FAQ

Below, some of the questions which are frequently asked by parents inquiring about the Montessori pedagogy for the first time.
These answers have been put together by Grazia Honegger Fresco and Mario Valle.

What happens after primary school?

In truth, most children are disappointed, especially if they are transitioning from the “children’s house” (nursery) to a traditional Primary School, where they are confronted with compulsory tasks that must be carried out in a predetermined amount of time, in spite of their young age. This is even worse when children are as young as 5 or 5 and 1/2.
The passage to the middle school is different, especially if children have the background of the Montessori Nursery and Primary School, where they have been trained from the beginning to make free and responsible choices. They are therefore stronger and more self-aware. Children have already achieved self control and have developed responsible ways of working and interacting with other children.
In fact, in the last year of the Primary Montessori School they are encouraged to face and be confronted with all the differences of the system that awaits them: tests, grades, competition, and above all the inability to make their own choices.
To achieve this, the Montessori School considers it a must to fortify the character of children by letting them grow in an anxiety free, judgment free and non-competitive environment, at least during their early years.

Is it true that in the Montessori School children are free to do whatever they want?

Certainly not. Maria Montessori believed that freedom has nothing in common with anarchy, on the contrary the method has been structured in order to let children understand and value the importance of discipline, offering them the instruments that will help them to make the right choices while following the rules. In fact, there are clear and well-defined behavioural guidelines.
As a Montessori child once said: “Here we don’t do whatever we want, but we want what it is that we are doing!”
The will of a child to be active and to be intensely engaged is therefore strictly dependent on the capability of making free choices amongst the numberless opportunities available in his/her environment. The adult is only responsible for setting up this environment, it is similar to setting out a nice buffet where each child chooses what he wants.
Furthermore, together with the freedom of choice the child also takes on the responsibility implied in his choice of tools and materials. These must not be damaged, must be used properly and must be put back in their place when he/she is finished with them. (It is not appropriate to use an orange to play a ball game, nor would you use a spoon to dig a hole in the ground). This acquired sense of responsibility is not compatible with “doing whatever I want” in the usual wilful sense of the phrase.

If a child likes to read or draw, is that all he/she will do?

Nursery or Primary School – the choices we offer to the child are numberless and appealing. Adults present them, but without imposing any of them. Children at the beginning will find it more reassuring to often choose the same things, but they will soon be attracted by something new. Their beautiful mind doesn’t know laziness: they watch the activities of the others and they want to try it as well. They first approach new things shyly, then they throw themselves happily into the new activities with an enthusiasm matching their deep need for discovery. This releases the pleasure of acting and discovering, which comes from within oneself. Obligations, prohibitions, external stimulations act exactly in the opposite way.

Is the child who works individually too detached from others? Isn’t it a way of curtailing the relationship amongst classmates?

In adult life, to have been able to build your own independence is a basic fact of life, but this faculty cannot be improvised, it must be built from early childhood onwards, without distracting the child from this task.
In practice, independence means not relying on an adult or on a more experienced classmate to do things which could be done by oneself, like personal hygiene, eating, dressing, undressing, etc. Having said that, in a Montessori school there is all the interaction a child can desire but working with materials for these few hours a day is so appealing that children prefer to master the challenges that these materials offer them.
This way they become happier and kinder, this is the basis of real socialization, if the child chooses to work on his own because he is really interested in it and does not want to be disturbed in what he’s doing… This is the way the child reaches the maximum concentration. During the day there are also moments during which the child is attracted by smaller or bigger groups, which might be proposed by the teachers like “the circle”, offering an opportunity to share with others different things like singing, telling stories and other collective activities.

How can a teacher take care of all the children, if everyone chooses a different activity?

Our Montessori teachers are particularly trained to watch after the single child as well as the small groups that will spontaneously form. They will not just sit at their desk and they will not give orders. When children are not there teachers will carefully organise the classroom space in detail to meet the children’s requirements, and should this not work out as expected, they will always be ready to modify and prepare other alternative scenarios.
This carefully prepared environment functions as an additional teacher: silent, unobtrusive but powerful. It is a discreet invitation to act.
When the teacher works with one or several children, the others are busy and focused on a number of different tools or activities that they themselves choose and therefore find interesting. Children are never out of the teacher’s sight, but a teacher offers her direct help only to the children she is actually working with. During the day she will offer her presence to all the others in turns. Actual lessons are usually short and individual, and last just enough for the child to be able to do by himself what he is working on.
Objects and materials are also chosen following this concept and most of the time the child is able to judge on his own whether he has been working correctly or not. This enhances the pleasure of repetition and concentration.

Silence is one of the distinctive features of a Montessori class. How come?

This is one of the rules at the root of our way of working, however it is not enforced by teachers, but is the result of the high degree of discipline reached by the children themselves. It is quite obvious that the tranquillity and silence of the classes are a reflection of the high levels of concentration children dedicate to their activities.

Is the Montessori school appropriate for all children?

A cactus will not survive in the mountains, neither will a pine tree in a desert. Every living being needs an environment suitable to its basic needs. A child needs a safe and welcoming environment in which to express himself, where he will be given a choice on what activities to pursue, but where he will also have clear boundaries. For example, a child will be told: “you can use any of these objects, but only one at a time and only if no one else is using it”.
When they first attend a Montessori school, many children are not able to accept this rule, either because they are too shy and uncertain to choose an object, or because they are used to having “everything and now” and are unwilling to wait for their classmate to have finished using it. It will be sufficient not to impose rigid obedience and offer many interesting tools and activities to choose from but be firm in the requirement to wait until something is free to be used. Children must come to understand that playing tricks, teasing and picking on others will not be allowed, and they will slowly discover the pleasure of accepting the rules of the community as a whole, and of being part of and loved by it.
In a Montessori school the teachers do not shout, do not punish, do not draw attention and shame children for their mistakes. As a result, within this quiet and peaceful environment, children will not judge or denigrate the classmate who makes mistakes or is unable to do something, on the contrary they will spontaneously be inclined to help him or her. A child who is undisciplined and aggressive – and therefore unhappy – will gradually adapt and improve his behaviour and will become more at ease with himself and others. The younger the child is, the easier and quicker will be the transformation.
According to the Montessori philosophy, freedom cannot be “given”, it must be earned and constructed step by step from the earliest years, by exercising individual choice and self-correcting one’s behaviour, by becoming self-aware and conscious of the trust that is placed in him to monitor his own behaviour. To choose, to play with, and to return objects to their proper place from a very young age, as happens in Montessori nurseries, is the first step to allow the child to build his own awareness and sense of responsibility towards others and toward his environment.

If there is only one of each object and teaching tool, what happens when a child wants to use it but it’s already taken?

s there is only one object of its kind, there is necessarily a rotation system for its use, one that is not however enforced by teachers. Children thus learn to respect others and wait for their own turn, curbing their impatience and learning the value of sharing. In the meantime, of their own accord or prompted by the teacher, they will seek and choose another tool that sparks their interest and curiosity.

While a child plays with a game, what do the others do?

Other children will work individually or in teams with other tools. At this age work and play are the same thing.

The available teaching materials and objects do not seem to encourage creativity

Teaching materials, and in general all of the teacher’s demonstrations are only ever the starting point. A child learns how to use a microscope… discovery comes later. He learns the proper use of scissors when he is three years old, by the time he is 5 or 6 he will be able to use them as freely and creatively as if they were pencils, to create shapes and figures without drawing them first. Learning to use Montessori’s teaching materials is like learning to play a violin so that after you can play music. It is not “creative” to use a violin as a hammer or a building block, “creativity” is learning how to play a violin properly so that later you can create music. In the same way all sensory based teaching materials or those used for grammar and arithmetic allow for multiple and creative applications, it all depends on the sense of freedom and exploration that the teacher has been able to create in the class.

The materials seems to be old and do not evolve

A majority of the didactic materials that were invented and used during Maria Montessori’s life have been observed to still have an integral purpose for children and are still being used in the classroom today.
Having a tablet in the classroom doesn't make a school digital. A Smartboard in the classroom doesn't make a school modern when it is being used for a classic frontal lesson.  Even top developers of the most modern smartphone applications still rely on non-technological common physical items such as sticky tabs and post its.
It is not technology which makes a school modern, but rather the ideas and principals that the school embodies makes a school modern.
In Montessori schools many of the materials are still used by children with the same interest and enthusiasm as 1907.  These materials continue to be used in the classroom, after repeated observations that show they fulfill the developmental needs of children and are therefore very functional.
For example, the grammar and logic analysis are rendered interesting and fun because they are related to the child's common language, his pleasure for reading and experimenting. Other materials – as those related to science or history – are more likely to be subject to innovations and change which result from recent research and discoveries. An example of materials changing are the timelines of the first human beings or the Montessori Strip of Life that have been recently updated according to a Darwinist approach by Telmo Pievani.
The most important motto in the Montessori education is: "Follow the child". We avoid any verbal judgment which would humiliate the child, we consider his/her individual needs, we consider the needs of each individual as well as the group as a whole, and we keep in mind that the positive climate of the class depends on the quality of the activities offered to the children. Therefore, there is nothing old, boring or useless in the Montessori materials: in this case, the children would refuse them or not use them.

Why are there no grades in elementary school?

The underlying idea is that each child's self-esteem is built through the awareness of his/her own improvement. Most of the Montessori materials are self-corrective: the children automatically understand their own mistakes and correct them themselves. These corrections are self-motivated and not because of an evaluation done by a teacher.

Why are Montessori classrooms multi-age classrooms, where children of different ages work together?

This system allows the children to establish work groups with different ages. Children can either work individually or in groups to accomplish creative and personalized projects. Relationships in the classroom are established between children of the same age as well as among children of different age groups. The "older" children have already learned many things and are able to share their knowledge with the "younger" ones, while deepening their acquired knowledge. The younger children are continuously stimulated by the older ones, who become their models and reference of their future learning path.

Why are children taught to clean up their things at school, and at home they don't do it?

School is a social context where children share the same environment and the same materials. Therefore, it is natural and mandatory to observe order and to respect rules. This behavior is a response to the interior need for order of each child.

What happens if the child changes school half way through the year from Montessori school to another school? Is he going to lack some part of the program?

The child is not going to lack any knowledge, but if he has a weakness in any particular subject, the child has developed the skills and focus that will quickly allow him to catch up.
Instead of focusing on a fixed program and skills, it is more important to focus on the needs of each individual child and to be attentive to his/her feelings and emotions.
We try to avoid transferring children halfway through the year, unless this is really unavoidable. Mid-year transfers are a big change and are hard on the child because they suddenly break the child's friendships and relationships, and he/she will need to adjust to a new and unknown group where he/she might feel different.
This type of change would be very challenging for any child changing schools, not only a child from a Montessori school.

Will my child be able to pass the end of year exams of the new school?

There are usually no problems during exams, instead, very often, these children have the best results since they are prepared in a deeper, superior and greater way, because they don't memorize by heart like other children who study just to pass an exam.

Do Montessori schools create "different" children? Are they able to live in the real world?

Many people have graduated from Montessori schools and are able to live and participate in our society. Many graduates are found to be self-confident and comfortable with who they are. Some famous examples of Montessori students are Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (creators of Google), Helen Keller, etc.
A Brandon Kuczuma's comment on youtube about the mining of reality, can very well explain the common thought: "traditional school is the real world". This is one of the most ignorant things I have ever heard in fact it is real only if you are going to work in a cubicle the rest of your life.

I think children need competitiveness and frustration as they are going to find them in the future life.

Children need truth. In Montessori schools they learn not to fear it.
They experiment with independence and self-confidence, making things without any need of competition and predictable defeat.
They turn to each other with attention and respect because they appreciate each other’s works and are satisfied about their own work.
Children who come to Montessori after a period in regular school based on competition, often take a little time to adjust to the calm environment, but slowly they learn to relate to others in a more quiet and correct way.
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