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Montessori school is better
A couple of weeks ago, the venerable Emily Oster published a newsletter piece titled “Is Montessori School Better?” Unfortunately for Montessorians, her answer followed Betteridge’s law of headlines: any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with no.
More precisely, her answer was something more like: the question “is X educational or parenting philosophy better” is incoherent, for any X, including Montessori:
Broadly, I would say the question people have is “Is Montessori school better?” Or replace “Montessori” with whatever parenting philosophy you want. … [I]n fact, that question is unanswerable and makes no sense to ask.
I’m actually sympathetic to elements of Oster’s arguments, and I recommend the piece. But I don’t think that they support the conclusion that Montessori isn’t better, or even more radically that parenting and educational philosophies are a wash. Here are her three main points, and my critiques.
1. The best elements of Montessori have been incorporated into non-Montessori education.
In the early 20th century, education was in upheaval. Progressivism in education was a major part of the cutting-edge of intellectual discourse. The social sciences were being birthed, along with developmental psychology and learning science; public health innovations like sanitation and hygiene were being extended by analogy; wider economic and cultural changes were driving change in primary and higher education; and innovative pedagogical work in what we now call special education was being generalized to normal populations.
Montessori had a special focus on the earliest years of development, and was part of this wave of radicalism. At the time, what she recommended was a stark departure from typical parenting and educational practices of young children. But, over the last century, the collection of distinctly Montessori practices has become part of the air. The same goes for the other early childhood pedagogies, such as Reggio Emilia and Waldorf:
Over time…preschools (and schools in general) have adopted versions of all of these approaches. Many schools use Montessori materials. Many schools even have mixed-age classrooms, even if they are not explicitly linked to Montessori. Many schools engage with a lot of outside nature time, even if they are not explicitly Waldorf. Many preschools have a lot of free, child-driven play, even if they are not explicitly Reggio Emilia–linked.
There’s a big element of truth in this. When Montessori started working, she had to work with carpenters to create child-sized furniture. Now you can buy child-sized furniture at Ikea, and it is ubiquitous in homes and preschools. When Montessori started writing, introducing learning materials to 3-year-old children was radical. Nowadays, you can’t buy a Fisher Price toy that doesn’t at least make an attempt to be developmentally enriching.
So the phenomena are real. There has been diffusion of better pedagogical practices from Montessori (and elsewhere), and this is a good thing. However, there are good reasons to think that their benefits when unbundled are vastly less than their benefits when conjoined.
One of the unique things about Montessori is that it really is a system. Some of the most important elements of Montessori education are achieved by conjoining elements. If you think, like I do and like Montessori did, that extended periods of concentrated work are uniquely developmentally valuable—how can you bring this about in a school setting? The way that Montessori environments achieve this is by conjoining, amongst other things:
curricular materials and learning environments that can be used entirely independently
a classroom culture that focuses on real purposes over pretend play
a daily schedule that includes hours-long stretches of time for uninterrupted work
an instructional and peer learning approach (specific educator practices, mixed ages) that is especially conducive to motivating independent work
These are not the only ways to facilitate periods of uninterrupted, voluntary concentration in small children. But they are, together, a very good way to systematically achieve that outcome. And none of the practices separately does so. And, in fact and in practice, most schools that incorporate only some of these elements fail to achieve this outcome and aren’t even trying to do so.
You could apply a similar analysis to many other elements of Montessori, such as the depth of understanding and facility that children get with mathematics and literacy.
We live in a culture, both generally and with respect to education, that is skeptical of this sort of system. It smells like dogmatism, and indeed, Montessorians are susceptible to unproductive dogmatism. But in my view, some of the most exciting and important outcomes in education are achieved at the systems level, by reorganizing each element of the core of education—and they are not achieved by a mix-and-match approach.
My general perspective on unsystematic diffusion of practices is that it raises the floor but lowers the ceiling. In one of her books, Montessori, as an aside, imagines a day when children have things like floating alphabet bath toys. Now these are ubiquitous. We can and should see this as truly great—while at the same time recognizing that there are deeper aims that require deeper pedagogical changes.
2. The data on Montessori is a wash.
I won’t rehash Oster’s argument here in as much depth, since I mostly agree with it.
There is a small but growing army of researchers who are looking into Montessori outcomes with the tools of social science. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get a clear picture, mainly because it’s just damnably hard to empirically investigate what amounts to a whole philosophy of education and parenting without running into a thousand flavors of selection bias. As Oster says, “Yes, the kids who go to Montessori test better later, but they are also advantaged in all kinds of other difficult-to-control-for ways.”
Even worse, you might, like me, be skeptical that we are very good at measuring educational outcomes, period. Assessment itself is one of the areas of education that needs innovation. Unfortunately, education research is replete with attempts to shanghai the tools of the cognitive sciences (executive functioning scores, neuroimaging data) that are sexy but flawed. (This problem is, of course, not unique to evaluating Montessori.)
I think a holistic look at data is pretty favorable to Montessori. The best overview is Lillard’s frequently-updated book-length Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. But I agree that it’s not conclusive; Lillard’s overall case relies heavily on philosophical priors. I think those priors are true, and that they comport with and are given some credence from evidence from the social sciences, but they don’t just follow from the social sciences as strong conclusions.
So, I guess I’m very mildly more bullish on the data-driven case for Montessori than Oster. But, unless you think that the data is really terrible for Montessori, I just don’t think it matters that much where you fall on that question. As a card-carrying philosopher, I don’t think the lack of well-designed RCTs is a dealbreaker for making strong judgments about parenting and educational philosophies. Education is a combination of philosophical judgments about the good life, ethnographic-biological judgments about healthy human development, and engineering judgments about what sorts practices are actually helpful in achieving the good life in a developmentally healthy way.
We haven’t figured out how to get a conclusive answer from the social sciences about issues that are on their face going to be hard for the social sciences to solve. This isn’t surprising but also needn’t make us shy about bold answers. (And, in practice, I don’t think parents or educators make many decisions based on data. There are notable exceptions, but not at the level of philosophical approach.)
3. Different parents just have different and equally valid educational goals for their young children.
I’ll just quote Oster at length:
With young kids…there is a lot more variation in what we are trying to teach or accomplish. A different focus will lead to different outcomes.
For example: imagine I started a preschool focused on marine life. Everything we did would be oriented around understanding fish and octopuses and other sea creatures. At the end of two years in preschool, my students would know a lot about marine life and would (I venture) perform very well on a test about sea animals. However, they’d do very poorly on a test that was about letters or, say, land animals.
Relative to some other approaches, Montessori education emphasizes letters, and also sorting and categorizing tasks. One of the key papers cited above shows that 5-year-olds who have had this type of education are better at a card sorting task. This shouldn’t be surprising—they’ve been in an environment with a sorting task focus! …
When we say “Is Montessori school better?”: “better” may simply be undefined. If your goal is letter recognition at age 5, Montessori could possibly have an edge. If your goal is nature knowledge, Waldorf might. For many of us, the goal of preschool is largely socialization, learning to exist in a classroom with others, fun, child care. For that, the preschool might matter, but its philosophy isn’t likely to.
This is related to some of the issues that came up when discussing data, above. What exactly are we evaluating? Some parents might prioritize creative expression in childhood, others academics, others developing niche interests. Can we really say, for any given child, that certain priorities are “better”? It gets even worse if what we’re evaluating has philosophical components at the level of big-picture values, as I think it does. Can we really say that some conceptions of the good life are “better”?
I think the answer to this is just yes. This is at the heart of why I think that Montessori is a better parenting and educational philosophy, and why I agree with aspects of Oster’s arguments but disagree with her conclusion. This is a fundamental difference in meta-level frameworks. Oster helps parents evaluate parenting and educational decisions from a more value-neutral framework, one that emphasizes individual differences and enables individuals to be informed agents. (If you’re new to my newsletters, you might not know that I love Oster’s work, and have used it in making many parenting decisions, so let me just state that here.)
My view is that we can identify fundamental needs across individual differences, that we can do so in early childhood, and that we can do so in a way that has implications for parenting and education. A big part of what Montessori did is help conceptualize the universal structure of healthy development.
I think to some extent this is a matter of fairly normal school things. In a part of the above passage from Oster the I elided, she notes that,
With older kids, there is typically a set curriculum within a school. This makes it easier to talk about differences in achievement: everyone is supposed to learn a particular set of math skills, so it makes sense to ask if some approaches allow them to do so more effectively.
If all you believe is that literacy and math are important, there’s a strong case to be made for Montessori being better. You’d have to spell out more middle terms: that early childhood is an especially good time to learn literacy and math, that there are ways to do so that don’t trade off against (or are conducive to) other developmentally important outcomes, and that doing this dovetails with moving pedagogy in a Montessori direction.
But there’s much more to say about what children need. The argument for Montessori is that there’s a core competence as an agent that young children can develop. That there’s an independence that it’s healthy for them to develop. That many of the table stakes for living a good life—the love of effort, the love of understanding, the ability to act on one’s desires—are either supported or hindered in the first several years of life. The case for Montessori is that it is important—generally important—to develop independence, a love of effort, and core cognitive and practical competencies.
One can dispute either that these things are foundational components of a good life. One can dispute that the approach we take to early childhood matters for their development. One can dispute that Montessori schools are good at achieving these things. But each of these claims is plausible (and, I think, true). Underlying many individual differences, there is a foundational structure to healthy development. And parenting philosophies can be evaluated on the extent to which they lock onto this structure and take it seriously.
Montessori is a philosophy, an educational worldview with a take on what is important. For Montessori,
It was not a question of giving children more freedom, more activity, more material to play with: what interested her was this spontaneous emergence of spirituality and the shedding of frivolity for the sake of work which only a few took in consideration. (Mario Montessori, “The Yellow Letter”, 1963)
This claim is hard to parse, and even harder to evaluate, but it should be taken seriously. I think it would better to say “Montessori is wrong” than to say “it’s true for some families and not for others”.
One of the main risks I think we currently face as educators is that we continue along in the vein of “well we all sort of vaguely agree on what’s better and differences in pedagogies are mostly a wash”. There’s a need to deepen thought, sharpen disagreements, and be more ambitious about engineering better learning.
4. Evaluating a specific school.
One last point, and one that moves me a bit closer to Oster’s approach in practice, is that I definitely don’t think you should pick a school just because it’s Montessori.
The state of Montessori education, and education generally, is such that most of the variance in the quality of a classroom is explained by the individual teacher. Philosophy does matter. I think a classroom run by a great Montessori educator is very likely to be significantly better for most individual children than a classroom run by a great educator with a different approach.
But part of what makes a great educator great is that they do well by the individual children in their class. And, another big but, great educators are hard to find.
My recommendation for parents is that they use the Montessori framework to understand and evaluate the development needs of their children—to see the critical importance of developing core competencies to think and act at a characterological level—with the understanding that in many circumstances this will lead you to pick a program that is not Montessori.
When it comes to your child, you have to look not just at schools but at individual classrooms and teachers. The Montessori pedagogy is a competitive advantage—ceteris paribus; mutatis mutandis, other factors can dominate, even by Montessori standards.