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Grace practices her screwdriving skills at Dundas Valley Montessori School in Dundas, Ont. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)
Grace practices her screwdriving skills at Dundas Valley Montessori School in Dundas, Ont. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)

Private Schools: Alternative

Montessori method: learning that emerges from within Add to ...

When Jennifer Crowson was considering a Montessori school in Dundas, Ont., for her son Max, now 5, the school told her there was no way it would provide transportation for him.

That’s one reason she enrolled him.

“They said, ‘Absolutely not. We want our children and their parents to meet each other and mix at the end of the day.’ I was surprised, but now I see their point,” says Ms. Crowson, a social worker who lives in the Dundas area.

“I admit it’s an inconvenience sometimes, but it’s great to get to know the other parents and children. We’re a community.”

Ms. Crowson and her husband – and Max – liked the Montessori program so much that this is the third year that Max will attend Dundas Valley Montessori School, and he’s being joined this fall by his brother, Ruaridh (pronounced Rory), 3.

Montessori is different. The program, which follows the philosophy of founder Maria Montessori, attracts many families and inspires many educators, at the same time as its differences can challenge provincial curriculum officials.

On the one hand, it’s based on independent learning, on students’ interaction with their surroundings and the opportunity for students to pursue ideas and subjects that interest them for long, uninterrupted blocks of time.

On the other hand, Montessori programs can have large classes and minimal direct instruction by teachers, and they mix kids of different ages who would ordinarily be in as many as three separate grades. It doesn’t fit neatly within the rigours of public school curriculum guidelines, so it has its own system of training teachers and accrediting Montessori schools.

These aren’t problems, they’re features, says Tony Evans, director of Dundas Valley and a former Montessori student himself. The central part of the Montessori philosophy is to encourage children to learn on their own.

“If you’re driving the bus yourself, you’re going to take it farther,” Mr. Evans says.

Montessori education was created in the early 1900s by Dr. Montessori, one of the first female physicians in Italy. Working in a poor part of Rome, she opened a “children’s house” and built a school program on the idea that children learn by working independently.

Children at Montessori schools use whatever materials are at hand to learn, as well as specialized, hands-on, tactile learning materials. The key is emphasizing the teaching moment.

They study in mixed age groups, and the way they learn is perhaps more important than the information – learning styles follow the developmental patterns of formative brain growth that take place in childhood and adolescence.

“We create environments in which children can learn on their own, they can construct their own selves,” Mr. Evans says. “The programs change significantly as people go through different stages.”

“We see it as an individualized approach to education from toddlers to high school,” says Katherine Poyntz, executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators (CCMA), which oversees teacher training and accreditation of Montessori schools in Canada.

“It’s sort of a buzzword in education now, but this is an approach that encourages curiosity and leads children to ask questions and think for themselves, and that’s central to Montessori.”

Ms. Poyntz says that education ministries in British Columbia and Alberta have brought some aspects of Montessori education into certain public schools. But in most of Canada, Montessori programs are not incorporated into the public system.

For example, Ontario’s education ministry notes that, “Private elementary schools are not obliged to use the Ontario curriculum.”

The result is that Montessori operates as a kind of stand-alone school system, training its own teachers at institutes in British Columbia and Ontario and accrediting its own schools through the CCMA, headed by Ms. Poyntz.

“We run a nine-month course, with about 28 student teachers, and a shorter course for early childhood training,” says Caroline Loughran, administrator of the Vancouver Association Montessori Internationale teacher training centre.

Student teachers can enroll after receiving a bachelor’s degree in any discipline, she says. “It’s really an approach to life as much as to learning.”

The difficulty is getting around practical requirements such as pupil-teacher ratios or classes with more than two grades.

Montessori’s popularity is undiminished. “Looking back on my own elementary school experiences, I wish that I had the opportunity to be a Montessori student,” says Justin Hogeterp, a software developer who has two children at the Dundas school, where tuition is approximately $10,000 a year.

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