Why Montessori Math Matters!

by Dijana Bate

Thousands of Canadian students struggle every year with mathematics, which means we are losing a generation of potential mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. In the 2012 Economist/Pearson Learning Curve survey of elementary students’ cognitive skills in math and science, Canada ranked 10th among 39 OECD countries.

These results should prompt Canadians to closely examine why our performance in math and science lags behind other countries. Finland and South Korea, which ranked first and second respectively in The Learning Curve report, are a study in contrasts:
“The South Korean system is test-driven and rigid; students put in extraordinary amounts of work time,” the report noted. “The Finnish system, on the other hand, is relaxed and flexible. But closer examination reveals three important similarities between them: Both countries develop high-quality teachers, value accountability and have a moral mission that underlies education efforts.”

For Montessori school educators, students and parents, the qualities that distinguish educational systems with high international ranking will come as no surprise. Finland, for example, has much in common with Montessori pedagogy:
• Like Montessori, “Finnish children,” according to the report, “are not expected to take exams or do homework until they reach their teen years. In fact, Finnish children are not measured at all for the first six years of their education;”
• “Science classes are capped at 16 students so that they may perform practical experiments in every class.” Hands-on learning and experiment-driven science lessons are implicit in Montessori education.
• “Elementary school students get 75 minutes of recess a day in Finland versus an average of 27 minutes in the U.S.” This is a basic principle of Montessori education: Physical activity stimulates the brain and should be assimilated into the classroom, not just on the playground.

The value placed upon early education is a cornerstone of both Asian and Montessori systems. The Learning Curve report argues that, “East Asian schools owe their success, in part, to a Confucian culture that places a high value on education. Young children receive the message from parents and society that they must excel in school to succeed in life. As a result, children begin intensive studies at a young age, supplementing regular school with cram courses and tutoring. In China, learning sometimes even begins before birth, with expectant mothers reciting English phrases and Tang Dynasty poems to fetuses in utero.”

While the objective for early education may be the same, Montessori and Asian educational approaches vary. For the young Montessori child, learning is not imposed–instead, the classroom environment is offered as a rich educational banquet for the child to feast upon–intellectually, socially, spiritually, physically! Montessori education capitalizes on the child’s natural desire to learn, and promises that a love of learning can be sustained through a lifetime.

The Asian system shares with Montessori the belief that a solid foundation in fundamentals is crucial to advancing mathematical skills. Children respond best to hands-on experiences. There is great wisdom in the Chinese proverb, “I hear, I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” Specially designed and engaging Montessori materials offer students practical applications and concrete, sensorial experiences that clarify concepts and respond to any learning style. This is essential for building a solid foundation in mathematics. Once a child internalizes the concrete application of a concept s/he can easily move forward towards abstraction and complex problem solving.

Even highly effective educational systems have much to learn from the Montessori model. In a Montessori classroom, where students are guided to cultivate independence, self-motivation and self-discipline, further emphasis is placed on teaching students how to learn and think. Critical thinking skills are fundamental to mathematical and scientific inquiry and problem solving. Montessori is also a system that activates the imagination and encourages creative thinking, linking these processes to scientific and mathematical studies.

Montessori’s balanced, integrative curriculum, in which all subjects interconnect and incorporate the arts, and sports, further prepares the mathematical mind. Recitation of poetry and theatrical studies sharpen memory, while music, fine arts and sports are examples of disciplines that focus the mind, and foster precision and attention to detail. The mathematical mind relies on precision, attention to detail and memorization.

“Above all,” Dr. Montessori states, “it is to be noted that the child has a passionate love for order and work, and possesses intellectual qualities superior by far to what might have been expected.” From birth, children are curious, natural learners. They are eager to apply themselves to meaningful, purposeful activities and work. But too often, curiosity and the love of learning have been stifled. Why has apathy replaced industry? We lose our students by teaching to the test, accelerating before a foundation is laid, failing to find purpose, focusing on the goal rather than the process, not providing adequate tools, or failing to inspire and utilize the imagination.

“The secret of good teaching,” wrote Dr. Montessori, “is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of a flaming imagination.”

Recently, featured on TED talks, high school science teacher Tyler DeWitt described being “ ecstatic about a lesson plan on bacteria (how cool!) — and how he was devastated when his students hated it. The problem was the textbook: it was impossible to understand.” He delivers a rousing call for science teachers to science sing through stories and demonstrations. “Science has become that horrible storyteller,” he says, “which gives us all the details nobody cares about.”

You won’t hear this criticism in a Montessori classroom, where the imagination is set on fire and the key to discovery is hands-on exploration. Einstein believed “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Why does Montessori math matter? Because its formula for success is based on a love of learning that stretches our minds and opens us to new possibilities. Montessori math is experienced from within instead of imposed from without; its concepts are built on a solid foundation, from concrete to the abstract; it is alive instead of “textbook dead”; it’s made relevant through an integrated curriculum which relies on connections and applications instead of being taught as an isolated subject (math is art, music, science, numerology, religion!); and it is presented as a captivating study which can unfold and ultimately solve the mysteries of the universe! Given the proper tools, guidance, determination and effort required, students who love what they are learning will undoubtedly excel – especially in mathematics!!