The Next Delusion

Seeing Reality and Looking the Other Way

Throwdown Thursday: The Great Montessori Debate

For the last 15 years, my children have been at a great Montessori school. My daughter (who is now in college) attended Montessori from K-8th, and my son started as a Toddler and is currently in the 6th grade. As you can imagine, I adore this school and have become an enormous proponent of the Montessori approach to learning.  Momus is a steadfast supporter of our town’s excellent public schools (where his two daughters attend), and finds the whole Montessori thing a bit “woo woo” for his taste.

Cassandra: Montessori education allows each child to move at their own pace.  This means that kids who are strong in, say, math get to learn their next math lesson as soon as they master the last lesson.  If they are weaker in grammar, they can take all the time they need to work on their skills there.  I can’t even imagine my son having to sit in a classroom where everyone is stuck going at the same pace.

Momus: Allowing children to move at their own pace is akin to letting convicted criminals decide their own sentences – “I’ll take the probation option please.”   In theory this may work for some motivated kids, but the truly smart ones can figure out early that if they set the progress bar low, no one is going to be expecting much.  Granted, this is basically my life philosophy, but not one I want to pass on to a new generation.

Cassandra:  A potato bug has more internal motivation than you do. You are not an accurate norm for the rest of humanity.  Most children are naturally wired to explore their worlds and maximize their capabilities.  Montessori encourages that and allows children to dive deep into the areas that they are interested in. The result is a lifetime love of learning that is priceless.

Momus: Children are wired to seek candy at all costs, tell poopy jokes, and touch themselves at inappropriate moments.  Why don’t they just let the children dive deep into that for one of their “specials.” Oh, and when all is said and done this priceless experience for your two kids is going to have cost you about $400,000.  You could have funded a small business for each of them at that price.

Cassandra:  First of all, what better investment is there than the education of our children?  I don’t even want to think about our collective college bills once all four children have reached maturity.  Secondly, the kids aren’t just thrown into the classroom and told to do what they wish.  Teachers are guiding them in their choices and ensuring that they make reasonable progress in all academic areas (as well as important things such as being a responsible member of a community, learning pro-social behavior, and peace education).  That’s a pretty good bang for my buck.

Momus: This Montessori guided learning thing is a scam.  As you have taught me, there are prescribed ways you have to use “the Montessori  materials.” Use that abacus the wrong way and a Montessori teacher will come down on you like a 1950’s parochial school nun!  And you know there’s a back room where the staff are sacrificing small farm animals at an altar to Maria Montessori. But I bet they do use the tecpatl in the Montessori approved fashion.

Cassandra: The reason that there are prescribed ways to use the materials is that Montessori has a beautifully intricate system of learning through doing which makes difficult concepts very concrete and accessible to young minds.  That cube puzzle your child is solving as a four year old will come back around in the 5th grade and be used to learn the Pythagorean Theorem.  You heard me: there is a puzzle that teaches the Pythagorean Theorem!  If that is not the coolest educational concept ever, I don’t know what is.

Momus: First of all, cool and Pythagorean Theorem used together is an oxymoron.  But, herein lies the great dilemma: Montessori is this child centered learning paradigm, that allows free movement and expression of self, and self-paced, self-directed blah-de-da-blah.  Then the child grows up, gets her first real job, and is told “Shut up, do what I tell you to do, get it done by tomorrow, and now go sit in that 5’x5′ cube for the rest of your miserable, no-one-outside-of-your-parents-really-thinks-you’re-special life.”  Do the first jobs for Montessori grads come with anti-seizure medication? Hope so – has to be a pretty big shock to their systems.  Maybe a little desk time and a due date or two would have prepped them a bit better.

Cassandra: Just because we torture adults doesn’t mean we have to torture our precious children as well.  They will learn to sit at a desk and be bored out of their minds just fine in high school (my daughter can attest to that). Don’t worry, there’s always time to turn children into wage slaves once they’ve gotten a little happiness behind them.

Momus: As you well know, happiness is overrated. No reason to have an extended tease of that illusion.

One final recollection I just had.  Remember that teacher (or are we required to call them guides or maybe soul sherpas?) conference for your daughter when they informed you that she had self-guided herself to avoid doing about two years worth of geography lessons?  Did it make you feel all warm and fuzzy about her natural curiosity when she thought China was somewhere south of Mexico?

Cassandra: Okay, that was maybe a gap.  However, that was an issue with that teacher in that school.  Not with the overall philosophy (and they’ve closed that loophole now, smartypants).

It may just be that you are not sufficiently enlightened to see the beauty before you.

Momus: Enlightenment is a core part of the Montessori curriculum as well?  Figures.  Just skip the multiplication tables and grammar lesson, and go right to the transcendental meditation.

Cassandra: I wish I knew transcendental meditation about now.

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14 thoughts on “Throwdown Thursday: The Great Montessori Debate

  • Eric says:

    Momus’ view is hilarious and had me rolling!

    I will not pick a side for fear of getting “unfollowed”. Tweeters of my stature can’t afford that.

    Namaste!

    • Momus says:

      You are a wise man. I did not think I was going to survive this throwdown as Cassandra truly likes her some Montessori education.

  • qwertygirl says:

    I went to Montessori school from preschool to about second grade. It was not for me. Momus and I are twin souls, in that I too have the intellectual motivation of a potato bug. OK, maybe not 100% true, but I have ADD and when we were kids there wasn’t ADD. There were kids who don’t pay attention, and kids who are smart but don’t apply themselves (guess what I heard for about 15 years?) Plus I was mad that they wouldn’t just let me read all the time. They wanted me to do this yucky math thing. I remember at about age 6 being instructed to “do some math” (the “for fuck’s sake” was implied but not stated) and I did (ready?) THE ONE TIMES TABLES. Yes! I was really pushing the envelope there, wasn’t I? So while I did learn to read before age 3 in a Montessori environment, and it was fine for a preschool-age experience, I needed the forced discipline of a classroom (and some Ritalin, which I never got) to make progress. So I agree with both of you! 🙂

    • Momus says:

      I likely have a touch of the undiagnosed ADD myself, as does my father clearly and likely 40% of the males in my extended family. I luckily went to a really lousy public school system, so like yourself I was pretty ahead of the curve in my pre-school years and pretty much coasted the 12 formal education years and was still near the top of my class (I stress that the competition was not stiff). I remain today a person who needs structure; luckily Cassandra is the queen of structure so she keeps me on the rails.

      • qwertygirl says:

        I’m a structure person because I’ve come to realize it’s what I need, so I’ve developed the ability to provide it for myself. In fact, I think I go beyond “structure” and actually cross the line to “rigidity.” My husband and I got into a tiff last night because he has to take a one night trip to Chicago next week, and IT WASN’T ON MY SCHEDULE. Grr. So now I have to…like…ADAPT. And CHANGE PLANS. Do not like.

        • Cassandra says:

          I hear you. I will admit before Momus rats me out that I have a wee aversion to sudden changes in plan. I eventually adapt, but that initial reaction can scorch a little earth.

  • Dana says:

    Hmmm…I’m not sure I want to pick sides. We have an excellent public school system so we didn’t ever consider Montessori for our kids. But if they teach transcendental meditation, can I go?

    • Cassandra says:

      They actually do meditate. First thing in the morning they have 15 minutes of “runaround” time and then they have a five minute meditation to get ready for the day ahead. I would give anything to have gone to this school as a child.

  • ManicMom says:

    We have one of those ‘potato bug’ kids who steadfastly refused to be curious and motivated enough to do anything productive on his own. His montessori school teachers told us he was ‘challenging,’ and that he was ruining their reputation for having kids reading by the time they entered kindergarten. I rather thought this benchmark ran counter to the montessori philosophy. I think his teachers eventually just gave up on him. It left a bad taste in my mouth, not for the system, but for these ladies.

    My son went on to flounder in public school, too. He hasn’t been diagnosed with any kind of learning disability or ADD, but his dad and I are convinced it’s “I could give a rat’s hairy butt” syndrome.

    He’s now in a teensy private school that won’t let him hide or avoid eye contact when the teacher asks questions. He’s doing really well and learning to get his work done independently. I’m so grateful to have found something that works for him.

    Despite his experiences, I love the concept of Montessori. I also love our public school system. We just happen to have one kid who is an anomaly.

    • Cassandra says:

      I am so sorry for your experience. I have always said that it’s not just about the philosophy, but how it is executed. My son’s school is T-8th and has a full-time reading specialist on staff. When he was struggling with his letters in Kindergarten, they brought her in to work with him, and she did amazing things.

      The Montessori philosophy is all about following the child. this means that 1) you actually have to keep a close eye on the child to make sure you know what he is doing and what he needs, and 2) you should be working at the child’s pace. The idea that “all kids should be reading by the time they enter kindergarten” is completely against the whole idea of Montessori.

      Again, sorry you had such a crummy experience, and I hope that your son is thriving at his new school!

  • Jeff says:

    Yes, Cassandra, I have to agree with you. Though in my house (I really hate calling it my house, when in reality the only part of it that’s mine is a portion of the floor in the garage) I am the one who wants more structure. Jill’s the radical.

  • Liz says:

    Ack! Picking sides! I just can’t. The sarcastro in me sides with Momus, because I’m just a cynic. Plus I get sensory overload just witnessing the freestyle playing of kids in the park and then I self-soothe with visions of them all sitting very quietly & in alphabetical order. Must be the 18 years of Catholic schooling. Decision time’s coming up for my daughter’s schooling and just for today I will be hiding my head in the sand. (And by “just for today” I mean till after xmas actually.)

    • Cassandra says:

      Ha! I hear you. I (as you can tell) have become a huge Montessori fan over the years. My daughter is in college now and some of my favorite things about her she developed as a Montessori kid. And although my son is struggling with writing, he still loves school (as a 6th grader) and is extremely intellectually curious. Also all because of Montessori. Big, big fan.

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