Montessori Research: Principles and Insights
Support for Montessori’s principal insights, as found in current scientific research, is profound. The premier book on this topic is Montessori The Science Behind The Genius published by Oxford University Press. A third edition, highlighting just completed research studies and a new chapter on executive function, was released in January of 2017. It is authored by Angeline Stoll Lillard Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia, an internationally renowned scholar, lecturer and researcher in child development, cognition and executive function. Dr. Lillard is also a leader in Montessori research worldwide.
Dr. Lillard outlines in clear, simple prose eight major Montessori insights that are fundamental to successful child development and cognition, and how they are implemented in Montessori education. Parents and teachers reading her book and articles will gain a clear picture of what happens, and why, in authentically practiced Montessori classrooms.
Research on Montessori Schools
“Go out and build the brain you want!” These are the final words of Dr. Lara Boyd, Canada Research Chair in neurobiology at the University of British Columbia, in a TED talk in the spring of 2016. What does she mean? And why is it important to those of us interested in research on Montessori Education?
The answer to these questions begins in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1965. Although Dr. Maria Montessori died in 1952 no scientifically designed longitudinal Montessori research study in Montessori Education had yet been undertaken. Now, several parents who were impressed by the results of Montessori Education for their own children, decided to establish Montessori Head Start Classes for inner city children in Cincinnati and to follow the progress of these children through a well designed, quality longitudinal study with appropriate control groups.
The Department of Psychology and the Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine, at the University of Cincinnati carried out this Montessori research study with the cooperation of the Cincinnati Board of Education and funding by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and local private foundations. (See Appendix, Montessori A Modern Approach Paula Polk Lillard, 1972.) Thousands of Cincinnati public school children, from preschool through Senior High School, are in Montessori schools today due to the influence of this study. This positive outcome makes clear that scientifically designed research is important to widespread availability of Montessori Education.
Montessori Schools did continue to proliferate across the United States in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and in 2005 a book appeared that helped explain the relevance of Montessori Education in the modern world, by detailing scientific research with reference to Montessori theory and practice. Angeline Stoll Lillard, an internationally renowned researcher and Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia (faculty.Virginia.edu/ASLillard/), captured the attention of scholars worldwide with her book, Montessori The Science Behind the Genius. (www.montessori_science.org) Published by Oxford University Press, it was awarded the Cognitive Development Society Book Award for 2006.
John Flavell, formerly the Ann T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, described Dr. Lillard’s book as “authoritative and scholarly, very well organized and very clearly written, easily communicable to anyone” and will appeal “to anyone wanting to read good reviews of evidence concerning how children learn.” When Dr. Lillard was asked by an interviewer, if “after close study, Dr. Montessori’s observations and methods are proven to be effective and relevant even when measured against current research,” she answered, “Yes. Dr. Montessori was ahead of her time in her theories and observations.” Montessori research studies conducted since that time confirm this statement.
Dr. Lillard followed the publication of Montessori The Science Behind the Genius by a Montessori research study titled “Evaluating Montessori Education” coauthored with Nicole Else-Quest, and published in the widely influential magazine, SCIENCE, on September 29, 2006. Lillard and Else-Quest describe their Montessori research study as evaluating “the social and academic impact of Montessori education.” Their conclusion states, “At least when strictly implemented, Montessori education fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools.” (pp.1893-1894)
In 2007, a dramatic breakthrough for validation of Montessori’s theories on child development occurred in a different field of research altogether: the exploding field of neuroscience, specifically neuroplasticity. Summarizing some key results in this field in his groundbreaking book, The Brain That Changes Itself, author Norman Doidge, M.D., neuroscience researcher at Columbia University and the University of Toronto, describes in layman’s terms how we build our own brains through our behavior, thoughts and reactions to our environment. As a best-selling author, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, he also introduces the brilliant scientists championing this new science of neuroplasticity and the astonishing progress of the people whose lives they’ve transformed. The Brian That Changes Itself has “implications for all human beings, not to mention human culture, human learning and human history.” (New York Times, 2007)
Dr. Maria Montessori had long before maintained that the child was actually building his or her own brain through the process of learning and meditating upon the surrounding environment. In this active process of self-construction, the child forms his or her personality, character and values, intelligence and knowledge of the world. Historically, of course, education practices take an opposite view, giving the adult, whether parent or teacher, the dominant role in the child’s development. It is the adult who must actively put information into the child and the child who must passively receive it, as if “an empty vessel waiting to be filled.”
In an article entitled “Montessori, the Brain and the Young Adult” (The NAMTA Bulletin, May 2008) Paula Polk Lillard surveys “the work of neuroscientists of our time which concurs in every way with the developmental perspective of Montessori education.” In her words, “We can now have hard evidence that human beings construct their own brains in collaboration with the environment, just as Montessori proposed one hundred years ago.” As a medical doctor and biologist, Montessori could only guess from her intuitive observations of children that self-formation and construction of the brain was taking place within them. It was modern technologies like MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the brain) that now provided the “hard evidence” proving that her intuitive “guess,” in fact, represented reality.
This latest revolution in neuroscience actually began with an autopsy at Stanford Hospital. Before brain scans, autopsies were a principal means for learning about the brain and its functions. This autopsy was of Pedro Bach-y-Rita, the Catalan poet and scholar at the City College of New York. In 1959, at age 65, Bach-y-Rita suffered a debilitating stroke, losing speech and mobility of his left side. Incredibly, after several years he made an unprecedented recovery of these functions, even returning to his teaching position at City College.
When he died of a heart attack at age 72, Bach-y-Rita was hiking in the high altitude mountains of Columbia, South America. Startlingly, his autopsy showed that the lesions in his brain from his stroke had never healed! Nearly 100% of the nerves connecting the cerebral cortex to the spine remained destroyed from his stroke 7 years earlier. Somehow his brain had reorganized itself and thus had regained almost entirely its lost functions, including Bach-y-Rita’s speech and the complete paralysis of his left side. Here was hard proof the human brain is “plastic” and that it “survives in the world by changing itself”!
The concept of the neuroplasticity of the brain and the research of many pioneers such as Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco, Alvaro Pascual-Leone of Harvard Medical School, Eric Kandel of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University (who received the Nobel Prize in 2000) and R. Douglas Fields of the National Institute of Child Health and Development, are now well established. Today the work of subsequent researchers, such as Dr. Lara Boyd with whose words we began this discussion on Montessori Research, is continuing to reveal new discoveries pertinent to our power to change our brains through interaction with our environment and even our own thoughts. The implications for our educational system –Montessori Education in particular- and indeed to the everyday lives of all of us, whatever our ages, are profound.
Meanwhile Angeline Lillard with her colleagues at the University of Virginia has continued her research on children’s learning and cognitive development. In 2013 Dr. Lillard and colleagues published a review paper with significant implications for child development and Montessori education. The paper, entitled “Impact of Pretend Play on Children’s Development: A Review of the Evidence,” appeared in Psychological Bulletin, the flagship journal for definitive, authoritative review articles in Psychology. Stephen Hinshaw, Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkeley and Editor of the journal at the time, referred to this article as “ a game-changer—a paragon of carefully-reasoned evidence that will challenge the play-based domination of the early-childhood field for years to come.”
Another article by Dr. Lillard, “Playful Learning and Montessori Education” was published in the American Journal of Play in 2013. This article makes clear the similarities between traditional Montessori education and playful learning, and the divergence of both approaches to conventional education that is “teacher-centered and teacher paced and more likely to involve listening to words rather than working with objects.”
“Playful Learning and Montessori Education” also does a service to all future researchers by explaining the importance of selecting only authentic Montessori Schools for research studies, meaning those schools that follow closely the educational methods described by Dr. Montessori in her lectures, and now presented worldwide in training courses accredited by the Association Montessori Internationale, (AMI), the organization Montessori and her colleagues established in Europe in 1929 to guard the integrity of her work. “Montessori” is not a trademarked term and a variety of schools with a variety of programs call themselves “Montessori.” To measure the success of Montessori Education, one should study only authentic Montessori Schools—ones that actually incorporate the principles and practices.
Fortunately, increasing numbers of university graduate and postdoctoral students along with their professors in psychology and education are beginning to study Montessori Education. A ten-year lag from the publication of compelling results to a surge of research interest in that topic is typical. Now that such a surge has begun in Montessori Education, it is our hope that future researchers, including neuroscientists, will explore the multi-faceted areas of this fascinating and revolutionary approach to learning and the self-construction of human beings.