Montessori vs mainstream school: the updated version!

Are you wondering what are the main differences between Montessori education and traditional or mainstream one?

A quick Google search will show you many comparison charts, often written by Montessori training centres, including AMI.

While those comparisons might help a newbie to understand what is so special about a Montessori school at a glimpse, it is also bashing pointlessly against a school system that has evolved.

In this blog post, I will update that comparison and urge you to go beyond the dichotomy between Montessori and Traditional education.

Many of the Montessori principles have been adopted by most school systems. We need to welcome that progress and keep spreading the Montessori ideas near and far. Maria Montessori’s first intention was not to set up elitist Montessori schools that would be accessible to a small number of families. She was dreaming of a revamp of the whole school system.

First, let’s examine some of those classic ways to compare both systems.

Montessori schools characteristics:

Rose House Montessori school London

Rose House Montessori School London

  • Based on the natural development of the child
  • Children learn at their own pace and follow their interests
  • Children teach themselves using materials specially prepared for that purpose
  • Montessori materials are self-correcting
  • Hands-on learning
  • Freedom to move and to talk in the classroom
  • The teacher is seen as a guide
  • The teacher has no desk
  • Uninterrupted work cycle of 3 hours
  • Multi-age classroom
  • No rewards, no punishments
  • Reality Based
  • Child-size furniture and the classroom/school feels like a home

VS traditional school systems:

  • Schools follow a curriculum, designed by a government to reach specific goals
  • Children learn from a specific curriculum, within a specific time frame that is the same for everyone
  • The teacher teaches children.
  • Most materials are written materials, such as worksheets, books, and screen presentations
  • Children have a designated desk and sit next to the same children, either for the school year or for a term. They do not choose who to work with or where to sit.
  • The teacher has a desk and teaches from it.
  • The school day is divided into periods of learning. Each period is generally one hour long, and the day is interrupted by mandatory assemblies, specific learning of topics, visits, and so on.
  • Children are grouped by age.
  • While harsh discipline is not allowed in schools anymore, most schools will still adopt a reward/time-out system.
  • Fantasy and role-playing are common in the Early years. Fantasy is imposed on the whole group, for example, a classroom topic could be “fairies”.
  • Traditional classrooms are often brightly decorated, children must wear uniforms.

The above chart is a combination of what you could find with a quick Google search.

My experience of Montessori schools and traditional schools is quite different.

As a Montessori teacher, I am biased toward Montessori education. Having said that, I am not naïve. I know that those comparisons are outdated. What is seen as traditional was based on the schools of the time of Maria Montessori, more than one hundred years ago!

Many schools, outside the Montessori system, are innovative. There are other progressive education systems beyond Montessori that have informed the public system. For example, Freinet, Decroly, the Cuisenaire system, and Numicons to teach mathematics, and in recent years in the UK, Anna Ephgraves with her “planning in the moment” approach has helped the Early years to be more attuned to the children's needs.

Let us explore those “said” differences in more detail.

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Montessori materials vs worksheets

Montessori schools have a full set of Montessori materials. The children indeed teach themselves thanks to those materials. When the school is well organized and led by a trained Montessori teacher, it is amazing to witness how children learn with expert guidance.

However, it would be false to say that most traditional schools use “only” worksheets with a top-down attitude.

Many early years and preschools have adopted some of the Montessori materials. For example, most children will have access to tactile letters and numbers as it is now commonly accepted that children need to touch to learn.

I have seen preschools having the number rods, the pink tower, and knobbed cylinders. Many nursery schools display the activities on trays on lower shelves, leaving them accessible at all times to the children.

Many schools have a practical life area and encourage the children to develop independence.

In the primary/elementary years, children are encouraged to learn about a topic with hands-on materials. They call them “manipulatives”.

The teacher teaches the children:

Increasingly, mainstream schools promote a collaborative way of teaching. Children are asked to choose their topics or outings for example. In the early years, at least from what I see in the UK, the EYFS emphasizes child-led education. The teacher prepares the classroom to meet the needs of the children. In most nurseries and Reception classes, children will be able to choose activities for the best part of the day.

The Planning in the moment is remarkably similar to Montessori. When I read Anna Ephgrave’s book, I taught that it was Montessori without the official materials. She said: ““Let the children choose what to do, join them, and support them in their pursuits. Then write up what has happened.” The emphasis is on preparing the environment to spark an interest in children.

Discipline system:

While it is true that most schools adopt a reward/time-out or loss of privilege system, Montessori schools are not immune to using such a system. I visited several Montessori schools that use a chair in the hallway to isolate a child. I have witnessed “collective punishment” in a Montessori elementary classroom. If we have to compare both systems, it is important to acknowledge that both can deviate from the original intent.

Child-size furniture:

This is an aspect of Montessori education that has trickled down into the traditional school system. All schools have child-size furniture.

In recent years, there has been a push for a more “natural” environment in the classroom as well. Following studies that show that a neutral décor is more conducive to learning than a bright colourful one, many preschools and schools have toned down the overall look of the school. 

Reggio Emilia has become quite popular too so many settings adopt a “home away from home “look" with a low sofa, real dinnerware, glassware for pretend play, hessian notice boards, and so on.

What I think Traditional schools could do better:

Both my children are in mainstream school. Over the years, they have had initiative-taking teachers. The primary school they are in strives to offer the best to the children.

In case some Mainstream teachers read this blog post, here are some of the aspects they could work on without the need to overhaul the whole public school system:

  • Child-led topics: the school decides on the topics of the year. While it might not be possible for the teacher to allow the children to decide what they want to learn about, can the children lead how to learn about each topic? Can they choose what topic to learn about first? Children in elementary (primary for the UK), could do their research instead of being fed the information relative to the topic. Give them access to books, and screens and they will find out everything they need to know about “Mayan” or the “Great fire of London”
  • Multi-age group opportunities: my children’s school had introduced a new project before Covid. Children in Years 5 and 6 were paired with children in Reception and Year 1. The goal was to spend time together so the older children could help the youngest ones and feel more responsible. In addition, certain year groups had roles that involve being more in contact with younger or older children in the school. That project came to a halt during Covid, but I hope they will resume it.
  • Ditch the desk and chairs! With all that we know about ADHD and the need for children, in general, to move, why do we need to keep chairs and desks? I have seen some projects where schools use exercise chairs. Why not bring some activities on mats and keep doing group time on the floor even if the children are 10 years old!
  • Introduce slippers in schools: a study from Bournemouth university studied the impact of not wearing shoes on learning and the positive impact is huge.This led to schools around the country adopting the policy
  • Going beyond the Rewards/Punishment system. With so many behaviour specialists offering consultancy, I am still wondering why most schools still use a classic carrots and sticks system. Ask Sarah Ockwell-Smith or check the books written by Alfie Khon: Punished by Rewards and Beyond Discipline are both specifically about schools.

To conclude:

Montessori schools are still far and between. Depending on the country you live in, they are most likely “private and expensive”.

Like me, your family might need to choose a public mainstream school.

I can tell you from direct experience that many schools nowadays have adopted some progressive views about education.

Yet, you can still voice your opinion about the discipline system and make some suggestions to the school.

So if you can choose a Montessori school, make sure they are still offering a good Montessori approach with Montessori-trained teachers. Question their approach to fantasy and ask about their discipline policy.

If you have to select a mainstream school, ask them how they foster individuality and independence. Ask for more information about their discipline policy.

I hope this blog post is reassuring. Let me know in the comments what you think!

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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.

  • Anna says:

    Thanks Carine. My daughter currently attends a wonderful Montessori preschool. She will be starting “big” school next and we will have to chose a local traditional school for her to go to. I have been worried about how this will be for her. This blog post has been a bit of reassurance.

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