Montessori Then and Now: Still Ahead of the Curve in Education

February 20, 2017

This week we feature a post from BC Parent Magazine,. BC Parent goes beyond recipes and crafts to give parents the information they want on health care, education, birthing, the arts, community events and more.

The February issue contains a feature article on Montessori and the new BC Curriculum for elementary grades that was rolled out for this 2016-2017 school year. You can pick up a copy of the magazine at several community centres and other venues across BC or read online at BC Parent ISSUU.

Montessori Then and Now: Still Ahead the Curve in Education

Our ever-changing world impacts us in many ways; even in the way, our kids are taught at schools. In recent years, the BC government has been rolling out changes to the education curriculum, which has meant big differences to the way our children are taught in schools. There are several key changes that the BC government has made, including new standards on how kids progress is documented (children won’t be just be given letter grades. Instead school assessments of children’s learning will try and look at the bigger picture), as well as other major modifications in learning approaches.

The new curriculum aims to prepare children for our changing world, paying particular attention to our increasing reliance on technology. It also intends to give them the knowledge necessary to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. One of the other main philosophies within the new BC curriculum is the understanding that no two children learn in the same way, or at the same pace, and that effective learning comes from not just memorizing information, but the ability to apply that information in real-life situations. It also takes into consideration that students learn best through approaches that harness their interests and passions.

While there has been a lot of interest in how the new curriculum has been applied in traditional BC public schools, not a great deal of time has been given to alternative school’s systems, such as the Montessori program. BC Parent spoke with educators and parents in the Montessori system to find out their thoughts on how the new curriculum was working in tandem with the Montessori method.

Firstly, though, what exactly is Montessori? It is an educational approach developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, who’s scientific approach was based on the belief that education should nurture the individual needs of a child. Her teachings advocate working with children’s independence and with respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development. Through the course of her research, Dr. Montessori discovered that children had “absorbent” minds, and so learning was something they did naturally, without it having to be forced upon them.

The Montessori program is popular in countries all over the world, and here in BC, it is a choice program, like French immersion. Parents can opt into the program through public schools that offer it, as well as through private schools that offer the program. For example, on Vancouver Island, one of the first ever Montessori schools in Canada opened in the late 1940s.

In BC, Montessori schools follow the provincial curriculum, as well as the educational philosophies of Maria Montessori. Erin Higginbottom, principal of the Family Montessori School Society in Vancouver, says that so far, merging the new BC curriculum with the Montessori system has been a success. “The new BC curriculum is actually fitting in quite well with the Montessori educational philosophies, as the new curriculum is moving towards the way that we do things, so it’s been very easy for us to demonstrate how our curriculum meets the new BC curriculum – and then some. What the new BC curriculum has done is to offer up a more project and inquiry-based collaborative model of working, presenting the bigger ideas, and in a Montessori program that is how our program has been designed from day one. We start our lessons with the bigger picture. We start by telling a story, or by asking questions, and then we allow the children to explore in their own individual way and get them to dig a little deeper and pick out those details that they find important. Then they transfer that knowledge into projects, field trips or any other subject area that it might take them, so there are a lot of cross-referencing and cross-curricular projects that are happening. So because we’ve always approached learning in that way and because now, the new BC curriculum is doing that as well, it’s been very lovely to see that the way we’ve been doing things is more widely accepted. Because of that, it’s been much easier to marry the two curriculums together.”

Higginbottom, who last year during her maternity leave created a document that shows how the Montessori program integrates the new BC curriculum, says schools haven’t had to overly modify their curriculum to meet the new provincial standards, as the Montessori program already covers all the bases of the core curriculum. But she said that there are some areas that they have adjusted. “We’ve always had to figure out ways to implement specialty programs such as French and physical education, which we’ve been able to integrate quite well, especially when we turn over the ownership of learning to the students and allow them to pursue those specialties, not only when they have the outside instructors but when the interest arises as well.”

As well, in the new BC curriculum, there is a focus on readying students for life beyond school. Higginbottom says that goals such as career development have always naturally been a part of the Montessori day-to-day classroom routine, as children learn how to goal set, problem solve and communicate from very early on, through journal writing, day-time planning, and class discussions.

The new BC curriculum is very much based on the Montessori model, meaning that learning is research based and the children are in charge of their own education.

However, she says there are areas in the new curriculum that Montessori educators will need to be mindful of. “The applied skills design and technology components of the curriculum that affect kids from grades six and up is much more thorough than the previous curriculum and is something that Montessori educators will have to look at a little more closely, moving forward.”

Higginbottom, who has been involved in education for over fifteen years, firmly believes in the success that a Montessori program can offer children. “Doctor Montessori’s method has been proven to work for over a hundred years now and research is catching up to validate her original findings, which were that education should be based on the developmental   and psychological characteristics of the child and when you set up the classroom that meets the needs of a given age, the children thrive and they’re happy. Not only are we paying attention to their academic development, we’re encouraging social and emotional intelligence, as well as skills that are really coveted in the workplaces of today and the future. Ironically, this ‘new’ twenty-first-century learning has been implemented by Montessori since the early 1900s.”

On Vancouver Island, the Montessori method is also a popular option for many families. Penny Barner, the administrative head at Selkirk Montessori in Victoria said, “The island is very rich in Montessori schools and we have some of the best Montessori options available in Canada. Not only do we have Montessori pre-school and Kindergarten schools, we also have a number of elementary and middle school programs. We even have the only Montessori high school in Canada here in Victoria.”

Selkirk Montessori School academic head, Erin Hayes, agrees with Higginbottom that the changes to the new BC curriculum have been easy to implement and that, in actual fact, many of the changes are philosophies that are already at the core of Montessori learning, especially at higher-grade levels. “The middle school and high school Montessori model is based on the development of the adolescent. It’s not just a regurgitation of the elementary model, it definitely takes it that step further. I think the new BC curriculum is very much based on the Montessori model, meaning that learning is research based and the children are in charge of their own education. They learn good time management and organization skills and they have that independence, so that by the time they are in middle school, they have learned all the executive skills that will stand them in good stead for high school – if they go into a non-Montessori high school or for when they get to university.”

Nathan O’Donnell is a parent who lives in Vancouver and has two kids. His old-est son is five and is currently completing his final year in a three-year cycle of a Montessori program. He says before his son started school he was new to Montessori, but the more he learned about the program the more attractive it became. “Immediately it was apparent to me that in the classroom there was a sense of mindfulness of self and of others and knowing that was going to be a part of the everyday school routine was very impressive to me. Beyond the classroom, my son has brought those expectations home with the way he conducts himself with his younger brother. The mentoring that he’s received from the older kids at school has really influenced him and so he practices the same behaviour when he comes home. There is a nice harmony between home and school.”

I love that it’s mixed age classrooms. I think that the freedom that is given to your child to explore and develop at their own pace in a safe, contained environment is fantastic.

Jean Marine, who lives in Vancouver, has a four-year-old daughter who has been in the Montessori program since she was three. Marine also attended a Montessori school herself and it was this experience that lead her to seek out the same choice for her daughter. “I just love the program. I’ve gone all the way through to higher education myself, I have a Ph.D. and when I reflect on my own learning, it’s my Montessori education that still sticks with me. The thing that I love is that Montessori instills in kids a love of learning for the love of learning, not just for a mark on a test. I love that it’s mixed age classrooms. I think that the freedom that is given to your child to explore and develop at their own pace in a safe, contained environment is fantastic.”

Higginbottom says that parents considering Montessori as a choice for their child should definitely do their homework. “You do need to do your research because not all Montessori schools are created equally. Parents need to look for schools that are accredited or affiliated with certain Montessori organizations like AMI, the organization that Doctor Montessori and her son founded, or AMS to make sure quality programs are being delivered.”

Ultimately, when it comes to the new curriculum, Higginbottom says things couldn’t be going better and that so far, the transition has been a great success. “I think because we’ve been trained specifically to deliver education in this way and we’re comfortable doing it, we’re not scrambling, we’re quite sure of how to deliver the program and we know and trust what the outcomes will be. I think parents respect that and appreciate the individualized attention children receive and the fact that they’re with a teacher for at least three years means we’re developing a more meaningful relationship with their children.”

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