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An Introduction to Montessori Education

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On this podcast we talk with Dr. Natalie Danner, who gives us an introduction to the Montessori approach in early childhood education.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Natalie Danner is the LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck endowed chair of Montessori education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.



Dr. Swartz: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members.

Today we welcome Dr. Natalie Danner. Dr. Danner is the LaVonne Plambeck endowed chair of Montessori education and associate professor of teacher education at the University of Nebraska in Kearney. She joins us to introduce the core ideas of the Montessori educational approach.

Hello, Dr. Danner, we’re so excited to have you on the Illinois Early Learning Project podcast. Many of our listeners may have heard of the Montessori approach or seen programs that describe themselves as Montessori. We are so pleased to have you on our podcast to give us an introduction to this philosophy of early childhood education. So, let’s get started!

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in Montessori education?

Dr. Danner: First of all I wanted to say that I’m really pleased to be on this podcast, too. So, thanks for inviting me. My name is Natalie Danner, and I am the LaVonne Plambeck endowed chair of Montessori education for the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and I got involved in Montessori education as a teacher. So, I was student teaching when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, and I was in a multiage classroom that was in a traditional public school. And it was done in a way that was interesting to me but still needed something. So, I started looking for some different kinds of alternative education, and I stumbled upon Montessori in my coursework, and I said I want to learn more about this.

So, I started substitute teaching for a Montessori school in Tucson, and it really piqued my interest. I was seeing children who were really devising their own learning. They were choosing materials in the classroom. They were excited about their choices that they were making in the classroom. And I said how am I going to become a teacher? I was seeing these teachers who are these models, and I was going the traditional route of education. And of course I finished my bachelor’s degree in elementary education, but I wanted more after that degree.

So, I found myself a Montessori teacher education program, back in New York, where I’m from, and I did my Montessori training at that teacher education program, and it was like a light was turned on in my mind. I was so excited about learning about teaching young children and about really focusing on the early childhood age range. So, I did my Montessori program in ages 3 to 6. So, it’s an early childhood credential for Montessori teaching, and the classrooms are multiage and it was just such an eye-opening moment for me to go through that training program. I just loved every minute of being a Montessori teacher, and it was just such a wonderful experience being able to learn alongside the children.

Dr. Swartz: Great. So, let’s start our Montessori 101. So, can you tell us about the Montessori approach, perhaps some key elements of the approach and how it came to be?

Dr. Danner: Sure. So, the Montessori approach started with Maria Montessori in Italy who founded the method. She was one of the first female physicians in the country of Italy, and she was first and foremost a scientist. And when she was going through medical school, she came upon an institution for children with severe and significant disabilities, and she was observing the children in that institution and noticing that they were really, really interested in scraps of paper on the ground. There weren’t a lot of materials for them, but they were so interested in anything that they could get their hands on, that they could manipulate, that they could really learn from.

And she decided to really study these children and develop materials for them so that they could learn the same as their peers in the Italian schools. So, she was very motivated in creating materials first and foremost for children with disabilities. So, she created these materials and through scientific methods studied how the children used the materials. In fact, she created one of her first schools with those children with disabilities in the institution. And she monitored their growth and development and actually had them eventually take the test that the Italian school children had to take in the traditional schools and noticed that they were outperforming children in the typical school setting.

Dr. Swartz: Wow! That’s pretty impressive so that …

Dr. Danner: Yeah.

Dr. Swartz: … that tells us something special about this approach.

Dr. Danner: It tells us something very special about this approach. One of the other things that she really is well known for is that she worked in areas that were very low-income in Rome and that had many of the families who had both mother and the father in the work force, and the children were left at home alone and often would run at times through the apartment buildings, were unmonitored and unsupervised, and so she decided to start a school also in those tenements in Rome and achieved really great success with the children who were really largely unmonitored and unsupervised.

And most of the times her colleagues would tell her these are children that don’t deserve to be educated with the other children, but she really sought out to reach those students that were either living in poverty or had disabilities. So that’s really the roots of Montessori education, and that’s where I find my passion is really thinking about those ideas of the social (garble) system. Who can really be best served with these multisensory approach to education?

Dr. Swartz: So the multisensory approach is obviously a large part of Montessori education, so that’s one of the special advantages you may see of the Montessori approach. Can you tell us a little more about that and perhaps some other advantages of the Montessori approach?

Dr. Danner: Sure, there are three that I wanted to tell you about. One is that Montessori is multiage. The second is that it’s multiability. And then the third one is the special aspect of peer learning in Montessori education. The first that it’s multiage is really thinking about each classroom. So, an early childhood classroom is children that are made up of 3-year-old through 6-year-old. An elementary 1 classroom would be 6- through 9-year-old. An elementary 2 classroom would be 9 through 12 and so on, up to high school. There’s also infant and toddler Montessori classrooms.

So, when you think of multiage classrooms a 3-year-old is going to be learning much different things than a 6-year-old might be learning. But that’s the beauty of it. There’s really that idea of multiage and multiability. So, there are children with different interests in the same classroom and different abilities. So there may be one child in an early childhood Montessori classroom who is super engaged and super interested in math and might be working on addition problems and subtraction problems but may only be 4 years old. And may have disabilities. But because the classroom is multiage and multiability, there are materials, and the teacher is trained to support children wherever they are in their growth. So they can really gravitate towards those materials with the help of the teacher to really find the materials that are the best fit for every child in every curricular area.

So that’s really the beauty of the Montessori environment, and when we talk about multiability, we’re also talking about children with disabilities and children without disabilities and how perhaps the older children might be able to support children who are struggling in a certain area, and that’s where peer learning comes in. And that’s also the beauty of this Montessori environment, it’s very much a family-style environment. So, you can have older peers that are teaching younger peers in the same environment. It becomes a familylike environment because the children stay together for three years. So, they aren’t moved around every year. If you start in that classroom at age 3, you remain there until you’re 4, 5 or 6 and you move on to the elementary classroom. So, you develop really strong relationships with both your peers and your teachers. And that’s also a big part of Montessori environment.

Dr. Swartz: So interesting, those sound like really important advantages. So, for many of our listeners to the podcast, they’re thinking about how to meet standards for early learning. Like, for example, the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards. Can you tell us a little more about how the Montessori approach fits with that type of work as a teacher?

Dr. Danner: Sure, sure. So the Montessori approach really looks at each area of development in much the same way as the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards do. So, when we’re talking about the Montessori environment, we’re looking at activities and learning goals for the child when we’re looking at fine motor, when we’re looking at gross motor, when we’re looking at language and communication. So, I see a really strong tie there because we’re looking at the same things. We’re planning learning activities that meet the children where they are developmentally, and that’s also the goal of the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards is to think about those goals for the children at each level.

Dr. Swartz: Great! So, it sounds like all early childhood educators and those running educational programs for children could benefit from the advantages that you described. But I’m wondering if there’s a specific way to know whether a program is truly a Montessori program that is high quality and will align with the philosophy of Montessori.

Dr. Danner: Sure, so there are a couple of ways that you could find out that information. I’d say the gold standard is when you look for accreditation, and when you’re looking for accredited programs for children, you’re looking for specific accreditations. Two of the major organizations for Montessori are the American Montessori Society, the acronym is AMS, and the second one is AMI, which is the Association Montessori International. And both of those organizations accredit schools within the U.S. and internationally.

And when you see a marker like that accreditation, it means that it’s high quality and that it’s maintaining really the focus and the key tenants of Montessori education. If you don’t see that, it still might be a high-quality program, and the way that you would know that is if they have those multiage classrooms, like I talked about, and if they have teachers that have that Montessori credential from a teacher education program that is also accredited. So those are really important things that you would see in a high-quality Montessori classroom.

Dr. Swartz: Right, so there’s two things we can look for, one is the accreditation of the program and the other is you can find out about the training of the teacher. I listened to you talk about the benefits of the Montessori approach in terms of the multiage classroom, the inclusion of children with disabilities, children being able to work on what’s really most important or interesting to them. And so, I’m wondering for those who are listeners, who are thinking about furthering their education, if there’s a program that they can connect with to gain Montessori teacher education. What should they look for?

Dr. Danner: So, again it’s really important to look for accreditation, right? So, the accrediting body that looks at Montessori teacher education programs is called MACTE, so it’s another acronym, and it’s a mouthful, right? So, it’s Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education, and they’re the body that accredits all Montessori teacher education programs in the U.S., and some abroad as well. So, if you’re really intentional in looking for that teacher educational program that’s going to prepare you to be a teacher in a Montessori school, that will be recognized by a Montessori school, you’re going to want to look for one of those programs. There are many, many programs out there, but that’s the way that you will find out if it’s No. 1, a high-quality program, and No. 2, going to be recognized by Montessori schools.

Dr. Swartz: Great, that is so helpful for our listeners to hear. We heard so many of the benefits of Montessori education. Is there anything else about Montessori that you might like to share with our listeners?

Dr. Danner: I just want to say that there are so many benefits to Montessori, but really that it also has some key details that it shares with inclusive education. Namingly … thinking about the key aspects of respecting and welcoming all children in the classroom. So, when we’re thinking about that, we’re really thinking about that teacher and what their role is in the classroom to create that community and to create that environment that is very familylike and respectful of each child no matter where they are developmentally.

Dr. Swartz: Great! So, we can really think about this as a special approach that helps us meet the needs of our learners, and in a special environment. I thank you so much for joining us on the podcast, and I hope that we’ll be able to invite you back to talk with us more about Montessori in the future!

Dr. Danner: I would love to! Thank you!

Dr. Swartz: The Illinois Early Learning Project website at www.illinoisearlylearning.org is the source of evidence-based reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program
  • Kindergarten

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2020