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Montessori Magnet Schools Suggest Reforms in Math, Science

By Peter West — February 12, 1992 6 min read
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Several feet away, meanwhile, some children are handling strings of beads, brightly painted wooden sticks, and geometric forms, as others solve complicated arithmetic problems on the floor mats.

If the setting here at the Flintstone Elementary School seems out of the ordinary, it is because it is the home of a Montessori magnet program, one of three in the Prince George’s County, Md., school system.

And, according to Paul Epstein, the district’s Montessori magnet specialist, what is taking place here may hold lessons for public-school educators who are eager to improve the quality of math and science instruction for their youngest students.

It serves, he argues, as evidence that the tenets of the 90-year-old Montessori method are in line with present-day reformers’ calls for programs that emphasize “hands on” instruction, inquiry-based and cooperative learning, and the role of teacher as facilitator.

“Nobody has ever published on what it would look like if you brought it all together,” he says. “But the Montessori approaches do in fact meet the needs that the reformers are seeking.”

Italian Roots

The county’s Montessori magnet schools date to the earliest days of the county’s magnet program, which was implemented in the 1980’s to help bring the district--located in a populous and rapidly growing suburb of Washington, D.C. into compliance with a federal desegregation order.

But, unlike some of the county’s other magnet schools, the Montessori programs are all located within conventional elementary schools, and begin instruction at age 3 or 4.

And for Montessori students, a typical school day little resembles the rigidly scheduled instruction that takes place in classrooms just down the hall.

Montessori methods, based on theories about early-childhood education developed early in this century by Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, emphasize a training of the senses through experiential learning, with an emphasis on children’s physical development as a key component of cognitive ability.

Unlike traditional elementary education, Montessori students attend classes grouped by age, rather than grade. Much of the learning is individually paced and is largely self-directed, with specially trained teachers acting as classroom facilitators.

Decimals at Age 4

The emphasis on “hands on” learning is manifested perhaps nowhere more strongly than in science and math teaching.

A student learns to count, for example, by taking possession of a “golden bead” and is encouraged to learn through experience that the bead represents, in physical form, the unit “one.”

As they progress through their program of instruction, students manipulate strings of beads that represent tens, hundreds, thousands, and even larger numbers.

Also arrayed around the classroom are graduated wooden blocks that range in size from a square inch to square meter representing numbers as small as 1 and as large as 1,000,000.

Older students learn fractions and geometric concepts through the use of manipulatives.

The physical representation of the abstract concept, Montessori teachers argue, gives children a concrete sense of “quantity” and of the relationships between various quantities.

“They’re exposed to math materials at the age of 3, when they first come in,” says Glenda G. Davis, a Montessori teacher at Doswell Brooks Elementary School in Capitol Heights, Md. “My kindergartners are adding, using concrete materials, [four-digit numbers].”

Mr. Epstein adds that students as young as 7 have learned to perform long division by using the system.

Ms. Davis, who also has taught in conventional elementary-school classrooms, says that she is convinced that it is Montessori methods, and not children’s abilities, that allow many of her students to learn about and manipulate decimals at the age of 4.

“It’s definitely the methods, because we have kids from all backgrounds in the public-school [program],” she says.

Caring for Animals

Similarly, teachers and Montessori supporters argue, Montessori methods also enhance the teaching of science through such hands-on experiences as caring for live animals.

Children, for example, are responsible for the care and feeding of the rabbits, birds, and other animals that are an integral part of the Montessori classroom.

And while the animals provide a living link to lessens about life in its different forms, caring for the creatures also reinforces lessons in measurement as students dole out daily portions of food and water with little or no supervision.

Emily M. Meyers, a Montessori teacher at the Matthew Henson Montessori School in Prince George’s County, is trained both in conventional approaches to teaching elementary-school science and in Montessori methods.

She says she favors the flexibility inherent in the Montessori approach.

“in my [conventional training] I took methods courses, [like] ‘How to Teach Science in an Elementary Classroom,’” she says. “I found it very limiting, [because] they had a very strict guide of how to do things and when you want to do them.”

Teresita Leimer, a coordinator and resource teacher with the Montessori program in the St. Paul, Minn., public schools, says the relatively unstructured nature of the Montessori approach leaves teachers time for spontaneous teaching.

“We take the children on walks, we make them aware of their environment around them,” she says. “We talk about what the earth looks like.”

Linda Massey, a teacher at Flintstone, adds that the Montessori approach very closely tracks the recommendations of national experts that students should eschew rote memorization of science facts in favor of understanding concepts.

“Science in the elementary program is taught not so much to give children detail, but to try to give them an intellectual overview, a cognitive structure,” she says.

‘Accommodations’ to Public Schools

Although the Montessori method is most commonly thought of as an “exoticmental technique” or merely the province of expensive private schools, it increasingly is finding acceptance among public-school officials. (See Education Week, Dec. 13, 1989.)

Dennis Schapiro, the editor of the Public School Montessorian, a national newsletter, says that there are roughly 133 public school Montessori programs nationwide.

But, he adds, while many districts experiment with the Montessori method, there are perhaps only “a half dozen” exemplary programs in public schools.

Many schools, critics note, adopt desirable pieces of the Montessori method while ignoring others. And, they say, the training of teachers varies widely.

Moreover, the Montessori methods could run smack into the reality of public schools, including limited space for preschoolers, curriculum guidelines, and testing mandates.

As a result, it is difficult to gauge whether a given program matches the vision articulated by reformers.

For example, says Paul Kronmeyer, a spokesman for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Montessori programs may not meet the standards for math instruction that organization has promulgated, even though the concept appears to meet them.

“They could be right in line with the standards and they could be totally askew,” he says.

Even the strongest supporters of the Montessori method concede that there are difficulties in adapting the method.

Ms. Meyers notes, for example, that for many public schools, the costs of training teachers in the Montessori method could be prohibitive.

Mr. Epstein, however, argues that the Montessori program in Prince George’s County has proven to him that the method can be successfully applied to the “larger and heterogeneous” populations of the public-school system.

He acknowledges that the relative success of a program that serves slightly more than 500 pupils in a system that enrolls more than 109,000 students is not conclusive evidence of effectiveness.

But the program has laid an important groundwork, Mr. Epstein says, and over time, could become a model for public schools.

“We have unfinished business,” he says. “There are children for whom our Montessori method didn’t work.”

The district, though, is committed to the program. And to that end, Mr. Epstein says, officials there will examine “the accommodations that Montessori has to make to succeed in the public-school setting.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 12, 1992 edition of Education Week as Montessori Magnet Schools Suggest Reforms in Math, Science


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