The Montessori Method Is Making Its Way to U.S. High Schools

By Blake Rodman — May 01, 1985 6 min read
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The “Montessori method,” an individualized approach to learning normally used with preschool and elementary-school students, may prove to be workable at the high-school level as well, according to the headmaster of a secondary school that is testing the method.

‘Still Seed Work’

“This is still seed work, but the idea of secondary Montessori education has come of age,” said Tim D. Seldin, headmaster of the Barrie School of Silver Spring, Md., a Montessori school with a three-year-old secondary program.

Speaking to a group at the annual conference of the American Montessori Society held here last month, Mr. Seldin noted that Montessori secondary education is “now more than just talk.”

700 Educators

The conference, which attracted about 700 Montessori educators and parents of children who attend Montessori schools, marked the society’s 25th anniversary.

Expanding on the teachings of the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori, the secondary program seeks to foster independence and self-esteem among students by encouraging the development of practical skills as well as academic prowess. The 135 secondary students at the Barrie School participate in internships, care for farm animals, and learn entrepreneurial skills, said Mr. Seldin.

“Most schools tend to separate children from the world, but we want them to actively engage it,” he told colleagues attending the anniversary meeting.

According to Martin Michel, a spokesman for the ams, the society has a membership of 701 schools, 2,221 teachers, and 4,777 other interested individuals. It serves as an information network for the schools, promotes the use of the Montessori method in both private and public schools, and attempts to preserve the integrity of Montessori education in this country.

The ams estimates that there are currently more than 4,000 Montessori schools in the United States, up from an estimated 3,000 five years ago. At least 40 of those 4,000 are public schools, Mr. Michel said.

The First and Only

While The Barrie School is the first and only Montessori secondary school officially recognized by the ams, Mr. Seldin said in an interview that there are about 40 other Montessori schools across the country experimenting with programs at the junior- or senior-high level.

The need of these schools for teachers trained in the Montessori method prompted Mr. Seldin to launch a teacher-training program at the Institute of Advanced Montessori Studies, which is operated under the corporate auspices of The Barrie School.

A similar training program will soon get under way through the Dallas (Tex.) Montessori Elementary Training Program, using the secondary division of Dallas’s Lakemont Montessori Academy as its lab, according to James Paulik, a teacher trainer for the program. Both training programs are recognized by the ams

Growing Interest

“When the ams recognized that Montessori secondary education existed, it gave the secondary movement viability,” Mr. Seldin said. “This recognition will make everything else possible.”

For the past 10 years, Mr. Seldin has advocated developing a Montessori secondary-school model. And he claims he has noticed a growing interest in the idea.

At the ams conference five years ago, nobody showed up for his session on the future of secondary Montessori education, he said. But now, when he speaks at Montessori workshops around the country, he added, he usually attracts between 50 and 75 people. About 30 people attended his session at the conference here.

Why Do It?

“The real reason to develop Montessori high schools around the country is because our parents are demanding it,” Mr. Seldin said. “Montessori parents are upset by what they see in the public junior and senior high schools. Many of them have an instinctive sense that their children will lose everything they have learned in our schools, that their values will be changed forever.”

“Parents are happy with what they see in our schools,” said Tracey Herrington, director of the Alfred Montessori School in Alfred, N.Y. ''They want their children to continue on with our program.” But until recently Montessori practitioners had little to offer children after the age of 12.

Many Montessori schools now offer programs through the elementary grades, educators said, but some parents transfer their children into conventional schools before they are 12, feeling that the transition will be easier for the child at a younger age.

Attrition Curbed

Mr. Seldin argues that if a demonstrably effective Montessori secondary program were available, this attrition would be curbed, since parents would have the option of keeping their children in method schools through their high-school years.

“Until we prove that all this marvelous work we have been doing has a logical carry-through, that it doesn’t suddenly stop being valuable after the age of 9, and until we establish our track record up through the high-school years, the whole movement will not tend to develop as rapidly as it would otherwise,” Mr. Seldin said.

Founder of the Movement

Early in this century, Maria Montessori, Italy’s first woman physician, concluded through observation that children learn most during the first six years of life. On the basis of this theory, she developed what Montessori educators call “a prepared environment,” an ordered arrangement of learning materials in a noncompetitive atmosphere.

The educators describe the method as a “laboratory” or “hands-on” approach to learning, where children of various ages work in the same classroom at their own level and speed with minimal adult supervision.

“The beauty of the Montessori method is that there is a balance between structure and freedom,” said Lynn A. Vogel, a teacher at the West Side Montessori School in New York City.

The typical Montessori teacher is not really a teacher, Montessorians say, but rather a “facilitator” or “director.”

“We provide the children with things to do,” Ms. Vogel said. “And we direct the children toward what they need. We don’t teach them, they teach themselves.”

‘Practical Life’

A key element of the method is what the educators called “practical life,” through which children learn how to take care of their needs by practicing and performing such everyday tasks as zipping, buttoning, mopping the floor, polishing wood, and cooking.

In addition to acquiring such basic skills, Montessorians argue, the children in their schools learn to be independent and creative and develop high self-esteem.

But while Maria Montessori devised an intricate curriculum and method at the elementary level, neither she nor her followers ever pursued her ideas on secondary education beyond the theoretical level, Mr. Seldin said, noting that some purists believe it is “heresy” to attempt such a feat.

But Paul M. Epstein, a teacher at Barrie and a teacher trainer at the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies, said that while he adheres to Montessori’s teaching, he also believes it is important for Montessorians to adapt her teachings to a changing world.

Observe Children

“Montessori’s approach was to observe children and find out what they need,” Mr. Epstein said. From those observations, she developed a curriculum and environment to satisfy those needs.

“I think what we are doing at the secondary level,” Mr. Epstein continued, “is listening to high-school kids, taking what they are saying, and trying to give them what they say they need, not necessarily what they want, but what they need to develop as human beings.”

What they need, Mr. Epstein said, is “to be psychologically and economically independent, and we are trying to develop a curriculum that encourages this. We’re gaining, but we’ve got a lifetime of work to go. We’re just really getting started.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1985 edition of Education Week as The Montessori Method Is Making Its Way to U.S. High Schools


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