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Our thoughts on Montessori and education

Be careful what you test for!

[this test was] considered quite independently of the influence of culture and education; and it was appreciated as the expression of an intimate, personal activity of the intelligence itself.

But if one of [my students] had been subjected to the test, he would, in virtue of a long sensory training, have chosen the largest and the smallest cube very much more easily… The test would therefore have measured the different methods of education, whereas the psychical differences between the two children, really existent by reason of age or of intellectual attainment, would have remained absolutely obscure.

– Dr. Maria Montessori

Spontaneous Activity in Education, page 113

Our society no longer trusts teachers. This has serious implications for Montessori schools.

It is because teachers aren’t trusted that we subject millions of students to additional tests every year. There is a widespread perception that public education is failing. Rather than questioning how we teach, or asking if there are ways to improve our pedagogical methods, instead the blame is placed solely on the teacher. Why can’t Johnny read? The teacher is lazy or incompetent.

Testing, they say, shows us which of our classrooms and schools have improved in the past year, and which are failing. If a classroom isn’t measuring up, certainly our teachers are to blame. The only explanation for children underperforming on a standardized test is that someone is not doing their job.

This is like blaming the farmer for a poor harvest after a tornado followed by a drought.

Few teachers enter our profession for fame or glory. Fewer still select this “easy” job so they can coast to retirement. Most teachers don their mantle out of a passionate commitment to children and education. After a few years of being treated with suspicion and forced to teach to tests, it is amazing that any public school teachers retain their passion for education. What will these standardized tests do to the Montessori classroom if we adopt them in our schools?

What’s worse, the children do not benefit from these tests. They seldom if ever see the results of their standardized tests, so they cannot learn from their mistakes. Yet the consequences of their scores can have haunting repercussions. Public school students who test poorly are shunted into less challenging tracks, and are socially shamed. The curse of low-expectations has a tendency to be self-fulfilling, and Malcolm Gladwell has shown how an arbitrary assessment at a young age can painfully reduce children’s opportunities when they mature.

Schools that test poorly can lose funding, see parent flight, and even be shut down. Fearing the loss of federal funding, many school districts have tied student performance to teacher pay, amplifying the pressure placed on children, teachers and administrators. There have been too many teacher cheating scandals to count, but at their root they are a lamentable yet sane response to an insane situation.

You get the behavior you incentivize, not necessarily the behavior you want.

If a company rewards workers for the number of widgets they produce per hour, the company will get more widgets. But the firm should not be surprised when quality goes down. Reward bank officers for the number of loans they process, and we should expect more bad loans. Tell a teenager who doesn’t care about school that she’ll get a car if she keeps her GPA up and you should prepare for the possibility that you’ll be buying a new automobile. But don’t expect her to like school, to retain anything she has learned, or to have developed any life skill more meaningful than “work hard and cram facts when you are going to be rewarded.” This is not the recipe for a life-long learner.

Similarly, if you inform teachers and administrators that their compensation will be tied to how school children perform on a standardized test, then of course many will do everything they can to ensure that those test scores go up. Some of them of course will cheat.

Any knowledge or skills that are not tested will be neglected or abandoned.

So children in public schools are now tested constantly on the subjects that “matter”, English and those STEM subjects like math and science which are emphasized by the Race to the Top initiative and the Common Core Curriculum. In my area, in addition to the regular testing done in each classroom, children in each grade receive four to twelve additional tests, and each of these tests take most or all of a day. One 6th grader I know will take four Cognitive Assessment Tests (CATs), four Measures of Academic Progress Tests (MAPs), two practice End of Grade (EOG) tests, and two final EOG tests. Remember, these are in addition to any testing administered by the teacher. This child will be tested constantly on math and science skills. So it should be no surprise that the school’s weakest curriculum areas are history, art, civics and foreign language.

One of the most glaring problems with the modern emphasis on standardized testing is how poorly it prepares children for the real world. In the age of the Internet, the ability to cram facts into your short-term memory is utterly irrelevant. The ability to synthesize is ever more important, but hard to demonstrate when filling out ovals. Collaboration is a critical skill to succeeding in the workplace, but oddly enough we call this “cheating” when done on an exam.

Unfortunately, anxious parents have also come to believe in the importance of these test scores, and so even private schools are bowing to the pressure to report scores for these standardized tests.

Today I am sorry to report that there is a growing movement of Montessorians who want to adopt the same standardized tests in private schools. Testing, with its emphasis on the extrinsic reward of a score, should have a limited place in a Montessori classroom. But some Montessorians believe that they need to employ these tests to demonstrate that their schools meet the same standards as public institutions. (Please note: Links go to articles discussing this trend, not organizations necessarily supporting it.) There is so much pressure to show that our students meet this standard that we risk forgetting that the standard itself is flawed, and only traditional drill-based methods could possibly attain it.

Let’s remember, this is all because we don’t trust teachers to do their jobs. If we trust teachers, we can utilize better ways of measuring student performance.

I know a charter school where the students are forced to take the same array of standardized tests. But fortunately at this middle school the administration encourages the teachers to endure these rather than obsess over them. Instead, the children use portfolio assessment. They accumulate evidence of learning for each subject area – which may indeed include tests. They can also be essays, photos of projects, posters, etc. The goal is for both the child and teacher to come to agreement on what has been learned. Administration can sit in on these meetings to gain insight into the school’s operation. For students to complete the eighth grade they must present their portfolios to a review board of administrators and local business leaders, something like a mini dissertation defense.

I’m an odd duck in that I actually like tests, and have always tended to do fairly well on them. I am cynical about tests precisely because I often saw myself outscoring people who had worked harder and had a better grasp of the subject matter. I am not speaking only of standardized tests – even written exams penalize the slow, thoughtful thinker and reward test-takers who are artful at cloaking their ignorance in cunning phrases.

I thought it might be useful to list the things that testing can, and can’t do.

Testing can:

  • Measure how quickly and accurately student can translate a written question into something they know how to respond to;
  • Measure how quickly and accurately a student can present what they know in the manner they believe a test expects;
  • Measure how well a child handles the stress of an important test under the pressure of an arbitrary time limit;
  • Measure how good a child is at taking tests; for this is a skill that some are naturally better at, and which others can improve at with effort.

Testing cannot:

  • Tell how much a child knows;
  • Tell how effective a teacher or teaching method is;
  • Tell how well a child works with others in an era in which collaboration is ever more important;
  • Measure a child’s emotional intelligence or motivation to learn;
  • Predict whether a child will be successful in the work place.

This is my list, here’s a link for another.

Testing is not inherently bad, and limited standardized tests are not inherently evil. The problem with testing children is that it is like measuring the size of a diamond by looking at only one facet. As Montessorians, we know there is more to human potential than what filled-in ovals can capture.

I urge our community to remain steadfast in our belief that children’s abilities are much more complex, and much more fascinating, than can be measured by standardized test. And I urge all schools, including public schools, to trust the teachers. Trust them to teach, trust them to determine whether the children have been taught. Allow teachers to help children through the wonder of discovery rather than the peril of state curricula. If we empower teachers to do what they know best, to adapt to each child as an individual, who knows what heights our world might reach?

Parenting Without Fear

The unhappiness of man is the most fearful feature of the reality of our times. He no longer feels any genuine joy. He is terrified… The real danger threatening humanity is the emptiness in men’s souls; all the rest is merely a consequence of this emptiness.

Dr. Maria Montessori

Education and Peace, page 46


Last year when my daughter Hollis was nine, I took her with me to run errands. I parked and darted into the dry cleaners. The car was locked, it was nice out, and I was in for a minute, maybe two. I could have watched her through the store’s glass front, though I didn’t look back.

When I came out a woman yelled at me through her car window.

“You should be arrested!” She screamed.

“What?” I honestly wasn’t sure whether she was talking to me.

“Child endangerment! You shouldn’t be allowed to have children!”

“She’s nine!” I yelled back, though I’m not sure why I did. She yelled again that I belonged in prison, and she drove away.

I’m sure you’ve heard the following story a dozen times or more.

When I was a kid, I rode in the front of the car. A ford pinto. No seat belts.

When I was a kid, I didn’t wear a helmet to bike. I didn’t know anyone who did.

When I was a kid, I’d go for long walks. Just me and my dog. In an actual forest, a mile or more of woods. My mom said I had to be back by dinner, but I was often late.

Three ways the world has changed – but are they really the same thing?

Yes, we have more safety equipment today (seat belts, bike helmets), and I would not seriously argue the merits of a child (or anyone, for that matter) riding around the front of a Ford Pinto. But our perception of ‘stranger danger’ is both out of step with real-world crime rates, and I believe a real hindrance to children’s development of independence.

A recent study found that in 1900, all emotions were expressed in English books at about the same frequency – glee, horror, passion, etc. Though there was some variation, emotional words moved more or less down and in lockstep until about 1975. At that point something startling happens1:

Your interpretation may vary, but here’s mine: in the mid 1970s we became very afraid.

Dr. David Altheide is a professor at Arizona State University, where he studies the language used by the news media. He says:

“There’s now a discourse of fear that pervades society… the sense that danger, dread and fear are pervasive and just around the corner.”2

I think media is a cause, but it also may be reflecting what works in a fear-based culture. If sex sells, perhaps fear is multi-level marketing. My fear increases your fear, which increases the fear of everyone else around us, which leads to the whole nation tuning in every year for shark week or to catch the latest tragedy involving a missing blonde Caucasian girl.

But here’s the thing – violent crime is down, WAY down. According to the US National Crime Prevention Council you are less than half as likely to be a victim of violent crime now than you were in 1981. In 1977 you were three times more likely to be a victim of aggravated assault than today.3 According to another study that compared 19 industrialized nations, the US is below average in both crime4 and violent crime5.

So, the upshot is that we are safer than ever before, yet more afraid.

In that philosophical classic, Pixar’s Finding Nemo, the father fish (Marlin) frets to another fish that he’s promised his missing son that he’d never let anything happen to him.

Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

Have you heard of Nature Deficit Disorder? This term was coined by Richard Louv, who spent a decade gathering evidence that children’s behavior problems may often be associated with spending insufficient time outside. He suggests that our media culture has “scared children straight out of the woods and fields.”6.

I cannot swear that something bad may never happen to a child who plays outside unsupervised. But I can say that something wonderful happened to this child who did. Yes, I breathed fresh air, and got exercise. But, whether catching crayfish or climbing trees, I was also learning to appreciate nature and revel in its majesty. I learned to be independent, to get a sense of the time of day by the sun, and to become comfortable in my own skin and with my own thoughts.

Preschool children are still too young, even by the standards of the 1970s, to be wandering alone outside. I am not arguing that you abandon them in the woods.

What I am saying is this: it did not take courage for my parents to allow me to play outside, because in their day no one thought of the risks. Today, I ask you to take courage in your child rearing. Understand the risks, and look for opportunities for your children to learn independence.

At every age there will be an opportunity. For the youngest ones, that might be allowing them to play in the other room, unsupervised. Let a child pour, and then carry a full glass, knowing full well they may spill some. When they do, let them clean up the mess on their own with just a little guidance as necessary. As they get older, there may be some dishes they can safely prepare while you are outside the kitchen. And yes, when they are older, consider letting them play outside by themselves. The world is much safer than it was, and much safer than presented by our fear-driven news cycle.


  1. http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0059030
  2. http://www.asu.edu/feature/includes/spring05/readmore/altheide.html
  3. http://www.ncpc.org/topics/violent-crime-and-personal-safety
  4. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_tot_cri_vic-crime-total-victims
  5. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_ass_vic-crime-assault-victims
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nature_deficit_disorder


Reflections on Newtown

No social problem is as universal as the oppression of the
child. Historically, the oppressed – slaves, the servant class and
finally the workers – were minority groups who sought their
redemption through social change, often in open battle between
the oppressed and their oppressors…

But the social problem of the child is not one of class, race or
nation. The child who does not function socially is one who
functions solely as an appendage of an adult. Those who oppress
one part of humanity to the advantage of another succeed only
in destroying social unity; to see this from the collective point of
view, we need only glance down to see that among the suffering
and oppressed there are also children. Almost all who care
about children point out that it is the child who is the innocent
victim of the wrongs that oppress that adult human being.

Dr. Maria Montessori

The Child in the Family, page 3

Once again a mad violence has swept its gaze across the most vulnerable among us. Once again the innocent young bear the brunt of a raging terror. Our inability to protect them rends our hearts, leaving it hard to breathe, hard to forgive ourselves. We must protect our children, and it is so painful when we cannot.

The horror at Sandy Hook Elementary may have resulted from an earlier failure to help Adam Lanza, a sick little boy who grew up to be a madman. We can pity the child he was, while making no excuses for the monster he became.

* * * * *

According to the FBI, in the US alone, every year, thousands of children are victims of violent crime. Globally, UNICEF estimates the number to be in the millions. Everyone agrees we must keep our children safe, and we wring our hands about how best to do just this.

Gun control is the topic of the day, and though it is a discussion worth having it is at once both complex and hardly a sufficient response. Proponents argue, correctly, that certain weapons might cause more harm, more rapidly, leaving less time to intercede and stop a horrifying event. Those against gun control note that in Britain and Australia, where legislation made obtaining a firearm legally quite difficult, violence and mass killings have not decreased much as we would like. And should we get rid of all guns, it is worth noting that recently British doctors have been calling for a
ban on kitchen knives in order to prevent “impulse stabbings”. An opposing fact is that no children died in a Chinese attack less than 24 hours prior to the Newtown tragedy. The difference – the Chinese attacker used a knife rather than firearms.

But we cannot – must not – be happy in a world where success is measured by children stabbed rather than shot.

Because there have always been tragedies, it is difficult to know whether this particular one was inevitable. But the facts around the incident are striking. Adam Lanza was by many accounts a genius, but apparently no one was surprised when he was identified as the killer. His behavior had been disturbing since he was a very small child, yet no one acted to ensure that he was kept both safe and prevented from hurting others.

And this is the tragedy-within-a-tragedy. None of us can say whether Adam Lanza was destined to become a brutal murderer of small children. But it should be clear to all of us that for many years he was a person who needed help, and received none. A straight line may be drawn from the tragedy of his neglect to the larger tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary.

In many places around the world, social norms are dissolving, perhaps nowhere faster than in both the US and China. Communities, where once each neighbor watched over the other, are now simply collections of houses. The best neighbors quietly mind their own business.

In another time, Adam Lanza and his family might have received the support they needed to avoid the Newtown tragedy, or failing that, a concerned member of the community might have noticed and acted to protect the innocent. It is remarkable that while his neighbors knew him just well enough to see that he was “troubled”, in the weeks since the Sandy Hook massacre we have heard of no one who stepped up and took action. Even as a teenager, when Lanza perhaps could have most benefited from treatment and support, those who knew him saw a problem – and did nothing.

In the coming months our political leaders will almost certainly put forward proposals making it harder to obtain certain types of firearms and making it easier to treat and possibly hospitalize persons with mental illness. Perhaps these steps are good and necessary. But it is clear that they are not enough. We must each act to protect the innocent, and it begins by understanding and acknowledging those around us who need help.

This, to me, is the final coda of the Newtown massacre. It is not about weapons, and it is not about legislation. It is about a sick little boy and a society that forgot about him. And it is about the very real cost to our own children if we do not act.

Time enough for childhood

Little children perform slowly and deliberately many complicated actions which they love—dressing and undressing themselves, setting the table, eating, etc. In doing all these things they show extreme patience, and they carry on to a conclusion their laborious tasks, overcoming every difficulty which arises from an organism being still in the process of development…

Always animated by the same prejudice that the object to strive for is the completion of an external act, we clothe and wash the child, take out of his hands the things which he loves to handle, pour the soup into his basin for him, feed him, set the table for him. And after rendering such services, we most unjustly judge him to be incapable… We often consider the child impatient just because we cannot find the patience to wait for the conclusion of these doings of his which are obeying time-laws different from ours.

Dr. Maria Montessori

The Discovery of the Child

Patience, they say, is a virtue.

It is also particularly hard to summon when you’ve got a three year old dawdling while you are try to rush out the door. “Please hurry or Mommy’s going to be late to work” just isn’t a very compelling argument to motivate a young child. A child’s interest darts here and there, and though just a moment ago putting on their shoes was a monumental and fascinating task, now there is an interesting bug crawling along the floor and the shoes lie there forgotten.

Our clock-driven society allows us to synchronize activities all over the world, to coordinate great works across continents. It is also unimaginably foreign to our natural experience, and quite alien to the way young children experience life.

It must seem a preposterous notion, that there is this exterior quantity, this “time”. This thing that keeps happening at the same rate whether you are having fun or bored, that keeps it’ own silent rhythm even when you are asleep. To a young child, every moment is “now”. “Let’s go to lunch,” you might say. “I’m not hungry, I’m having fun,” comes the response. Then they learn to anticipate being hungry, so there is a future. Maybe they can remember being hungry, so there is a past. Eventually children distinguish the near past from the far past – I went to the fair yesterday vs. We went to grandma’s a long time ago (maybe last month).

Every step along the way, the child must learn to connect and correlate their own internal experience to the ways we break up time. In the Montessori environment we keep regular schedules and always communicate the relationship between the clock and the activities of the day. We connect natural rhythms of the day to our notion of time: we’ll go outside when the clock says such and such, we’ll have lunch when the clock says a certain time, Dad will come pick you up at this time. The clock really must seem a tyrant to a young child! More than a few children have asked why we can’t just change the clock so they can go outside now.

So try to be patient with them – it just isn’t natural for a child to experience urgency just because a clock says “hurry!”

The tragedy is that, as much as they do truly need to adapt to the adult world, the tyranny of clock-time robs us of the ability to experience the natural flow of one moment to the next. Every religious tradition I’m familiar with has a monastic tradition that emphasizes the need to be in the present moment, whether to experience god, or to reach some higher level of consciousness.

Of course, when you need to hurry – hurry. But I hope you will look for opportunities for compromise. I encourage you to think of your young children as your personal gurus. They have so much to teach us as they explore the world and fully experience every moment.

Freedom, Discipline and Responsibility

Young boy helps carry fire wood“ When the teachers were weary of my observations, they began to allow the children to do whatever they pleased. I saw children with their feet on the tables, or with their fingers in their noses, and no intervention was made to correct them. I saw others push their companions, and I saw dawn in the faces of these an expression of violence; and not the slightest attention on the part of the teacher. Then I had to intervene to show with what absolute rigor it is necessary to hinder, and little by little suppress, all those things which we must not do…

…the task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility, and evil with activity, as often happens in the case of the old-time discipline. And all this because our aim is to discipline for activity, for work, for good; not for immobility, not for passivity, not for obedience.

A room in which all the children move about usefully, intelligently, and voluntarily, without committing any rough or rude act, would seem to me a classroom very well disciplined indeed. ”

— Dr. Maria Montessori
The Montessori Mehtod, pages 92-93
(A Montessori quick bite from The Center for Guided Montessori Studies)

Is there such a thing as too much freedom?

Once when I was in Nepal I saw a two year old sweeping his fathers’ shop with such a look of intense concentration that I could not doubt the seriousness of his effort. Children have always played a role in the work of the family. It is a new notion, this fantasy of childhood as an idyllic refuge from the ugly world of adults; it speaks more to how we see our own lives than to how children see their own.

From most ancient times, from the first flickerings of civilization, the great task of children has always been to become adults. All day they would spend with their family, their tribe, their kin, working to the extent they could and contributing meaningfully to their own survival. We should not idealize the harsh reality of subsistence living; but we do a terrible disservice to ourselves if we denigrate the value of work.

If the games of children are found to be filled with fantasy constructions, this is because the last remaining place for these seems to be in childhood. Adults, too, once believed in elves, fairies, giants and witches. These were real entities in the world, unseen powers that were believed to affect our lives. Now, the last redoubt for this part of our heritage lies in the play activities and fantasies of childhood.

This is fine, but just as children may pretend to possess magic powers, they also like to pretend to have adult jobs, such as doctors or astronauts or teachers. The essential role of fantasy is to help children explore and prepare for adulthood through the tool of their imagination.

Because we often misunderstand the nature of childhood, we also often misunderstand our own children. We do them no favors, protecting them from responsibility. When a child acts out, it is often because no meaningful contribution is made available to them. Think of parents rushing around preparing for dinner guests. The dishes must be cooked, the table set, the house cleaned. Why is it that in this flurry of activity children are often underfoot, getting in the way?

Frustrated parents may tell a child to “go play”, or resort to punitive discipline. A thoughtful observer may note a shadow of disappointment across a child so banished from family activities. It is a simple formulation: if there are important things happening, and I may not contribute, then what does this say of what I am and who I may become?

It is not surprising then that children with too much of what we call “freedom” become locked into a state of permanent emotional childhood. There are many persons, physically adult, who spend their days in non-productive activity, such as playing video games in their parents’ basements.

Even adults don’t cherish freedom without responsibility, though they may imagine they would.1 Workplace studies have compared different task sets, and have found that even with the same pay, persons report much greater job satisfaction when they have greater responsibilities.

Dr. Montessori designed her classrooms with this insight into human nature. Children are free to choose any work they have been taught, but they must complete it and then get it ready for the next child, including putting it away neatly. Children may have snack when they are hungry, but they must prepare it themselves and clean up any messes they make. Many a Montessori classroom has a posted sheet of classroom chores and it’s a marvel to see children treat these chores as if they were privileges.

As children age we imagine them to be ready for more responsibility. In most US states, one cannot work before 14, drive before 16, vote before 18 and drink alcohol until you are 21. Oddly, we do little to prepare them for these responsibilities. We teach them to drive, yet 400,000 teenage drivers are seriously injured every year.2 We give them the vote, but cut civics education from our curricula. Regarding alcohol, one day they cannot drink legally, the next they can; should we be surprised by the epidemic of binge drinking and alcohol poisoning?

It is our job as Montessori educators to provide children with the necessary frameworks to succeed in ever-larger spheres. As Montessori children age, they assume ever greater independence and responsibilities. By kindergarten or early Elementary they are planning out their activities for a week. They are taught research skills and by the middle Elementary years they are conducting months-long independent research. By upper Elementary or Middle School Montessori children are often running small businesses. Is it any wonder that so many entrepreneurs credit their Montessori foundations with their success?3

The Montessori Method is not simply a pedagogical technique for communicating facts. It is a proven system for helping children develop independence and assume greater responsibilities. This is one reason why Montessori children are often perceived as more “mature” than traditionally educated children.

In our classrooms, yes, a child is free. They are free to move about, with purpose. They are free to use the works they please, so long as they use them appropriately. An essential part of a healthy freedom is responsibility, and our classrooms satisfy this need.



  1. A nice summary of Frederick Herzberg’s research can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two_factor_theory
  2. http://www.car-accidents.com/teen-car-accidents.html
  3. http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/05/the-montessori-mafia/


Thoughts for the day:

  • Are there ways to include even the youngest children in the activities of your family?
  • If you are a teacher, are there additional ways the children may contribute to the care of the classroom?
  • Is work important to you as an adult? Why or why not?
  • If you didn’t have to work, how would you spend your time? Would it all be recreational, or are there certain activities (eg charity) that you would want to continue?