Montessori Criticism Debunked: 9 Incorrect Assumptions about Student Centered Learning

Sarah Mead

Sarah Mead

Every year we talk to hundreds of parents who are looking for the right private school for their child. Many of them have heard about Montessori and are interested in learning how it can help their child develop the skills they need to succeed in life. There are, however, some questions that come up over and over again about the Montessori method and how it works in the classroom setting.

If you're trying to decide if a Montessori school is right for your child, read on. Below we separate fact from fiction.

Montessori Criticism Debunked: 9 Incorrect Assumptions about Student Centered Learning

Criticism #1: Montessori classrooms are chaotic.

The Reality: Montessori classrooms are often busy, noisy places, but all that movement and noise represents productive and purposeful activity. Students are busily engaged in inquiry based learning projects, sharing their interest as well as their insights. Instead of sitting at desks all day, children move around and talk with their peers as they work together to learn.

This active, busy classroom setting helps children in a number of ways. They can collaborate and learn from their peers. They can move around instead of sitting still for long periods of time. They can also use the space and pick the learning tools that best match their individual learning styles, whether that’s from handling the classroom materials, reading about them, taking notes or making sketches.

Criticism #2: In Montessori classrooms, there is no curriculum to follow.

The Reality: It is true that the children in student centered learning programs do have a lot more freedom to choose their own activities, but Montessori classrooms still have a schedule to follow and structure which guides and focuses the children’s activities throughout the day.

At Whitby, we have a curriculum beginning at 18 months in our Montessori program. We layer the International Baccalaureate program on top of Montessori so that students explore learning in overarching units of inquiry. As part of the curriculum, Montessori teachers prepare the range of activities available to the children. While each child can choose the activity they find most interesting on a given day, all of the activities available present valuable learning opportunities. Whichever activity the child chooses to participate in, they will be learning the information they need to succeed in school.

Criticism #3: Montessori and unschooling are the same.

The Reality: While both the Montessori education and unschooling are focused around a child-led education, there are key differences between the two philosophies. Montessori schools recognize that while student centered learning is the best way to interest and engage children in their education, they still benefit from structure and a defined curriculum. The unschooling method, on the other hand, lets a child choose which subjects to learn and which to ignore.

To become a Montessori educator, teachers have to undergo extensive training in the methods, while the parent is usually in charge of their child’s education in unschooling. Montessori schools also give students opportunities to collaborate with their peers every day, while children undergoing unschooling have fewer chances to practice their social skills. Read more about the differences between Montessori and unschooling.

Criticism #4: The children in Montessori classrooms don’t get grades or take tests.

The Reality: While it’s true that Montessori students aren’t given grades in the traditional sense, their progress is still carefully monitored. Teachers observe each student to assess how that student is progressing and when they will be ready to move on to more challenging work. Parents are kept apprised of their children’s progress, and students assess their own progress, as well. Montessori schools also offer test preparation programs to make sure students are ready to succeed as they move on to secondary school.

The reason Montessori schools don’t focus on traditional grades is because that teaches students to learn only for the sake of the grade. The goal is instead to help students develop a love of learning so learning itself motivates them.

Criticism #5: The Montessori method is only for preschoolers.

The Reality: Maria Montessori originally designed her teaching concepts to be used at the preschool level. She felt that the student centered learning model worked well with the natural inquisitiveness of young children as they started to learn and put them on the best path of success as they entered more traditional learning settings.

But in the 1920s, she expanded the program to include older children and adolescents, emphasizing their need to grow into caring, socially-aware adults. At Whitby, our Montessori program is blended with the IB program through second grade and our classes are focused around student centered learning principles through eighth grade. Learn more about student centered learning at Whitby.

Criticism #6: There are no rules in a Montessori classroom.

The Reality: While children in a Montessori classroom decide which activities interest them most at a given time, the classroom still has rules that all students must follow. Montessori classrooms emphasize that self-discipline and respect for the other students in the class are an important part of learning.

Children discover that by respecting others, they earn the independence they crave to explore and learn in the classroom setting.

Criticism #7: Children from Montessori programs aren’t ready for real schools and real life.

The Reality: If professional success is a yardstick parents use to evaluate an educational program, the exact opposite is true. Renowned chef Julia Child, business expert Peter Drucker, magician David Blaine, singer Beyoncé Knowles, music producer Sean Combs and Pulitzer prize-winning author  Katharine Graham were all Montessori graduates.  Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin directly attribute their success to their early Montessori education.

“Montessori taught me the joy of discovery. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you.  SimCity comes right out of Montessori…”
- Will Wright, inventor of the Sims video game series.

At Whitby, our students go on to attend top high schools around New England and beyond, including Phillips Andover Academy, Brunswick School, Peddie School, and Greens Farms Academy.

Criticism #8: Montessori classrooms are confusing because they have students of different ages.

The Reality: Multi-age classrooms are actually a benefit of the Montessori method. Maria Montessori observed that younger children learn best from watching their older peers. She also saw that older children learn empathy as they mentor younger students and help others with the lessons they have already mastered.

We see this happen everyday at Whitby with students in our private elementary school. In grades one and two, Whitby students learn in multi-age classrooms. Instead of chaos, the multi-age classroom gives younger children role models and gives older children opportunities to become leaders.

Criticism #9: Montessori classrooms are just fun and games.

The Reality: It’s true. Montessori classrooms are fun, but that is a good thing. There are many studies that confirm that children learn through play. The playful attitudes in Montessori classrooms in the very thing that focuses our students’ attention and helps them learn so successfully.

Think about it. From the moment your child was born, they were fascinated by the world around them. You did not have to encourage them to reach out and grab toys, learn how to walk, or learn how to talk. They wanted to interact with their world through play, and learning was the natural outcome. There is no reason this natural connection between play and learning cannot continue into the school years.

At Whitby, we include opportunities for children to play in the curriculum. We tie together all the subjects that are covered in a normal school in creative ways that help students gain a “big picture” understanding of concepts.

We believe the Montessori method creates the ideal learning environment.

At Whitby, we’ve found that the Montessori method helps children develop into creative, responsible students who love learning. By addressing how children learn in their own way and encouraging children to collaborate with their peers, we are able to help them develop a greater understanding of the world around them.

If you’re wondering have more questions or are wondering if a Montessori preschool is right for your child, please schedule a tour of Whitby. We’d love to show you how we combine our Montessori Early Years program with the International Baccalaureate to create an innovative learning environment.

Link to download the "N-8 versus K-12 Schools" Ebook


Sarah Mead

Sarah Mead

Sarah Mead is the Director of Marketing & Communications for Whitby School. Sarah's mind is a stirring pot of thoughts and ideas on content marketing, blogging, photography, videography, storytelling, social media, and website optimization. Working at Whitby has inspired her to reeducate the world about education, and to spread the passion, wisdom and expertise of the school’s talented faculty and staff.