Montessori or Conventional Schooling? Unpacking the question.

These days, as we all try to make the right choices for our children in an increasingly competitive world, I hear parents voicing a perceived dilemma of choosing between Montessori vs. so-called “Conventional” education.    Parents who stay through Montessori Kindergarten rave about the academics their children master and the life skills they demonstrate.  But then those same parents wonder about whether they are taking a “risk” in continuing throughout the Elementary years and beyond.    

So, why the perceived risk?   I believe it is because the notion of children working at their own pace sounds risky if not understood.   “What if my child doesn’t get far enough?”  “What if my child doesn’t learn what everyone else is learning?”   Let’s unpack the perceived pros of conventional systems and/or cons of Montessori.    

It seems that perhaps the biggest pro for conventional schooling and misunderstood “con” for Montessori is the premise that conventional schooling ensures that a student masters the same body of material as others and can be tested in it.  (By the way, this does not seem like a pro for a student already entering school at a high level of achievement relative to their same age peers; however, then perhaps the worry is whether the high achieving student has the stamina or ability to demonstrate knowledge through a “conventional test” after Montessori Elementary?)   It is important to recognize that Montessori hits all of the benchmarks or standards used in conventional schooling and assessment.  

Torit’s teachers, for example, develop individual work plans fully cognizant of the State standards, the testing criteria and Common Core expectations.   However, every child gets a number of different ways to explore the material embodied in those standards and moves as fast as he or she is capable of moving, with teacher guidance as needed.  (Note that it is not the case that every child moves as fast as he or she “wants” to move but rather that the teacher ensures each child is working fully to his or her capabilities in fashioning the individual work plans and expectations.)  Students absolutely demonstrate their knowledge via conventional metrics like testing, both standardized and otherwise.  Montessori students are simply asked to additionally demonstrate the knowledge in ways that go beyond testing and are often harder, e.g. through written pieces edited multiple times and through individual and group oral presentations in addition to drama, art etc.   Montessori students are constantly asked to apply knowledge across disciplines and to teach others.

Another perceived benefit to conventional schooling might be the giving of grades.   However, this goes against all of the modern learning on establishing a growth mindset in students.   A growth mindset is defined in broad brushstrokes as a mindset that assumes there should always be a greater challenge — the more you are accustomed to working through challenges, the better you will be at each new challenge presented.   An “A” student is sometimes easily earning “A”s amongst his/her peer group and learns that no more is required.   At some point, that A student will face a challenge and may not know what to do to rise to the occasion — suddenly all those As will backfire!  Let’s hope this doesn’t happen at a challenging high school or at an entry level point in a top university.   The giving of As can easily thwart the growth mindset.  Further, the student earning grades at the bottom of a class group is easily discouraged.  At a young age that student comes to have a self-image that is hard to overcome.   Montessori is quintessentially a growth mindset curriculum and philosophy.   Students are asked to do their best work and very rarely is a first attempt deemed the best work for any student.  Therefore, Montessori students become accustomed beginning in first grade to drafting and redrafting multiple times.   Thus, the lack of grades is not a lack of standards or rigor but rather ensures the right mentality for the students!

Montessori may be 100+ years old but it is more relevant to the university and workplace skills articulated for the 21st century than any other method of schooling, I know.   

Montessori is both a philosophy and a curriculum.   The curriculum is interdisciplinary, a huge trend in University education.   Major universities worldwide are working on how to interconnect disciplines and teach cross-applications of concepts.   Montessori is still very relevant. Finally, Montessori ensures rigorous academic standards that bear the weight of standardized testing, while also presenting “big ideas”, frameworks for categorizing knowledge of global history and current events, exploring the child’s place in the world and empowering a student to propel him or herself forward and even propose how he / she will further their learning in both preferred and challenging subjects.

Don’t be lured into an artificial choice of conventional vs. Montessori.    As a dedicated Montessori proponent, I believe the risk to worry about is in opting out of the Montessori system.   Opting in to the Montessori system is one of the most reliable ways to ensure that your child learns the full panoply of skills needed for the 21st century, including initiative, leadership, and productivity that might be dropped in traditional “teach to the class” methods.   If you are simply “receiving” lessons and demonstrating knowledge through tests, the skills of initiative, leadership and realizing your maximum productivity via individualized work plans aren’t easily practiced.   At Torit, we also work every day to ensure that flexibility, collaboration, communication, creativity and social skills are always part of the curriculum because we ask  students to utilize their individual skills and relative strengths in a large body of group work.    

The Lesson for Parents:  Be sure to ask questions and discover whether the same Montessori that serves children so well at a young age, in fact fully encompasses those goals and more that you seek for your child from so-called conventional schooling through Elementary school.   At age 5 when a Montessori child learns to read fluently, write paragraphs, name countries worldwide and add sums in the 1000s with materials, a child is just getting started as a Montessori student!