Why don’t public schools use the Montessori Method?

I ask myself this question almost every day.

Not a day goes by that I don’t hear a teacher in a traditional school frustrated by a problem that could be eliminated, or at least lessened, if the whole school went Montessori. The three main complaints that I hear from my peers are:

  • All the children are working at different levels! I can’t teach them all in a group!
  • They need to be touching and doing things! Just sitting here reading from a
    text book doesn’t work for most of them.
  • They need more than just reading and math. They need science, social
    studies art, music, and history.

Then I go to a mandatory in-service where they give us the “newest” information in educational research. What are the things that they talk about?

DIFFERENTIATED INSTRUCTION – adapting the instruction to the level and needs of each individual student

FLEXIBLE GROUPINGS – organizing instructional groups according to the level of instruction that each child needs, but the groups aren’t static. As information is mastered, or more time needed, the children are moved to another more appropriate group

MULTI-MODALITY INSTRUCTION- teaching the concept in many different ways

INTEGRATED INSTRUCTION – integrating science, history, social studies, and geography into the core curriculum.

ASSESSMENT – constantly assessing the mastery and academic needs of the students

DIRECT INSTRUCTION – isolating a concept and directly teaching it

REALIA – bringing the actual thing or a close facsimile of what you are teaching about into the classroom, or them to it, whenever possible.

” That sounds an awful like Montessori”, I think to myself. “If the whole school went Montessori we would not only eliminate the main frustrations of the teachers, but would fulfill the district’s expectations as well.”

So I open my mouth, and everybody’s eyes glaze over. People start tapping pencils, feet shuffle, and someone in a very polite yet condescending tone says something like, ‘Yes, Montessori works well for YOUR students, but most children have needs that can’t be met by THAT environment.’

“What environment?” I think to myself. ” The one that they just lectured to me about for the last 8 hours? And what children?

*My ADHD little boys who before they were in Montessori were constantly in the
office because they couldn’t sit at a desk all day long?

*My extremely bright children who were above the scripted lessons and tired of
being handed MORE busy work to keep them quiet while the teachers
focused on the average and low students in hopes that the school’s test
scores would raise?

*My severely learning disabled students who weren’t learning because the
scripted program was going to fast for them.

*My lower income learners who need more experience with materials, heck more
experiences period, to make up for what is lacking in their home environment?

*My second language students, who need more social interaction and
experience speaking in English than the half an hour of ELD instruction a
day that our program allows?

When I calm down, I try to analyze exactly where the problem is, and this is what I have determined.

MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE MONTESSORI PHILOSOPHY – Most educators don’t really know what Montessori is, even though they think they do. Some might have read a chapter in a book on Montessori education, but that is the extent of their knowledge. When faced with someone asking why the public schools don’t go Montessori, they have to reach back into their memory and try to remember what they learned about it. What usually sticks out in their minds is “All the children are doing different things” or “the children get to choose their own work”. Then depending on their age, they either think “chaos” or ‘”70′s educational reform!” and tell you that it can’t work.

POORLY IMPLEMENTED MONTESSORI PROGRAMS – People try to start Montessori schools without fully trained staff members. They figure that the staff will get more training in future years as the program grows. Then they don’t implement the Montessori Method completely and therefore it doesn’t work well.

CAN’T MAKE THE PARADIGM SHIFT- There’s a great book call The Teaching Gap by. Stigler and Hiebert. In it they compare and contrast different educational systems (Mainly Germany, Japan, and the US). Throughout the book their major assertion is that the reason children statistically perform higher on standardized tests outside the US is that the teachers’ perception of how children learn and therefore how the classrooms and lessons are set up, is completely different. They actually state that no educational program or text book will work better than any other in the United States if we don’t change our views on HOW we teach. They then go into great detail on how teaching is a cultural activity and that although the standards, textbooks, and programs change, our results in the long run rarely do. They believe that this is because although the program has changed, our way of imparting material hasn’t. They then state that changing the way we impart knowledge is hard since we usually know of no other way than the way we were taught ourselves. In fact, since most teachers have never been out of the US, they not only aren’t open to other educational systems, they don’t believe that they exist.

Although they weren’t talking about Montessori education and philosophy exactly, I’m sure you can see how their hypothesis and research are applicable to your question

NOT TRUSTING CHILDREN – Non-Montessorians often ask, “How are the children going to learn if you aren’t teaching them?” They mistakenly believe that we put children in a room with a bunch of toys and say, “Make choices and learn.”

Nothing is further from the truth, but it’s hard to change someone’s mind once some well meaning person tells them that Montessorians believe that children learn solely from the environment and other children, and that they believe that children should have the freedom to make choices.

Many people also believe that the only time children learn is when the teacher directly tells them the information and then makes them reproduce it, usually on a worksheet. In fact it is the Montessori classroom’s lack of worksheets that seems to worry people the most. In traditional education, especially when people are worried that their students will not pass the tests, copious amounts of worksheets are used in the classroom setting. It is believed that these worksheets ensure practice, focus, and reinforcement that keeps students busy during work time while the teacher is working with a reading or math group. People worry that without the worksheet as proof, the teacher will not know for sure that the child was actually working.

In Montessori, we don’t give copious amounts of paperwork, instead use materials that do the same thing; reinforce concepts that students need to work on. In addition we use science, social studies, history and geography to reinforce the mandated standards. There are worksheets and tests in our public program, but they come later, after the child has a deep understanding of the material and now needs to apply it abstractly.

When I explain this, some people seem intrigued, but most others say something along the lines of, ‘How do you know that the children are actually working and aren’t just playing with the materials?’

Although I understand the concern about the lack of worksheets, I know that the lack of worksheets really isn’t what worries most people. Plenty of non-Montessori teachers do not use copious amounts of worksheets. The real problem is with the fact that the children are all doing different things. In a more traditional classroom setting when the children are working with materials, they are all working on the same concept. People assume that it is easy to walk around, or even scan with your eyes and see who is working and who isn’t. The worry for non-Montessorians is that when all the children are doing different things, the Montessori teacher will not be able to pick out who’s fooling around and not working.

To be honest, that is another valid concern. Yet, when a well trained teacher is running the classroom, this is not a problem. The teacher knows how each of those materials is supposed to be used, and a child misusing one stands out just as clearly as if they were all using the same material or doing the same worksheet.

NOT TRUSTING THE TEACHERS- One day I was sitting in an in-service listening to a woman talk about how on the *** day of the *** month the children were learning the *** sound and so you needed to use the *** story.

I asked, “What if Jose is really excited. His father gave him a book and he has brought it to school to share. Couldn’t I use that book to teach the concept?”

To which the presenter responded, “Do you really believe that you are capable of reviewing text and determining how to use it as an academic tool? These stories have been reviewed by a group of educational specialists. You need to leave the curriculum development to the specialists and focus on your job which is implementing the curriculum.”

In other words, “We don’t believe that you are capable of looking at a children’s book and finding all of the “long A words”. Therefore, sit down, shut up and read from the teacher’s manual.”

It is true; there are teachers out there who can’t find all the long A words in a child’s book, but there are just as many, if not more, who can. Moreover, there are great teachers out there, and even more people who could be great teachers if we just gave them the right background, skills and environment. But people can’t see that. For example, I was talking to a group of administrators one day, (not in my district), when one informed me that the only reason Montessori worked for me was because I was smart and a good teacher.

I thanked them for the complement and replied. “But there are many smart and good teachers. If my abilities were the only reason my students were doing well, then the Montessori scores wouldn’t be 20 to 30 points higher than the rest of my district’s scores.”

They were at a loss for words. Let’s face it; it is easier to come up with reasons, no matter how inaccurate they are, as to why Montessori won’t work then to put all the time, money and energy into making the switch. Furthermore, there’s the belief that most teachers aren’t smart and capable enough to run a Montessori classroom. How upsetting.

A friend who was a high ranking officer in the Israeli army once told me, “Bureaucracy is based on the belief that a stupid person can do more harm than a smart person can do good.”

I sadly find this to be what the average person believes when it comes to teachers. It’s one of the reasons we have No Child Left Behind and it’s why people believe that Montessori can’t work in the public system. They believe that it’s more important to control the “bad teachers” than to allow the good teachers to teach. As one administrator said to me once, ‘Why should your students have access to all these things when the others don’t?

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