The American Montessori Revival, Part II: “Her observations and her ideas have stood the test of time.”
In Part I of this series, I discussed the sudden resurgence of Montessori education in Massachusetts between 1950 and the early 1980s, and the nature of its appeal. In this piece, I will look at the reasons for renewed American interest in Montessori during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The events of the early 1980s indicated that Massachusetts was on the verge of a “boom” in Montessori schools, driven by people unhappy with the results of a recent referendum that changed how public schools in the state were funded. But a decade later, The Boston Globe was still answering questions like this one, from a curious reader:
“The Boston Globe, April 2, 1993. Image from Newspapers.com.”
By 1996, however, the Globe reported that Montessori waitlists were long in Northern Massachusetts, despite a handful of newly founded schools in the region. There were now a total of ten small private schools claiming alignment with Montessori’s method, ranging from pre-school to first grade.
“The Philosophy that Inspires These Small Schools”
The Globe’s report focused on one such school, and the report described finding a “well-thumbed” book on Greek mythology. The teacher had hoped to hide it from her 35 students until she was ready to incorporate it into a lesson, “but in the spirit of philosophy that inspires these small schools, the children [had] gone exploring on their own.”
This “philosophy” was gradually mainstreaming, the article said, despite the fact that “the public at large may still view the Montessori movement with some suspicion.”
Even though the article spanned three pages, it did not adequately explain the substance of the “philosophy” perceived by the reporter, the reasons it was catching on, or the reasons for existing “suspicions.” (Not long before, the Globe had run a story on a local Montessori school under the mysterious headline “In Hingham, whimsy that works.”) Whatever this philosophy was, it seemed to have little to do with the “muscle training” described in 1993 Globe staff’s reply to the above inquiry. As with much of the reporting on Montessori schools in the 90s and 2000s, one must read between the lines, synthesizing suggestive remarks from an array of articles, to form a working theory of developments.
In this case, the first hint is the reference to the children’s natural and unhindered curiosity—they had spontaneously "gone exploring” into Greek mythology. The reporter portrays this as representative of the philosophy that “inspires” the Montessori movement.
The title of the article is also suggestive: “Montessori school movement gains in acceptance, used in traditional schools.”
Perhaps this was related to the rather remarkable assertion of a Montessori Schools of Massachusetts board member, quoted in the article as saying that the state’s Education Reform Act, which had been passed only a few years earlier, had been based on the philosophy of Maria Montessori.
Revolt Against Age-Grading
This remark is not really explained, but in context, it seems to be a reference to the fact that the MA public school system had formally adopted a standard curriculum that promoted concepts that some associated with Montessori. The most notable was an absence of age-grading, and the article suggests that the 1993 Reform Act had led to more experimentation in the public(“traditional”) schools, including the importation of some explicitly “Montessorian” approaches:
“Among the highlights of that philosophy are multi-aged groups of children learning together in one room and schedules that provide sizable blocks of time for students to dive into schoolwork. Some public school districts in the region, including Ipswich and Salem, are beginning to experiment with the multi-age approach, mixing two grades together in one classroom. And at least one school district in the state, Holliston, has implemented a full-fledged Montessori program in its elementary grades. Parents in that district have a choice of enrolling students in a traditional program, a French immersion program or the Montessori program. But change comes slowly in the public sector.”
The principal of Salem's Horace Mann School said he had embraced multi-age groupings because it meets children where they are and encourages them to master skills at their own pace, “eliminating the artificial steps imposed by grades,” as the reporter put it.
Vetting Montessori Schools
The article then returned to private Montessori schools, noting that their regional popularity was in part attributable “to an intensive teacher training program that has been operating on the North Shore for the last 12 years,” meaning it started not long after the Proposition 2 ½ controversy. This program was run by the Northeast Montessori Institute, which rented space at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.
“‘There is great demand for Montessori teachers nationwide because parents are looking for alternatives,’ said Martha Monahan, site director for the institute...The institute is affiliated with the American Montessori Society, which has seen the number of schools in its ranks climb slowly but steadily over the last 30 years. It now has about 800 schools connected with it, including three in the North Weekly region. But figuring out just how many Montessori schools are out there is another story and a potential dilemma for parents. ‘Montessori is in the public domain - anybody can stick her name on,’ said Juliet Nagle, principal of the Merrimack Montessori School in Haverhill. ‘It's up to the public to ask questions.’”
But the parents didn’t seem too concerned about this issue. A mother explained that she had known little of the philosophy when she had enrolled her three-year-old in a private school that advertised itself as following the Montessori method. She had been thrilled with the results: exposure to “haiku poetry, artists, ideas in general,” a respectful and rich environment for her now ten-year-old daughter, who “blossomed.” By that time, the school had extended its program up through sixth grade at the request of satisfied parents like herself.
Naturally, there was a lot of room for individual interpretation of what Montessori education represented. By the 1990s, these interpretations had become increasingly diverse and creative, with parental perspectives getting as much, or more, coverage than those of professional educators and other experts. What’s fascinating is how the dizzying constellation of seemingly contradictory or unrelated concerns echo the 1910s reaction, suggesting a pattern with its own internal logic, and that many American parents continued to operate in the mode of Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
A description of one newly-founded private school for children ages 3-6 applied a remarkably Deweyan lens to the sensory methods associated with Montessori. The classroom was designed around participation in “everyday-life activities,” but the examples given are not exactly what comes to mind upon hearing that phrase: pumpkin scrubbing, duck polishing, plucking Indian corn, and dropping marbles into water. This had more of a “project method” feel—no mention of dressing oneself, keeping the classroom in order, or Montessori-specific toys or crafts. The paragraph suggested that various “progressive” ideas had merged into an associative word cloud: “There's scooping and twisting...It's all preparation for...learning to write.”
Again, patterns dating back to the 1910s were detectable, and the blurring distinctions counteracted some of the false dichotomies of that time, allowing for simpler summaries of the approach. The head of the school explained that a respect for children was paramount, “the teacher serves as a demonstrator and role model.” Her job was to guide students “as they choose what to do” for themselves, not “order them on a forced march to an end someone else has decided for them.” The goal was “active, self-directed learning.”
The heads of other local Montessori schools chimed in to try and move past the old controversies, emphasizing balance and offsetting forces: Their classrooms were highly organized and highly structured, but open: “There are a lot of ground rules and a lot of freedom.” One classroom might contain twenty-four children ranging from age 2.9[?] to age 7, each working on a different activity, yet the atmosphere was calmer than usual, because the younger students were mimicking the behavior of the older ones, rather than constantly seeking the teacher’s guidance. “For the older students in the room, sharing what they know with the younger ones fosters self-esteem, another central theme of the Montessori philosophy.”
Escaping the 1910s (With the Exception of Dorothy Canfield Fisher!)
What was missing almost entirely was the scientific emphasis, so prevalent in the 1910s. This makes sense, given that the 1910s probably marked peak deification of credentialed experts and faith in scientific solutions to all present and future problems. With the first wave of reformers’ reputations having nowhere to go but down, after some time had passed, other authorities could now be cited in service of the same set of concerns, and experts were less territorial when they were interviewed. The comparison reveals how little many of those disputes had to do with the fundamentals or substantive issues that come up in the classroom, just like the later “schism” among professional educators in the 60s. These disputes can be of true intellectual, institutional, and practical importance, but they tend to be too context-specific, abstract, or esoteric to have a decisive impact on educational trends.
This is evident in the article’s discussion of “a series of misunderstandings” surrounding the method. The old talking points float untethered from specifics, as an experienced Montessori educator casually points out that some people think it is too structured, others that it is too free, and still others that it is “run by the church.”
Whereas older educators were still defending against the charges made against Montessori in the pre-WWI years, it seems most people, without that baggage, had a new set of associations, ones that stood alone, rather than in opposition to rival theories: self-esteem, respect, creativity, mixed-age classrooms, learning at one’s own pace.
For example, in 1999, the Boston Globe described a Boston Montessori School associated with the Catholic Church: “Based on concepts set down in 1907 by the founder of the teaching method, Dr. Maria Montessori, the school promotes self-help and independence in its children and provides experiences that foster exploration, problem solving, experimentation, and creativity.”
This sounds much like Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her 1912 book, A Montessori Mother, in which she argued “the principle...of the Montessori school is the ideal principle of democracy, namely, that human beings reach their highest development (and hence are of most use to society) only when for the growth of their individuality they have the utmost possible liberty which can be granted them without interfering with the rights of others.” This followed from the Emersonian-Deweyan logic about the threat posed by hegemony to learning and progress, which led Canfield to conflate democracy, self-government, individual liberty/personality, and innovation/learning.
In a trend that appears to have revived in the 1990s, Fisher thus interprets Montessori’s relatively similar logic about the need for liberty and individual personality development in education in terms of democracy and freedom from oppression: “if...democracy works better than the wisest of paternal despotisms, then it ought to be true that in the schoolroom's miniature copy of society there should be less paternal despotism, more democracy, less uniformity of regulation and more,—very much more,—individuality.”
Of course, just as in 1912, this did imply a sort of rivalry with the education status quo, suggesting that the current system was insufficiently concerned with cultivating these things. The mother of the ten-year-old added that she wasn’t focused on getting her daughter into Harvard, implicitly contrasting the rising “striver” culture with a more experimental approach that exposed kids to poetry and allowed them to “blossom.” This was a new problem not seen in the 1910s or even during Montessori’s lifetime.
In the first two decades of the 21st century, however, Montessori was sometimes associated with that now-dominant striver culture, portrayed as a possible route to career success in the new economy. As early as 1996, the Boston Globe cited Maria Montessori as saying that "each child has a right to have his or her potential maximized,” noting that “a natural extension of that idea is to recognize that the diminishment of any child's potential is a significant loss to us all.”
The Early 2000s: National Attention
In 2006, Will Wright, the creator of SimCity, The Sims, and other world-building games, credited his success in part to attending a Montessori elementary school, “with its emphasis on creativity, problem solving, and self-motivation.” He told an interviewer that “Montessori taught me the joy of discovery...It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori—if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.”
In Massachusetts, however, the Montessori approach continued to appeal to the Emersonian and Deweyan types, just as it had in the 1910s with Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Helen Parkhurst. In 2003, Boston parents were reportedly scrambling to get access to the “elite Montessori technique” that had become popular in wealthy suburbs like Lexington, in independent schools that sought to “instill independence, creativity, and cultural appreciation.”
“I have always detested ethnocentrism and parochialism, and that's something you don't find in Montessori, which has an international emphasis. I love how my child has been introduced to the global community, at the same time that he's built a close-knit community in his classroom. [He] has enjoyed a wide range of cultural studies and celebrations, even cooking ethnic foods. He recognizes every country's flag and has sorted out the details of continents while working with pin-maps.”
That same year, a Massachusetts journalist speculated that Montessori functioned as a romantic alternative to the status quo. “Mothering Magazine, my own barometer of granola parenting gone too far, calls [Montessori classrooms] ‘magical’ and filled with a ‘sense of wonder.’” She went on to suggest another source of the appeal: “it's all about structure and framework and purpose...It's about the appeal of precision.”
And, in recent years, she acknowledged, the method had appeared to help even disadvantaged urban students—a recent study indicated that Montessori kids not only did well academically, but "showed more concern for fairness and justice," wrote more creative and complex essays, responded better to “social dilemmas,” and were more likely to say they felt a sense of community at school. The Montessori culture smacks faintly of indoctrination. But maybe in the end it's that intensity as well as Maria Montessori's basic wisdom that kids can teach themselves if they're operating within a sturdy framework that accounts for her schools' continuing appeal.”
I myself can report that by the time I was old enough, in the early 2000s, to check the news ticker to see if my school had declared a snow day, there were lots of New England Montessori schools scrolling by. This remained true until I graduated from the Massachusetts public school system in 2007.
The Montessori Mafia
But by 2011, there was a different emphasis, but one still rooted in the Emersonian-Deweyan pragmatic tradition I have discussed elsewhere: Wright was featured in a WSJ piece on the “Montessori Mafia,” a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who had attended Montessori schools as children. The piece suggested that “the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite,” and asked if there was something about it “that nurtures creativity and inventiveness."
“After all, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were famous life-long tinkerers, who discovered new ways of doing things by constantly improvising, experimenting, failing, and retesting. Above all they were voraciously inquisitive learners.
The Montessori learning method...emphasizes a collaborative environment without grades or tests, multi-aged classrooms, as well as self-directed learning and discovery for long blocks of time, primarily for young children ages 2 1/2 to 7.”
By 2018, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a member of the “Mafia,” was announcing a new philanthropic endeavor: free preschools run on “the teaching philosophy of Maria Montessori.” The press noted that Bezos had attended a Montessori school himself, and summarized that philosophy as focused on “individual learning and social-emotional development.” In other words, fully developing the talents and character of each student. Pieces from this period did not emphasize the creativity or problem-solving aspects, although some mentioned intrinsic motivation, freedom, and choice, which were said to develop “the soft skills that 21st century learners need to have.” The impression was that Montessori created driven, well-adjusted adults, but not innovators or citizens—both the Deweyan and Emersonian concepts were starting to slip away, as was the association with early childhood development.
Some scholars have argued that the initial phase of Montessori education in America was marked by a“rise and fall of a specific set of ideas,” whereas the second phase in the 50s and 60s focused on “internecine squabbles” between organizations and other factions in the small community of educators actively trying to shape the revival’s trajectory. (“A unique interplay of people, events, and historical context led to both an expansion of the method and, eventually, to a splintering of the U.S. movement.”) In their view, the movement’s “progressive” wing’s often controversial modifications to the method were designed to “forge a version of Montessori infused with core American values of pluralism, secularism, and inclusiveness.”
Scholars define the third phase as starting in the mid-1990s and argue that as of 2008 it “encompasses the current wave of interest in Montessori,” which increasingly revolved around public school Montessori programs. If this phase is not still ongoing, it is not clear when it ended. I’d argue there was a qualitative shift in all education reform movements during the 2010s, and that the pandemic era has been sufficiently disruptive to justify declaring a fourth phase. If so, this article serves as a review of the entire third phase.
I agree with the scholars who wrote in 2008 that “while other movements and methods, rooted in similar notions of childhood and development, have withered under the force of American political and social pressures, Montessori alone continues to function as a distinctive educational approach."
I’d suggest that this is because the essence of the method, at least as interpreted by 20th-century American reformers (almost all of whom were characterized as advocates of progressive education at one point or another), was never taken to revolve around childhood and development per se. (Not in the way that those terms were used during the Progressive Era, when they had primarily scientific and "neutral” connotations, with little inherent connection to ideals or principles like promoting democracy or respecting every student's personality and potential.) Montessori’s vision spanned both approaches at the time with a more holistic, first principles orientation, and this has allowed her to transcend changes in scientific assumptions and social norms that have discredited other methods or undermined their appeal. She offers a clearly stated, flexible framework and appeals to some relatively timeless, non-partisan concepts, and is therefore not easily destabilized by changing details, arrangements, and many “modifications” by later reformers who at least shared her dedication to the cause and basic values.
“Maria Montessori was not a theorist, at least not in the conventional academic mold. She was a physician and a careful observer of children who sought to create a practical system of education that brought about optimal learning. Her observations and her ideas have stood the test of time.”
While few schools may take a “pure” Montessori approach, and while people may disagree on what she represents, it remains true that Dr. Montessori is utterly unique in her association with a distinct educational approach in contemporary America.
- Coco McCabe, “Montessori school movement gains in acceptance,” The Boston Globe, North Weekly Sunday Edition, December 1, 1996.
- In Hingham, whimsy that works,” The Boston Globe, March 9, 1995.
- McCabe, “Montessori school movement gains in acceptance.”
- Ibid. (“A lot of the theories and directives of the common core of learning [in the state Education Reform Act] are Montessorian. It’s based in the same philosophy.”) Some additional information on the MA Education Reform Act of 1993 can be found here.
- McCabe, “Montessori school movement gains in acceptance.” (Emphases added).
- Ibid. (Emphases added).
- The Boston Globe, May 16, 1999. (Emphases added).
- Dorothy Canfield Fisher, A Montessori Mother (United States: H. Holt, 1912) (”[Montessori] took as her motto the old, old, ever-misunderstood one of ’Liberty!’-that liberty which we still distrust so profoundly in spite of the innumerable hard knocks with which the centuries have taught us it is the only law of life...All over again in this new field of education Dr. Montessori fought the old fight against the old idea that liberty means red caps and riots and guillotines. All afresh, as though the world had never learned the lesson, she was obliged to show that liberty means the only lasting road to order and discipline and self-control. Once again, for the thousandth time, people needed to be reminded that the reign of the tyrant who imposes laws on human souls from the outside (even though that tyrant intends nothing but the best for his subjects and be called ‘teacher’), produces smothered rebellion, or apathy, or broken submissiveness, but never energetic, forward progress. For this constant turning to that trust in the safety of freedom which is perhaps the only lasting spiritual conquest of our time, is the keynote of her system. This is the real answer to the question, ‘What is there in the Montessori method which is so different from all other educational methods?’ This is the vital principle often overlooked in the fertility of invention and scientific ingenuity with which she has applied it. This reverence for the child's personality, this supreme faith that liberty of action is not only safe to give children, but is the prerequisite of Growth, is the rock on which the edifice of her system is being raised.”) (Emphases added).
- The Boston Globe, May 9, 1996.
- John Seabrook, ”Game Master,” The New Yorker, October 29, 2006, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/11/06/game-master. Wright is also quoted as saying, “The problem with our education system is we’ve taken this kind of narrow, reductionist, Aristotelian approach to what learning is...It’s not designed for experimenting with complex systems and navigating your way through them in an intuitive way, which is what games teach. It’s not really designed for failure, which is also something games teach. I mean, I think that failure is a better teacher than success. Trial and error, reverse-engineering stuff in your mind—all the ways that kids interact with games—that’s the kind of thinking schools should be teaching. And I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success or failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later.” (Emphases added).
- The Boston Globe, November 23, 2003. (Emphases added).
- Deborah Gardner Walker, ”A milestone for Montessori evokes a mother’s appreciation, The Boston Globe, January 7, 2007.
- The Berkshire Eagle, May 27, 2007. (Emphases added).
- Peter Sims, ”The Montessori Mafia,” WSJ, April 5, 2011, https://archive.ph/Eq40t#selection-2245.187-2261.266. (Emphases added).
- Ibid. (Emphases added).
- Christina A. Samuels, ”The ‘Montessori Mafia': Why Tech Titans Like Jeff Bezos Support the Model,” EdWeek, September 24, 2018, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/the-montessori-mafia-why-tech-titans-like-jeff-bezos-support-the-model/2018/09. Keith Whitescarver and Jacqueline Cossentino, "Montessori and the mainstream: A century of reform on the margins," Teachers College Record 110, no. 12, 2571-2600, 2008. A .pdf file can be found here. (Emphases added).
- This shift was related to trends like the growth of the internet, the 2008 Financial Crisis, political conflicts over school choice and public-school curricula, and the adoption of Common Core standards.
- Whitescarver and Cossentino, "Montessori and the mainstream: A century of reform on the margins.” (Emphases added).
- Ibid. (Emphases added).
- Ibid. (”Montessori’s ideas about how children learn are supported by a strong body of empirical evidence and championed by developmental psychologists, even though they may be unaware that Dr. Montessori came up with the ideas initially. One developmental psychologist has written a highly regarded book exploring the scientific basis for Montessori education and concluded that none of the central ideas of Montessori has been disproved.”) (Emphases added).
Kerry Ellard earned a B.S. in Communication and a B.A. in Political Science from Boston University, and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. During school and after graduation, she worked in law, education, and government. Most recently, she has worked as a tutor, independent historian, and sociological analyst. Kerry lives in Boston, where she enjoys playing with her dog and attending concerts.
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