Dr Maria Montessori founded the first Montessori community in 1907 in the slums of Rome, Italy and an educational philosophy grew from her work with these fifty poor, illiterate children.
Today Montessori is the single largest ’pedagogy’ in the world, with over 22,000 schools in more than 100 countries on 6 continents. Celebration of the centenary of Montessori in 2007 validates its continuing relevance for future generations.
Montessori offers a choice for New Zealand families, with more than 80 early childhood centres, 34 primary classes and two high schools providing Montessori learning communities throughout the country.
The aim of Montessori education is to place all the children in the world at the centre of society and to assist them in becoming caring, self-motivated and fulfilled individuals, able to create a sustainable and peaceful future for humanity.
Dr. Montessori believed that by placing children in a stimulating, specially prepared environment, their natural curiosity would help them become self-motivated learners. She stressed following the interests of the child with a focus on self-discovery. Education is ‘preparation for life’, not merely a search for intellectual skills or preparation for school.
Montessori Primary in New Zealand
Montessori primary classes are most often classes within state primary schools, supported by parent trusts. There are four private Montessori schools – two offer education for adolescents. There is one state integrated, stand alone Montessori school. Children start Montessori primary classes when they are six years of age, most often, after three years of Montessori early childhood education.
There is no Montessori franchise in New Zealand. The name Montessori has never been able to be trademarked and any school can use the name “Montessori”.
Walk into a Montessori primary or adolescent class and you will see students of different ages working on the floor, at tables, on their own and in small groups. Each learner is involved in a different activity – writing a diary, doing addition with the stamp game, painting in watercolours, exploring Montessori geometry materials with a friend, building a history timeline, listening to music, making a paper machie sculpture, finishing a project about the life of people in another country, having an introductory lesson about the periodic table with the teacher. The school day is not divided into fixed times for each subject and each student knows they can work for as long as they need on their chosen activity.
What to look for
Visit a Montessori school and observe the students. Look for students working independently and the teachers supporting and guiding each student’s work. Observe for students taking the initiative to actively care for each other and their environment.
Primary Cosmic Education
The primary aged child is turned onto learning. They want to know everything and thirst for knowledge. While facts will hold their interest, what really grabs their attention is the why, the reasons behind things, the interrelatedness of different concepts.
In Montessori primary students are given a totally integrated curriculum referred to as cosmic education. Most of the different subjects are introduced in a series of connected stories that spark a child’s imagination. The stories give the child a context for all future learning, and a way of seeing the relevance in the detail of what they learn. Science and social sciences such as anthropology, biology, astronomy, geology, history and chemistry are integrated with mathematics, language, arts, music.
The primary child is developing a logical reasoning mind – they want to know why, how and when and seek interrelationships between different areas of knowledge. Montessori cosmic education seeks to expand the child’s knowledge by providing the learner with a coherent whole view rather than a mix of unrelated bits of information.
Do the teachers need to have Montessori training?
Montessori teachers need specialist Montessori qualifications for the age group they teach in addition to NZ state qualifications.
Montessori Multi-aged Classes
The Montessori classroom is characterised by multi-aged groupings of at least three years. In primary children start close to sixth birthday and stay to 12 years. Adolescent programmes should start around 12/13 through to 18 years. The most optimal experience is gained when the child experiences Montessori primary from six years of age – look for Montessori primary classes that take the majority of their students at six from Montessori early childhood centres.
Learning responds to Students’ Needs and Interests
Montessori educators know that children are born creative and curious and will use the interests and discoveries of all students to enrich the classroom curriculum and as a springboard for exploration of other areas. Each child progresses at their own pace and selects work that captures their interest and attention, while the teacher strives to draw their attention and capture their interest in new challenges and areas of inquiry. They can choose to work alone or in groups. As this age a child is a very social being, and consequently most often choose to work in small groups.
Montessori Learning Materials
Learners in Montessori are exposed to many complex concepts at an early age through the use of the Montessori materials. The hands on learning materials enable the learner to literally see and explore abstract concepts.
A Montessori classroom focuses on guiding students to self create their own learning challenges – with no work sheets, work plans, task cards, assignment cards, required daily work. Text books and work books are seldom used as primary means of instruction – students in primary are still actively learning through use of the Montessori materials.
Montessori Learning Community
The Montessori classroom is a community in which everyone learns from one another and everyone’s contribution is valued. Students play a real role in deciding and managing classroom activities and routines from preparing community lunches, learning conflict resolution skills to helping classmates and doing community service projects. The classroom functions as a community with each student playing his or her own part and contributing to the daily life and functioning of the class in a positive manner.
Motivated to Learn
Montessori students do not work for grades or external rewards, nor do they simply complete assignments given them by their teachers. In Montessori programmes children learn because they are interested in things and because they have a desire to become competent and independent human beings.
The NZ State curriculum is met using a Montessori approach and state assessments are done in such a way that the character of the Montessori programme is not compromised.
Long uninterrupted work periods
Dr Montessori discovered that students need to work for long periods of time in concentrated activity. If constantly interrupted students do not reach a state of deep focus and will only choose work that needs a superficial involvement. Look for a class that has at least one three hour work period a day and few whole group times.
Primary and high school students must be given real responsibilities in the care of the environment and care of themselves and others. They cook lunches, organise menus and food purchasing, learn to iron, balance a budget, do first aid, put up a tent, make coffee, learn sewing skills, etc. Enabling young people to become competent develops a strong sense of self esteem.
Focus is the Children
Montessori reaches its full potential when the number of adults is kept to the minimum, since the real work of learning belongs to the child. There should be a minimum of adults present (1 trained teacher to 28 children, though there can be a teacher aide there as well for part of the day) so that students learn to rely on themselves and their classmates for help.
Montessori Association of NZ
The Montessori Association of New Zealand (MANZ) was established in 1982. Membership of MANZ is voluntary and schools are not assessed by the Association as to the authenticity or otherwise of their Montessori programmes. Member schools are active participants in Montessori professional development and provide parents with a quarterly magazine focused on Montessori. Montessori ECE centres that belong to MANZ can be found at www.montessori.org.nz/memberschools.shtml
Detailed guidelines for parents seeking quality Montessori centres are being developed by MANZ. For any queries, please phone 0800 33 66 12.
Website for the Montessori Association of New Zealand.