“Following the child” – a different form of education

Ever heard of Montessori? Sure you did – it has something to do with schools, doesn’t it?Well, yes. The Montessori approach to education, however, is completely different from that of our traditional schools. Most of us grew up, sitting in front of a blackboard, never listening to the teacher but always doing what we were told. Occasionally we didn’t, and got detention or written reports. A day without homework was like rain at the coast. When you, with that background, walk into a Montessori classroom, beware of gaping. Not very appropriate, but easy to understand. There is just so much learning material! It is fascinating, and more than once you will hear people say, “I wish I could do school over!”

But what exactly makes Montessori schools so interesting? What do they do different that children, and even adults, cannot wait to get there?


First of all, we need to take a trip down memory lane. Over a hundred years ago – in 1870, to be precise – Maria Montessori was born in Italy. Back then, without internet, planes or even bra’s, this woman managed to become the first female doctor in Italy. To make clear how much of a deal that is – the Vatican intervened so that the University of Rome would take her as a medical student. When she graduated (with honours), she started work in a psychiatric clinic. Soon, she realised that even the mentally ill children wanted to learn new things. Following the footsteps of Pestalozzi and Froebel, she devised educational material that would children help to learn hands-on. When she was asked to look after 50 or so children in a Roman slum, she took it as an opportunity to put her many thoughts to the test. Within a few years, her “Casa dei Bambini”, the “Children’s house” had taken foot all over the world.


But what actually was it that captured the world’s interest? Around the 1900’s there were many educationalists. What made her method so special?

The maybe biggest revolution was that her schools had children-sized furniture. In fact, the whole school rotated around the children. Today we sort of know the children need their own-size world. But back then, it was a complete new thing. Also, the furniture was easily moved by the children themselves, instead of being heavy and immobilised. Although child-sized things are normal in any school today, the traditional schools are still missing Montessori’s greatest feature: a totally child-centred environment. Dr Montessori herself said that she was not trying to devise a method of education (that was more of a perk), but that she was trying to understand what we as adults can do to bring out the best personality possible in a child.


Considering that, the difference between traditional and Montessori schools becomes obvious: While in traditional schools, the children are simply herded through the ever-same syllabus, and failures are the norm, in a Montessori school, each child is given the ideal environment to fulfil their potential. This “prepared environment”, as Maria Montessori called it, consists of mixed-age classrooms where the children practically teach themselves by working with materials with a built-in control of error, all the time carefully observed and directed by the Montessori teacher. Directing here means that the teacher sees what a child needs in order to learn something new or improve herself and guides her to the appropriate activity.


The teacher, as you can see, plays more of a background part – the children decide when they want to do what. This freedom of choice, unheard of in a traditional school, comes with responsibilities and consequences. A child cannot do an exercise she does not know how to do – however, she can always ask the teacher to show her. The children, having the right to choose what to do, also have the responsibility to care for all the equipment in the classroom. A dirty table is immediately cleaned by the responsible child; and it is cleaned with a joy and attention that mothers dream of for their children to have at home. The children learn to love what they have and treat it with the utmost care. Hardly ever will you see a child demolishing anything in a Montessori school.


Another difference is that children in a Montessori school cannot be compared to each other, due to two factors: the mixed-age classes and the absence of grades. Instead of a whole bunch of 7-year olds doing the same thing at the same time and all being judged according to the same criteria, there is a class of 6- to 9-year olds, doing different things, being assessed by what they’re capable of. Can you see how difficult it would be to say “This or this one is the best”? And, seeing that there is no “best” child in a Montessori school, there are no rewards given. Oh sure, we all love some glitter and gold, but how inspiring is it to watch someone work simply for the love of work?


Now, some people will ask how these children will survive in the competitive adult world. In fact, Montessori graduates are loved by companies – they work independently, take initiative and most of all, work because they want to. That makes incredibly motivated employees! Children from Montessori schools are incredibly self-disciplined, responsible and independent. By “following the children” to understand what is needed to bring out the best in them, Maria Montessori gave the world a method – a philosophy – that can solve many of the problems we have with education today.