How effective is the Montessori method in developing children’s creativity, both during early years education and throughout primary school education? There are currently approximately 700 Montessori schools operating in the United Kingdom, and this number is growing annually (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010). The vast majority of these schools cater for children between the ages of three and six. However, in more recent times, there has been a gradual establishment of Montessori schools that provide primary school education for children older than six. There are now about thirty such primary schools in the United Kingdom (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010). Although this is still a relatively small number of schools on a national scale, it is nevertheless an interesting increase to investigate further.
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These schools use the ‘Montessori method’ to both educate children, and further their holistic development. Before a brief discussion of what differentiates the Montessori method of education from other educational pedagogies, it is important to know and understand the underlying principles that all Montessori schools adhere to for the benefit of the children who attend them.
The Montessori method is based on the ideas and theories of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician who experimented with giving young children more freedom, both to direct their own learning, and work and learn at their own pace. In the process, she arrived at two pivotal (and, at the time, somewhat controversial) conclusions. Firstly, she surmised that young children possessed an innate desire to learn (Montessori, 1994). Secondly, she found that young children, contrary to popular belief, were capable of exhibiting high levels of independence and cognitive development for their age under the right conditions. In this respect, it can be argued that they are being treated as individuals. Montessori (1964) strongly believed that all young children were ‘unique beings’ and should, therefore, be treated as individuals. Furthermore, she reasoned that young children, as well as having the benefit of self-directed and child-centred learning, should also experience a ‘hands-on’ approach to education (Lillard, 1980), using learning materials that stimulate all five of the human senses.
The interaction with, and the manipulation of, ostensible ‘Montessori materials’ is, arguably, one of the most renowned aspects of the Montessori method. Broadly speaking, these materials are organised into five basic categories: language, mathematics, sensorial, practical life and culture (Lopata et al, 2005). Pickering (1992) believes that these materials ‘help children to understand what they learn by associating an abstract concept with a concrete sensorial experience’. Furthermore, Montessori materials are carefully designed to be both sensorially stimulating to young children, and multifunctional to allow for a more open-ended, divergent approach to learning. Another important theme common to all Montessori materials is that they are of gradually increasing difficulty and complexity (Oberle and Vinson, 2004). It is vital that these learning materials meet these criteria, because, as Montessori (1964) stated: ‘little ones…can work only on the materials we give them’. In other words, if the materials provided for the children are uninteresting, irrelevant or unviable, then it can be argued that a child is unlikely to be able to fulfil their potential.
One final issue in relation to the background of the Montessori method regards the layout and features of the learning area. It can be seen that it visibly reflects the child-centred nature of Montessori education. For example, desks and chairs are not only child-sized, but also spread wide apart (Mooney, 2000) and arranged in ‘rafts’ (Oberle and Vinson, 2004) allowing children to move around the whole area freely whenever they so wish, and helping to prevent crowding. Materials are kept in accessible places, such as appropriately low shelves (Lopata et al, 2005), so they can easily be obtained and utilised by the children at any time. It is the presence of child-orientated considerations such as these that create Montessori’s (1964) ideal of the ‘prepared environment’. Such environments ‘allow [children] to take responsibility for their own education, giving them the opportunity to become human beings able to function independently and hence interdependently’ (Montessori, 1964, cited in Lopata et al, 2005).
In summary, Montessori’s approach to education advocated that children’s innate desire to learn could be successfully nurtured and accommodated, as long as they are provided with the right environment and the appropriate materials (St. Nicholas Montessori, 2010).
Having briefly discussed the principal background information regarding the theory and practice of the Montessori method, it is now important to consider the principal teaching and learning differences between a Montessori and a ‘traditional’ primary education. One important organisational and structural difference is that each ‘class’ in a Montessori setting has an age span of at least three years (Isaacs, 2007). These ‘classes’ share two features in common with ‘traditional’ education, however: they are mixed-ability, and contain a similar number of children per ‘class’ (around thirty) to a ‘traditional’ primary school (albeit not all the same age).
The timetable is scheduled differently to ‘traditional’ settings. Instead of children taking part in a series of ‘lessons’ in different subjects between the duration of thirty minutes and one hour, the day is split into two three-hour, uninterrupted ‘work’ periods (Oberle and Vinson, 2004). An important point to note here is that Montessori defined ‘work’ as ‘children’s instinctive tendency to develop through spontaneous experiences in the environment’ (Montessori, 1964), further advocating her idea of children acting in a self-directed way. Moreover, in addition to being encouraged to work independently at their own pace, children are never interrupted by the teacher if they are busy working on a task or activity.
One final notable difference between a Montessori and a ‘traditional’ learning environment relates to the role of the teacher. Montessori did not use the term ‘teacher’ to describe the adult charged with the education and well-being of the children in their care; instead, she used the term ‘guide’ or ‘mediator’ (Lillard, 1980). This symbolises the idea that the adult in a Montessori setting should be seen by the child as a facilitator to their educational development, not an authority figure. Generally speaking, teachers operate on a one-on-one basis with different children, and there is little whole-class work (Lopata et al, 2005). The teaching approach is much more indirect than in ‘mainstream’ education: the adult acts in a more observational and advisory capacity. Montessori (1964) maintains that the combination of the learning environment and this indirect teaching method encourages self-discipline, even in the case of younger children. If, however, a child displays undesirable or disruptive signs of behaviour, then the adult will seek to amend the child’s focus to some positive activity, rather than reprimanding them or imposing any kind of sanction. Although, according to Pickering (1992), such instances are comparatively rare due to the child’s level of self-discipline, when they do happen they can be dealt with in a supportive manner without undue disruption to others.
As mentioned before, a popular view exists among many people that the Montessori method is solely both suitable for, and aimed at, young children under the age of six (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010). However, there has been a recent increase in the number of purpose-built Montessori primary schools, catering for children aged between six and eleven. The ‘classes’ in such schools comprise two vertical age groups: the first for children aged six to nine; the second for children aged nine to eleven. Montessori’s underlying theoretical principles remain the same for this older age bracket; however, there are some practical and organisational differences associated with a Montessori primary school’s provision for older children.
Such differences include the fact that ‘the children no longer just choose what to work with’ (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010). Furthermore, they are ’empowered to manage a weekly plan with activities both of which they negotiate with their teacher’ (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010); this is tailored to the individual child’s needs. This suggests that the learning is still child-centred and self-directed to a certain extent, but there is an increase in autonomy and responsibility for one’s own learning. To begin with, children are assigned weekly tasks in mathematics, literacy and science; as they get older, these tasks begin to encompass all curricular subjects (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010). In accordance with Montessori thinking, however, the child can choose when to complete the tasks and engages in frequent tutorial discussions with the teacher (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010). It can be argued that the reason for this is to encourage and nurture children’s developing time and task management skills, and to take an active and co-operative role in their personal development and learning. This sense of collaboration also extends to working with other children in small groups, which happens on a more regular basis than in a Montessori early years setting. Together, they can share ideas and collaborate on various projects.
Other important differences include the notion that Montessori primary schools make ‘no attempt to work to an externally developed curriculum’ (Mooney, 2000); however, Montessori St. Nicholas (2010) claims that the curriculum not only ‘fully meets the requirements of the National Curriculum’ (an example of an ‘externally developed’ curriculum), but also goes beyond it in certain subjects. Many activities relate to National Curriculum subjects, although they will not appear as such to the children (Oberle and Vinson, 2004). This nonconformity to external guidelines also stretches to the method of assessment. There is no formal testing in Montessori primary schools (Lopata et al, 2005): conversely, teachers make continuous observations to evaluate children’s progress and allow children to participate in the evaluation of their learning (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010) during their education in a Montessori primary school, further highlighting the child-centred approach taken.
A central aspect of a young child’s development and learning, one which will serve them and be a useful attribute to them, both as they progress through the educational system, and through adulthood, is creativity. As a concept, it is somewhat difficult to define; however, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) published an influential report in 1999 entitled ‘All our futures: creativity, culture and education’, which attempted to do so. The report defines creativity as follows: ‘imaginative activity fashioned so as to produce outcomes that are both original and of value’ (DfEE, 1999). This definition is then broken down into four characteristics. Firstly, they [the characteristics of creativity] always involve thinking or behaving imaginatively. Secondly, overall this imaginative activity is purposeful: that is, it directed to achieving an objective. Thirdly, these processes must generate something original. Finally, the outcome must be of value in relation to the objective. (DfEE, 1999).
It is important to consider whether all of these constitutional elements of creativity are present in any particular aspect of the Montessori method, in order to argue their effectiveness in developing children’s creativity. The importance of developing children’s creativity is highlighted in a 2003 report by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). The report states that ‘learning to think and behave creatively can transform pupils’ lives…it increases their motivation, self-esteem and levels of achievement. Beyond school, it enriches their lives and prepares them for the world of work.’ Therefore, it is crucial for each individual child to be given the means and opportunity to develop their creativity throughout their educational careers: by becoming creative individuals, they can both make valuable economic contributions and become valued members of society (Cropley, 2001)
According to Oberle and Vinson (2004), there are a number of critics of ‘mainstream’ education frameworks who argue that they ‘stifle creativity’. However, in stark contrast, Berliner (1975), cited in Pickering (1992), states that other critics have raised objections against the Montessori method. These critics believe that it is the Montessori method, and not ‘mainstream’ methods of teaching and learning, that inhibits creativity, due to its ‘cognitively-oriented’ nature. The fact that opinions seem to differ on the subject suggests that the Montessori method has some advantages and some disadvantages with regard to the aim of developing children’s creativity. The other factor to consider is whether creativity is encouraged and fostered both during the time when a child attends an early years Montessori setting, and during the time when they attend a Montessori primary school.
The effectiveness of a number of key aspects of the Montessori method with regard to the development of children’s creativity, both during early years education and throughout primary school education, will be discussed. These particular aspects have been chosen because they contrast with aspects pertaining to ‘mainstream’ early years and primary school education. Some of these aspects are universal to both Montessori early years settings and Montessori primary schools; others solely pertain to older children (in this context, those aged six to eleven) in Montessori primary schools.
Children are given the chance to direct their own learning. This can help to provide them with the self-confidence they need to be inventive and take risks with their learning; this is an important aspect of the creative process. It also allows children the freedom to experiment with different learning styles, such as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (Jones and Wyse, 2004), through their individual manipulation of the materials available. It can be argued that this will increase the chance of a child discovering their preferred learning style, thus making them more receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking. This can also assist with their creative development, as they can use these new approaches to solve new and existing problems.
Children are allowed to work and learn at their own pace. This illustrates the notion that Montessori settings are completely inclusive, allowing an ‘education for all’ approach to be embodied in their framework. It is well documented that children develop at different rates, so this can make children feel more comfortable about their learning. More able children have the opportunity to extend themselves; less able children do not feel ‘left behind’ (Pickering, 1992). This can prevent children at both ends of the ability spectrum from becoming uninterested or frustrated, both of which have the potential to inhibit creativity if the child’s mind is not on the task at hand.
The Montessori method offers a child-centred, ‘hands on’ approach. Montessori (1964) believed that true creativity stemmed from individual freedom of expression. It can be argued that this ‘hands on’ approach offers children the opportunity to express themselves in creative ways through, for example, drawing, cutting, gluing, painting and so on. However, it is important that the child has a sense of purpose when undertaking such activities, in order to fulfil the criteria of creativity. As the teacher is often not directly involved in what the child is doing, the danger exists that the child may be acting randomly, thus not working towards a particular objective.
The materials used allow for multi-sensory learning. This is another way in which children with different preferred styles of learning can benefit. Isaacs (2007) argues that creative development has ‘significant links with the sensorial materials area, particularly if [we] understand the child’s creativity to be the ability to use their imagination’. Through various combinations of visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic materials, it is possible that children will increase their knowledge and understanding of the world, and, more importantly, retain this knowledge and understanding through recalling these multi-sensory experiences. It can also be argued that this will foster children’s curiosity about the world around them and how it works; Fishkin and Johnson (1998) emphasise that a link exists between curiosity and creativity: they ‘fuel each other’.
The materials are multifunctional; learning can therefore be open-ended and divergent. Divergent thinking can help children to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions to a particular problem (Craft, 2002). It is the child’s decision how they choose to utilise the materials: it can be said that this encourages an independent thought process. According to Starko (2005) having the means and opportunity to think independently is one of the ‘building blocks’ of creativity.
The materials are of gradually increasing difficulty and complexity, as the children learn new concepts, and apply their previous knowledge and skills to solve new problems. It can be argued from this that these materials are ‘cognitively oriented’ (Berliner, 1975, cited in Pickering, 1992), as they allow children to make connections and perceive relationships between what they have learnt before, and building upon these connections and relationships to allow them to progress to the next stage of learning. Montessori (1964) argues that, without this type of cognitive scaffolding structure, ‘true creativity’ simply cannot exist.
Materials are kept in accessible places; appropriately low shelves facilitate this easy access. Moreover, early years children are shown how to use ‘sharp’ scissors and adult-sized tools safely (Mooney, 2000): although this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Montessori method (Isaacs, 2007), it serves to further highlight the Montessori self-directed approach, and makes children more responsible for their own learning. Children need to consider what best tools and materials are for whatever purpose they have: it can be argued that being given the opportunity to choose allows them to think in creative, novel ways about what to do and how to do it.
Desks and chairs are child-sized and arranged in ‘rafts’. Each ‘raft’ has a particular activity assigned to it; these typically change on a daily basis (Isaacs, 2007). Children have the freedom not only to move around the ‘rafts’ (and there is ample space between them to allow them to do so), but also to work with other children. A fundamental aspect of a Montessori setting is that all children respect and care for each other, and that caring attitudes are adopted at all times, towards peers, teachers and life itself (Oberle and Vinson, 2004). This fosters collaboration between children; by sharing ideas and information, they can work together creatively and discover new ways of thinking and working.
Children have freedom of movement around the learning area: they can move of their own volition between one learning activity and another, rather than being directed to them at any particular time or in any particular order. This highlights another aspect of how Montessori believed children’s creativity could be developed: the freedom for them to select what attracts them in their environment (Nunn, 2010). This sense of freedom also gives children the opportunity to act with a degree of spontaneity, which can ‘allow the generation of a large number of novel and diverse ideas’ (Jones and Wyse, 2004), thus instigating and developing the creative process.
Each mixed-ability ‘class’ has an age span of at least three years. Particularly in Montessori early years settings, older children can act in a mentoring capacity to younger children (Lillard, 1980). This can help to scaffold children’s learning and thinking, as the older children can, if they wish, help the younger children with whatever they are doing, so that the younger children will eventually be confident enough to work and think independently, and thus begin to think and work more creatively. It is important, however, that the older children do not spend too great a proportion of their time doing this, however thoughtful and considerate it is; they need to further their own knowledge and understanding too.
The day is split into two three-hour, uninterrupted ‘work’ periods. According to Oberle and Vinson (2004), it has been suggested that children taught under the Montessori method are not allowed enough time to simply play. This is problematic to an extent, as research evidence suggests that children’s creativity can be developed through play (Duffy, 2006; Craft, 2000; Smith, 1995). A possible negative implication of this is that children are not encouraged to use their imaginations due to a notable deficit of creative ‘play time’ factored into a Montessori setting (Seldin, 2009).
Children are never interrupted by the teacher when they are engaged in an activity. This allows children to persevere with what they are doing. This can be beneficial to creativity to an extent, as it gives children time to think through the activity in different ways before arriving at a final solution. However, on a cautionary note, it is important that the teacher, though generally involved in an indirect capacity, monitors what children are doing in order to ensure that this ‘perseverance’ is constructive, and, more importantly, purposeful.
The teaching approach is much more indirect. Pickering (1992) argues that because the ‘classes’ are run to a very large degree by the children, with only the degree of adult guidance necessary to ensure order and safety, the setting becomes emotionally safe and secure. If this ideal can be practically adhered to in a Montessori setting, then children can relax and be ‘authentic individuals’ instead of trying to be ‘cool’. This, in turn, helps to allow their creativity to blossom (Cropley, 2001), as it diminishes the risk of social issues such as wanting to be ‘popular’, and alienation.
Some aspects that only predominantly relate to Montessori primary education will now be discussed in relation to their effectiveness in developing children’s creativity beyond the early years.
Children negotiate weekly activity plans with their teacher. This gives children the opportunity to pursue an area or topic that interests them, which the child will not only enjoy, but from which the child will also gain a sense of purpose and direction: a key aspect of creativity. However, this does not necessarily have to be the case (Montessori St. Nicholas, 2010). A child may be curious to find out about an area or topic that is new to them. In this instance, they can work and think independently. This combination of independent thinking and curiosity can help to develop their creativity by asking new questions and thinking in new ways about new ideas and concepts. Moreover, children are allowed to choose when to complete assigned weekly tasks, and engage in frequent tutorial discussions with the teacher. Referring back to a previous issue, this allows the child to work at their own pace, as it allows them to set themselves achievable goals, and work to these goals through this weekly planning. It can be argued from this that the child’s opinions are greatly valued, and, to a certain extent, this collaborative process treats the child as an equal by making them more autonomous about their learning. As discussed before, this can boost their self-confidence, which, in turn, helps them to be more inventive and take risks with their learning: a key aspect of the creative process.
During the primary school years, children begin to work in small groups, although there is still very little whole-class work. Working with others can allow children to compare ideas and thoughts, solve problems and assimilate new knowledge. According to Craft (2000), working with other children in small groups can nurture creativity, as it stems from social processes as well as individual processes. Sharing ideas and thoughts, and solving problems by thinking creatively, is one such social process.
Montessori primary schools meet the legal requirements of the National Curriculum, although they do not follow it ‘to the letter’. This allows the children’s educational experience to be based on their own particular needs (Montessori, 1964), which can be informally, but constructively observed and assessed. There is no formal testing or assessment (for example, Standard Attainment Tests). It can therefore be argued that this helps to eliminate competition between children. Competition can be a ‘barrier to creativity’ (Starko, 2005) because, on a social level, some children compare their achievements to others, which could adversely affect some children’s self-esteem. Fishkin and Johnson (1998) argue that a child’s ‘fear of failure’ also inhibits the child’s creativity, as they may lose the self-confidence required to think in a creative way. Montessori’s view on this is also made clear: ‘the child in the Montessori classroom is…free from the judgement by an outside authority that so annihilates the creative impulse’ (Nunn, 2010).
In conclusion, the evidence suggests that both early years and primary school settings that follow the Montessori method can help to develop children’s creativity throughout this age range through its support of independent, self-directed, purposeful learning activities with stimulating, multifunctional learning materials in a free, accessible learning environment. Children have the opportunity to think and behave imaginatively through the processes of curiosity and exploration. This is not to say that the Montessori method is the only type of pedagogy that can develop children’s creativity. ‘Mainstream’ early years settings and primary schools are certainly capable of doing so: although there is more emphasis on teacher-led, carefully planned, systematic learning, there is still scope for the development of children’s creativity. The Montessori method, while different to ‘traditional’ learning methods in many respects, achieves the same outcome, but in a very different way. In Montessori settings that faithfully follow Montessori’s underlying principles, children can acquire and develop the three qualities that Montessori believed were necessary for ‘creative endeavours’: firstly, ‘a remarkable power of attention and concentration’; secondly, ‘a considerable autonomy and independence of judgement; and, thirdly, ‘an expectant faith that remains open to truth and reality’ (Nunn, 2010). Montessori believed that all children possessed tremendous creativity. This creativity is directed towards becoming ‘a developed individual, endowed with a sensitive soul, an eye that sees and a hand that obeys’ (Nunn, 2010). This was Montessori’s idea of the basic qualities inherent to a creative individual: these qualities, if given the chance to develop through the correct implementation of the Montessori method, will serve the child throughout their educational career and subsequently during their adult lives.
Evaluation of my learning and its management
I needed to ensure, for the purposes of this module, that I supported my transfer from an initial teacher training course to an educational studies course. In order to ‘build a bridge’ between the two, I needed to find a topic that related, in some way, to one module from my previous course, and another module from my new course. In order to support my transition between courses, I needed to investigate a topic of which I had prior knowledge and experience of writing about, and think about it less in terms of the practical teaching context, and more in theoretical terms of how children learn, with the possibility of considering broader educational issues.
In truth, my reason for choosing to focus on the Montessori method of education happened somewhat by chance. The idea was not suggested to me, nor did I harbour any previous interest in it. I first became interested in the Montessori method, however, when a lecturer gave me a piece of advice on another piece of written work for a different module. I was advised to consider Montessori’s ideas on ‘fantasy play’, as the lecturer felt that it would lead to an interesting argument. It was because of this advice that I decided to investigate the Montessori method in more depth, forming an interest in it in the process, which also helped me to complete the piece of work from the other module.
The Montessori method of education, so I thought, focused on early years education; I therefore felt that it could be regarded as an ‘early years issue’. Consequently, the first module chosen as the basis for this independent learning module related to ‘early years issues’. Before I began this assignment, I knew very little about the Montessori method of education. I was aware that they used an array of specialised ‘Montessori materials’, but I was unaware of what was particularly different or unique about them.
I then discovered that, although comparatively few in number, Montessori primary schools existed in the United Kingdom. This meant that I could investigate an aspect of the Montessori method in the context of one of my previous modules, which were tailored to primary school, as opposed to early years, education. I chose to link this to a module from my previous course concerning creativity in the primary curriculum, as, honestly, it was the only one at the time that I thought I could attempt to link to the early years module on my current course.
As I mentioned, my first discovery was that there are some Montessori settings, albeit not many, that cater for children beyond the early years. I also discovered that the implementation of the Montessori method was completely different to anything I had read about or observed before. Its principles were based on self-directed, independent learning; children seemed to enjoy a considerable amount of freedom. Each class had an age range of three years. Children were even taught how to use sharp knives from a very early age. All of these ideas, and many others, surprised me, and I wondered how this system could possibly work. However, I knew that the system must work; otherwise Montessori’s ideas and theories would not have made it past the ‘drawing board’ stage. It was then my task to find out how this system worked on a daily basis, which I found interesting as it made what I considered to be an improbable educational system possible.
Regarding the development of children’s creativity, when I found out about the implementation of the Montessori method, both in early years and primary school education, I found out that it was the children themselves, and the learning environment, that were responsible for nurturing the skills and attributes necessary to promote their creative development. It was not the teacher’s overall responsibility, although they could intervene as and when necessary. As before, I found this interesting as it was a new concept and a new way of thinking to me.
On reflection, I might have chosen differently. There are two reasons for making this statement. Firstly, the idea of creativity with regard to the Montessori method is a comparatively small area for discussion, and it was difficult to find suitable research materials. I found it difficult to make sense of, and synthesise, the information available to me. Although, as I discovered, Montessori did have her own views on