Montessori Bets on Autonomy to Lift High-Poverty Students


By Sarah McKibben

EU MontessoriThe student-driven learning approach has a powerful effect in high-poverty, high-need communities, notes Jackie Cossentino, senior associate and director of research for the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. Making their way into urban areas across the country, public Montessori schools are betting on the power of choice over direct instruction to serve low-income populations.

Referencing a 2006 study from researchers Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest, Cossentino says the approach is paying off. The study compared Montessori students in a public, inner-city school with students in other school programs, and found that 5-year-old children who completed the 3-year cycle in the Montessori preschool program scored higher on both academic and behavioral tests. Among 12-year-olds, the Montessori students produced academic and cognitive results similar to the control group, but showed higher level s of creativity and had a “greater sense of community.”

“Most people think of Montessori as a middle class, white, affluent kind of thing,” says Cossentino. “But in fact, it was designed initially and implemented in the slums of Rome, and it works really, really well [with disadvantaged students].” Of the estimated 5,000 Montessori schools in the United States, nearly 500 are public, representing a mix of charters and neighborhood, district, and magnet schools.

Cossentino was interviewed for the article, “Hands On, Hands Off: How Montessori Education Finds Balance,” which appeared in the March issue of Education Update. In an outtake from her interview, Cossentino describes how Montessori education uses autonomy as a learning tool to empower students of all backgrounds.

“Often the response to kids who come to schools with high-needs is to do the opposite of Montessori—which is to really clamp down, to remove all kids of autonomy, and to create a culture of no excuses. There’s a premium on being obedient, following rules, staying on-task, and basically doing what adults are directing you to do.

“What Montessori does is flip that on its head by saying that if you really want to be successful, you have to learn how to regulate yourself. You have to learn how to think flexibly and how to control yourself.

“In the Montessori environment, there’s only one of each material, and that’s on purpose. Part of what a kid learns is that they have to wait their turn. No one is saying [that]; it’s just built into the environment.

“Human beings learn by experimenting and exploring, and by having many opportunities for trial and error; they learn by making mistakes, and by correcting those mistakes; they learn by [making choices], and by making decisions that enable them to internalize concepts.”

Cossentino cites additional research from University of Rochester professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan that suggests, based on the Self-Determination Theory, “students learn better and are more creative when intrinsically motivated.”

“Studies have also shown that teachers’ orientations that are supportive of autonomy contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation in students—and controlling orientations deter intrinsic motivation,” adds Cossentino.

Can providing more autonomy in the classroom, like Montessori schools advocate, truly keep students motivated? If so, how can educators establish a healthy balance between choice and limits?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here