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Montessori Pre-School Curriculum Guide
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Montessori Pre-School Curriculum Guide

by September 13, 2016
Strengths

• Clearly defined Montessori materials, classroom layout and teaching methodology enabling parents to hold schools to account for the quality of provision
• Whole child, progressive focus
• Academic and whole child curriculum breadth and balance
• UK accreditation for teachers and schools in place, backed by the KHDA
• Develops independence of thought, analytical skills, self-discipline and social skills across age groups

Weaknesses

• Reading is not prioritised
• Culture shock when children attend mainstream all through schooling
• No progressive all-through schools in the Emirates for continuity
• Children are taught in mixed age groups which will not appeal to all parents
• The price of individualised learning is that children will develop at different rates and will attend all through schools with no standard body of knowledge
• Cost
• Lack of choice for genuine pure Montessori schools in the Emirates
• Work is not graded making benchmarking a child’s attainment impossible

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Opportunities

Progressive curricular still represent a leap of faith for many parents. For those parents, however, committed to a progressive, creative, child centred learning pre-school experience for their children, Montessori arguably takes the most balanced approach of any of the non-traditional schools. Make no mistake, however, progressive curricular are all radical by their very nature compared with their traditional counterparts.

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Updated November 2016

In this Curriculum Guide we look at the Montessori approach to pre-school education.

In broad outline there are five different approaches adopted in the UAE, although in some schools these are combined on something of a ‘pick n’ mix’ basis:

(1) Montessori

(2) Reggio Emilia – our Curriculum Guide can be found here.

(3) Waldorf-Steiner

(4) Froebel

(5) UK /Traditional

 

Setting the scene

Typically, nursery schools provide pre-primary education for children between 3 and 4 years (according to the date of a child’s birthday this may be on a scale between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 years) of age prior to their entering mainstream compulsory education at FS/KG. Many nursery schools will, however, offer infant/play group care from earlier and seamlessly extend it through each child’s pre-school year(s).

Parents should be aware of National Child Care Standards operating in Dubai which set the framework you must expect from any provision. Details follow below:

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This guide looks at the various options open to parents seeking a pre-school education for their child(ren). Not all parents do; many parents seek to keep their children at home until primary school/phases. The argument for pre-school essentially comes down to its offering children three benefits in preparation for school; socialisation with other children and adults; more structured learning; and, independence from parents in thought and emerging self-reliance.

We make no judgment here except to say that there is no evidence that children educated in pre-school, as a rule, go on to excel or benefit over and above children that stay at home. If there is one certainty it is that early learning takes many forms and all of the above benefits, and others, can be nurtured at home.

Any decision will always depend on the child, parental circumstances – and, central in that equation, the quality and type of pre-school on offer, our focus here.

And the truth is, pre-school provision is as complicated a decision for parents as that which must be faced at any of the later phases with many pitfalls, confusions, alternatives – and, unhelpfully, in nearly every case, a lack of data and accreditation to light the way.

 

Fundamentals parents should look for in a Montessori school

First, a note of caution. The name Montessori is not protected by copyright and there is no over-arching body that accredits a school carrying the Montessori brand worldwide.

In Dubai, however, Montessori is well represented by the Gulf Montessori Nursery in Garhoud which is accredited by the Montessori Evaluation and Accreditation Board [MEAB], UK. The school is part of the same group that runs the Knowledge and Human Development Authority [KHDA] approved Gulf Montessori Institute which trains and accredits teachers in Montessori across the Emirates. Whilst it is not a requirement, there is very considerable value for parents asking at Montessori schools whether teachers are qualified.

 

Montessori Teacher Qualifications

There are four levels of Montessori qualification currently available in Dubai.

(1) BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Studies
This is a formal degree awarded by designated UK universities which guarantees a very significant breadth of knowledge.

(2) The Diploma in Montessori Pedagogy, Birth to 7 Years
This is awarded at Level 3 (broadly equivalent to A Level) or Level 4 (broadly equivalent to early degree study) and recognised in the UK by The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) which regulates qualifications, examinations and assessments in England for the UK government. Graduates can use the qualification to secure a Level 5 Foundation Degree leading to the full BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Studies above. The Diploma caries a requirement of significant professional placement. The Diploma was developed in association with the UK based Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education [CACHE)

(3) The International Diploma in Montessori Pedagogy, 2 ½ to 6 Years
The International Diploma is accredited by MEAB and is an Arabic language qualification. It requires a minimum of 420 hours of supervised teaching practice at an approved Montessori nursery.

 

How parents can recognize a true Montessori School

Prospective parents, having established the qualifications of teachers, should also very simply be able to identify whether a school is genuinely Montessori by its layout and “look and feel.” We have used a video below that captures the type of classroom design and layout you should look for. The defining features are a plethora of extremely clever, often wooden toys, each stored in separate areas clustered around learning through practical life skills, language, numeracy and sensation. The space should be large and open. A Montessori school will always look organised – and never chaotic or overly colourful. Class sizes should be between 20 and a maximum of 30 children, with one teacher and at least one Teaching Assistant [TA].

This said, there are many schools that claim that they are Montessori schools but which are simply using the name. They may well be good pre-schools – however, if they do not follow this simple design, they will not be pure Montessori schools and are likely to adopt a more hybrid approach to learning. This inevitably means that parents will not be able to benchmark the school’s provision as effectively against clear Montessori standards. Parents are at a real disadvantage in the UAE as Pre-schools are not currently subject to the same level of public inspections as later all-through provision. One benefit of choosing a pure pre-school curricular school, whether Montessori or one of its alternatives, is that at the least parents have an alternative means of benchmarking the school against a clearly defined curriculum, values, classroom layout and teaching methodology (although this is somewhat diluted in Reggio Emilia pre-schooling.)

 

Features of a Montessori school

If the above is how prospective parents can identify Montessori schools, and be certain that teachers are appropriately qualified, it’s important to understand what a Montessori school offers, the strengths and weaknesses of Montessori education compared with its curriculum alternatives.

The first key feature of Montessori (true also of Reggio Emilia, Waldorf-Steiner and Froebel pre-schools) is that they are progressive.

Progressive schools fundamentally differ from traditional pre-schools by in being child-centred – learning is matched to each child’s individual pace of learning rather than being whole-class based, subject-centred and dictatorial.

Generally, progressive schools do not have a teacher standing at the front of the class dictating a lesson to all students sat behind desks (the exception is in Waldorf-Steiner schools). Emphasis tends to be on learning through hands-on, practical experience – and particularly in the early years there is significant emphasis on creative expression and activity. Testing and competition are generally avoided. At later stages of education, a good example of a very pure progressive school can be found in the review of (the extraordinary) Summerhill by our sister site, which can be found here. There is currently no equivalent all-through primary or secondary school in Dubai for parents seeking to extend a progressive education beyond pre-school.

This said, many parents are attracted to progressive schools at pre-school believing that formal education is simply not appropriate for younger children. In the UK there is a considerable backlash against traditional schooling because of its obsession with testing children and academic schooling from an ever younger age. Many parents believe that there has to be a balance between education and children having a childhood.

If the broad approach of Montessori is progressive, it differentiates itself from other progressive pre-schools in key ways. The approach was founded by Maria Montessori in 1906 (1870-1952) whilst running a day-care centre in Rome. She discovered that children learn best when interacting physically with the world around them, rather than through being spoken to, and that teachers should act only as Guides to each individual child’s learning rather than teaching from a defined syllabus to a whole class. Touch plays a critical role in the Montessori approach. It is telling that when she opened her first Montessori in 1907 she described it as a “Casa dei Bambini” [House of Children] and not a school.

In practice prospective parents should not expect traditional teachers. Montessori “Guides”, instead, follow the individual choices of each child. It is always the individual child who chooses what he or she wants to learn. The “teacher” intervenes only to guide learning. The child directs learning, not the teacher. This means that the smaller the class, the greater the ability of any teacher will be to guide each child when they need it. It also means that parents will not ultimately be certain of the curriculum followed by any child in detail – that will depend on the choices, needs and wishes of individual children.

This is in marked contrast to the alternative, but also progressive approach of, for example, the Waldorf-Steiner pre-schools. These do have teacher’s very much leading lessons in a quite traditional way. Learning in Waldorf-Steiner schools is teacher directed, as in traditional schools.

Another difference between the Waldorf-Steiner and Montessori pre-schools is in the curriculum itself. Whilst Montessori is touch and sensation based (rather than purely verbal), and whilst the teacher only guides, learning is structured through the materials to a very broad curriculum including traditional academic subjects. Parents should not mistake children using Montessori toys, often by themselves, as suggesting that learning is a free-for-all and purely play based. In the Waldorf-Steiner pre-schools, academic subjects, including reading, writing and Mathematics are not formally introduced at all. Children are expected to learn these much later when they join traditional schools. Instead, lessons, whilst teacher directed, are all focused on developing creativity, imagination.

Art, music and play have a much higher profile in Waldorf-Steiner (and Froebel) schools. In Montessori schools children shouldn’t just play but should play with toys which will teach them concepts. Montessori schools use specialist Montessori designed and approved toys which are self-correcting and self-explanatory so that a teacher is not required to use them and learn. Traditional pre-schools, reject the child-centred learning of Montessori, and the play focused learning of Waldorf Steiner. Equally traditional pre-schools agree with the academic focus of Montessori and the teacher direction of Waldorf Steiner.

A major differentiator of Montessori schools is a feature that will surprise many parents. In traditional schools, children are clustered in classes according to their age. In Montessori schools, children of different ages are taught together in the same class. Older students serve as mentors and guides for those who are younger. One clear benefit of Montesori schools is that children are taught from starting school to relate to people from across age groups – something in traditional schools may not be learned at all because children taught in a silo with their age group.

All of the above features of a Montessori school also enable children to develop self-discipline, independence and analytical thinking – working alone they must apply themselves to each task without being able to simply rely on the continuing instruction of teachers.

Prospective parents should expect a Montessori education, properly executed, to come at a cost. The materials and learning tools are expensive and bespoke and whilst children learn independently, smaller class sizes guarantee the availability of a teacher more quickly when required. They should also expect children to face a culture shock when they find themselves moving to the wholly different teaching and curricular environment of traditional mainstream schools in Dubai in KG and beyond. This is less the case than in Waldorf Steiner and Froebel schools where the teacher plays a directing role, and in a traditional classroom environment.

A more extreme form of the student-led approach characteristic of Montessori can be found in Reggio Emilia schools in which children learn through interacting with their (fabulously colourful and sensationally rich) environment through the 100 languages of their five senses. This environment becomes a “third teacher’ in which students guide their own learning even more extremely. In Reggio schools, the qualification of teachers, outside their being facilitators, is almost a non-issue. Teachers are closer to being friends than educators. In some Reggio schools chaos becomes a norm rather than a rare incident as children follow their individually chosen learning paths and journeys, particularly when schools do not invest very heavily in the staff required to support such disparate individual learning.

 

Questions to ask to determine if Montessori is right for your child…

Hopefully the above has captured something of the features of a Montessori education. Parents will need to answer for themselves the following sorts of questions to define whether Montessori will be a good choice for their child.

Do I want children to determine the pace and nature of their own learning?

Do I want teachers to teach, guide or be friends and co-collaborators?

Do I want children taught with others of the same age rather than in mixed age groups?

Do I want academic subjects to be part of the curriculum, or should my children be allowed to have a childhood early years’ education focused on creativity and play?

Do I want a traditional school so that there is no culture shock when they enter all through compulsory schooling at 16?

Do I want children to have a core block of academic knowledge, and reading and writing skills, when they leave that they have learned by wrote and memorisation if necessary so that they are prepared for all through traditional schooling?

One deal breaker for many parents with all progressive schools may be their shared lack of focus on reading. If reading is not something taught at home, and parents believe it is a critical skill to be learned at the earliest possible age, then traditional schooling is likely to be the only choice, whatever the trade-offs in whole child development outside this.

 

The bottom line

It is very difficult to summarise the core strengths of each programme – in different ways every progressive curriculum is extreme, and radical, by the standards of a traditional pre-school. However, at some risk of reduction, we believe that the fundamental question parents need to ask is whether pre-school should be a rigid pre-cursor of mainstream schooling – or a chance for children to discover themselves in a child focused, much more play and creativity driven environment.

If parents are willing to invest in this much more creative journey for their pre-school children, Montessori stands out against the other progressive curricula in offering a more balanced approach to structure, academics and the teacher. It makes compromises to achieve this, and its mixed age classes and the future culture shock of children not learning in a traditional classroom may be a deal breaker for some parents. But it arguably takes more of the best features of the other progressive curricular and brings them together – and in that way offers children something of the best of all possible worlds.

Again, however, a note of warning. Montessori schools are built around very clear Montessori materials and layouts. Teachers need to be qualified. Ensuring that a so called Montessori school is in fact a Montessori school will require significant investigation by parents – and a properly executed Montessori education is expensive.

 

Details to consider
Curricula - Which country is it from?

Italy

Curricula - Who underwrites it?

Montessori Evaluation and Accreditation Board [MEAB], UK
Notes:
(1) There is no single accrediting body worldwide and numerous bodies have set themselves up to accredit schools
(2) Any school can describe itself as a Montessori school, regardless of the degree to which it follows Montessori principles
(3) The MEAB provides the only current accreditation for schools in Dubai with published inspections

Curricula - Age when taken?

Within the pre-school age of children between 2 years and 6 years

Curricula - Subjects available?

Practical skills
Sensory development
Mathematics
Language
Music
Art

Curricula - How much is rote based learning?

No rote based learning. The Montessori curriculum is fundamentally opposed to teaching by rote and memorisation.

Curricula - How easy is it?

Curriculum is child focused and paced to the needs, interest and developmental stage of each individual child

Curricula - Materials for private study?

The curriculum does not dictate the work of the child in class, and it follows that it does not dictate children's learning at home. Home is respected as a place for family and personal development outside school.

Curricula - Grades awarded?

Montessori schools do not believe in grading a child's work. At Family Conferences a child may informally define grades for their own work in terms of their perception of what they have learned.

Curricula - Cost?

Montessori schools are independently run. Average US costs vary betwen $100 and $15,000 per annum. Average Dubai fees are 40,000 AED+per annum

Curricula - Transfer-ability (to other curricula)?

Culture shock. The methodology, curriculum, learning space and teaching approach are fundamentally at odds with traditional all-through schools provision in the Emirates, regardless of curriculum. There are currently no progressive all-through schools in the Emirates. Progressive all-through school options are available worldwide outside the Emirates, particularly in England and the US.

Curricula - Where does it lead?

Montessori pre-schools provide an alternative route for the education of children between 2 and 6 years of age prior to attending traditional, compulsory all through provision at British, American, French, German, IB or Dual Curriculum Faith schools in the Emirates.

Curricula - Who is it best for?

The curriculum is targeted to the needs of each individual child, including those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities [SEND] There is no Montessori type.

Curricula - Global value?

Widespread global adoption, particularly in Europe and the US.

About The Author
Jon Westley

Jon Westley is the Editor of SchoolsCompared.com and WhichSchoolAdvisor.com UK. You can email him at jonathanwestley [at] schoolscompared.com

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