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.

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

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