and Catholicism to be found in a Montessori curriculum, but there is also a step further that easily becomes prescriptive and programmatic about Montessori that is foreign to, for instance, Rousseau (who insists that his ideas in Emile are not to be implemented or imitated willy-nilly).

I really do think this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding, a misunderstanding which I don’t blame on Sam, but which is everywhere. Very few people (including, I wouldn’t be surprised to found out, among most Montessori parents and educators) understand why the Montessori curriculum is fundamentally different from other curricula.

The important thing to know about Dr. Maria Montessori was that she was a scientist. She was the first female physician in Italy; she was admitted to Rome’s medical faculty thanks to some nudging by Pope Leo XIII (she had already taken degrees in mathematics and biology and so was eminently qualified; she would later specialize in pediatrics and earn degrees in, if memory serves, psychology, anthropology and philosophy), and she graduated at the top of her class. She started what eventually grew to be known as the Montessori Method to help poor, mentally handicapped children (what you did to the least of these…the stone the builders rejected…). She did it somewhat haphazardly, because at the same time she was setting up what would become the first Montessori classroom, she was the head of pediatrics at a hospital, a medical school professor, ran her private medical practice, studied–and went to daily Mass. She basically had assistants try out various things on her instructions, and record findings.

Now, here’s the key thing. Dr. Montessori never referred to her own method as “the Montessori Method.” She referred to it as “the scientific method.” The Montessori Method was developed using the experimental method, incrementally, over decades, eventually on many continents with children of nearly every cultural and socioeconomic background. And this is the, key difference between the Montessori method and every other education method: every other education method starts with an abstract conceptual model of the child, and infers a curriculum from that abstract model; the Montessori method started from experimental data on what works, and developed an abstract model of the child based on scientific experimentation. (And it just so happens that more recent scientific inquiry into the mind of the child confirms basically everything Montessori said.)

Why is Montessori “better”? Fundamentally, not because it has this view of the child or that view, fundamentally, it is better because it works. On every dimension. On average, Montessori kids read and write sooner and are better at math, and are also more independent and free-thinking and more disciplined. The RFTs are only starting, and we should have them, but the results have been so striking, and so consistent, for basically 100 years now, that we can take them for granted. If someone is in terminal cancer and you give him a pill and he’s healed overnight, yeah, you should still run medical trials, but you should still go ahead and assume the pill cures cancer.

So, yeah. A Montessori classroom is a very detailed environment. Montessori is a whole package. You either do the whole curriculum in this very specific way, or it’s not Montessori. But here’s the thing. The reason why this cube has to be precisely this size, and precisely this material, and precisely this color, is because it works. It’s because every other type of cube (and sphere, and whatever) has been tried on children all over the world over decades and this cube is the one that works at what it’s supposed to do.

So when Sam writes that he recoils at the “prescriptive and programmatic” aspect of Montessori, on one level, it’s certainly a healthy instinct, but on the other level, it’s missing the point. There is a very “prescriptive and programmatic” aspect to a pre-flight checklist. You know why? Because if you don’t follow the checklist to a T, everyone dies. Montessori is “prescriptive and programmatic” because when you do it that way it works. Rousseau wasn’t prescriptive and programmatic, but he was also an insane Pelagian who opened his book on the social contract by writing “let us first disregard all the facts.” You can view L’Emile as either a send-up of authoritarian, Lockean education, or an involuntary reductio ad absurdum of philosophical Pelagianism, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. No, Montessori’s “sources” aren’t Locke, or Rousseau–her sources is reality.

I obviously don’t want to take this too far. If you’ve read anything by me, you know I’m not exactly the kind of guy to just jump up and down and scream “SCIENCE!!!1!1!1” There are some philosophical approaches where “let us first disregard all the facts” is valuable. There is no actual program which is purely “scientific” and is not, in some way or another, laden with value judgements. And the field of education is one where the causal density is extremely thick, so we should always have epistemic humility. All of these caveats are true and important.

That said, I often feel like we’re in the early 1900’s discussing various designs for airplanes, and talking about the assumptions behind the design, and about how beautiful the plane is, and what perspective the designer took when she designed the plane, but nobody points out that one of the planes flies, and the others don’t.

And, of course, this is all intensely Catholic. One of the key Thomistic-Biblical ideas is that God inscribed his law in nature and that by making man in his image, endowed with a rational mind, he gave him the mission of using these rational faculties to read God’s law in nature. This is what Dr. Montessori did for education, and it just so happens that what she discovered about the child through her scientific investigation is deeply, painfully consonant with what classical Catholic theological anthropology says about human nature (unlike what is practiced by most “Catholic” schools out there). Political pundits argue about whether reality has a conservative or a liberal bias; if one thing’s for sure, it’s that reality has a Roman Catholic bias (as Fr. Lemaître SJ well knew). And so the immanent met the transcendent; the Montessori curriculum, drawn from experimental experimentation, just so happens to masterfully accord philosophically with Catholic theology on human nature.

I increasingly get the sense that we live at a pivotal time in education. Technology is accelerating things. An increasing number of people are finally understanding that the problem is not how you pay or fire teachers but the school itself. And the Silicon Valley guys are hard at work, and they understand empirical iteration better than anybody. And I increasingly get the sense that these guys, with DI and computers and all the rest, will give us schools that make kids that are really good at math but not so good at the other aspects of human nature that need to flourish and that Montessori (and the life of faith) so enables.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is in crisis on so many different dimensions. And it will be reborn through education or it will not be reborn. In the Modern world, we need an adult faith, and that means a properly-educated faith (no, it’s not a coincidence that this post is illustrated with a Good Shepherd Catechesis photo), and in the Modern world we need a Church that is a sign of contradiction and a ruthlessly efficient Army of God, and right now, by and large, we’re neither. The Church must produce saints, and to do that we need to take ’em young and give them a love of the Eucharist and of the faith and of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And because this is a fallen world where heroes don’t scale, we need methods and not just philosophical questioning.


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  • I appreciate your discussion of Montessori, as you catch two things I had worried you missed in your latest Forbes post. First, that education in its various components (curriculum, classroom management, etc.) works as a system. Second, there is the ever present danger of screaming Science!!! or another of its rhetorical analogues.

    A former of teacher of mine responded to my own piece on the subject with an interesting fact. She herself was trained as a biologist and never as a teacher and she approaches her teaching, well, let me quote:

    I learned to teach (and continue to learn) the way a scientist should. Trial and error and manipulating variables. Years ago educators swore by the whole right brain/left brain dichotomy and that hasn’t stood up to research. I’d like to see some more use of science and neurobiology to thoughtfully redesign our education system.

    It’s a pretty refreshing attitude, and having taken some education theory classes, as of 8 years ago, new educators were still being taught outdated science. I think in part teachers are too reliant on Scientific Theory, be it a model of human development or theory of the mind, and the fact that the science is often bad doesn’t help.

    If art and science are on a continuum, crafts lie somewhere in the middle. Teaching is a craft, aided and abetted by the fact that that natural state of a child is a curious learner, (the modern state of education writ large is one where curiosity modestly supported and also savagely beaten out of children) where know-how is more important than theoretical underpinnings of that know-how.

    So that was like three or four comments mushed together, but it’s better than a gross of tweets, right?

    • Thanks for a good comment, as usual.

      I would really point your teacher friend to the Montessori Science book/DVD for a really detailed look at how, precisely, scientific evidence on the child shakes out and how it conforms to Montessori.

      And this is why teaching “Scientific Theory” as you describe it misses the point. Teaching educators about research on the brain of the child, whether outdated or not, has nothing to do with science. It might help at the margin, but it is only very a very distant cousin of what it actually means to use science to improve education. Science is a process of rigorous trial-and-error. That’s it. It’s about experimentation. If you look at data on how kids’ brains work, and then tell teachers “this is how kids’ brains work” but then you don’t experiment and compare with other approaches, you are not actually doing science. You’re still just taking an abstract model of the child and applying it to the world. Whatever else it might be, it’s not science. Science is based on rigorous experimentation. This is what Montessori and Montessori alone did, and that’s why it succeeds where others fail.

      • I wonder if we’re running into a term of art issue here again vis-a-vis “science”, but I strongly agree that trial, error, and experimentation are important. This is part of why I describe teaching as a craft: pragmatic know-how and improvisation are very important.

        My sense has long been that American teachers are driven as a whole by the desire to be respected. Respect comes from being part of the professional class, and the gatekeepers to the professional class are credentials and “science” (read abstractions from research). Most disciplines have shifted ever towards science, but there is a particular envy within the educator class.

        There is however, a more fair explanation for the lack of experimentation. Teaching is a hard job with infinite stakes (or at least, when you’re dealing with other people’s children, it probably should feel that way) and it’s hard for the average person to feel creative when they’re under great stress. Not coincidentally this is part of my own practical theory of how children (and everyone else) learn: learning requires risk, and risk is best and most often done from a place of security.

        This problem gets considerably worse as you scale from the teacher to the department, the department to the grade, the grade to the school, school to the district, etc. etc. etc. Interlocking systems are necessary, but they make experimentation hard without a well loved and feared dictator at the head.

  • Kathleen Worthington

    The Montessori Method is expensive. I could write an entire post on that subject alone and its ramifications . . . if I blogged about such things.

    • I agree it’s a complex topic, but I disagree about that.

      • Kathleen Worthington

        Excuse me for the brusque comment. Life intervened and I couldn’t complete my thought.

        As you mention, Montessori Method requires specifically designed tools. The shaped and colored blocks were always made from wood/paint of the highest quality. Playskool it ain’t. (Unless things have changed in the last 20 years, which they may have.) If a parent wants to start a child at home, the cost is a hit. If a parent wants to enroll a child in a certified school, the cost is a hit. The school has to pay for the tools, too, and multiple versions of them, as well as qualified teachers. Montessori starts to feel elitist, although that was not, I assume, the original intention. I can’t support a methodology that, by its nature, segregates itself from certain students.

        The cost is an objective fact. I would also argue that its cost, which is a result of its rigor, is a red flag for deeper problems. A teaching method this controlled leaves little room for a child’s free will. Different parents will disagree; however, I believe a child needs more latitude. On the scale of things a child needs to learn before the age of 10, the 3 Rs are not necessarily at the top of the list. As Marmie says, “kindness, humor, and moral courage” are what we treasure most in our children. I’m skeptical that the Montessori Method is geared to meet that goal.

        • Asumming that what I experienced pre-K as Montessori education was a reasonable copy of Montessori education, then it was probably expensive, but not very strongly controlled. Or rather, it was controlled in the sense that it was a massive learning environment. It was not controlled as I was told what to do, certainly any more than I was by my own parents, and considerably less than I was upon entering public kindergarten.

        • Yes, I’ve heard this point many times. The reason why Montessori *currently* is expensive has to do with idiosyncratic aspects.

          First, the main cost in education is the cost of the salaries of the teachers (education is a service). In “classic” Montessori, there is a very high number of pupils per educator, and this is a feature. Being a Montessori teacher just requires a 1-2 year curriculum, so it is not a high-skilled job (Montessori has great lines about how highly-educated teachers are typically worse Montessori educators). Because today Montessori is typically a hippie-liberal thing you typically have small classes and highly-educated teachers, but this is by no means intrinsic. (If the teachers are nuns, the cost drops even further.)

          As for the materials, well, first of all, materials are largely a one-time fixed cost that can be amortized. Second of all, again, the reason why the materials are expensive is because of the subculture nature of Montessori. Manufacturers of Montessori materials have to abide by very exact specifications and only a handful of them are certified. Because Montessori is a niche thing, there are very few manufacturers of materials, and they can afford to charge high prices to hippie liberal parents. As should be hopefully obvious, there is NOTHING inherently expensive about manufacturing wooden blocks and beads, even to precise specifications. Indeed, because the specifications are so precise, manufacture at scale would lead to very low unit costs. There is currently no demand for this, but this has nothing inherent to do with the Montessori method.

          So, yeah, Montessori currently is expensive, but there is absolutely nothing inherent about it; to the contrary, at scale Montessori would almost certainly be less expensive than the alternatives.

  • Donalbain

    If you can never change the system, then it is not a system based on science. It ia system based on dogmatism. A scientific system would still be open to change based on the latest evidence.

    • Yes. I actually make this point in the followup I’m writing. But the change should be based on evidence, not “how I feel”, which is what 99.999% of the proposed changes I’ve seen look like. (I’ve been guilty of this myself.)

  • Servabo

    I’ve seen this argument many times and would like some clarification, if you do not mind. I am attracted to Montessori, but have a couple reservations. You admit that something is never fully scientific, i.e. there are background assumptions in setting up the experiments and in reading their conclusions, not to mention when one puts science to a practical end (how we decide goals seems to be philosophical or theological). You also claim that the method fully accords with Catholic anthropology.

    I have two questions given both of those commitments.

    1. Do you know anything about Montessori’s dependence on Kant? I know there have been studies about this and you see it in the method’s anthropology of autonomy. Is that aspect of her anthropology, the Kantian one, compatible with Catholic anthropology? Is it the product of her scientific studies?

    2. Second, is there any place (or what is the place) of the catholic doctrine of original sin in her method/anthropology?

    as a final note/question. I do not think this debate can be decided by what is effective. Isn’t the debate about what results we want in the first place? Even if one agrees on those, isn’t there a difference between the pragmatists way of deciding truth (purely by the effective) and the Catholic’s?

    • Thanks for your comment.

      1. W/r/t Montessori and Kant, I have to admit I’m stumped. I’ve read a fair amount of Montessori’s writings, and she never mentions him. I’m not sure where that comes from. And while Kant wasn’t a Catholic, it’s possible to draw good insights from Kant, as indeed I have.

      In any case, her anthropology is fully Catholic. Montessori is about the integral development of the child, rather than the dualist vision of modern education which separates mind and body; it is about an education to ordered liberty, with great autonomy but only within certain bounds; it is an education to virtue, through self-correcting activities which incite the child to keep doing something until they get it right.

      2. I’m not sure there is a “place” for original sin as such. What would the “place” be of any other doctrine? I don’t see any way that Montessori would be incompatible with the doctrine of original sin, if that’s what you ask.

      On your point about how we define results: yes, you’re absolutely right that this is a big question. I skipped over it precisely because giving it a good treatment would be quite long. Suffice it to say that Montessori’s results, and what I think of–and what I think Catholics should think of–as good results, line up very well.

      • Servabo

        1. That was badly expressed, no wonder you are stumped. The question is more the following: what does Montessori mean when she uses the word autonomy and how does that influence the teaching method? As I’ve seen it explained before or practiced, it seems like the definition of autonomy operative is the same (or very similar to Kant’s). Is that the case? If so, that seems like it could be problematic given that autonomy as it functions in Kantian philosophy and popular western liberalism is at odds with Catholic anthropology? Are people misreading Montessori or is there a strain in her thought that is consonant with the modern western liberal desire for autonomy and individualism? Again, I know very little about Montessori’s thought directly. This is just the second hand impression I get.

        2. That is what I was asking. Again, I know very little about Montessori and am just seeking clarification. As I’ve seen it explained, it often seems like people want to say that one should give free reign to children’s desires and that they all are good. That seems to deny concupiscence (the habitual desire to sin), but that is probably not what Montessori teaches, right?

        • Right. The way “freedom” is construed in Montessori is a big misconception, which isn’t helped by the fact that most existing Montessori teachers/advocates/etc. are big-time postmodern secular liberals, but that’s not Montessori.

          When Montessori talks about autonomy, it is NOT in the philosophical sense of “Man as his own master.” It is in the concrete, developmental sense of increasing a child’s capacity for self-reliance and *practical* autonomy. So for example, in a Montessori pre-school the children will typically make lunch or part of lunch (e.g. bread) and wash dishes and so on.

          Montessori activities are structured to teach things to the child step by step, which I view as completely in line with what Catholic Tradition teaches on the education of the virtues as the progressive acquisition of habits ordered towards the good.

          Same thing about “freedom” in a Montessori environment. Montessori children are “free”–within very well-defined boundaries. And indeed, Catholic Tradition proclaims the freedom of man and his capacity for free choice–within the boundaries of divine law. For example, children in Montessori classrooms may choose whatever activities they want and work on them for however long they want–but only activities that they have been first presented by the teacher, who progressively presents more and more activities over the course of the curriculum.

          This combination of freedom with rules is reinforced in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, in a traditional Montessori classroom, there is never more than one copy of a given activity. This means that if a child wants to use an activity but it’s already taken the child must…wait? Convince the other child to do the activity together? (Given that in Montessori mandates to “share” are absolutely verboten–the other child can flatly refuse to do so, and if so, the first child must accept it.) Situations like this mean the child must learn to respect others, must learn patience, must learn social rules/collaboration. Not because there is a curriculum that specifically teaches those, but because the environment is carefully set up so that such things happen naturally. And so the children are “free”, but at the same time they learn limits and so on. This is just one tiny example among many others.

          What I, Montessori, and Catholic Tradition mean by “autonomy” is this virtuous education so that we are able to make free, conscious choices that are ordered towards the good. If we understand sin as a form of slavery or self-destruction, we understand that, in Catholic Tradition, “autonomy” *in this sense* (not in the Enlightenment sense) is not contradictory to the moral law, but complementary: to make a *truly* free choice is to choose the good. But to make truly free choices, we must be educated towards virtue. This is what Montessori does.

          One last point: I would be very wary of trying to directly “map” any particular doctrine directly on a curriculum. Not because they don’t matter, but because this kind of purely abstract thinking easily leads astray. For example, you have texts by Counter-Reformation era religious educators that say that because of original sin, children should get beaten regularly because they are concupiscent, and original sin should be beaten out of them. One wishes those educators had spent more time meditating on the original sin of educators rather than that of children. Which is why I like the Montessori approach so much: she first tried many different things and then, upon seeing what worked or what didn’t, she was able to deduce an anthropology of the child which is extremely rich, productive, and capital-T True, both from the scientific standpoint and the theological standpoint.

        • Here’s another way I would put Montessori/original sin at a more abstract level.

          I think it’s fair to summarize Catholic anthropology in this way: human beings are an intricate mix of the very bad (original sin) and the very good (Imago Dei). This means (and, again, speaking very generally) that if you want to grow in virtue, you have basically two choices: you can try to directly repress the bad; or you can try to strengthen the good.

          Within the adult life, I think it’s fair to say that we should do both, although we tend to be less attentive to the latter. What I would say is that for the child, Montessori tends to focus a lot more on strengthening the good rather than directly repressing the bad; NOT because the bad is ignored or underplayed or that there is no conscience of it, but because it proves to be a more effective strategy, and I would argue the results speak for themselves in the sense of the autonomy, seriousness, patience, etc. of Montessori children. And again, this is wholly congruent with Catholic Tradition on the concept of the practice and strengthening of the virtues.