Montessori, The Science Behind the Genius

A UVa Professor Shares Her Groundbreaking Work

By Angeline Lillard Ph.D.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of Montessori since we are fortunate enough to have five local schools embracing the philosophy. Some of us may even be familiar with Maria Montessori, the first woman physician in Italy best known for her work with young children 100 years ago. What we may not know is that the preeminent Montessori scholar of our time, Angeline Lillard, is a UVa professor, and her work does more than scientifically validate Montessori's methods. Here Professor Lillard introduces us to this uniquely wholistic teaching method based on her best-selling book "Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius" (Oxford University Press).

As a practicing physician, Maria Montessori took a special interest in neurological problems. She developed a method of working with mentally retarded children that was extremely successful, so much so that these children were able to pass Italy's early 1900s version of State Exams for normal school children. While people marveled that this genius had such good results with neurologically impaired children, Montessori wondered what on earth was wrong with Italy's schools such that ordinary children were not doing any better!

She went back to school to study education and anthropology, and she began with an experimental class of over 50 2 to 7 year-olds in a housing project in a very poor area of Rome. Some think Montessori is only for children from wealthier homes, but it was actually first developed with very poor children and today many public Montessori schools serve children in low-income school districts.

Based on her observations of these children, she developed a different method of schooling that is actually much more in line with how modern research shows all children learn and develop than is the traditional method. She watched children in an environment in which they were free to work with a complex and interwoven set of self-teaching materials that she designed and improved over a period of 45 years, with children from birth to 12 years of age from all social classes, on three continents, to captivate children's interest and convey increasingly complex concepts. Her observations led to many insights about how children learn and develop.

First, let me briefly describe a typical traditional Montessori classroom. Do note that Montessori schools may vary: Montessori is not a trademarked term and sometimes schools vary a good deal from the practices Dr. Montessori describes in her work. What I describe is a program that adheres closely to her descriptions.

Montessori classrooms combine children from 3 to 6, 6 to 9, or 9 to 12 years old. There is one trained Montessori teacher, and sometimes an assistant, in the classroom. The classrooms are very neat and organized, and are aesthetically pleasing. Most of the materials are of wood or other natural materials, and the walls are uncluttered, having perhaps a few museum reproduction posters or other art. The room contains sets of low shelves, and on those shelves, arranged by topic area, are specially designed Montessori materials. Montessori and/or her collaborators developed these materials over many years, and they work together in particular sequences and with repeated use they teach children particular concepts. The depth of thought and time that went into developing these materials is impossible to grasp at first glance; Montessori teachers spend a year in training learning to use them and appreciate their depth and complexity.

A Montessori classroom tends to be a hub of quiet activity, as children go about working with materials that the teacher has in small group or individual lessons shown them how to use. The classroom belongs to the children, and they are responsible for caring for the environment. The teacher oversees all, and checks nonconstructive behaviors. Children work their way, over the three years they are in a classroom, through the sequences of materials in that room, before they graduate to the next level. By observing children in these environments, Montessori came up with many interesting observations that have gradually been rediscovered by scientific research over the past 100 years. For example:

I. Movement and Cognition Are Closely Aligned
Montessori wrote at length of the close connection between hand and mind, action and thought. "One of the greatest mistakes of our day is to think of movement by itself, as something apart from the higher functions... Mental development must be connected with movement and be dependent on it. It is vital that educational theory and practice should become informed by this idea." A wealth of research in psychology today supports this idea. For example, the onset of crawling is associated with advances in myriad areas of development from social to spatial understandings, and even adults learn better when moving in ways that simulate what we are learning. For example, we memorize faces better to the extent that we mimic their facial expressions while we memorize. Montessori education is imbued with movement that is aligned with cognition. Letters are learned by tracing sandpaper letters while uttering the sounds, rather than merely by visual recognition; mathematical concepts are always introduced with materials that clearly show how the mathematical operations work; geography is learned by making maps oneself.

II. Choice and Control Assist Learning and Well-Being
Montessori education is unique among educational programs in the degree of choice and control it gives children. Children are not free to misbehave or avoid parts of the curriculum, but each day they arrive in the morning and choose what to work on, with whom to work on it, and how long to work on it. Montessori is the only major school system with this degree of individual choice; others are primarily teacher-led and employ whole class learning. Psychology research strongly confirms Montessori's insight that a sense of choice is beneficial to people. Among other benefits, choice enhances creativity, well-being, and problem solving speed and ability.

III. Interest Improves Learning
Research has shown that learner interest significantly impacts the quality of one's learning. In one study children were given a list of topics and asked to indicate which were of most and least interest to them (Estes & Vaughan, 1973). Each child was then given two difficult passages to read, one on the topic the child had ranked of most interest, and the other on the topic the child had ranked of least interest. These were followed by a comprehension test. Scores on the comprehension tests for passages of high interest were significantly higher than those for passages of low interest, showing children learned best about what they were most interested in. Other studies have shown the effects of learner interest extending over a range of school subjects, from math to history to biology to vocabulary, and to outcomes ranging from learning, to grades, to self esteem, to perception of one's own skill, to intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, the effects of interest extend over at least several years. Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi (1993) examined particularly talented students' degree of engagement in their talent areas, such as math and music. Three years later, progress in one's talent area was predicted by the degree to which one had previously reported feeling interested and excited when engaged in the activity. Although interest researchers lament that their findings could never impact education, Montessori education begins with learner interest, and is structured to allow individuals to pursue their personal interests. Dr. Montessori designed specific materials and scripted lessons to provoke interest, and teachers learn and practice these during their nine months of training.

IV. Intrinsic Rewards Inspire Sustained Interest and Learning
Montessori said, "The prize and the punishment are incentives towards unnatural or forced effort. The system of prizes may turn an individual aside from [their true] vocation." This has clear support in the literature: when one expects to be rewarded for something one already likes to do, after getting the reward one subsequently loses interest in the activity. In one early study, researchers offered some preschool children a reward for drawing with markers; others were not given a reward, or were rewarded by surprise after drawing (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). Children who expected and received a reward drew pictures that judges rated as less creative than those of the other children. Second, when the researchers went back to the classroom and observed marker use several weeks later, they found that children who had been told they could draw in order to get a reward used the markers half as much as did the other children. People also choose easier tasks when they expect to be evaluated or rewarded. Some sixth graders were told they would receive a grade for performance on a set of jumble-word puzzles (anagrams), and others were told it was just a game (Harter, 1978). Children in the grades group chose less challenging anagrams, solved anagrams less well, and also showed more anxiety and less pleasure while solving anagrams. Montessori education keeps rewards intrinsic, and monitors performance with self-correcting materials, peer correction, and teacher observation. There are no grades or tests. However Montessori children appear to adapt fine to grades and tests when they transfer to traditional schools.

V. Learning with Peers is Effective
Montessori education is also well-aligned with research in its social arrangements. Developmental psychologists know that children are not particularly social with their peers before elementary school they engage in parallel play, and are often quite interested in watching each other, but they don't engage all that intensively or often with each other. By elementary school, however, children become very social. Yet in traditional preschool programs children often have a lot of interactive group time, and then in elementary school are moved to separate desks, and asked to interact mainly with their teachers. But elementary age children are often desperate for contact, so they write notes and time bathroom breaks to allow for interaction. In contrast, Montessori corresponds with children's development: Children are given a choice, so before age 6 they tend to work alone, and after 6 they almost always work collaboratively.

Research originating with the famous Jigsaw Classrooms established by Eliot Aronson in Texas in the 1960s has repeatedly demonstrated that children not only learn well in collaborative circumstances, but they also get along better, resulting in more positive classroom social climates. A second effective form of peer learning that Montessori education capitalizes on is peer tutoring. In one study, children who engaged in a peer tutoring program for spelling went on to average 87% correct on spelling tests, in contrast to 75% correct for children in traditional programs (Greenwood et al., 1989). In addition, the difference extended over time and topic: Children who were previously in peer tutoring programs in a few subjects (including math) still excelled several years later, and even excelled on topics other than what was tutored (including science). Studies also show that tutoring benefits the social climate, and that it benefits the tutor just as much as the tutee: people learn well when preparing to teach (Benware & Deci, 1984).

VI. Meaningful Contexts Assist Learning
We access our knowledge best when we understand the meaning and application of that knowledge. For example, people who read a passage about Washing Clothes with its title remember the passage much better later than do people who read it without the title, who are often bamboozled by what the passage describes, ("The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange the items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do." and so on. Brazilian children selling candy on the streets and American housewives in supermarkets engage in mathematical calculations in natural contexts that they cannot do on paper.

Montessori's hands-on materials show children quite clearly what their learning applies to and why different procedures, like mathematical formulae, work. The Pythagorean theorem material, for example, is a right-angled isosceles triangle with multiple small squares emerging from the legs (32 and 42) and hypotenuse (52), which makes quite clear how the formula actually works. Furthermore, this material is presented alongside fascinating and rich stories of ancient Egyptians and the need to measure property precisely, and to remeasure it after the Nile flooded and changed property lines, so the King could levy property taxes precisely. Montessori children become the "rope stretchers" who measured the land in Ancient Egypt, measuring areas of their classroom or the land outside by forming triangles with knotted ropes. Children are told that "geometry" means measuring the earth: it had practical origins. Montessori education is very situated.

A great deal of research suggests Montessori education is well aligned with how humans naturally learn and develop. Because of this alignment, one would expect well-implemented Montessori education to positively and profoundly impact children's intellectual, social, and personal development. The fact that the three founders of Google and Amazon and Wikipedia all have credited their Montessori education is suggestive (Barbara Walter's 10 Most Fascinating People of 2004 NBC, December, 2004; Business Week, 20 December 2004, p. 18; More telling, a recent study showed former Montessori students performed better in science and math than their gender-, ethnicity-, and income-matched 10th to 12th grade classmates (most of them in high schools for gifted students), even when the control group was matched at test rather than at Montessori school entry (Dohrmann, 2003), and another showed that children in Montessori middle schools felt more motivated, energetic, interested, and happier than children in traditional middle schools while working on school tasks but not on nonschool tasks (Rathunde & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005). In a tightly-controlled study published in Science magazine last September, I found that children in a low-income city Montessori school outperformed a control group of children who had lost a random lottery for admission to that school on both social and academic measures. Different Montessori schools and even teachers might implement the method to different degrees, and parents always do well to visit classrooms, meet teachers, and ask questions about what their child will be doing. In addition, some parents are only comfortable with more traditional settings that feel like those they had as children. Families must weigh many variables in deciding where their children go to school. Montessori is one alternative some will want to look into.

Angeline is a professor of psychology at UVa and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science where she was awarded the Developmental Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association's Outstanding Dissertation Award in 1992 and its Boyd McCandless Award for Distinguished Early Career Contribution in 1999. She was also recently featured on WMRA's Insight program, NPR's The Parents' Perspective. A DVD on Montessori, interview podcasts, and chapter 1 of her book at For references, please contact

Originally published in AlbemarleFamily Living January 2007. For more great stories be sure to visit More Great Reading online or pick up the newest issue of our magazine at a nearby newsstand.

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