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What is a Montessori school?

The Montessori method is truly international, with over 22,000 Montessori schools worldwide. We take a look at what the method involves and the appeal it holds for parents living overseas.

There was a media frenzy at the beginning of 2016 when Prince George set off for his first day of school.  Much was made of the fact that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge chose a nursery using the Montessori Method for their son, the same style of learning that the Duke himself experienced as a child.  Started over 100 years ago, the Montessori Method emphasises learning through play and was developed by focus on individual children without marking their progress through grades or tests.  Montessori schools can be found all over the world and international Montessori schools where English is spoken are a popular choice for expat parents.  

Educator Maria Montessori’s basic principle was to ‘follow the child’. A Montessori classroom designed to foster self-discovery and independent learning. The method emphasizes learning through all five senses, not just through listening, watching, or reading. Teachers introduce materials and children are free to choose from them, working and discovering, and ultimately mastering, ideas, concepts and skills. Lessons are given, but the goal is for children to discover answers by using the unique materials that are found only in Montessori classrooms.   In such a classroom you might see a child forming words using 3-dimensional letters called the ‘movable alphabet’, or learning their numbers using sandpaper shapes they can trace with their fingers.  Another child may be carefully pouring water from one tiny pitcher to another, or intently struggling over a puzzle map of South America.

Two of the most significant differences between the Montessori Method and more traditional teaching styles are the role of the teacher and the way children are grouped by age.  In a Montessori classroom the teacher's role is unobtrusive; the child actively participates in learning and the teacher is there to facilitate and guide. The idea is that the environment and method encourage internal self-discipline.  Most Montessori classrooms are also multi-age settings—typically spanning 3 years— which re-create a family structure. Older students enjoy their stature as mentors and role models, while younger children feel supported and gain confidence about the challenges ahead.

The method uses unique materials

The method uses unique materials

Children are encouraged to find things out for themselves

Children are encouraged to find things out for themselves

Montessori materials grow with the child

Montessori materials grow with the child

Although the method has its critics, chiefly that a Montessori classroom is too unstructured, a 2006 study showed that Montessori children are not only better prepared for the "three Rs" at primary level, but that they also achieved higher scores in tests of what’s known as 'executive function'- the ability to adapt to changing and complex problems- which is seen as an indicator of future school and life success. 

"Children understand we are connected by the fact that we all have the same basic human needs"

The method also has advantages for children learning a second language. In her studies Maria Montessori identified what she described as the sensitive period for language acquisition in young children which has led to a high proportion of the schools being bilingual.  The idea is that children will naturally absorb a second language in the classroom.

The Montessori International School in Perchtoldsdorf, Austria, teaches in English and German, which, says its founder Nicola Kovacic, is welcomed by the international community. “Having an international education means that children are exposed to various cultures, languages, beliefs and traditions, which are so important to helping children become not only tolerant of other ways of life but appreciative of other ways of life.”

“In the Montessori approach to history and geography, children come to an understanding that all human beings are connected by the fact that we all have the same basic human needs, and that what makes us different and unique is the way in which we satisfy those needs.  The children at our school are able to understand this concept in a very real way.” 

There is a strong emphasis on involving children in all aspects of life at a Montessori school. In Perchtoldsdorf all the children help in the kitchen for one week each year. “There they cook for 106 children and 20 adults and learn skills such as how to plan for so many people, how to solve logistical problems, and how to prepare the food on time.  After this week they always feel so proud and confident – it is great to see!” says Nicola.  “The thing I’m most proud of is how socially developed our children are. They care for each other, they are calm and helpful, they say sorry when they've done something wrong and they help each other. It is a really safe and friendly environment.”

Children at work in the kitchen

Children at work in the kitchen

ISM Perchtoldsdorf teaches children through to the age of 15, and it is possible to find Montessori schools which teach all the way to 18, though the vast majority of them are preschools and primary schools.  “If your young child has experienced a Montessori setting previously,” says Barbara Isaac, education officer at Montessori UK, “then the transition to another setting using the method overseas will be much easier since the child will be familiar with the classroom and materials.”  However, parents need to be aware that there is no control over the name ‘Montessori’. “We are not able to monitor provision,” says Barbara. “There are usually accreditations in each country, but parents first and foremost need to look around the school and ask, ‘Would my child be happy in this environment?’”

One place that Montessori schools are very popular is Silicone Valley.  There, high-tech high-flyers frequently choose low-tech, low-pressure education settings for their children, aiming to nurture self-motivation and curiosity about the world in their offspring.  It seems the Montessori Method is a desirable choice for all kinds of parents, from future kings to technology innovators.

Images: iStock

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