Arguing against Montessori
Happy Friday, everyone.
This Friday, I have a (completely optional) exercise for you:
Respond to this note, either by email or on the website comments, with the best criticism of Montessori education you can make.
What’s the aspect of the Montessori approach to education that makes the least sense to you? Where might she (and/or we) be wrong? Where is the Montessori approach the weakest? Where does it make the least sense? Where is it most likely to have a blind spot for a child’s needs? The more forceful and articulate, the better.
Next week I’ll share the best objections, and I’ll provide what I think are the strongest possible replies.
I imagine that many of you will be able to come up with questions right away, because they’ve occurred to you before or because you’ve heard them over the years. But for others of you, this question itself might be somewhat new. Is Montessori really that controversial?
Yes. And, I think, rightly so.
It’s not always easy to remember the controversy, because we live and breathe it in our work, and see the tremendous value that it provides. But it is today, and always has been. Even in the earliest days of her educational work, Montessori was controversial.
The progressive intellectual establishment, in the US in particular, was intensely critical of Montessori. Conferences were convened and books were written. They argued that where Montessori was original she was wrong, and where she was right she was unoriginal. There was an intense interest in Montessori education in the US in 1910—and by 1916 it had completely evaporated, not to return for over 40 years, after her death.
Montessori lost the argument. Not because she was wrong, but because she wasn’t interested in arguing.
But I think we should be interested in arguing. We should be curious about what the objections are, how good they are, and what might be said against them.
Why? There’s the rhetorical reason: we want to convince people to change their minds on education, which requires argument, engagement, demonstration.
But mainly it’s because we want to understand education and children—immensely complicated, difficult things to understand. Montessori didn’t just want to tweak education, she wanted to rethink it from first principles. The controversy over Montessori is downstream of this radicalism. Of course people have questions and objections! It’s different, new, complex. It’s an opinionated system of philosophy and psychology and education, meant to help grow human beings.
As educators, we need that principled understanding—each of us needs it, independently. We need to understand what is true in Montessori and carry it forward in our way—a challenging intellectual task. We need to achieve full clarity and confidence. Engaging with objections to one’s favored views is a critical means of honing and clarifying one’s own thoughts. I don’t think one can really get at the truth in education—Montessori or otherwise—unless one really considers some of the questions like the ones I listed above.
Many of the arguments levied against Montessori in the 1910s still persist to this day. And many of them are real questions that do not have obvious answers. Some time ago I tweeted a list of 20-odd or so arguments against Montessori; you can click through the thread and read them and see how many seem familiar and how many inspire in you curiosity or even skepticism:
Just to be clear, I don’t think any of these arguments ultimately succeed—and insofar as they do succeed in certain ways, they don’t undermine the basic approach.
But one can’t really know that until one does the exercise, of articulating an objection that has some face-plausibility, of turning it around in one’s mind, of strengthening it as much as one can. And then taking enough time and giving enough thought to see where the chips actually fall.
So—if the spirit moves you—hit me with your best shot: What’s wrong with Montessori education?
Have a great weekend,
Executive Director, Montessorium