Gustafson’s Introduction to Montessori

Mike Gustafson, who founded the Massachusetts Montessori Atlas Academy, sat down with Jon Hersey to discuss his school and its approach.

The Montessori approach, says Gustafson, recognizes two key principles. First, “children . . . are forming themselves. They are doing the work. No one else can do it for them,” although adults can “help them with it,” of course. Second, an appropriate environment matters “to help them grow and develop to reach their full potential.”

Gustafson says that Maria Montessori looked for materials “not only to attract [children’s] attention, but to direct it toward some purposeful end.”

I’m very sympathetic with this general approach. I have wondered if the Montessori approach can sometimes be too rigid and formalistic. For example, this morning my six-year-old built a Lego kit with my wife. Isn’t that as developmentally helpful as the standard Montessori materials? How flexible and adaptive is the Montessori approach?

Gustafson addresses this question indirectly by discussing his son’s fascination with cars; he is learning the names and even the speeds of different cars.

Hersey suggests that many people have the opposite concern, that Montessori does not provide enough structure. That hasn’t been my concern, as I’ve been more drawn to self-directed learning. Gustafson says the structure within Montessori helps a child develop agency. “The external structure in a Montessori environment matches the internal needs of a child,” he says. On the other hand, he says, certain sorts of “structure,” such as requiring children to do work that is too easy or hard for them, or that they’re not interested in, are unhelpful.

I’ve hit only a few highlights of the discussion here; the entire exchange is well worth a listen.