I recently visited a Montessori school.
When walking into this 'Primary' classroom, which had a couple dozen 3- to 6-year-olds with one teacher and one assistant, the first thing I observed was a morning greeting. Each boy or girl was welcomed by a warm handshake and hello by the teacher, followed by a simple question: "What would you like to work on this morning?"
And this is where the fun began.
The shelves in this room were filled with all sorts of different 'work': from bright books to intriguing 'bead chain' math activities, from a musical bell set to a tiny pink building tower, from small glass pitchers for pouring water to a child-sized broom and dustpan for cleaning up.
Each of the many items was different, and not only in appearance. For instance, one piece of work could be used for a quick task, while others might engage a child for hours.
From this purposeful selection of activities — virtually all Montessori 'materials' are the same across the globe, whether in Manhattan or Mumbai — each child gets to choose one to work with. (The only requirement is that he or she has already received a lesson on it.) When finished, the child just sets that work back on the shelf and chooses another. And this occurs every morning and afternoon, daily.
As I sat on my little kid chair in a corner of the room, I watched individual children make their first choice of the day, each with a thoughtful look of, "Hmm, what do I want to work on?" And all of them happily chose an activity straightaway, with no trouble.
Then something unexpected occurred.
One child, a little boy probably just about four years old, found himself confronted with a problem.
After he walked away from a shelf with his chosen work in hand — a math tray with different colored beads for counting — I noticed a look of uncertainty come across his face. His eyes moved back and forth across the room a few times, and then he said in a low voice to himself: "There are no more tables left."
He was right. The other children had already chosen their work and sat down, taking up all the individual and small-group tables available. (In Montessori classrooms there are neither huge tables for mass daycare activities nor rows of single desks for traditional blackboard-style lectures.)
As I sat watching this little boy, I could almost see the wheels turning in his head and hear an inner-voice saying, "What do I do now?"
Before I had a chance to think about what I would have done in his (or his teacher's) place, the boy already had a solution.
He pulled out a small stepping stool he had eyed, placed his work on top of it, and sat down, with the stool serving as his table and the floor as his chair. Then he began working. Just like that.
So only a few minutes after he'd first realized the dilemma, this boy had independently found a way out of it and was now enjoying the morning as if there'd never even been an obstacle in his way.
This is Montessori.
Of course there is much more to say about Montessori. For instance:
* Montessori schooling was created over a century ago by Dr. Maria Montessori, an educator admired by such giants as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Helen Keller — and by children the world over.
* Montessori students consistently outperform their non-Montessori peers in reading and math: most reach reading fluency by age 5 and can do multiplication into the thousands by age 6.
* Some of the most successful individuals in the world are Montessori alumni: for instance, the Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.
But ultimately, what I observed that day in the classroom is what Montessori education really offers: the elevation of the individual, as Dr. Montessori put it. In other words, Montessori schools are a place for curious children to practice thinking and acting independently, so that years later, as young adults in life, they have both the earned confidence to choose their own path — and a unique creativity to make new ones.
The name 'Montessori' was never trademarked, so selecting an authentic Montessori school can be challenging. This article — Is it *really* Montessori? — is helpful in the process.