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Maria Montessori: Is the Montessori method any good?

Google celebrates the 142nd birthday of Italian physician Maria Montessori. Does Montessori's 'child-centered' method work?

By Staff / August 31, 2012

In 1907, Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori opened the first Casa Dei Bambini to work with poor children in the slums of Rome, presenting the world with a living example of her scientific theories of education.

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At the beginning of the 20th century, Italy's first female physician, Maria Montessori, sought to turn education on its head. Using methods developed through her work with developmentally disabled children, Montessori created a 'child-centered' approach that emphasizes rich environments, freedom, and respect for the student's point of view.

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"Education is not what the teacher gives," wrote Montessori, a devout Catholic whose classical empiricism echoes that of St. Thomas Aquinas, in a 1946 book. "[E]ducation is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words."

Instead of emphasizing drills and memorization, with students all doing the same thing at the same time the same way, the Montessori method deploys student-selected work, small-group instruction, a lack of exams and grades, and collaboration, often between students of different ages. Montessori stressed the importance of developing social skills alongside academic ones.

Her approach has caught on. The International Montessori Index estimates that there are some 4,000 certified schools in the United States and about 7,000 worldwide. ('Montessori' is not trademarked, and other estimates say there are roughly 20,000 such schools around the globe.) In the United States, this includes hundreds of public schools, as well as some high schools.

But does it actually work? How does a Montessori education stack up to a conventional one?

The evidence tilts in Montessori's favor. A 2006 study of 112 students in a Montessori school and conventional public schools in Milwaukee found that the Montessori students performed significantly better on both cognitive and social measures.

Half of the students in the study were 5 years old, and half were 12. The Montessori 5-year-olds performed better than those their age at other schools when it came to identifying letters and words, solving basic math problems, and ordering and categorizing. The young Montessori students interacted more positively on the playground and were more likely to deploy reasoning in social negotiations, often with appeals to abstract values such as justice and fairness. The researchers found no differences between the spatial reasoning, vocabulary, and concept formation skills between the two groups of 5-year-olds.

The differences between the two groups of 12-year-olds were less pronounced, but still present. Essays written by Montessori students used more complex sentence structures and were rated as more creative, but the students in the conventional public schools appeared to have "caught up" on many of the researchers' other measures. The Montessori students tended to select more constructive responses to hypothetical social problems, and they reported feeling a stronger sense of community at their school.

In a 2006 interview with Scientific American, University of Virginia psychologist Angeline Lillard, who led the study, speculated that the less-conspicuous differences in academic performance between the Montessori and non-Montessori 12-year-olds could have been a result of the school being only three years old when the 12-year-olds enrolled back in 1997. Lillard noted that it takes time for a school to put Maria Montessori's method into practice.

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