From the Head: Science Behind the Genius

When the average parent of a Montessori child is asked about Montessori education, that parent is most likely to say something along the lines of, “The Montessori approach just makes good intuitive sense.” And, this is true. It is important to know, however, that Montessori education is founded on scientific principles, proposed, researched and formalized by Maria Montessori over a hundred years ago. And, Montessori’s postulates have been confirmed again and again in the best of brain and education research over the past two decades. There is a book, Montessori: The Science behind the Genius, by Angeline Stoll Lillard, which delivers the research that supports Montessori education. Below, you may get the “Cliff Notes” of that book.

Here, in a nutshell, are eight things about Montessori education that you might want to pass along to others and/or mull over yourself:

Movement: Montessori teachers believe that movement aids learning. If a child’s learning task includes using their hands to move the pieces of a classroom work (for example, moving a miniature cow to a letter card with “c” on it), the child learns more efficiently, meaning that s/he learns more quickly, retains the learning longer and enjoys the experience more than if s/he had not used movement. Therefore, children in a Montessori classroom can often be seen moving materials across the classroom and or engaged in movement while working with their Montessori materials. This holds true at all levels of learners.

Ask yourself: Do you think that people learn better when their learning engages other senses such as movement?

Choice and Control: Montessorians believe that children learn better when they have choice over what and/or when they learn something and if they believe themselves to be in control of what/when/how they learn. As a result, children can often be observed choosing the order in which they accomplish their tasks for the day. They can be seen choosing between two or more different methods of engaging in a learning task. They may choose to engage in learning by themselves, in pairs or 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: At Aidan, we believe that students learn better when they are interested in the material that they are studying. 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?

Rewards and Motivation: 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 engage than are children who are not given rewards for engaging in a learning activity. In other words, the gold star sticker that goes to the child who has been identified as contributing to that child becoming a less successful learner. This is why grades and ranking are generally absent in Montessori schools. 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?

Peer Interaction: In a Montessori school, children are placed in multi-age learning groups (e.g. 6-9 year olds) instead of being grouped by grades. This enables children to teach and learn from each other. A child who has mastered a learning objective reinforces their own learning by teaching that lesson to a younger child. A younger child can excel and teach their 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: Our teachers believe that context supports and enhances learning.  In the Elementary classrooms, teachers use The Great Lessons in order to provide a wide swath of context within which children can pursue their individual interests. One of these lessons, for example is The Coming of Life, which includes a timeline from the advent of the earliest life forms to modern humans. Within this expansive context, students can riff on biology, botany, ancient civilizations, fungi classifications, human needs and much more. Learning things out of context, for example by memorizing facts or through other test prep activities, leads to children losing that learning, devaluing it and, ultimately, forming negative attitudes toward learning. 

Ask yourself: Can you think of something that you learned out of context?

Adult Interaction: 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.

Ask yourself: Have you ever interacted with a teacher who gave you too much guidance?

Order and Predictability: A Montessori classroom is a calm and orderly place in which children know what to expect. One of the teacher’s most important goals is to arrange the environment in a way that maximally facilitates learning. The materials are known to the children, they 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?

Whether you are able to speak to these points spontaneously or not, they are very likely some of the components that drew you to Aidan when you toured, visited a classroom, or spoke to others about their experience here. And, if you would like to take a deeper dive into the topics above, including the research that supports them, see Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, by Angeline Stoll Lillard. It’s available in our library and widely available online. It offers the topics above, chapter by chapter, in digestible components. Understanding the foundation of your child’s education will help you to maximize your investment in it!


Kevin Clark

Head of School


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