Montessori Schools vs. Traditional Schools

By Paru Rellan, Kincaid Montessori School, Sept 2015

A common misconception is that Montessori is a franchise. It is not a franchise, but rather a philosophy of teaching named after Dr. Maria Montessori. While any school can call themselves Montessori, there are two associations — American Montessori Society (AMS) and Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) — that qualify a Montessori school, and they are the best resource to evaluate and review a school for your child.

Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician and educator who believed that children should learn independence; care for themselves, others, and their environment; and work purposefully. She believed that a child’s ability was depthless and that all children. In their uniqueness, children learn at different paces and should be able to learn independently, rather than at the pace of a group of children enrolled in the same class.

For the sake of this post, I am only discussing preschool classrooms serving children ages 2-6. There are many differences between traditional and Montessori classrooms at different age levels. A Montessori preschool is different from a traditional preschool or daycare in the following ways:

Children in a Montessori classroom are taught to be independent, whereas in a traditional classroom the emphasis on children is to work as a group. Lessons are taught independently or in small groups of 2-3 in a Montessori classroom. In a traditional preschool, lessons are typically taught to the entire class.

Trained Montessori Teachers
There is a minimum requirement for teachers to be considered lead, but that standard is set by the Department of Social Services and the State, rather than by the institution. However, in Montessori schools, the lead teacher is also required to have a Montessori Certificate that takes 1- to 2-years to attain and is based on practical and theoretical work. Parents should ask what certifications are required of the lead teacher and what formal education they have.

Material & Curriculum

Self-Correcting Material
(Montessori) material is self-correcting, meaning that when a child makes a mistake, the child can usually spot their own error through feedback from the materials. The ability to correct oneself fosters independence and increases self-esteem.
• Traditional schools typically don’t have specialized materials children can use that is self-correcting. The materials usually consist of toys and rote learning in a group setting. Some children are left behind in this format, but they are taught as a group nonetheless.

Order & Repetition
• Materials are placed on a child-sized shelf in order of difficulty from left to right (this is a precursor for learning how to read). The placement of classroom material is designed to help children learn the left to right eye movement early on so that no time needs to be spent on it when they are ready to read.
• In a traditional preschool, materials are placed as the school or teacher would like, but not necessarily placed based on the developmental philosophy of a child.

The Prepared Environment
“The prepared environment” is a phrase that is often heard when either visiting or researching a Montessori school. This is the classroom itself — the environment in which a child works and does activities is one that should be clean, simple, and not overwhelming with color and toys that do not offer any educational benefit to a child.

Maria Montessori believed that the materials themselves should interest and draw a child, not the colors. Her belief (which, as a Montessori Director, I see in classrooms all the time) was that children will enjoy learning and work will seem like play. Her beliefs also state the child, once engaged and absorbed in the work, will find pleasure and satisfaction in the efforts they put forth. In a traditional preschool classroom, there are educational items and toys, however, posses a lot more color and eye-catching items than when you walk in than a Montessori classroom.

In a Montessori environment, children are not seated at a desk doing work or playing — they have the choice to sit on the carpet with a work rug, in small groups, or at the table, Various Montessori environments allow them to be free, to move, and learn.

Mixed-Age Classrooms
A traditional preschool has age groups of 1 year, meaning ages 2-3, ages 3-4, or 4-year-olds only. The Montessori classroom, in contrast, has a community-style environment, where children are grouped in age ranges such as 16-months to 3-years-old, and 3- to 6-year olds. This mix of ages gives younger children a chance to mimic older children, and the older ones learn to nurture and try to assist the younger ones.

Child-Centered vs. Teacher-Centered
A Montessori classroom is based around working to meet the individual needs of a child, not group lessons centered on the teacher. Children in a Montessori classroom learn at their own pace and the teacher guides and aides their development.

In Conclusion
These are the overarching differences between Montessori and traditional preschools. In future posts, I can address the entire philosophy behind the Montessori curriculum and teaching style.

Parents interested in a Montessori education should compare a Montessori School and traditional preschool through in-person visits and take notes on the differences. Observe and evaluate each classroom, noting the quietness and order, material on the shelves, and the routine of the classroom. Then, read about the differences. There are plenty of resources at local libraries and online. The American Montessori Society (AMS) and Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) are great places to start!