What's it really about?

Montessori education is one of those things that many of us have heard about, but don't really understand. Most people have a vague idea that Montessori schools let kids do whatever they want but, beyond that, very few people could tell you anything else about this century-old educational philosophy.

Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who worked with underprivileged children in the early 1900s, observed that, if given the proper environment, children could absorb an incredible amount of information without the assistance of an adult. Thus was born the core of the Montessori philosophy: Children teach themselves.

From this central tenant stem the key components of Montessori:

Freedom within limits:
Children in a Montessori classroom are allowed to choose their area of focus. They are given small group or individual lessons on topics and then permitted to explore learning materials on their own.

"Montessori encourages independent learning," explained Amy Williams, director of the Teacher Education Program at the Columbus Montessori Education Center. "Kids are doing all different things in the classroom."

However, children are not allowed to just do nothing all day or to focus on one thing while ignoring all other topics.

"We give children freedom, but also responsibilities," said Susan Walling, a teacher at St. Joseph Montessori School in Columbus. "We help them set goals, take turns with materials, and do follow-up work."

The prepared environment:
To enable independent learning, the Montessori classroom is very carefully prepared by the teacher.

"In the Montessori philosophy, the materials and the environment are seen as another teacher," explained Kimberly Miller, assistant professor of education at Ohio Dominican University. Each classroom has areas for exploring art, math, language, science, geography, music, sensory items and practical life (a Montessori hallmark in which children learn age-appropriate life skills such as cleaning and dressing).

Learning materials are easily accessible and available to the children at all times. Typically, "the teacher makes a presentation and then the children can use the materials on their own," said Walling. "The classroom is rich in opportunities to deepen learning."

Teacher as observer and guide:
In a traditional classroom, teachers take center stage. In the Montessori classroom, teachers take a backseat to the students, but that doesn't mean that they aren't an integral component of the philosophy.

"The teacher observes the students and is constantly taking notes on their cognitive, emotional, and motor skills," said Williams. "The teacher then guides the children based on those observations."

"We always say, 'Follow the child, but don't follow them off a cliff,' " laughed Kathy Koehler, who also teaches at St. Joseph Montessori School. Teachers guide their students so that they get a well-rounded education.

"The teacher is responsible to make sure that kids have the right skills for their age group," said Walling. "We help kids achieve a balance."

Hands-on, concrete learning:
"Maria Montessori found that children learned best with hands-on materials," said Miller.

Children in a Montessori classroom learn their ABCs by working with sandpaper letters. They use cubes and other manipulatives to learn math. They are taught to care for themselves and their environment with child-sized tools.

Students who attend Montessori high schools do service-learning projects in which they put their classroom lessons to work in the community.

The multi-age classroom:
Montessori classrooms are composed of multiple age groups. The "Children's House," or pre-school, classroom has children ages 3 to 5. Then first- through third-graders are grouped together, and so on. The children stay with the same teacher for all three years.

The older children work with the younger children in the classroom.

"Sometimes the best teacher is another student," said Williams.

Walling added, "Not only do the students learn to listen and respect each other, but they also get the chance to feel confident and competent."

Cooperation from parents:
All of the teachers and parents interviewed for this article agreed that a Montessori education requires commitment on the parents' part.

"Parents must allow their children to struggle with a task and not jump in to help," said Koehler. "If they don't carry over the principles at home, the child will be confused."

To that end, many Montessori schools offer parent-education classes. Sarah Saxbe Bartz, a parent from Columbus Montessori, said she has integrated Montessori practices in her home, such as having her children clean up after themselves and take the lead in conflict resolution.

"It can be a challenge to allow your kids to do things that aren't comfortable for them," said Karin Wurapa, whose three children attend St. Joseph Montessori School. "We often do for our children out of love, but forget that they are capable of doing things for themselves. Montessori reminds us to give kids the room to learn."