Debby Riordan, Executive Director of AMI/USA (Association Montessori Internationale) will discuss the myths of Montessori and reveal what it is about the Montessori approach that may lead young children to later success.
Full Interview Transcript
Kelly: Debbie, thank you again, so much for being here. I’m a huge Montessori fan because both my kids go to an AMI Montessori here in California and I think a lot of people hear about Montessori but don’t really know what it is. Can you tell us first of all, what is Montessori?
Debbie: So, Montessori is a developmental approach to education. It was founded by Dr Maria Montessori, who was the first Italian female physician and she just noticed that children had these tendencies and characteristics that that changed with age and she researched and observed children throughout the world to develop a system that truly was natural to the child. So, that’s where this education came from, where her observations of children throughout the world and then, her ability to take what she observed, and they create environments that would support their optimal development.
Kelly: What’s the differences between the different kinds of Montessori schools?
Debbie: Dr Montessori, she was very humble and because as I mentioned, she observed children’s characteristics and developed this system through that observation. She never really considered it to be something that she invented. So, she never really wanted it to be called Montessori. It was just something that was attributed to it because she was the leader in putting this system together because of that, the name was never trademarked and so anyone can use the name Montessori as you were mentioning before. What Dr Montessori noticed though was that people were using her name and not really adhering to the things that she had discovered were critical for the development of the children and so she is the one who started association Montessori International, which is based in Amsterdam now, currently and we are the USA, primary affiliate of AMI global. So, our duty here in the United States is to make sure that the standards that, Dr Montessori saw as critical are adhered to in the schools and we recognize schools through our recognition process.
Kelly: What’s different about an AMI school versus, there’s AMS school?
Debbie: One of the biggest differences, Dr Montessori founded AMI and so we’re the only organization that can say that we were started by the founder of the Montessori system of education. AMS, even though they’re reaching a little globally now, we, AMI has always been a global organization. AMS was really focused here in the United States, there are a lot of similarities between AMS and AMI. But AMI has those standards that were derived from Dr Montessori herself and so that’s the biggest difference, when you go outside of AMI and AMS to schools that don’t have one of those credentials, then you really just have to look at what their tenants are and what their standards are. If they have them to determine if they really are a Montessori school or not.
Kelly: What are some of those may major things that you would make a school authentic Montessori?
Debbie: Some of them are the mixed age classrooms, you know, three-year age groupings. The three-year age groupings are actually based on the developmental stages of children. So even if you read PIJ or Freud or Ericsson, all of them talk about developmental stages. And actually, PLJ studied with Dr Montessori as well. So, there is an acknowledgement beyond just her that there are developmental stages that children go through. And so, you want to make sure that you have a mixed aged classroom. Usually those three-year age groupings, which are the sub planes of development, you’ll see standard work cycles. So, three-hour work cycle in the morning, and then usually about a two-hour work cycle in the afternoon where children have the ability to self-direct and to explore and to discover. If you see children with worksheets or in whole class lessons, typically those are signs that this might not be a fully implemented Montessori classroom.
Debbie: So those are a couple of the big ones, of course that’s just really in terms of what you can visually see. The approach by the adult in the classroom is also key. So, if there’s respect, graciousness and courteousness, really lessons developed for the individual children. And then those are all good signs that it’s a Montessori school. those standards by the way are listed on our websites. So, parents or anyone can go to our website and see what those standards are so that they’re visiting a school that is not an AMI school. Then they can see what standards are expected and if they’re not there, then just know that that’s something that they need to consider.
Kelly: And for the school is how those standards, I mean why is that so important? Just because there’s science that went into knowing what works?
Debbie: That’s exactly right, so a Montessori is not an a la carte system. Those components all work together to create an environment that is optimal for children’s development. And provides opportunity for them to really explore in a really unique way because areas that they are, you know, particularly adept at. There are things that all of us are better at than others. In this system of education, they have the opportunity in areas where strong or have a passion, they can move as quickly as they gain the concepts, in areas that are a little more difficult or maybe not as much fun for them. They still need to get those basics, but they have the time available to them to make sure that they understand at their own pace.
Kelly: My kids go to the Montessori school, you talked to the mission mixed age classrooms. I just find it so fascinating; I go into their classroom for an observation or for lunch and you have a group of, 25ish kids age three to six, and they’re all just so responsible. They’re washing their dishes, they’re quietly working, no one’s fighting. It was just amazing. And I can’t even get my kids at home to take a bathroom time. So, I’m just wondering how, how do they do that? I mean, how do they get these kids to all just kind of be so immersed and involved?
Debbie: What’s the key? You know, it’s so funny because we hear that so often, especially from potential families though that will come into a school and they’ll peek into the classrooms and they have that same observation so often. And it’s not that we are doing anything, it’s that the environments, both the physical environment as well as the teacher, the prepared teacher are meant for that child. So, they truly are the kids’ communities and they are developed and designed to be intriguing to them. So, the materials on the shelves are supposed to call to them, as Dr Montessori would say. And it’s the independence and the freedom within the classroom, and they often get to do things that at home they aren’t able to do. But in their community, they can do them like cutting bananas with a knife and peeling oranges and even those kinds of things, table washing, things that they see done at home, which in the classroom make it feel like they’re their community.
Debbie: And that’s an addition to all of the academics of course. So, all of the areas of academics are present even in the three to six-year-old classrooms, math and language and everything but history because they’re not quite ready for that sense of time, as we all know, when kids say are we almost there? They just don’t have that sense of time yet, right. So, it’s really not that the teachers are doing anything to keep them quiet and focused is that the environments are prepared to engage them.
Kelly: what are some of the long-term benefits of the Montessori education? Especially starting them out younger.
Debbie: So, you know, well, starting them out younger is just because the environments again are made for their developmental stage and they are so absorbent and their brains are growing so fast during especially those early years that just giving them opportunity for enrichment is a plus. The benefits of Montessori in general are there are several of course, but you know, the one that I, that the couple that I see as being most important one is, that this self-directed exploration and discovery. So, often, especially in today’s world, kids are used to things just coming in at them and being given to them. They’re just receivers of information and Montessori, you really have to be outward searching and concepts are discovered through your work and the beauty of that is then they experienced the satisfaction of that discovery and it’s one of the most engaging things to see a child discover something that, you know, everyone else has known forever, but they think they’ve discovered it for the very first time.
Debbie: And if you can imagine as a child feeling like you’ve discovered something and what that brings to you in terms of the power of yourself, that’s a tremendous gift that Montessori education gives to children. The other thing is that while academics are at a high level in a Montessori classroom it, they are presented in a way that they have this sensorial underpinning and foundation and so children learn about these concepts in a completely different way. One of my favorite lessons to give to adults is the lesson on Pi and almost every adult knows what PI is 3.14, but very few actually know where it comes from or how it was developed. So, I love to give that lesson to adults because they do the same thing that elementary children do and they have the same ah-ha at that, the end of that lesson that elementary kids do.
Debbie: So, understanding that we’re giving those kids that foundation at a much earlier age is pretty incredible and then of course there are all the other skills, independence, freedom, time management, working together. There’s not this traditional sense of competition in a Montessori classroom. It’s one more of collaboration, not that kids don’t want to do better than each other cause there’s always that, you know, that aspect of it but they really work together to make, to make something even greater out of the collection of their strengths and giving kids that experience is also pretty powerful.
And I would say the greatest gift of a Montessori education really in this day and time is because you are giving them the ability to create, creatively think and be flexible in their thinking. That’s going to be absolutely necessary for their success as an adult in today’s world where things are changing so rapidly that you cannot prepare them for a job now that may not be there tomorrow. They really have to have the ability to be able to be flexible and to love to learn and to have that intrinsic self-motivation to be able to make those kinds of adjustments for their future.
Kelly: What do you think are some of the biggest, I guess, myths or misconceptions about Montessori?
Debbie: Well, it’s really interesting, again, when you have potential families come in, they often say one of two things. They often say, you know, I’ve heard that this, that Montessori is very structured and very strict and then you’ll have other parents who will come in and say, I hear that Montessori has no structure and that kids, you know, just do what they want when they want and it actually makes me happy to hear both of those things because you know, that it’s somewhere in the middle.
So that’s somewhere in the middle is the balance of freedom and responsibility, which is the key to a Montessori classroom. So, there’s a lot of freedom when you observe a Montessori classroom, you see children walking all around, you see them choosing work from the shelves, you see them putting them back all without adult direction but there’s a lot of responsibility tied to that freedom and the freedom and responsibility balance with each individual child. So, if you have a child who is really capable of handling responsibility, then their freedom increases. If you have a child who is still developing, their capability in the area responsibility, then their freedom isn’t quite as much. So, it’s interesting that you hear both of those things, neither of which are true and it’s, you know, probably the biggest misconception about Montessori is one of those two extremes.
Kelly: Do you think it really matters where they go to preschool? Like did that make such an impact on later on development?
Debbie: I think it’s important for children, you know, when it’s, especially in those, those first years to have enrichment opportunities. I don’t think that they necessarily have to go to school. I don’t think they necessarily have to go to a Montessori school but they need to be in an environment that is enriching. We, there’s lots of studies now on brain growth and the development of connections and you can just see even any, a young one that first year of life.
If you think about what they’re like the moment of birth and then what they’re like at 12 months old and how much they’ve accomplished in that year. You know, it’s quite amazing and it’s a wonderful example of what’s happening in, you know, inside their little bodies and inside their brains at that point in their development. So, having opportunity in an environment without judgment and with respect is really what they need. And it, whether they can get that in a home environment or of course in a Montessori environment where we’ve, you know, we’ve got that down pat. That’s what’s really most important for their development.
Kelly: what about technology? how does Montessori, how does technology fit into Montessori?
Debbie: Yeah, so I guess that would be maybe one of the other little misconceptions is that Montessori despised technology and it’s really not true. We just think that it needs to be introduced again when it’s developmentally appropriate. So, for those under six we, you know, we really discourage the use of technology and really screen time of any kind, you know, very limited screen time again, because of what I mentioned before where kids are so used to things coming in at them and you want them to be out experiencing the world and even up into the elementary years, we find it very important that kids have the real-world experiences as their foundation and then once they have that real-world experience as their foundation, then you can introduce technology and you can, especially at the elementary level start to explore with them how you decide if something that you’re seeing in front of you is a valid resource or not. So, they really don’t have that capability until they start into the elementary years and have that logical, critical thinking, developing for themselves.
Debbie: We use technology in the elementary classroom most often for research purposes but again, with the education about what it is that they’re looking for and how to judge that piece of information.
Kelly: Where can people go for more information about finding a, an AMI accredited school or just about Montessori in general?
Debbie: Well, you can always go to our website, Amiusa.org and my contact information is there as well. So, if you don’t see what you need, you’re welcome to reach out to me. Also, we have an incredible resource in Montessoriguide.org it’s a website that AMI USA has developed this just filled with video clips of Montessori in action. So, if you, whether you’re an educator, whether you’re a parent, a, you can go on there and, and see all different types of examples of, of Montessori work. So, it’s, it’s really a valuable resource.
Kelly: That is so amazing, I’ve been on that website. There’s, there’s a lot of great, it’s great stuff on there.
Debbie: I know, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s great really wonderful.
Kelly: Well, I appreciate you taking the time and kind of giving us a broader insight on the distinction of Montessori and what it all means. And I appreciate you, appreciate your taking the time. So…
Debbie: Well, thank you for having me. I really appreciate talking about it. It’s something I’m very passionate about and feel that it’s an important thing for our children and so I appreciate having the opportunity to share it.
About Debby Riordan
Previous to becoming Executive Director at AMI/USA, Debby was an AMI/USA Board Member as well as the co-founder and Head of School at Southlake Montessori, in Southlake, Texas. Debby has her Masters Degree in Developmental Psychology and received her AMI Elementary diploma from the Montessori Training Center of Minnesota. She has supported Montessori education in various roles intersecting the faculty, board, administrative, training center and public policy communities. Debby is a parent to four Montessori children and it is the inspiration through watching this magical education work through them that fuels her desire for as many children as possible to have this opportunity. Debby lives in Irving, Texas, with her most ardent supporter, husband Steve, and Buster the dog.