What Does Montessori-Inspired Mean?

By Tyler Jennings

The Caedmon Legacy

The Caedmon School holds a vital place in the history of Montessori in America.  It was not until the early 1960's that the Montessori approach gained traction in the United States--the Caedmon School, of course, was founded in 1962.  The person largely responsible for bringing the Montessori approach to our shores, and popularizing it here, is Dr. Nancy Rambusch.  She consulted heavily with the founders of the Caedmon School, which became the first Montessori school in New York City and one of the first in the country.

Dr. Rambusch's work created a tradition of applied Montessori in the United States--a belief that the Montessori method can be altered in response to other educational movements, tailored to a particular school community, and designed for the specific learners in it.  This belief informed much of her work at the Caedmon School and continues to be evident in our program in profoundly structural ways.  It was she who narrowed the mixed-age classes from three age groups to two, and who established Kindergarten as a stand-alone year, which she termed Transition.  And in the Elementary program, rather than the very individual work of the classical Montessori classroom, she chose to encourage more group work, understanding that learning at this age must be social.

Even more important than these concrete examples, at Caedmon Dr. Rambusch set a tone of innovation in the application of Montessori.  We continue to follow her responsive, nimble approach to this proven, time-honored philosophy today.  This is what we mean when we say, we are a Montessori-inspired school.

Our Early Childhood division in particular is a laboratory for innovative thought and creativity in Montessori: classic practices are refined and fresh ideas forged.  The children in this division are currently receiving the most exciting Montessori education available.  Now with a dedicated school-wide Montessori Liaison, intensive Montessori training for multiple Elementary division teachers, and more, Caedmon has established routes by which these exciting practices and ideas can be spread across the Elementary division.

If the structure of the Elementary classrooms represent a revision of classical Montessori, the original spirit of the philosophy is abundantly evident in teachers' pedagogical choices and in students' approaches to work--and ultimately, in their learning.  Since these can be more difficult to identify at a glance, we wish to share some of them with you here.

What does "Montessori-inspired" look like in our classrooms?

Multi-age learning

Montessori philosophy holds that older and younger children can benefit from one another educationally: younger can learn from older (especially by observing them as models), and older can move themselves closer to mastery through the act of teaching.  At Caedmon, we know this to be true, and we innovate fresh ways for multi-age learning to transpire.

For instance, recently, the Fourth grade students learned of a need in a Lower Level classroom: to understand gender with more nuance, thereby avoiding the use of gender stereotypes and embracing inclusive language and behavior.  The Fourth graders recently completed a study of this very topic, and decided to design learning experiences for the younger students.  They did not simply prepare a presentation; since Caedmon students are highly reflective about their own learning experiences, our Fourth graders knew that our school employs far more interactive, inquiry-based methods of learning.

As such, they designed three stations, through which the students would rotate: theatrical skits, a read aloud, and an interactive experience involving graphing and illustration.  The Fourth graders facilitated the stations with poise, gravitas, and a strong sense of purpose, all important qualities to model for younger learners.  The Fourth grade students understood that their learning was not theoretical; it served the very real, social purpose of opening their own minds and the minds of others.  Charged with this sense of purpose, the room was quietly buzzing with forty highly focused, engaged learners of three different ages.  Montessorians describe "a productive hum" that characterizes the well-run classroom--this is precisely what the Fourth grade facilitators achieved.

The prepared (two-dimensional) environment

Montessori believed that children inherently want to learn, and that educators must facilitate rather than hinder that learning.  To do so, they must nurture children's independence within a structure.  If the educator attempts to structure the child's experience overly much in the moment of learning (lecture-style teaching is the most extreme version of this approach), it will inhibit the child's independence and natural desire to learn.  So the structuring must happen before the learning begins.  The Montessori educator prepares the physical environment with such artful structures, that the materials themselves focus the child's learning to a large extent.  Then the educator can serve as a guide and follow the child's lead.

While many Elementary classrooms at Caedmon use classical Montessori materials, far more often the spirit of Montessori infuses our curricular and pedagogical choices.  An excellent Elementary teacher will think about the selection of task the very way that a Montessori teacher thinks about a prepared physical environment.  If the teacher selects or creates a well-designed task, it will provide the structure that students need to guide their exploration and developing learning.  The teacher then can facilitate the learning as it unfolds.

Pictured here is such a task, which you may have encountered at Curriculum Night.  This visual math task is so well-designed that it guides the eye and the mind to notice deeper and deeper mathematical layers.  This is the prepared environment in two-dimensions. Because this task is so rich and complex, it can be presented to children of any age, from First grade onward.  Developmentally, they will notice different layers, but all will notice something mathematically important.  In this way, a carefully prepared rich task, like a carefully prepared environment, lends itself to the multi-age learning described above. When we present this task to our Lower Level students, they may identify and describe particular patterns that repeat within later patterns, whereas a Fifth grader may understand the organizing principle of those patterns: prime factorization.  All of these age groups could potentially discuss this problem together!

And certainly, unlike a classical Montessori work, this kind of task need not be pursued individually.  Groups of any size can work on this problem together, and at Caedmon they do, following Dr. Rambusch's concept of a more social, collaborative Montessori in the Elementary years.

In the coming months, we will continue to highlight facets of our classrooms that illustrate a Montessori-inspired approach.  Stay tuned!