The name Montessori can mean many different things to different people. The number of myths and misconceptions that swirl around the Montessori Method of education is alarming, and can easily dissuade a parent from looking into a Montessori program for their child.

So what is Montessori? Recently this question was asked to a group of people. One person replied with, "Is it a cheese?" Another response was, "Isn't it where Monks live?" If you are unfamiliar with the Montessori approach to education, you may wonder if everything you hear about it is true. Here’s some straight talk on what Montessori isn’t.

MYTH 1: Montessori is a free-for-all; children need structure and Montessori doesn’t offer it.

TRUTH: In the Montessori classroom, children have the freedom to choose work that has a purpose. This includes a wide variety of classroom activity, but the underlying responsibility of the child is to make good choices. Structure comes in the careful and methodical observations the teachers make of the children, so they know exactly where a child is, what they need and when to show them something new. It also comes in the careful training the teacher undergoes to be able to prepare exactly the right environment for a child at his or her developmental stage. Good manners and respect for others is taught and expected, so the practice of social responsibility becomes part of every school day.

MYTH 2: There’s little, if any, opportunity for the young child to develop creativity in the Montessori environment.

TRUTH: A Montessori classroom fosters self-expression based on the assumption that children are ready for serious, beautiful, meaningful activities and the teacher fosters optimal use of their uninterrupted work period. Children have time for free play at recess and also partake in art, music and drama, foreign language and PE. These classes are important to the overall intellectual development of children. Moreover, the Montessori approach in the regular classroom actually encourages creativity by supporting a child’s curiosity and interests. An amazing number of pioneers in technology and the arts have received their educational foundation in Montessori schools. Some examples are:

• Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com

• Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google.com

• Larry Page, co-founder of Google.com

• Julia Child, famous chef

• Jimbo Wales, founder of Wikipedia

• George Clooney, actor/director

• Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize winner for Literature

MYTH 3: Montessori Teachers do not teach

TRUTH: It is true that the role of the teacher in Montessori classroom is not the same as in other forms of education. But this does not mean that we dismiss the active role of the teacher or the value of expert knowledge. The secret of any great teacher is helping learners get to the point that their minds and hearts are open and they are ready to learn. In our classrooms the teacher carefully prepares the environment by providing stimulating objects and by removing obstacles to learning. Typically a teacher will give a lesson to an individual child or to a small group, and then step back to allow the child to pursue the work independently, constructing their knowledge actively, rather than just mechanically memorizing knowledge from the teacher or the textbook. In this way Montessori teachers transform the student from a passive recipient of information to an active participant in the learning process, teaching them not just what to learn, but how to learn.

MYTH 4: As children get older the Montessori program will not keep pace with curriculum offered in traditional schools.

TRUTH: Children learn most effectively through direct experience, the process of direct investigation and discovery. Asking a child to sit back and watch us perform a process or experiment is like asking a one-year old not to put everything into his mouth. Children need to learn by doing. Montessori schools teach skills such as reading, writing and research by exploring other subjects in the curriculum including cultural studies and science. Skills are not taught simply for the skill’s sake. On the contrary, Montessori encourages children to advance at their own pace. The Montessori curriculum encourages the children to excel and they may even surpass the academic levels of their peers in traditional schools.

As you can see, there are many misconceptions about Montessori philosophy and education, often born out of misunderstanding. If you’re new to Montessori – or even if you’re not – it’s only natural to have questions. If the Montessori Method sparks your interest, I encourage you to visit a program in your area.

Diane M. Bauso is head of school for Creative Minds Montessori, 169 Genesee St., Auburn. She can be reached at (315) 406-9495.

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Executive Editor