Eight Principles of Montessori Education

Carmel Montessori School

“When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments−tenderness for what he is and respect for what he may become.”


Adapted from the book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.

Lillard,  A. S. (2007) Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius New York, NY Oxford University Press

While there are many wonderful qualities of a Montessori education, herein lies a highlight of eight key principles:

  1. Movement and Cognition
  2. Choice
  3. Interest
  4. Extrinsic Rewards are Avoided
  5. Learning with and from Peers
  6. Learning in Context
  7. Teacher Ways and Child Ways
  8. Order in Environment and Mind

Impact of Movement on Learning and Cognition: 

“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. “

Movement and learning are perpetually entwined in Montessori education.  Beginning in the home or day care, infants sleep on floor beds instead of cribs, so they can move around an entire room to explore and get objects.  In primary classrooms, children move to wash tables and trace sandpaper letters, to put large wooden map pieces in place, and to play scales and compose music on the Musical Bells.  Older children carry out verbal commands written on cards, both to confront semantic precision and to experience what a verb is. They place colored symbol cards next to words to designate parts of speech.  Countable squares and cubes illustrate mathematical concepts: a child can see, feel, and manually count why 3 cubed = 27.  Other mathematic materials work through the child’s hand to show how the same formula for area can apply to a regular and irregular shape.  The possible examples are endless: In Montessori classrooms, learning is accomplished through movement.  This holds true from Toddler through Middle School levels.  Ask yourself:  Do you think that people learn better when their learning engages other senses such as movement?

Choice and Perceived Control:

“These children have free choice all day long.  Life is based on choice, so they learn to make their own decisions.  They
must decide and choose for themselves all the time…They cannot learn through obedience to the commands of others.”

Children in Montessori classrooms freely choose their work.  They arrive early in the morning, look around the classroom, and decide what to do.  They work on it for as long as they are inspired to, then they put it away and select something else.  This cycle continues all day.  Occasionally, children, particularly the young ones, might need some guidance in their choices.  A teacher might present a 3-year-old with the option of doing table washing or sound cylinders, or a child who has not followed up on a grammar lesson might ask to choose a time when he or she will do the work.  But, for the most part children’s choices are limited only by the set of materials they have been shown how to use, by the availability of the material (since with few exceptions there is only one of each), and by what is constructive both for the self and society. They may choose to engage in learning by themselves, in pairs, or in groups.  Ask yourself:  Do you believe that people learn better when they have choice over what they learn and feel in control of their learning?

Interest in Human Learning:

“The secret of success [in education] is found to lie in the right us of imagination in awakening interest, and the stimulation of seeds of interest already sown.”

Montessori education is designed to awaken interest and to allow children to pursue learning about issues that already personally interest them.  This is a natural corollary to a system of education based on choice: one chooses to do what one is interested in doing.  It is also necessary to a system that is based on intrinsic motivation, rather than on extrinsic motivators such as grades.  The Montessori curriculum presents to learners tasks and subjects of study that are designed to be either personally or topically of interest to a child.  A child who is interested in skateboarding might be encouraged to learn about gravity through this interest.  Poverty might be a unit of study for 9 – 12 year olds as they are developmentally cued into altruism and empathy at these ages.  Ask yourself:  Do you think interest in what one is learning makes one a better learner?

Extrinsic Rewards and Motivation:

“The prize and the punishment are incentives towards unnatural or forced effort, and therefore we certainly cannot speak of natural development of the child in connection with them.”

Carmel Montessori School

Carmel Montessori School

Carmel Montessori School

Carmel Montessori School

Carmel Montessori School

Carmel Montessori School

Research shows that children who are given rewards for learning are more likely to rush through a learning activity, less likely to return to that activity and to have a shorter retention of the learning in which they engaged than are children who are not given rewards for engaging in a learning activity.  In other words, that gold star that goes on a child’s forehead has been identified as contributing to that child becoming a less successful learner.  This is why, in a Montessori school, grades and ranking are generally absent.  Teachers have their own ways of encouraging children with the goal of developing an intrinsic motivation in the child.  Our children engage in learning, because the learning is the learner’s reward.  Ask yourself:  Can you think of work in which you engage because being engaged in the work itself is rewarding to you?

(For a more in depth understanding of motivation, the book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink gives wonderful insight and research on the topic.)

Peer Interaction:

“Our schools show that children of different ages help one another.  The younger ones see what the older ones are doing and ask for explanations.  These are readily given, and the instruction is really valuable, for the mind of a 5 year old is so much nearer than ours to the child of 3…The older ones are happy to teach what they know.  There are no inferiority complexes, but everyone achieves a healthy normality through the mutual exchange.”

In a Montessori school, children are placed in multi-age learning groups (eg: 6 – 9 year olds) instead of being grouped by grades.  This enables children to teach to and learn from each other.  A child who has mastered a learning objective reinforces her/his own learning by teaching that lesson to a younger child.  A younger child can excel and teach his or her own peers.  Children learn at an early age to depend on and help each other.  Ask yourself:  Can you think of any other benefits to a child who brings his/her learning to another child?

Contextual Learning:  

“Education, as today conceived, is something separated both from biological and social life.  All who enter the educational world tend to be cut off from society…People are prepared for life by exclusion from it.”

Learning situated in context is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts. It is why the Montessori materials have concrete properties where Montessori developed both the isolation of difficulty and the isolation of quality.  The control of error built-in with the materials aids the child in a critical thinking process.  The children learn to think and discover on their own with the Montessori materials.  Once they successfully master a material, the pride of their accomplishment stirs them into a desire for additional learning.  Ask yourself:  Can you think of something that you learned out of context?

Adult Interaction:  

“It is true that the child develops in his environment through activity itself, but he needs material means, guidance and an indispensable understanding.  It is the adult who provides these necessities…If [the adult] does less than is necessary, the child cannot act meaningful, and if he does more than necessary he imposes himself upon the child, extinguishing [the child’s] creative impulses.”

One of Maria Montessori’s tenets was that the interaction between children and teachers in the learning environment should be neither too much nor too little.  It must be just right.  This is the approach that our teachers are trained to take during their intensive training.  To allow a child to struggle with a project or a problem long enough to learn from it, but not so long that they become frustrated by it, is a skill that our teachers possess and practice.  In a Montessori classroom, the ideal is that the children identify, engage in, and pace their own learning independently, with the teacher available to guide them and, of course, to teach them, but in just the right amounts.  Dr. Montessori was very specific about how teachers should behave with children, and her recommendations align very closely with the behaviors that recent psychology research shows are associated with better child outcomes.  The research to be considered here concerns secure attachment between children and their caregivers, authoritative parenting, self theories and classroom management.   Ask yourself:  Have you ever interacted with a teacher who gave you too much guidance? 

Order in the Environment: 

“The children in our schools are free, but that does not mean there is no organization.  Organization, in fact, is necessary…if the children are to be free to work.”

A Montessori classroom is a calm and orderly place in which children know what to expect.  When people enter a Montessori classroom, particularly the primary, they are sometimes surprised, may be even disturbed, by how orderly the environment is, both spatially and in terms of its peacefulness.  Everything is in its place, and the children are quiet.  Especially with young children, people expect a little mayhem.  The teacher’s most important goal is to arrange the environment in a way that maximally facilitates learning.  The children know the materials; the materials are in their correct curricular areas; and they are in a thought-out order of presentation.  The order and predictability of the Montessori classroom lowers anxiety levels, increases positive affect, builds independence, and enhances a joyful love of learning.  Ask yourself:  What role does order play in the way that you do your work?