Allowing Children to Develop and Learn at Their Own Pace
By H.M. Cauley
Navigating Atlanta’s educational landscape means discovering many types of schools with descriptions that may sound somewhat familiar; magnet, charter and special needs are just a few. One kind of school that’s gaining more popularity in the metro area is Montessori, named for Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator.
These independent schools are rooted in the concept that children learn best through hands-on exploration that they follow at their own pace. The rst such school, opened in Rome in 1907, was so successful that Montessori shared her methods with other educators, resulting today in more than 20,000 schools in 110 countries around the world.
Montessori schools typically serve children in preschool and elementary grades and, in some cases, middle school. At each level, the focus is as much on social, physical and also emotional development as it is on academics. Along with science, mathematics and other traditional subjects, students are also taught life skills such as responsibility and respect for the environment. Learning objectives are accomplished through experiential, practical and sensory activities in an organized setting.
There’s a Lot of Freedom
Montessori schools differ from a traditional public or independent school in several fundamental ways. Classrooms are less rigid, and the student, not the teacher, is the focus. Youngsters are grouped by age ranges rather than grades, and they are allowed and encouraged to work independently to master concepts at their own pace. Instead of taking in information from textbooks or computers, they learn by working with materials in a hands-on environment. Teachers work with students one-on-one, providing guidance instead of giving a lecture. No grades are awarded, and there are no limits on how long a child follows a particular interest.
“Montessori is a different way of looking at the child,” says Denise Harold, director of Johns Creek Montessori School of Georgia. “Rather than a traditional school that sees a child as an empty vessel to be lled with knowledge, we see the potential they have within them.”
Montessori educators begin helping children realize that potential early on.
At Johns Creek Montessori, children work in groups ranging from 15 months to 3 years old, or from 2 and a half to 6 years. “Children are free to explore activities that interest them and may work on as many activities as they like.” Harold says. “While the teacher moves from one to another, giving individual attention and observing what the child is most interested in and focused on.”
“That helps us determine what lessons to give in the future to build on those particular strengths,” says Harold. “There’s a lot of freedom, but also a lot of structure.”
That mix of freedom and structure allows teachers to pay attention to changes in the development of their students and to adapt their lessons accordingly. It’s an approach that helps students grow not just academically, but personally.
“A lot of people and schools talk about whole-child education,” says Jan Deason, head of school at Arbor Montessori, which teaches toddlers to teens in the Decatur area. “That’s been Montessori’s belief from the very beginning.”
Teaching the Whole Child
Educating the whole child extends to topics that may not be part of a textbook curriculum, explains Patricia Craft-Heuer, director of education at Village Montessori School in Roswell.
“It’s about learning socially—learning grace and courtesy lessons,” she says. “It’s learning about the world, that people are the same and have the same needs—housing, food, clothing. That sort of approach helps alleviate prejudice, which is important if the goal is to create children of the world. They need to learn about other countries and how people live there.”
Part of that understanding comes from learning and emulating positive character traits such as respectfulness, kindness and helpfulness. “All of us here try to be good examples by living character education,” says Craft-Heuer. “It’s not just someone saying, ‘Do this, and you’ll be a good person.’ Children pick up on examples. They see the respect we have for everyone, from the youngest child to the principal. Even concepts of being helpful and loving are ingrained at a very young age.”
Making the Child the Center
But before considering a Montessori education, parents should be prepared to ask questions. Not all Montessori schools are the same, and since the term is not trademarked, any school can refer to itself by that name. Some may claim to follow an “alternative” or “hybrid” Montessori program, or offer Montessori instruction for just some part of the day.
The typical signs of a “true” Montessori school include a comprehensive, all day Montessori curriculum, open classrooms free of desks, and classes of 15 to 30 students grouped by age. Another reliable sign of a school’s adherence to Montessori principles is certification: Montessori teachers are trained and certified in the Montessori method. What’s more, schools that have been accredited by organizations such as the Association Montessori International (co-founded by Maria Montessori) and the American Montessori Society have been determined to operate in accordance with Montessori standards.
“While some Montessori schools may differ in size, age range and approach, in the end, they offer a unique educational experience that other schools don’t,” says Deason.
“Montessori is very individualized,” she says. “It offers a child the chance to be in a multi-age classroom where situations naturally occur and problems get solved. We teach problem-solving and mediation skills at a young age. And we are in partnership with parents, all for the good of the child. What it really comes down to is making the child the center.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Arbor Montessori School
Johns Creek Montessori School of Georgia
Village Montessori School
American Montessori Society
Association Montessori International USA