The Great Montessori Schism

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The divisive history of the popular school system, and what it teaches us about education and change

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Students gardening at a Berlin Montessori school, 1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

True to its nature as an essentially religious institution, the kindergarten has undergone schisms, been rent with heresies, has been divided into orthodox and heterodox, into liberals and conservatives, although the whole body of the work has gone constantly forward, keeping pace with the increasing modern preoccupation with childhood.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher, A Montessori Mother, 1916

I have fond memories of my Montessori preschool and kindergarten. Every day was like a be-bop performance -- there were structures, but the players got to improvise within them. A typical Montessori day -- in an American Montessori school, at least -- includes large chunks of time for students to explore the classroom. Nobody told us how to play with our toys, or when. There were occasional moments of inspired weirdness (burning incense when we learned about ancient Egypt; making fake whale blubber out of marshmallows), but our teachers were sweet, the atmosphere was lovey-dovey, and I didn't have any concept of the quasi-religious fervor that can underlie alternative education theories.

Then, a few years ago, I wound up doing some in-depth research into the history of Montessori in the U.S. The infighting I turned up may say more about the true believers of alternative education in general than it does about Montessori in particular.

At least when it comes to early education, Montessori is in some ways the least alternative of the alternative education methods. Students play with carefully designed toys that a parent can easily see leading to more abstract concepts. Golden beads that teach her to count! Little round weights that introduce volume and shape! Shoe-tying! Pouring juice! This makes Montessori palatable to parents like mine, who would have allowed me to go feral sooner than send me to a Waldorf preschool to make woodcrafts and learn about Geist.

In the U.S., Montessori has two major accrediting bodies that, together, accredit or affiliate with around 4,000 schools. The first -- Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) -- was founded by Maria Montessori in 1929 in order to perpetuate her own work. Montessori started her first school, the Casa dei Bambini, in a Rome tenement in 1907. Over time, she developed a comprehensive system for teaching children through middle school, and left notes that suggested a way to adapt her ideas at a high-school level. Montessori subscribed to constructivism, a theory of education that says students do better if we let them piece together how the world works by moving through it themselves than if we deliver knowledge top-down.

Today, the organization she founded is considered the "orthodox" wing of Montessori teaching. AMI touts the continuity of instruction across its schools, and its resistance to fads. If your child switches instructors, he'll still be taught the same way. If you move, you can be assured that your new AMI school will use the same pedagogy. Short-lived trends in education won't affect how your kid learns. You'll know exactly what you're getting.

Here's the problem, as some Montessori teachers saw it, even in the 1950s: Sometimes those short-lived trends aren't short-lived, and sometimes they are not trends. As we discover more about learning, or as the times change, does the way we teach kids have to change as well? Traditionalist Montessori said no: Don't mess with the teaching method if it's working well. Some Montessori teachers weren't satisfied with that answer.

In 1953, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, an American teacher, went to an education conference in Paris, where she first encountered the Montessori method. After training in Britain, she returned to the United States to open a Montessori school in Greenwich, Connecticut. Up until that point, Montessori had taken off in countries around Europe, but unlike other imported European methods like Waldorf, it hadn't made much of a dent in the U.S.

That's because, in the early 20th century, some prominent American educators had actively discredited the Montessori method. The American philosopher and educator John Dewey, and his student William Heard Kirpatrick, thought Montessori's program stifled creativity and focused too much on the individual. Kirpatrick went on a campaign against the Montessori method in the 1920s, attacking it in a popular pamphlet. His criticisms helped keep Montessori scarce in the U.S. for about three decades.

But on the cusp of the 1960s, things were changing. Rambusch's efforts, beginning in the late 1950s, represented a fresh attempt in a few decades to introduce Montessori to the U.S. This time, it stuck, and some of the credit is probably due to her idea that the method needed to be modernized. In an influential book, lectures, and her own work as a teacher, academic, and school administrator, Rambusch focused on bringing contemporary American ideas about education into the Montessori method, creating a form of blended Montessori.

At one point in 1959, Rambusch became the U.S. representative of the AMI. In 1960, she founded the American Montessori Society, which was an American affiliate of the larger organization. But she began to fall out with Mario Montessori, Maria's daughter and the keeper of her legacy, over the reforms Rambusch wanted to make to Montessori pedagogy.

The AMS today describes the schism between it and the AMI this way:

AMS insisted that all teacher educators have a college degree so that the coursework could, potentially, be recognized by state education departments. AMS also broadened the curriculum for teachers and sought to forge inroads into mainstream education by offering Montessori coursework in traditional teacher preparation programs.

Mario Montessori disagreed with these changes, and in 1963 AMI and AMS parted ways. The two organizations have since reconciled their differences, and now enjoy a collegial relationship of mutual support and respect.

That elides a lot of history. In 1967, AMS sued AMI over the right to exclusively use "Montessori" as a descriptor of their schools in the U.S. They lost -- the U.S. Patent Office ruled that the name was a generic descriptor of a type of schooling (which means that other, non-accredited schools are allowed to use it, too). The AMS's changes, and its flexibility with pedagogy, helped Montessori make inroads as a public-school teaching method. But hostilities continued between the two groups. As the above summary suggests, the groups competed from the 1970s to the 1990s for official recognition.

Today, AMS and AMI seem to agree that their fight over methods was unproductive. The two organizations have made it up, and now trumpet their work together. Still, the conflict between the two wings of Montessori raises an important question. Should teaching methods modernize as society changes? Or should they stick, like AMI did, with a method that has worked for decades?

On balance, it's not clear that one answer is right or wrong -- except maybe when it comes to dealing with changes in technology. On that score, at least, it looks like old-school AMI may be a good thing. Recent research suggests that a decrease tactile play has hurt the development of children's motor skills. If that's the case, the constructivist approach of old-school Montessori may make a good antidote, fake whale blubber and all.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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