Monday, May 31, 2010

Academic and Social Competition in the Montessori Classroom

A grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of material. ~Paul Dressel, Grades: One More Tilt at the Windmill, (1976)

…our emphasis should be less on student achievement (read: test scores) than on students’ achievements. ~ Alfie Kohn, “Debunking the Case for National Standards: One-Size-Fits-All Mandates and Their Dangers”, Jan. 14, 2010

NAMC montessori academic social competition classroom girls looking at hands
It happens every year. Even though it has been explained from the very first inquiry about the Montessori school and is in the school contract and handbook. Even though I make sure to cover it at Back-to-School night, I guarantee it will happen at least once during the year, usually during parent conferences. A parent leans in a little closer, conspiratorially, and says “Come on. This Montessori stuff is all well and good, but seriously, what grade would you give my child? I won’t tell anyone you said anything. We’ll keep it between you and me.”

Grades… A tangible descriptor that measures the level of knowledge in a standard course of study, relying on some sort of subjective interpretation of student performance and achievement. Most of us went through school “being graded”. Students are even told that they reason they go to school is to get good grades. In fact, parents teachers use getting “good grades” as an extrinsic motivator; children are rewarded for their achievements and punished for their failures. Yet studies, some dating back 100 years, show that people who are “graded” learn differently from those who aren't. They tend to prefer to find the easy way out, quickly lose interest, and, when all is said and done, forget what they've “learned”. Getting an education becomes more about competition than learning.

Academic and Social Competition in the Montessori Classroom

Purpose of Education
Maria Montessori argued that the purpose of education is to prepare the child for life. She also believed that children were intrinsically motivated to learn and learn best when they are both curious and interested about the task at hand. Montessori admonished her teachers to never allow a child to risk failure until after the child has experienced success. Her three-period lesson is proof of that.

The Montessori teacher and environment are specially prepared to ensure all children are successful. Children are led to discover their innate ability to learn, thus building independence, self-confidence, and inner discipline. Extrinsic rewards and punishments are noticeably absent from the Montessori environment in an effort to promote the child’s innate ability to learn.

A Sense of Belonging
Armed with the knowledge that everyone learns at their own pace, children in the Montessori environment are not afraid to make mistakes. In fact, they challenge themselves to constantly seek harder work. They know the joy that is found in learning something new or solving a difficult problem. Teachers are able to teach freely, without having to judge or compare children against one another.

Children in the Montessori environment learn to collaborate rather than compete. They encourage each others to do their best. It is a common sight to see a younger Montessori students show his work to an older peer, as if to say “Look at what I've accomplished” and just as common for an older Montessori student to offer a lesson to a younger one, saying “Look what you are ready to learn now”.

NAMC montessori academic social competition classroom girls on swingThat is not to say that Montessori disallowed competition. Rather, Dr. Montessori believed competition should evolve naturally among the children without adult interference. I've had lower elementary students run up to me and ask me to “test” them on spelling words or landforms. My Montessori upper elementary students often asked for spelling or geography bees to see who would win. The difference here is the children’s voluntary decision to compete; it was never my decision. Children were encouraged to participate, but participation was not mandatory.

Competition occurs on the playground as well. Montessori teachers are well-versed in non-competitive games, but children will find ways to compete with each other. “Let’s race” was frequently heard as my Montessori lower elementary boys competed to see who could run the fastest around the playground. Spontaneous games of soccer or football were looked forward to each day. Though, again, it was more in a spirit of cooperation and encouragement. The first time I saw my first year boys playing soccer with middle school boys, I was nervous. But my fears were soon quieted as I watched the “big” boys make sure the little ones got equal playing time and stopped if the game got too rough to make sure no one got hurt. Only when poor sportsmanship came into play did an adult step in.

Using grades and test scores in which children compete against each other sets children up for potential failure. They are artificial motivators which often work against the children they are designed to help. How often do we hear traditional teachers say “I just don’t understand why he won’t work to improve his grade”? When really, what we should all be saying is “I wonder how I might interest him to learn something new?”

Other related NAMC blogs
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Monday, May 31, 2010.


  1. Michelle:
    This blog should be copied and handed out to every teacher and administrator in the public schools. You hit it right on the head; grades are a poor indicator of student achievement and also not a true motivator. Students use grades to show that they are achieving, when in fact, they can earn an "A" and not learn very much. A wonderful insight into the subject!

  2. Thank you, Tim. Coming from a public school administrator, your comments mean a lot. I hope you will share this with your colleagues. It would be interesting to hear what they have to say, too!

  3. This was exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for this..  I appreciate your blog! Thanks!

  4. You are most welcome - we are pleased that you find the information helpful!


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