Montessori Education: A Community of Learners

Originally published in print and online by Washington Parent in July 2015 (in the August 2015 issue). 

Education is a creative endeavor at Montessori schools throughout the world. Children set their own learning pace, discover the answers to their own questions and use unique learning materials to guide their schooling experience.

Maria Montessori, one of the first female physicians in Italy, developed the Montessori approach to learning, and opened the first Montessori school in 1907. Since then, the idea has materialized into thousands of schools around the world, including more than 4,000 in the United States, who abide by Montessori’s guidelines for childhood development through creative and active learning that encourages children to become seekers of knowledge.

“Maria Montessori did not just develop an educational system or pedagogy, she really explored human development and the way we learn,” says Ann Byrne, the Deputy Director of Education at Crossway Community Montessori in Kensington. “As humans, that learning is done through community – first the family, then the neighborhood, then the world.”

The structure of Montessori classrooms supports this sense of communal learning. Students learn in multi-age classrooms where older students act as role models and helpers for younger students. The children learn in open spaces that feature tables or floor mats in place of rows of desks, as well as a Montessori-trained teacher, who is meant to act as a guide in students’ individual learning processes.

In this way of collaboration and self-exploration, Montessori schools aim to strengthen children’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive abilities and therefore achieve what the American Montessori Society calls “the development of the whole child.”

“It’s aim is building human capacity,” says Andrew Kutt, founder of Oneness-Family School in Chevy Chase. “It’s operating principle is uniqueness rather than uniformity. Whether in principle or in name, Montessori is the way education is evolving.”

Local Schools
Although all Montessori schools adhere to the ideals described above, each school injects its own values into the curriculum to create an environment where students are able to pursue self-discovery through learning, while also incorporating the school’s values-based curriculum in their education. Both Oneness-Family School and Crossway Community Montessori serve as examples of the many local Montessori schools with unique curricula.

“Our program is focused on the family as the unit of service, with the child in that context,” says Byrne, who has served as Crossway’s Deputy Director of Education since 1995. “Our program aims to provide high-quality early childhood education to all families, regardless of background.”

Crossway serves children ages 3 months to 7 years, as well as single mothers who can live in the Crossway Community with their children through the Family Leadership Academy, which teaches parenting techniques and life skills. The school’s infant program, Nido, is one of its hallmark programs as it allows educators to shape the child’s environment at one of the most crucial development stages and influence his or her adult life, according to Byrne.

Overall, Byrne says, the school aims to “follow the child” on his or her individual journey through early education.

“Each child follows his own inner compass and timeline to go through the phases of development,” says Byrne. “Our job as adults is to support that individual development plan, to anticipate the child’s next milestones, and to bring families into the process as much as possible so that they are true partners in their child’s education.”

Oneness-Family School takes a similar student-centered approach to the Montessori standards of education. The school serves children ages 2 years through eighth grade, and is planning to add a high school in September 2016.

“Our Montessori approach is really geared toward helping students improve as a person [and] helping them expand their knowledge, with the ultimate goal for them to be global leaders of the twenty-first century,” says Kutt.

At Oneness-Family School, the approach to a Montessori education is achieved through a three-pronged curriculum of academy (learning traditional subjects in an interconnected way), self discovery (using meditation and reflection to discover passions and talents) and manifestation (becoming a leader through the unification of academy and self discovery). The school also emphasizes conflict resolution through its 10-step process, as well as internationalism, as the population is comprised of more than 50 nationalities.

“Oneness-Family School has developed a curriculum that specifically focuses on empowering students to be peacemakers and to be problem solvers,” says Kutt. “A big part of our curriculum is celebrating difference.”

It is important to bare in mind that these two schools are just a fraction of the thousands of Montessori schools across the country, including many here in the DMV, that each take their own approach to a Montessori education.

Benefits of Montessori Education
The American Montessori Society lists numerous benefits of Montessori education, ranging from individual learning paths that lead to the self-discovery of knowledge, to the communal learning environment that mimics a real-world environment.

According to Kutt, some common student qualities produced through a Montessori education include a a strong sense of self through their “personal center of gravity,” a sense of confidence, resourcefulness, big-picture thinking, strong communication skills and courage.

Byrne also spoke on these qualities as benefits of Montessori schooling.

“I am always amazed at their sense of self-direction, their confidence that they know what they know, that they have the creative power to reinvent themselves into different jobs or careers and a joy in lifelong learning,” says Byrne.

These lifelong character traits begin with the environment that Montessori schools create to support students and that allow them to develop some of the hallmark traits that Kutt sees in Montessori students.

“Montessori creates a positive and affirming social environment where everyone can be successful and where everyone is appreciated for their uniqueness,” says Kutt.

The strong focus on individual learning paths in a communal learning environment encourages students to collaborate in the open-space classrooms, create solutions to questions or conflicts and understand how their classroom materials represent real-world experiences that will benefit them throughout their education and beyond. The Montessori approach to learning allows students to learn in their own ways, which Kutt highlighted as one of the most important benefits of Montessori schools.

He says, “In Montessori, every kid is smart, they’re just smart in different ways.”

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