by Carolyn Doolittle, Ed.D.
When I was a doctoral student, I had a professor who would often say “Choice leads to ownership; and ownership leads to success.” He encouraged us to provide our students with opportunities to choose. Students, according to this professor, should choose the books they want to read, the projects they want to complete, who they work with, and, when appropriate, their own assessments. Teachers would, by providing choice, empower students in their own learning. The power of choice fosters a sense of ownership in students’ learning. Ownership involves investment, which ultimately leads to a greater likelihood of success.
Choice is a powerful force in the world of learning. Last week was National School Choice Week. During this week, parents consider the power of the educational choices they are making for their children. Many might think of this as a time for parents to exercise their rights to choose public v. private; charter v. magnet, traditional v. homeschooling, or brick and mortar v. online. Yet, the very act of making a well-informed choice requires parents to take on the mantel of ownership in their child’s education. This investment is for their child’s future success.
The Montessori Choice
Parents who have chosen Montessori for their preschool children often do so because of the many benefits this method offers. Montessori advances distinctive philosophies and approaches that encourage choice for students, teachers, and parents. Montessori recognizes that every child is a unique individual, and learns in his or her own way and own pace. Many might misconstrue this as an environment in which kids dawdle their time in play activities. Montessori’s strategically-prepared environment encourages the young learner to gain a sense of order and control. Purposeful materials allow students choice in selecting activities that are interesting to them. From their earliest learning experiences, youngsters take ownership in their own learning. Children in Montessori settings are active participants in their own learning, and not merely passive recipients of information.
Teachers are also beneficiaries of choice in the Montessori Method. They have responsibility to create a learning environment in which the student becomes a self-guided learner. Teachers can take on a variety of roles that instinctively support optimal learning in this setting. Instead of allowing assessments to dictate curriculum and instruction, as occurs in traditional classrooms (described as “fidelity” to publisher’s scope and sequences), teachers in the Montessori classroom can change roles as needed for the growth of each child. Sometimes the teacher engages in direct instruction; sometimes he or she is a “guide to the side.” Montessori teachers are “kid watchers,” and know the sensitive periods, or developmental markers when students are ready for the next new challenge in their learning pathway. In traditional classrooms, teachers organize lessons in the same order for all students at the same time. The order and pace in which teachers present lessons are strictly determined by district curriculum scope and sequence maps.
Montessori teachers are also empowered by the philosophy that environments should be orderly. They maintain order and a positive social environment by expecting their young learners to respect each other’s work and work spaces, and by removing students that lack self-control of their impulses when necessary. Students also work together to complete tasks as a team. This collaborative atmosphere supports 21st Century skills.
Parents who choose Montessori often do so because they recognize the benefits of an environment which fosters a sense of independence, while at the same time builds collaboration skills. Students in Montessori gain life-skills, and learn to “do for themselves,” a true benefit to parents!
Why Choose Montessori Kindergarten
In choosing Montessori for their child, parents also have a choice for how long to keep their child in the Montessori setting. Many parents are not aware that Montessori is best carried through the kindergarten year. This lays a strong foundation in essential literacy skills. While Montessori kindergarten curriculum continues to cover the five key areas that support the child’s full development (practical life, sensorial, mathematics, language and culture), this level places a greater emphasis on building literacy skills. Children who had Montessori as preschoolers are well-established as self-directed, active learners. Montessori kindergarten will expand and include instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics. The National Reading Panel (2000) endorsed these areas for early literacy instruction as the most effective way to teach children to read. What differs for students in Montessori settings, as compared to traditional classrooms, is that they work on literacy lessons for as long as necessary, avoiding arbitrary time limits and pacing. Instead of slowing down the reader, this serves to accelerate the pace of literacy learning for many in Montessori classrooms. Students leaving Montessori after the kindergarten year are often well ahead of their traditional peers. They often enter their first-grade classrooms as full-fledged readers.
Maria Montessori advocated for the power of choice. She believed that children are better learners when given opportunities to choose what they want to learn. Students, teachers, and parents enjoy the choices that the Montessori approach offers to all invested in the learning environments of young children.