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Tatyana Zhukov
Everybody talks Montessori, but no one knows these 9 principles
Mar 31, 2023
6 Minutes

Ever wondered why if you do something with your hands, you remember it better than something you studied on paper? You might intuitively know – it’s more active and engaging. Most people have heard of the Montessori method, developed by Dr. Maria Montessori – a trained doctor and engineer – by observing how children like to learn. But unless you have attended a Montessori program, or know someone, like your children, who do – what you might not know are the principles, or guiding beliefs, around which the practice is built. 


Read on to find out how the nine principles of Montessori, as explained in the book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, by Angeline Stoll Lillard, show research-supported ways in which people tend to think and like to learn.

Spoiler alert: You might already be Montessori-ing without even knowing it.
1. Movement

The first principle of Montessori states that movement enhances learning. This is because hands-on learning creates more easily encoded, sturdier memories than the well-known use of semantic memory (like facts from lectures or books), which is more difficult for the brain to remember, and requires repetition and practice. 


In a Montessori classroom, sensory materials, or objects that represent abstract concepts, are used by students to learn in all subject areas, and students move around the classroom throughout the day. Movement not only enhances, but is the process of learning.

2. Choice

Another guiding belief of the Montessori method is that having a sense of control (read: choice) improves people’s well-being, independence, and ability to learn. But indeed, there can be too much of a good thing. In some cultures, personal choice is not viewed as favorably, or is much more restricted than in others, and too much choice (think – milk options in a supermarket) can overwhelm even the most free-spirited of us. 


That is why a Montessori environment is based on the principle of: choice within boundaries. Students choose, within the confines of their classroom environment prepared by the teacher and options in their Work Journal (list of activities and assignments), when to work on what. 

3. Concentration

Ever felt lazy and like it was hard to concentrate after you’ve watched TV for a long time? That might be because TV impairs our ability to concentrate afterwards. The quick pace of moving images forces our brains to track a lot of activity – quickly! – which exhausts our brain’s resources that it uses for executive functions – like planning and concentration. 


A Montessori principle is dedicated to just this: the art of concentration. That is, one of, if not the most, important predictors of success in life, and which can be trained (or impaired). 


In a Montessori environment, this principle is brought to life through uninterrupted, 3-hour work periods, during which students focus deeply on whichever learning activity they are working on. There are no bells to interrupt them, and no whole-class lessons. A teacher circulates to help when needed, and the atmosphere is peaceful and busy. 



A possible takeaway? What about measuring our success not by how much we get done in one day, but rather - how much “in the flow” of an activity we get?
4. Intrinsic interest

Obvious as it seems, being interested in what you are learning is key to… well, actually learning it. But have you ever wondered why? According to this Montessori principle:

 Interest = curiosity + motivation 

So really, it comes down to wanting to do something because you like it and want to get better at it. Intrinsic motivation is this internal drive to do something. 


In a Montessori classroom, it can come about because of the vibrant, hands-on learning materials that are appealing to children, lessons that teachers tailor to small groups and execute with drama and demonstrations that provoke further curiosity, and self-formed groups that work on projects of mutual interest together. 

5. Extrinsic rewards

When intrinsic motivation is not present, motivation can be triggered through extrinsic rewards. These are some sort of prizes (or grades!) given for doing something well, and they serve as bribes for our brain – do more of what is to be rewarded! The Montessori approach warns that the short-term gains of accomplishing something with the promise of a reward is potentially detrimental in the longer term. 


Montessori methodology provides alternatives to evaluation, which could be useful in any situation when achievements need to be measured. These include learning through observation of others and self-reflection, completing activities step-by-step with gradually-increasing complexity, and asking for help when a task is too challenging.   
6. Collaboration

Especially if you didn’t do a lot of group work at school, when you hear “collaboration,” you may think of complications that arise communicating with others and unequally-distributed work. The thoughts that give rise to the – “I’ll just do it myself” resolve. Here’s the good news – “collaboration,” in the Montessori sense, has three meanings, all of which are conducive to learning:

  • Observation and imitation are a type of collaboration! Learning from someone who is good at something that you want to do is, in fact, a type of collaborative experience. 
  • Teach to Learn: By teaching someone else what you know, you are learning it better than before.
  • Group work: Taking the chance that by now you have warmed up to the idea of your traditional “working in a group” scenario – one big benefit that the Montessori method can teach us is that working in a group can reduce an individual’s cognitive workload (“distributed cognition”) and be super effective via – “transactive dialogue, in which people build on each other’s ideas. 
7. Context

Can you imagine trying to learn to play a sport just by reading about it? This, in essence, is what students are asked to do when they study abstract concepts and take tests to check their knowledge. Enter – Montessori principle # 7 – which shows that learning happens best in meaningful contexts

For example: embedding learning content in a story, tying in background knowledge, and going out into the community.
8. Interactions

Attachment styles are often discussed in the context of children and parents, but they also apply to student-teacher relationships. Setting clear limits and responding sensitively (promptly and empathetically) to students’ needs is shown to lead to a secure attachment – one that lets children explore confidently while feeling safe and supported. 


Whether in our personal or professional lives, this principle can remind us to take perspective and try to consider the needs of others from – well, their point of view, for more positive and productive communication. 


9. Environment

If the house is messy, working from home can get tough. 


Turns out that for the most part, people prefer and benefit from predictability in their environment. Clutter and unnecessary distractions create a cognitive load, making our brains busy figuring it out. As a result, we have reduced bandwidth for whichever task is actually at hand.


In a Montessori classroom, this is evident through a tidy and systematic organization of the physical space and materials. In our everyday lives – if you take some time to organize your space, you may be surprised just how much that opens up space in your brain to focus on whatever it is you want to accomplish. In other words, order in the environment is a guide to creating order in the mind.

Since the first Montessori school opened in Rome in 1907, research that was done by Dr. Montessori then is being updated as we speak, and so far - the principles that connect us all - in our basic human tendencies and common learning preferences - have not been disproven. So, if you like to pace around while talking to a friend or during a meeting and just can’t stand a messy kitchen - stand your ground. Now you have the science to back you up.
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