Montessori System Pros and Cons - I was a Montessori Child Growing Up
Montessori is great for play-based learning. But it is not the best for developing critical thinking skills. Find out why.
Montessori is becoming an increasingly popular method of schooling. Its focus on individuality when it comes to learning and hands on work is very appealing to many parents. Its setup - being visually appealing and so ‘picture perfect’ - makes it easy to think that it is the best way to go.
I’ve been through the Montessori system from kindergarten through to grade 8. I did IB in high school and moved on to dental school right after that. While people may look at my resume and consider me ‘successful’, I can confidently say there are some pretty significant drawbacks parents should be aware of when choosing to follow only this method.
The biggest advantage of raising your child using the Montessori method, especially in the primary years, is its focus on play based learning, giving children the freedom they need while still allowing them to explore the world around them. It is a compatible system with their freedom loving nature. Its primary drawback, however, is that it does not provide the environment where critical thinking can be nurtured.
In this article, I’ll be talking about some of the advantages and disadvantages I have found, both while studying the system and from my own experiences as well.
Let's start with the advantages.
Advantages of the Montessori system
- Focus on Play Based Learning - There is extensive research to show that children under 6 years of age soak in everything without effort. Granting them this freedom to play prepares the grounds for willingly receiving instruction later on in life. It also provides the opportunity for them to build important skills like independence, curiosity, self-discipline and responsibility (to name a few). This focus on play based learning works hand in hand with the natural design of the child - children intrinsically love to learn and learn best through play.¹
Have you ever tried to force your toddler to sit and follow a set of instructions for what you thought was the perfect activity? I remember being so excited to set up a painting activity outside the house with different color paints and glitter using an amazon box.
I ended up sitting and painting while she was running around our front yard! She simply wasn’t interested in painting at that time.
Play based learning essentially gives the child freedom to choose what they would like to do whether it is to work on an activity, rest, or observe what others are doing.It is this freedom to choose that helps prepare the grounds for the child’s individual and unique development.²
- Cover a variety of subjects in a creative way - Subjects presented to the child include language, math, science, geography and history. This doesn’t necessarily all have to be done indoors. The child can explore and learn a lot sensorially while going for hikes, field trips, going to the beach, camping, travelling etc.
In fact, Maria Montessori has said,
‘Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between waking and sleeping.’
- The Discovery of the Child.
What does this look like?
I wanted to teach my daughter about why we see worms more after it rains. Instead of printing off worksheets and finding books about it, I did some quick research (i.e google). Next time it rained, I took my daughter out and explained the reason when we saw a worm. If she was a little older, I could also have talked to her about soil, the rain cycle, the ecosystem etc. The possibilities are endless :) Now, if I were to go back and do a couple worksheets, she has a great reference point to go by. This dramatically increases the effectiveness of her learning process.
3. Hands on learning that is self paced and individualised - In Montessori, there is a happy balance between the teacher guiding the child’s learning and the child having the freedom to choose the activity they want to work on. Some principles used in the Montessori system include:
1. Allowing the child to lead
2. Allowing them to work on the activity for as long as they like and,
3. Modifying activities to be at their level.³
This gives them the confidence to master a wide variety of skills.
Personally, I have found that this works really well with my daughter. When she hit 2.5 years, there seemed to be a huge need to choose exactly what it was she wanted to do. If she felt we were giving her too much direction, she would not want to listen to anything we were telling her. Setting up the environment in a way where she would be able to help herself and not pushing her towards any one thing seemed to provide a good balance between her need to lead and learn at the same time.
4. Great for practical learning that is of interest to toddlers and children - Practical life is a big part of Montessori. This is helpful in the long run because it helps the child learn how to take responsibility around the house and it builds concentration as a lot of these skills need repetition to become proficient. It also helps refine gross-motor and fine-motor skills depending on what the task is (ie mopping, pouring water in plants etc) and it is a good way to connect with your child as things still need to be done.⁴
Maryam LOVES helping out around the house. It was just common sense for us to allow her to help whenever she wanted to. This would help her confidence in building different skills while also making her feel ‘grown-up’ and a part of the family.
5. Sensitive periods - As a new mom, I had NO idea how to maximise my daughter’s potential. I just knew she was soaking in her environment from day 1.Yet, what type of environment should I provide and what should I show her so whatever she takes in contributes positively to her growth? I was really happy when I found out Maria Montessori took care of this for me:⁵
This diagram shows the age range you can expect your child to show interest in a particular area (e.g movement, language, math etc). During a ‘sensitive period’, the child is particularly attuned to being able to learn a specific skill and they can do this with little to no difficulty. This serves as a guidepost as to which activities may be of most interest to your child depending on what sensitive period they are in.
To me, this was GOLD. It made it easier for me to understand and jump on different opportunities to help my daughter’s learning and made me feel good as a parent knowing what I was doing was actually helping her. For example, when I noticed my daughter was picking up words very quickly, I realised she was in the language sensitive period. This came shortly after a month-long phase where all she wanted to do was read books. This made me more aware of the language I was using with her, thinking of more descriptive words to use with her when speaking to help build her vocabulary, reading books with varied vocabulary, starting to introduce phonics to her etc.
6. Teaches self discipline - By getting enough exposure to different aspects of life, such as nature, being given the freedom to choose what to work on etc. it wires the child to take responsibility for their own learning. In time, this teaches the child discipline as well in order to see results.
This is one of the things which helped me most though high school going through the IB program and through dental school, and I can definitely say that it was Montessori that taught me this. For example, getting up at 5 am to study was never an issue when I was in school. Planning and organizing to make sure I had enough time to get things done was second nature. I knew I had to do these things to be able to succeed in what I was doing.
Disadvantages of the Montessori system
1. Critical thinking - To be quite honest, this is the biggest drawback of Montessori and one of the main motivating factors for me to research on how to do things differently for my daughter. Having a ‘prepared environment’ is a HUGE part of Montessori. Essentially, this is setting up the activities perfectly for the child so it is just right for their level. Everything is given to them to succeed in that particular activity, i.e. trays, wiping cloths, supplies etc. It’s prepared beautifully so it's attractive to the child and makes them want to do the activity. We are encouraged to do this for all aspects of the child’s life, from their actual work to toileting to the entrance of our house.
However, if everything is given to the child in their hands all the time, how are they going to learn to think out of the box? How will they know how to pull different aspects of their learning and apply it to a new situation? How will they fare once they are an adult and things will be rarely handed to them? This really hit me when I was reflecting on my high school and university days. I LOVED subjects such as biology, where it was a matter of simply working hard to achieve high grades. However, when it came to any type of critical thinking in the subject, such as optimisation in math or physics, I had to work 3 times as hard to get a lower grade than I did in subjects like biology. It made me realise that maybe the confidence I was given through succeeding all the time as a child was actually, partly, a false sense of confidence.
2.Love for learning - Something Montessori prides itself in is that its system is built to create a child who loves to learn. I’ll be quite honest, I don’t love learning. I love learning about subjects which interest me(just like everyone else), but that is very different from having a love to learn about everything. It was like this all through school really, which is why there isn’t any concrete evidence to show that Montessori kids outperform kids from other schooling systems.
If Montessori kids really had a well-rounded love for learning all different subjects (and we know when we love to do something we automatically do better in it than if we don’t love it), then there should be a clear distinction between their performance results as well.
3. Groupings of kids of different ages - Typically, Montessori classes have a range of ages grouped together in one class. While it may benefit some because they can watch older kids play and learn different skills through observation, it can also hinder personal growth. It can cause a child to feel insecure about their current abilities. Children don’t develop empathy until around age 7. If they are placed in an environment where they are around older kids, it becomes easier for them to develop insecurities and be bullied/teased by older children.
This is because the older children have had a chance to develop skills that the younger child may not have had the chance to yet. And to explain that to your child as a reason for being bullied is something which is very difficult. Children who are bullied often suffer the consequences of low self esteem for a long time, if not for the rest of their lives. This can affect their psychological and physical health, cognitive functioning and quality of life.⁶
While children being bullied isn’t often the first thing you think of when you think of the Montessori system, it still happens there. At the end of the day, kids are kids. I was bullied for my skin color by kids who were a year or two older than me and it took me years to overcome and realise that I can perform just as well as the ‘white’ person can.
This also affected my love for religion, culture, and overall confidence as it developed into an inferiority complex and all aspects of the ‘white’ person was the right way of living. This was despite my mum’s best efforts and trying to help me overcome this for years.
That being said, I feel it also depends on the teacher and the environment that is created. My daughter is the youngest in her class, but the older children take the ‘let me help you learn’ approach as opposed to the ‘I am better than you’ approach. The teacher is also an excellent facilitator of this type of learning.
4. Montessori doesn’t emphasize exams or grades - While this is not an issue for younger grades (in fact it is a good thing as there is no need to place unnecessary stress on them in the primary years of their life), this becomes an issue when they transition to the ‘real-world’. A lot of parents who send their kids to Montessori want them to end up with high earning jobs - passing exams and knowing how to deal with that stress is very much part of that for whatever career they want to go into. I remember this was a challenge for me when I went to high school and a large component of the grade was dependent on how I performed on the exam. Whether this is right or not, this is how most high school and university systems are.
Overall, there is a lot to think about in terms of evaluating the Montessori system. It has its clear benefits, especially in the primary years which includes giving the child the freedom to learn in a way that is compatible with their freedom-loving nature. At the same time though, we must realise that it does have its drawbacks and we shouldn’t just follow the system blindly.
1. Lillard, A. (2013). Playful Learning and Montessori Education. The NAMTA Journal, 38(2), 138-140.
2. Davies, S., & Imai, H. The Montessori toddler.
5. Photo taken from: https://www.thekavanaughreport.com/2020/05/sensitive-periods-from-birth-to-6-chart.html
6. What are the adult health consequences of childhood bullying?. (2020). Retrieved 18 November 2020, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/283042