The purpose of conventional education is to relay knowledge, skills, and standards of behavior which have previously been decided upon in order to prepare children for their future responsibilities.
The teacher provides the stimulus and is the most important figure in the classroom; the environment and materials play a secondary role. The curriculum is separated from every day life and has little contextual meaning. Students, often likened to “blank slates” or “empty vessels”, are expected to “learn” this information and regurgitate it back to demonstrate that they have “mastered” the material. Very little emphasis is given to creative, original thought, and success is heavily weighted in favor of memorized facts. Students are motivated by reward or punishment, which is thought to facilitate learning.
However, there is a problem with this paradigm. Since students simply need to parrot-back the curriculum, it does not lend itself to the development of higher-level thinking skills. Because there is rarely any student interest in the material being taught, for the most part, students simply memorize facts to pass the test, and then quickly forget them.
Why Choose Montessori for Your Child? Montessori vs. Traditionalism Constructivism
Constructivist theory, as proposed by John Dewey, “father of modern education”, is an attempt to right the wrongs of the traditional didactic approach, (i.e., knowing all the state capitals). The task of the constructivist teacher is to help students form their own questions and opinions and help them explore and interpret the results of their research. Constructivists see learning as a three-step process: discovery, concept introduction, and concept application.
There are five major tenants of Constructivist theory:
- Lessons must be relevant to the child. Lessons are structured around a question that “sparks their interest”, to which the children form a hypothesis.
- Lessons center on the “less is more” concept. Learning starts from basic concepts (whole picture) rather than around the details. Students construct their own meaning in a way that they best understand.
- Adults see and value their student’s point of view. The constructivist theory asks teachers to demonstrate an awareness of students’ understanding by asking questions, listening to the answers and asking for elaboration. This is in contrast to the old traditional model of teaching which suggests that when learning for rote memory, there are right and wrong answers (winners and losers) and that it is better to be right, rather than to have interesting ideas.
- Curriculum tasks are adapted to address students’ suppositions. For learning to occur, there must be dialog and a match between the questions the children ask and what they are cognitively able to understand.
- Teachers mediate and assess rather than teach and test. Authentic assessment within the structure of constructivist theory asks “what do you know” rather than “what have you memorized?” It promotes interdisciplinary inquiry which allows for broad and open-ended questions.
Maria Montessori, like Dewey, was also part of what is known as the cognitive-development movement. Her work as a doctor and scientist set the stage for her theories on “planes of development” and “sensitive periods” in children. She also recognized the need for repetitive behavior (motor and mental) for cognitive development, as well as the importance the environment plays in stimulating children’s mental growth and health. As seen in the above quote, Montessori thought it futile to try to accelerate a child’s development beyond their ability at the moment.
Like Dewey, Montessori stressed that experience is not just passive responses to stimuli (lessons). “In such a school the children, like butterflies mounted on pins, are fastened each to his place, the desk, spreading the useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge which they have acquired” (Montessori, 1964, p. 14). In fact, her views often foreshadowed those of constructivist theorists: “The known establishes itself in the child as a complex system of ideas . . . actively constructed by the child himself during a series of psychical processes representing an internal formation, psychical growth. (Montessori, 1965, p. 162-3).
Montessori’s philosophy is based on both psychology and biology. She incorporated the ideas from many people.
Montessori and Jean Jacques Rousseau believed:
- Experience is the source of learning
- Natural consequences are a control of error
- The child is inherently good and loves to do work
- The Montessori classroom is a miniature society
- Ideas come from simple sensations that fill the empty mind of the newborn
- Sensory system acts to form a relationship between the child’s mind and his environment
- Learning grows from an orderly exposure to sensory materials
By the age of 6, children are more interested in the origins of language and the scientific world around them. They like aesthetically pleasing and beautiful objects and materials. Children at this stage are developing their imagination, morality, and their ability to think abstractly. They want to know their place in the world and universe, hence Montessori’s idea of Cosmic Education. She firmly believed that a lesson which struck the child’s imagination would motivate him and have long-lasting effects. She believed that there is a new found sense of freedom and children are allowed to make their own decisions as to which activities to chose. The interests they choose lead them to ask more questions and research and make new observations. Having so many materials in the Montessori classroom allows the children to create their own curriculum.
The role of the teacher in a Montessori classroom is not to be an expert in all areas. Because the teacher allows the children to freely choose that which interests them, she shows respect for the child by acknowledging that the child knows what is right for him/her at that time. The Montessori teacher is responsible for creating and maintaining a well-prepared environment that is meant to encourage student exploration. She is also there to ensure that each child has the opportunity to work uninterrupted. Montessori believed that teachers should model grace, courtesy, respect and appropriate behavior at all times so that the child would learn from her example.
Differences between Montessori and Constructivists:
Stay tuned for more coverage of this thought provoking topic. We invite you to post your own thoughts or comments as well.
Please feel free to read our archived post entitled The Montessori Prepared Environment vs. A Traditional Classroom: A Teacher's Thoughts.
Other Related NAMC Blogs:
- Why Choose Montessori: Intellectual, Behavioral, Emotional Autonomy
- Why Choose Montessori: Educating the Human Potential
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Thursday, July 19, 2007.