School of thought

They may be efficient, but traditional teaching methods also may not be the most effective. A psychologist looks at the Montessori method.

By Linda Kobert
Angeline Lillard

Photo by Stephanie Gross.

Angeline Lillard is the offspring of the Montessori movement. She comes from a long line of teachers, and in the 1960s when the innovative educational ideas of Italian physician Maria Montessori first made their way to the United States, her mother was among those who embraced them.

Lillard and her sisters attended Montessori preschool. Her mother and two sisters are Montessori teachers, and both of her own daughters attended a Montessori program through the elementary grades.

“The whole time growing up when I would play school with my younger sister, we would always play Montessori school,” says Lillard, a developmental psychologist who is an associate professor of psychology at U.Va.

In fact, it was a Montessori teacher training course she took many years ago that both inspired Lillard to return to graduate school and helped shape the research she does today.

She describes her explorations of these unconventional educational ideas in her new book, “Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius.”

Lillard took on this project because, although she had been steeped in Montessori principles from a young age, she wasn’t sure she believed everything she was told.

“People seemed so blindly devotional,” she says. “I couldn’t tell what were the ideas of Montessori and what was based on evidence. I was quite sure that, although Montessori had its strengths, other school systems did too, and we should try to put together the best of everything.”

In seeking a more scientific exploration of the basic principles of the Montessori method, Lillard simply wanted to sort out fact from faith. Her book, however, turned out to be more of an indictment of traditional education than an uncritical collection of the best of different schools of thought.

When Lillard started looking at the evidence, she discovered a strong body of literature that indicated Maria Montessori was right. “Modern research in psychology suggests the Montessori system is much more suited to how children learn and develop than the traditional system is,” Lillard writes in her book, which was published in March by Oxford University Press and now is in its fourth printing.


The problem with modern schools, Lillard maintains, is their fundamental structure. Traditional educational systems, she says, apply a factory model to the systematic production of an educated populace. Students in traditional schools are viewed through a behaviorist lens as empty vessels that respond to stimuli and are subject to rewards and punishments meted out by the teacher.

Although efficient in managerial terms, “these models create a host of impediments to children’s learning,” Lillard says. This approach is why, she adds, children prefer snow days to school days and why those who enter the teaching profession stay only an average of three years.

Lillard’s book looks at eight of Montessori’s basic principles about how children learn. Montessori teachers, for example, step back and let students make their own decisions about what direction their learning will take. They encourage kids to work together with peers and to focus deeply on subject matter that interests them. Rather than working for the rewards of grades or praise, children in a Montessori school are motivated by the intrinsic rewards of their own achievement.

The achievement gap

Although there is much research still to be done, Lillard found no evidence to refute any of the mainstays of the Montessori method. On the contrary, she found lots of evidence to support the value of Montessori techniques in dealing with modern educational challenges.

Take the achievement gap, for example. Lillard cites work by U.Va. psychology colleague Eric Turkheimer and others who demonstrate that for children in families at lower socioeconomic levels the educational environment makes a significantly greater difference in achievement than it does for children of middle- and upper-income families.

“There are lots of factors that can be in play there,” Lillard explains, “but in low-income areas where there are good Montessori programs, we do see progress being made.”

Finding out whether Montessori makes a difference with economically disadvantaged children can be a challenge, though, because a Montessori education is usually only available at private schools. Milwaukee Public Schools, however, support several charter programs that offer Montessori for children of all socioeconomic levels. At these schools, the rate of passing standardized tests is 20 percent higher than the average rate of the Milwaukee public elementary schools.

Lillard also sees anecdotal evidence to support Montessori practices as a response to children who have learning challenges as a result of Attention Deficit/Hyper-activity Disorder (ADHD). Children who were diagnosed with ADHD in other schools, she finds, are better able to engage in the focused attention that comes from student-driven learning in a Montessori school.

Having come full circle in her inquiry, Lillard sees much resistance to any reform that challenges the current system. Studies show that middle- and upper-income  students, for whom families usually provide strong support, can manage well enough in traditional schools. “I think that’s part of why school change is resisted,” Lillard says. “People are happy enough. We have all these negative feelings about school, but there’s also the sense [from parents] that, ‘I went there, and it was good enough for me.’ I think that works against radical change.”

Still, Lillard sees hope for closing the achievement gap not only in Montessori but in other alternatives to the behaviorist model, such as schools following theories of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner and Rudolf Steiner.

“I think if we can help the children who are at the lower [socioeconomic] ends be more inspired and interested in school by setting up educational systems that are more in line with how we know children learn, then there is some hope of closing in this gap. There are many examples of preschool programs that help children in lower socioeconomic brackets. So clearly there’s hope if we put the money in the right places.”