Early Childhood

The ‘Montessori Mafia': Why Tech Titans Like Jeff Bezos Support the Model

By Christina A. Samuels — September 24, 2018 3 min read
Preschoolers Alaya and Jerome work together on a project at the MacDowell Montessori School in Milwaukee.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Just what is it about Montessori education and billionaires?

Jeff Bezos is just one of several tech titans who are part of a so-called “Montessori Mafia,” a term coined in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article. It named Bezos, along with Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, and Will Wright, the designer of the videogame The Sims.

The article also noted that young Bezos “would get so engrossed in his activities as a Montessori preschooler that his teachers would literally have to pick him up out of his chair to go to the next task,” according to his mother.

Little wonder, then, that free “Montessori inspired” education is an interest for Bezos’s recently announced $2 billion Day One Fund.

Camden, a preschooler, stacks blocks at the MacDowell Montessori School in Milwaukee. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos experienced a similar Montessori education as a child.

“It is potentially a game changer,” said Jacqueline Cossentino, the director of research for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. “There hasn’t been this kind of investment in any model, let alone Montessori. We’re eager to see what he has in mind.”

Over time, Montessori education has taken on a stereotype that it is mostly for the rich, because, in the United States, the educational framework is primarily offered in private schools.

But Maria Montessori, the Italian physician and educator who built the educational framework in the early 1900s after years of observation on how children learn, started her work with children with disabilities and from low-income families—examples, perhaps, of the “underserved communities” that Bezos says he wants to reach with his new initiative.

Distinguishing Features

Montessori education offers several features that distinguish it from typical preschool classrooms. For example, classrooms feature multi-age groupings. They use specific materials intended to encourage touch and play appropriate to a child’s interests and development. Children are allowed much more free choice in what materials they can use, and there’s a premium placed on intrinsic motivation: Children master tasks based on their own needs and wants, rather than working for praise or for other types of rewards. Under the educational framework, teachers are guides, rather than drivers of student activity.

See Also

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Ambitious Pre-K Move Sparks Wary Reactions

“In that kind of environment, children are developing so many of the soft skills that 21st century learners need to have,” said Andrea Corona, the principal of Macdowell Montessori School, a public school in the Milwaukee school system that enrolls children from age 3 to 12th grade.

There is research that suggests children from low-income backgrounds do benefit from high-quality Montessori classrooms.

Angeline Lillard, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, studied public Montessori programs in Milwaukee and in Hartford, Conn. In Milwaukee, she found stronger math, reading, and executive function skills among elementary-age children who attended public Montessori programs, compared with similar children who attended traditional schools. In Hartford, Lillard found low-income children in Montessori programs academically outperformed similar children enrolled in typical preschools.

‘A Certain Dignity’

One big question, however, is whether it is Montessori that makes the difference, or whether the type of educators drawn to the philosophy are primed to be excellent teachers no matter what.

Lillard said some smaller studies suggest that Montessori materials do make a difference, but there needs to be more research. Lillard is among several researchers in the early stages of the first large-scale, federally funded longitudinal study of Montessori effectiveness that will study public programs in multiple locations.

“The Montessori environment has a certain dignity,” Lillard said. “Regardless of their background, [children] have a sense of self and who they are.”

Bezos’ interest in expanding the educational philosophy further is exciting, she said. “All children should be able to have this.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as ‘Montessori Mafia’ Member Embraces How He Learned

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Early Childhood What the Research Says Preschool Enrollment Has Plunged: What That Means for School Readiness
Census data confirm that more than a million young children missed preschool during the pandemic, putting school readiness at risk.
4 min read
Pre-K teacher Vera Csizmadia teaches 3-and 4-year-old students in her classroom at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park, N.J. on Sept. 16, 2021.
Pre-K teacher Vera Csizmadia teaches 3- and 4-year-old students in her classroom at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park, N.J., last month.
Mary Altaffer/AP
Early Childhood Opinion The Problems With Biden’s Universal Pre-K Proposal
An early-childhood education leader expresses concerns that the universal pre-K plan risks separating pre-K from the wider child-care sector.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Early Childhood What the Research Says Starting School After the Pandemic: Youngest Students Will Need Foundational Skills
The earliest grades saw the biggest enrollment drops in 2020-21. Experts say these students will need significant help come fall.
4 min read
Image shows preschool boy wearing a protective face mask with a marker in hand.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Early Childhood Opinion Waterford Upstart on Providing Remote Learning to 90,000 Pre-K Kids
Rick Hess speaks with Dr. LaTasha Hadley of Waterford Upstart about its use of adaptive software to close gaps in kindergarten readiness.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty