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Research Behind Montessori Schools and Methods

Are Montessori schools really the best option for children?

Key points

  • In Montessori education, children learn through hands-on play involving a very specific set of materials with the teacher as a guide.
  • Montessori schools may provide an advantage in some areas, but not all.
  • Because research is limited, additional research is needed before we can conclude that a Montessori education offers a clear advantage. 

In recent years, the popularity of Montessori schools, Montessori play materials, and Montessori Instagram accounts seems to be exploding. Even Jeff Bezos recently donated two billion dollars to create a network of tuition-free Montessori preschools.

So, does Montessori education really live up to all of this hype? What does the research say?

What Is a Montessori Education?

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician who developed a specific educational philosophy around 1900 that has since grown into a popular method of education used in schools and early childhood education centers throughout the world.

In Montessori education, children learn through hands-on play involving a very specific set of materials. Most play occurs individually or in small groups. The children are allowed the freedom to explore all materials and are able to choose what they engage with and how they engage with it.

The classroom does not involve any types of rewards or punishments. The teacher guides and assists children as needed but does not provide direct instruction for the most part. Montessori classrooms focus on teaching children to independently complete activities of daily living and use “real” objects that adults use. Montessori focuses on the development of the whole child rather than focusing only on academic skills.

Research on Montessori

Before even beginning to review the research, it is important to explain that this research is limited. It is difficult to study an educational approach like Montessori for several reasons. Most importantly, the families that choose Montessori are very different from those that do not. Families that choose Montessori schools are more likely to be of higher socioeconomic classes and less likely to be an ethnic minority. Even public Montessori schools are more likely to include families from higher socioeconomic classes. Because of these limitations, it is important that we focus only on the studies that take family factors out of the equation, such as randomized controlled trials and lottery studies.

Randomized Controlled Trials

Because the families that choose Montessori are so different, the best way to study Montessori schools outside of the influence of these family factors is to randomly assign families to attend Montessori or traditional schools. These studies effectively eliminate the problem of families choosing Montessori schools being different from families who do not.

The most recent study was a randomized controlled trial of Montessori schools in France published in 2021. In this study, children were randomly assigned to a Montessori or conventional preschool classroom. The researchers found that children in Montessori preschool scored higher in reading than children in conventional preschool but found no differences between the children who attended Montessori versus conventional school on any other measure of language, math, executive functioning, or social skills (see below for the results). However, the teachers in this study lacked formal Montessori training, the curriculum was adapted (for example, daily work periods were shorter than 3 hours), and the preschools included some toys and materials that were not specifically Montessori materials.

Source: Courtier et al.
Effects of Montessori education on the academic, cognitive, and social development of disadvantaged preschoolers: a randomized controlled study in the French public school system.
Source: Courtier et al.

Two older studies from the 1970s randomly assigned children to either a Montessori classroom or a conventional preschool Head Start classroom, and both studies found no benefit for the Montessori method over conventional methods initially (see here and here). Yet when the researchers followed up with the children later, they found some small effects. The first study found better academic skills and higher IQs in boys, but not girls, who attended Montessori schools. In the second study, children in the Montessori program were more likely to graduate high school and less likely to be held back. However, both of these programs did not strictly adhere to Montessori methods and involved relatively small sample sizes.

Lottery Studies

Another way to study the quality of Montessori schools is to look at children who get into a Montessori school through a lottery system. These studies involve publicly funded Montessori schools that have more interested families than spaces available, and children are randomly chosen through a lottery system to attend the school. The researchers then compared the children who wanted to attend the school and were chosen by the lottery to attend the school to the children who wanted to attend the school but were not chosen by the lottery to attend the school. These studies should also eliminate the problem of families who are interested in Montessori schools being different from families who are not.

First, researchers compared preschoolers (3 to 6 years old) who were randomly selected by a lottery to attend one Montessori school versus those who were not selected to attend the school. They found that the children in the Montessori school showed better reading and math, improved social skills, and advanced executive functioning by the end of kindergarten. They also showed more creative writing and reported more of a sense of a school community. However, this study only included one school, so it could simply mean that this one Montessori school was of higher quality rather than all Montessori schools being of higher quality.

The researchers then expanded upon this previous study by including two Montessori schools and more children. The researchers found no difference between the two groups at the first test point of the study. Yet, three years later, the Montessori students showed greater growth in academic skills, social skills (theory of mind), mastery orientation (focus on learning rather than performing for others), and liking school tasks. No difference was found in social problem-solving or creativity. Differences in executive functioning were only found at one time point. They also found that Montessori may reduce the income gap (fewer differences were found between high- and low-income students in academic skills in the Montessori schools).

However, it is important to note that all parents in this study were seeking out a Montessori school, suggesting this sample may not represent the population as a whole.

Overall, research finds that Montessori schools may provide an advantage in some areas and finds no difference between Montessori schools and conventional schools in other areas, and the results are not consistent across studies. It seems clear from the research that Montessori schools do not provide a disadvantage. However, we need additional research before we can conclude that Montessori provides a clear advantage.

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