Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius


Click to access Lillard_Montessori_Science_Genius_Ch1.pdf

The first chapter of the book by 2nd generation Montessorian, Angeline Lillard. She takes research on learning and compares them to the tenants of Montessori education. ” Modern research in psychology suggests the Montessori system is much more suited to how children learn and develop than the traditional system is.”

“The empty-vessel and factory models have many implications for schooling,
which are discussed in the chapters to come. To preview, when the child is seen as an empty vessel into which one pours knowledge and then creates bonds, there is no need to involve the child actively in the learning process: empty vessels are passive by nature. Yet people learn best when they are actively engaged. Good teachers try to keep children active by asking lots of questions during lectures, but the physical structure of the classroom is designed for passivity: the child sits and listens to the teacher, who
stands at the blackboard and delivers knowledge. There is no need to consider the child’s interests in the prevailing model because empty vessels have nothing in them from which interests could stem. When interests do arise, since all vessels have been filled with the same stuff, all vessels should share interests. Empty vessels certainly cannot make choices, and so teachers or school administrators choose what should be learned, down to the micro-details tested on statewide examinations.

The factory model also has certain implications for schooling. Factories at the turn of the century were efficient because all raw materials were treated alike. Factory workers operated on material, and material was passive. The material was moved from one place to another, assembled on a set schedule. Based on the factory model, all children in a class are given the same information simultaneously and are often moved from one place to
another at the ring of a bell. It is a significant strike against the factory model that even true factories are changing practices to improve long-term productivity, by allowing teams of workers to develop products from start to finish rather than having the product moved from place to place (Wompack, 1996). Yet schools still operate like the factories of yore.”

Building Vocabulary with Language Objects and Cards

Wonderful toddler activities!

Nduoma Montessori

My son has been very interested in several things recently. He thirsts for words. He points to items and names them or asks for us to name the ones that he doesn’t know. He also brings us some of the pictures of family members that we have around the house and wants us to name each person as he points to them. Finally, he is interested in dressing himself and tries multiple times during the day to put on or take off his clothes. Taking these three interests into consideration, I put out a language activity for him and he loves it and uses it several times a day so I thought I’d share.

Clothes and cards

He takes it to the coffee table. The cards are quite big and don't fit on his table. He also prefers to do it standing. He takes it to the coffee table. The cards are quite big and don’t fit on his table. He also prefers to do it standing.

Take out the basket with the clothes Take out the basket with the clothes

Ideally, the child should…

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What we want


What we want, as teachers, is to facilitate children loving to read. LOVING it. Life long readers. I, for one, don’t even care what they, as adults, read: Jane Austin, or 50 Shades of Grey. Motorcycle magazines, or the sports pages. READING (and learning), yea!!!!

But how do we help that to happen. As parents, your job is kinda easy. Read, enjoy reading, and read to your children things that you enjoy reading to them. That’s it, really.

As teachers and schools and school systems, there is a lot of politics involved. This is partly, of course, because there is a lot of money involved.

Ahhhh, the politics of learning. Who knew? This article cites a “report”. Sounds great. The report is partially funded by the association of Waldorf schools. Waldorf schools do not think that children should be exposed to letters until around age 7. They have apparently found a way to attempt to influence the conversation in this way. Sigh.

No, I don’t think Kindergartens should expect everyone to read in Kinder. My son did not read until he was 9, and any attempt to speed up the process, even with Montessori materials, just did not work. I’m sure that, as we continue to learn more about how we learn and how to teach, we may understand more about the processes that impede learning. I’m sure there are many. But Kindergarten teachers should not feel that pressure, children should not feel that pressure. Do any of us learn well under pressure????

And there is this bullshit about “play based preschools”. I’m sorry, I am so tired of this. Children have been learning alongside other people since the Dawn of Time. Do primitive people put their toddlers in rooms full of plastic crap to “play with” until they are “old enough to learn”? What model are we using here?

Montessori teachers, RIE educators, and many other people feel that children learn alongside others with whom they have a relationship. This school of thought is called social constructivism (Social constructivism is a sociological theory of knowledge that applies the general philosophical constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings.) and includes not only Montessori but include Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky (

This is not new stuff. It is not radical stuff. It is supported by what we now understand about learning, and best practices about teaching.

So, should we demand that all Kindergarten teachers in the US, who have learners of all types and stripes (non-native English speakers, at-risk children of all types, like homeless children and children who have a variety of special needs, diagnosed and not), teach all children to read by June of the Kinder year? Hell no!

Should we “protect” children from being expected to learn anything until age 7, so that they can joyfully “play”? Hell, no, either. Children want to learn what people know and do. That is why they learn to walk and talk. They are hard-wired for this. To deny them this is to tell them that they are incapable, and need “special service”, creating dependency and helplessness. For some, the extended time in “pretend play” causes them to lose a grasp on the reality of what is going on around them, and what the other children/people are doing and saying.

Yes, this is not a complete rant. I am not saying that children need to sit and look at flash cards, either. Of course not. Most of them cannot sit at all! Children learn through movement, relationships and relevance.

But please do not fight an absurd assumption (all children can and should learn to read by age 6) with an equally absurd one (no one should have to learn anything until age 7).


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I just read a Facebook post from a friend who was crediting her sister (wonderful picture of the two of them!) for inspiring her in her work.

I immediately thought of Martha. Martha MacDermott. She was a consultant at the school where I did my internship. Our director had trained at Xavier in Cincinnati, where she was on faculty.

You can see Martha above, laughing. This is how I remember her. This is a celebration of her, so in the larger picture below, you can see the bagpiper celebrating her Scottish upbringing. Her speaking was even more intriguing because of her lovely accent.

Montessori herself was an intimidating, inflexible person, it seems. You had to be, to be a woman with a powerful international presence at the turn of the century. Look at Margaret Thatcher, 50 years later! And Martha was also tough, but it was always clear that she was only telling you what she knew to be true, and that she was always on the side of clarity for the children. She wanted children to understand, and to love what they were learning, as she did. This was so obvious.

In the above video, Martha tells that she started her training in London, in 1958. This was just at the beginning of the Montessori “revival” in the US, so, soon after, she came here to mentor many new schools.
I have many “Martha stories”, and I love telling them. It is wonderful to have a new place to tell them:) My staff and children will be so pleased, that I am not telling them, again!

1) Martha comes, and it is her 60th birthday. She does the “walk around the sun”, and does it by decades, after giving a lovely lesson on counting by 10s with the bead materials. Then, instead of telling us a story for each year, or decade, she sat and told us (3-6 class) about a birthday she spent in an air-raid shelter during the London Blitz. Not a sound was heard, as all the children watched her face.

2) All the teachers are watching Martha give a variation of the checkerboard (Montessori multiplication lesson). The boy, with whom she is working (aged 7 or so), is intrigued by being the center of attention, and starts to make himself belch on command. Fascinating! What will Martha do? She stops, and puts her hands in her lap until he is brought up short and looks at her. She asks, quietly: “Do you know who I am?” He stammers: “Well, yes, you are Martha!” She answers, with delight: “Yes! And I am also someone who very much wants to do this lesson with you today. Will you do it with me?” Lesson continues from there, with great appreciation from both participants.

3) Martha comes, and tells the children (3-6) all the stages of her trip, from leaving her apartment to getting on plane to fly to Charlotte, to driving to Boone, with all the stops on the way. The children are riveted.

4) A 3 year old watches Martha and an older child do the entire 50 piece US puzzle map. She obviously loves it, and, when it is put back, goes and gets it, and falls, scattering all the pieces. Instead of telling her that it is too big for her, and that she has made a mess (reading out of my own script), Martha looks in the face of crying Lou and says: “We can fix this together.” The she helps Lou match the pieces to the control map by color: “Which color shall we do next?” This all takes about an hour, during which Martha does not look annoyed, or like she would rather be doing more important work. When I asked her later why she did not name the states as they put them in the puzzle (cramming in information was always in the back of my mind), she answered: “That was not what drew her to the work, and she has plenty of time to learn them. She was having a sensorial experience with the shapes of the pieces.”

5) My daughter adored Martha, and wanted to write her letters. As a 5 year old, they were brief, and had invented spelling. Martha answered each one, with stories from her day.

Martha said, “Maria started a new conversation on the planet for the possibility of children and it will never be completed.” Thus, the Montessorian’s job continues.

I am striving every day to see children as Martha did.


Travelling Light

From a Montessori teacher/mom in India: My Learning as a Mother, Teacher and School Administrator

Travelling Light

“The Tile Game is a beautiful and popular material in the Elementary class, lending itself to intricate tessellations, mosaics, calculations of area and all else that the imaginative mind of the child dictates.

I was reluctant to present Abhimanyu with the Tile Game. The domineering teacher in me reasoned that he ought to pay for his indolence. I slyly omitted him from the list of children invited for the lesson. But he was there, totally absorbed.

Abhimanyu travels light and sly omissions don’t weigh him down.

The next day I saw him make an exquisite pattern with the tile game.

I wish I could have simply stood back and admired it, but the stubborn teacher in me didn’t give up. Dripping with mockery I challenged him to find the area of the “beautiful pattern.” I couldn’t wait to see his regret and guilt, his surrender to rigour.

I expected him to –
– Count the number of triangles, parallelograms, trapeziums and hexagons
Triangles = 66
Parallelograms = 36
Trapeziums = 24
Hexagons = 13

– Find the area of each of those shapes applying the formula
Triangle – ½ x 2.5 x 2 = 2.5 sq cm
Parallelograms = 2.5 x 2 = 5 sq cm
Trapeziums = ½ x (2.5 + 5) x 2 = 7.5 sq cm
Hexagons = ½ x 15 x 2 = 15 sq cm

– Multiply it by their number
Area of triangles – 2.5 x 66 = 165 sq cm
Area of Parallelograms = 5 x 36 = 180 sq cm
Area of Trapeziums = 7.5 x 24 = 180 sq cm
Area of Hexagons = 15 x 13 = 195 sq cm

– Sum it all up together.
Total area = 165 + 180 + 180 + 195 = 720 sq cm

And he didn’t know how. Ha!

In less than ten minutes Abhimanyu had the area of his beautiful pattern. He had converted his parallelograms, trapeziums and hexagons into triangles.
66 + 72 + 72 + 78 = 288 triangles

All triangles became rectangles and the rectangle was a familiar friend!
½ x 2.5 x 2 = 2.5 x 288 = 720 sq cm
Abhimanyu travelled light and quick.

I doubly suffered because I was his teacher and his mother too. I moved around arduously with tons of load on my body and soul and appreciated “hard work.”

One Sunday afternoon he was out with the wind in his unkempt hair and shabby clothes and often unbrushed teeth. He came in with a big smile, hugged me saying, “Thanks Ma, for loving me only so much.” Gave me a little kiss and was off.

Abhimanyu truly travels light!”



To be back at work/school. Yes, I would have loved the thought of endless days to lie around and watch Gilmore Girls while I search the Web for vital information, and bottomless cups of decaf, but I don’t have any grist without the imput, and the little ones are endlessly wonderful. I got to watch someone, aged almost-5, work on the hundred board while listening carefully to the conversations around him, then return to the job at hand. Amazing brains. I got to share one of (many) favorite books: Moses the Kitten, and watch the big reveal (the kitten is nursing with the piglets!!!!) I got to listen to 2 ks dictate stories out of their own imaginations. I even got to watch a four month old work and work on turning over, while her mother let her enjoy the process without helping her!

“What Did You Do Wrong?”


It is always informative to have new folks observing my classroom. It’s like when you see your dining room table in the back of a picture: “When did all that stuff get there?” or that the view out of that window is stunning.

I recently had someone walk over to a child and ask him what he was doing. “Folding napkins”, he said.  “Oh!  What did you do wrong to have to do that?”

The child could make nothing of that comment, so didn’t try, and went back to folding, reflecting on the odd things that grownups say.  He was, in addition to folding, giving a lovely folding lesson to his 2 year old helper, who was riveted.

Of course, I know that work is dreadful, especially boring, repetitive work. Am I leaping up right now to put the clean sheets back on the guest bed?  No. They are lying in a sad heap on the bed, and will until an hour before the next guest arrives.  I couldn’t tell you the number of things in my house which are undone.  It would take months.

However, I also know that my attitude towards work of all kinds is learned.  I remember this when I see children invited to do something meaningful in the classroom, like folding the napkins (so that we can have snack) and teaching others to fold napkins (because it is cool to know stuff.)  No, they are not all singing “whistle while we work”, but they are not grumbling much, unless we teach them to.  They are often rather pleased and self-satisfied.  They often find the work relaxing or intriguing.

Recently a child was thrilled to be allowed to figure out how to shake the plastic bag so that it fit well in the trash can.  He has now taken it over as “his job”: “Allow me, please.”  Yes, maestro.

Flow and Montessori

Csikszentmihalyi flow

A lot has been written about University of Chicago psychologist Csikszentmihalyi and the idea of flow.  He described flow as “the quality of experience as a function of the relationship between challenges and skills.,,When challenges and skills are matched at a high level, the resulting state is flow.”  Many have written about flow in sports; when things “come together and feel right”; in art, in writing, in playing music.

We can understand the above chart as: when skills are high and challenges are low we can be relaxed or even bored.  When challenges are high and skills are low, anxiety or worry can result.  When both skills and challenges are low, we are apathetic.  When challenges and skills are matched at a high level, the resulting state is flow.  We cannot live in flow!  Sometimes we have to struggle, and sometimes we need to rest, but flow is the reason that we achieve great things, and when we feel deeply satisfied.  It is what helps us get to new levels in our work and in our play.

We recognize flow when we master skills, from riding a bike to how to use a new piece of software, how to play a game (golf swing!), how to repair the vacuum, when we solve a math problem or make the perfect cake.  Some rules of flow are: the goals are clear, the feedback is immediate, skills match challenges, concentration is deep, problems are forgotten, control is possible, self-consciousness disappears, the sense of time is altered, and the experience becomes autotelic (fun for its own sake):)

I think that this is one way to describe what Montessori saw in children who were deeply concentrating on the materials.  I believe that this is what she wanted to provide for all children. One way we see this in the classroom we call normalization.  Montessori teachers argue whether a child is normalized or a classroom is normalized.  We know, however, when we see a child deeply engaged.  They often repeat the work over and over, and cannot be distracted from it.


Here is Jonah.:)  After counting Montessori math materials, and working with them for three years, when he started to count one of the chains, he ralized that it felt so easy, he should count all the chains.  From 1 set of 1, to 10 sets of 10.  And that he knew all the “5s” and all the “10s”.  And that he could recognize all the numbers.  And it felt really good.


Here is Melly,concentrating on leaping, and Lila, concentrating on very careful pouring.  We can see concentration and deep joy in many activities. Our jobs as teachers and parents are to set up the environment and teach skills so that each child can experience this and build on this feeling of flow when they encounter new challenges.

The Wonderful Montessori Math Materials!


There was a recent discussion of Montessori materials on a Facebook page, and we (Montessori teachers) were VERY offended that someone posted a picture of this material presented incorrectly. 🙂

The original poster probably ran away, screaming, but it shows how passionate we are about the materials, how much we love themnumbers and counters, and how much thought we, and the teachers before us, all the way back to Montessori’s first school in 1907, put into how to present hard, abstract lessons to children.

In this material, for example, called “numbers and counters”, the counters are all in one color, so that the idea of quantity, and not color, is what is clear to the child. They are also kind of boring (not little teddy bears, for example), so that the abstract idea is the most clear. (We can count teddy bears, but we will probably get distracted by how cute they are and start to play “teddy bear city”, which is a great game, but not this one.)

This is a great lesson in one to one correspondence, which is hard for young children, who are presented numbers as a series of sounds: “one, two, three, seventeen, twenty, one hundred!” One to one correspondence means that there is one thing for each number counted, and requires slowing down to realize this. When you have to pick up one counter for each number, that slows you down. Usually the beginning presentations of this work have the teacher counting, one at a time, into the child’s hand, and then the child counting into the teacher’s hand, then counting again as they lay out the counters. If the child cannot “read” the numbers yet, the teacher lays the numbers out in order, reading them.

The teacher sets them up as shown, and, eventually, the child notices that one is “left over” at the bottom, with some of the numbers. This may be at four or five. The child has “discovered” odd numbers, and this discovery has more value than our teaching the concept.

Later, this work can be done with a friend, on two rugs, with the numbers mixed up, as a game, or with a younger child.

This is one of the beginning number presentations in a math curriculum which is contained in a book (we call them albums) which is 3-4 inches thick with lessons!

We love the math materials very much, and the children do, too!