Montessori Research – A Brief History

If you are a Montessori parent, teacher or administrator, you are a part of the community at arguably the best time in its 100 plus history.  There were two significant periods of growth that came previously.  The first, in the 1920’s was largely sensationalized, “Montessori Children Read at Age Two!! sort of thing. You may have heard that at the World’s Fair in California back then, there was a model working classroom WITH CHILDREN enclosed in glass, that visitors could walk past or stop and gawk at.  If this is sounding “zoo-like”- creepy to you,  I agree completely.  Montessori ran afoul of some of the educational establishment, who perhaps were not ready for a woman, and Italian woman no less, to tell them how to change the current pedagogy in use.  That she was confident to the point of some arrogance was probably of little help.  A thirty or so lull of significant innovation in American education followed.  A second wave of interest emerged in the 1960’s and 70’s,  when educators and parents experimented with alternative education, and non-traditional schools, and Montessori rode this wave.  In fact there are many Montessori schools who are now celebrating their 40th and 50th year anniversaries, dating their establishment back to that time period.  It is a THIRD wave, that has now propelled Montessori to its arguably greatest impact.   The growth of Montessori since THIS turn of the century involves the convergence of two movements, one directly related and a second that capitalized on the first. 

The first was the emergence was research, meaning real research.  For many years there did not appear to be any pressing need to “prove” the efficacy of Montessori.  Parents sent their children to a Montessori school and they, the children, that is, were happy and seemed to be learning.  That’s all the proof they needed.  Later, when research WAS done, it was done by Montessorians themselves, admirably, and with integrity, but which, by any measure, is just bad statistical science.  But as we moved into the late 1990’s, an increasing number of studies began to appear, initiated by people, who, pardon me, actually knew what they were doing and had no bias, conscious or not.  

At the same time this research was being done, and reported on, the emergence of social media made it easy to disseminate and share these studies, and reactions to studies.  Made it easier for major media outlets to pick them up, and led to the creation of specific websites and social media groups devoted to Montessori research.  AMS has a section devoted to research on their website.  Montessori Research Interest Group, Kansas University Center for Montessori Research, and the Journal of Montessori Education and Research are all groups that have 10,000 members between them.  It seems that every month there is a new study, there is new research.

Those studies and that research are now a mouse-click away.  And what does it show?  That children that go to Montessori schools are, wait for it, happy and seem to be learning.  I know, right?  But seriously, the overwhelming and growing body of evidence suggests that the Montessori pedagogy is a very effective manner of education. Studies show children in Montessori environments have as good as if not better outcomes in both academic and non-academic domains.  Non-academic domains including executive function, focus, creativity, and yes, happiness, or at least satisfaction during and after the school day.

Specifically, longitudinal studies performed in  Connecticut, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida showed a marked improvement for children on Language, Math, Executive Function and Behavior, Social Skills, Creativity

The creativity piece was replicated in a study done in France, showing Montessori classrooms led to increased abilities and imagination in such activities as story-telling, drawing, and toy improvement.  

Further, there are studies that compare two Montessori environments one being “Classic” Montessori and one being “Supplemented”.  The amount of child-use and availability of Montessori materials was used as an index of Montessori fidelity.  In these studies, while children gained in both environments, those children in classic Montessori classrooms, and we could probably substitute the word “pure” or “traditional Montessori” here, made greater gains than “supplemented”  in terms of executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, social, and problem-solving. Removing the supplementary materials, or the non-Montessori materials, improved student growth, especially in early reading and executive function.  There were no differences, we should note, in vocabulary or social knowledge.

And of course last year, a seminal study was done in South Carolina.  I say “of course” because I’m hoping that it was publicized enough for you to have heard of it.  And seminal because it was a large “mega” study, a compilation of many studies, and so it carried more weight.  It showed that, and I’m quoting from an article:

“Montessori public school students exhibited significantly more achievement growth on state standardized tests than demographically similar non-Montessori students in math, English language arts (ELA), and social studies. The results for science were mixed, as Montessori students demonstrated significantly less growth than non-Montessori students in one year (2013-14) and significantly more growth in another year (2015-16).”

Ginny Riga, a Montessori consultant for the S.C. Department of Education who contributed to the study, stated, “The Montessori method pulls together many solid classroom strategies, all guided by the Montessori philosophy of how children develop and learn. This method stands out among other education approaches by combining multi-age classes, a hands-on curriculum and individualized learning, making the classroom ‘success oriented’ for all students.”

As I mentioned before, the benefits of Montessori extend beyond academic achievement, as Montessori students also demonstrated better school attendance and behavior. Montessori students generally perform similar to or better than non-Montessori students on assessments of executive function, which encompasses abilities such as emotional control, planning and organization, and self-monitoring. The concept of “mastery orientation” is an interesting one. This refers to the tendency for children in Montessori classrooms to gain confidence through the successful completion of a task, repeatedly so, which leads to a difference in how they perceive themselves in a classroom.  In short, the spiraling effect that we note in good students…. “The success I feel in one area gives me more confidence to attempt work in another”, and so on….  occurs with more frequency, just by the nature of our environments.  As in the French study, Montessori students demonstrated significantly higher levels of creativity than non-Montessori students.  Also, notable in this study, were results that indicated even in historically predictable factors in disparity, low-income, non-advantaged demographic groups, students were still performing well, in some cases, showing greater levels of improvement than their advantaged peers.  So, in summary, children in Montessori environments show an increase in academic achievement, mastery orientation, social cognition, and school enjoyment.  

It will also come as no surprise, at least I hope so, the researchers also surveyed Montessori teachers, public Montessori teachers, and found that they largely loved their jobs and planned on staying in them.  I think we’ve always posited that Montessori schools experience less attrition amongst their faculty, at least anecdotally, but it’s nice to see that actually shown to be true.  That level of satisfaction is important, for all of us in administration, because Montessori is an education model that appears to be good for students and teachers, and this helps retain talent. 

Another class of research also supports aspects of Montessori environments that are shown to be effective in other environments.  I would strongly recommend Paula Polk Lilliard book, “The Science Behind the Genius” for any teacher or administrator looking for data to support a family’s choice to enroll at your school.  For instance, having a level of choice in your work, certainly a foundation in Montessori, facilitates learning regardless of your situation.  Likewise, the use of manipulative materials and the spatial organization of a body of work, is efficacious to learning and also an accurate way of describing a Montessori classroom.  Peer teaching, collaborative learning, learning in context, the list goes on and on.  These are elements that are most beneficial to learning, that all happen to converge in a Montessori school.  

Planes of Development

Toddler and Primary environments serve the first plane of development, the Lower and Upper Elementary classrooms serve the second plane of development, and the Junior Class marks the beginning of adolescence and the third plane of development. The accuracy in this description is apparent if we look at the greater difference between Primary and Lower Elementary students or between Upper Elementary and Junior students. Conversely, the difference between Lower and Upper Elementary classrooms is much smaller.
Further, Montessori described the planes in broader terms. A strong sense of order marks the first plane. We certainly see this reflected in both the children’s activities (sorting, lining up objects, and differentiating items) and the curriculum (sensorial materials and practical life). The second plane is marked as an explosion into the social realm. The methodical 5-year-old morphs into the rambunctious 6-year-old. The Upper and Lower Elementary classrooms meet this need with more group work, more collaboration, and more opportunity for social interaction. The third plane in many ways mirrors the first, as an egocentric phase that is given to tremendous brain growth. Junior students are looking towards adulthood, and their classroom gives them every opportunity to try on new adult roles.
Central to Maria Montessori’s view of an educational system that is child centered and developmental by definition, the planes of development put a structure of common characteristics and tendencies around human growth from birth to 24 years of age. Thus, Montessori observed that children appeared to change into new individuals about every 6 years. She reasoned that if the child developed anew, then it followed that the learning environment and the adults’ approach should also change. She stressed two points. First, if the child reached his or her full potential in the present plane, this created a firm foundation for the successive plane. Second, if the child did NOT realize his or her full development in one plane, he or she would still move into the next plane, but without the requisite academic and social skills. The first plane of development encompasses the years from birth to 6 years of age. Children from 6 to 12 years of age are in the second plane of development. Early adolescence to young adulthood (12 to 18 years old) is identified as the third plane of development. Finally, the 6 years between the ages of 18 and 24 constitute the fourth plane of development. In general terms, Montessori noted that the first and third planes are periods of tremendous transformation and construction, while the second and fourth planes are years of stabilization and strengthening. Each plane is also divided into two subplanes, each of 3 years in length.
Montessori schools are constructed and organized to support the kind of growth and learning that occurs within these developmental planes and subplanes. Toddler and Primary classrooms (first plane) share many like materials, lessons, and emphases, while still being distinct environments. The Elementary classrooms (second plane) represent a large change from the Primary years. While there are also significant differences between the subplanes of Lower and Upper Elementary classrooms, they are fewer and less salient. The Junior Class represents the first 2 years of the third plane of development and is another big jump. Knowing your child’s developmental plane is an important step in understanding his or her needs and setting appropriate expectations.