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Montessori goes mainstream in U.S.by Vyju Kadambi*

During a recent visit to Three Rivers Montessori School, a parent who saw his 4-year-old child's class examining tactile models of a variety of land formations while exuberantly singing an accompanying song, afterward remarked, “I don't think I knew what an isthmus was until high school.”

People are often surprised at just how much cognitive learning takes place at the school. For years, Montessori was regarded as an avant-garde approach to education short on the three R's and long on unstructured learning. Such a view, often regrettably advanced by rigid traditionalists who had never actually set foot in a Montessori setting, regarded the movement's unconventional orientation to learning as a threat to established pedagogy. Yet what had once been labeled as an elitist, offbeat educational method has now gone quite mainstream. Today, in addition to a growing number of private institutions such TRMS, more than 300 public school districts now feature Montessori programs, including Fort Wayne Community Schools' Bunche and Towles (formerly Geyer).

In reality, the movement Dr. Maria Montessori founded in Italy 100 years ago this month, has long had a considerable effect on both private and public American education. For example, many aspects of Montessori instruction have become staples of contemporary education. Preschool and kindergarten classrooms throughout the world use the child-sized furniture and learning materials Dr. Montessori originated. Commonly accepted practices, such as individualized learning, the use of hands-on materials and a variety of instructional methods based on how different children learn, also reflect her innovative thinking.

Although many have heard of Montessori they may still not really know much about it. Montessori sought to cultivate a holistic view of development that fostered a child's unique skill set, capacity for curiosity and spontaneous questioning, and positive self-esteem. She believed children's intellectual, social and moral character could be nurtured in an environment that enabled them to revel in their budding sense of self-awareness and ability to assume greater self-responsibility.

Though it may at times appear to resemble an instructional free-for-all, a Montessori classroom operates within strongly embedded parameters, mutually respected by students and teachers. The teacher has a relatively unobtrusive role in the classroom, serving as both active observer and role model. The wide range of multi-sensory activities undertaken in the classroom are referred to as “work.” Children choose their work and spend as much time as needed until it is mastered.

Carefully prepared, self-correcting materials teach math, reading, art, science and cultural studies and are designed to move children successfully from step to step in a fashion that promotes initiative and independent learning. Satisfying the child's need for order, disciplined ground rules always call for materials to be returned to their place.

A three-year span is typical in most Montessori classrooms, providing a family-like environment where learning naturally takes place across age ranges. Older children teach younger ones, contributing to a strong sense of community, leadership development and a reinforcement of their own capabilities.

Montessori programs around the world can begin soon after birth and continue through high school. By offering an appealing and secure environment to enjoy uninhibited discovery, Montessori engenders maturing relationships among students and with their specially trained teachers. Students come to increasingly honor the gifts of others because their own have been so distinctly illumined and valued.

Some parents wonder whether the Montessori approach, laudable as it may be, can adequately prepare students for the rigorous standardized and college admissions testing awaiting them later in their school years. However, Montessori educated children tend to score significantly higher on these tests than the norm.

As they move into adult life, they are often seen to be adaptable, well-adjusted, purpose-centered individuals. Katherine Graham, Jacqueline Kennedy, Julia Child, Anne Frank, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Amazon.com creator Jeffrey Bezos all received Montessori educations.

With the opening of her first school in a Rome housing project on Jan. 6, 1907, Dr. Montessori revolutionized early childhood education by intently focusing on the self-possessed unfolding of a child's powers. Her vision has not only stood the test of time but has given compelling voice to the preeminent need for healthy early childhood development.

For Montessori, the path to a more peaceful, progressive society begins by instilling in children a profound sense of their own personal wonder and worth. As Montessori herself wrote: “That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.”

Legions of children across the globe have derived immense benefit from her precious legacy. On the centennial of the movement Dr. Montessori pioneered, they are a living testament to her educational insight, innovation, and determination.

Vyju Kadambi is director of Three Rivers Montessori School, now celebrating its 40th anniversary. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

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