Comparing Preschool Models

I’m back from holiday vacationing, and excited to get back to blogging. I think that I’ll be transitioning from 5 blog posts a week to 3: an Activity or Book Review on Mondays, an Ask a Preschool Teacher or Food for Thought column on Wednesdays, and Suggested Readings on Fridays (roughly speaking). I’m going to have a little less time on my hands this semester, what with teaching at two different colleges (remind me why I signed up for that?). But if you have thoughts about what you’d like me to spend my time on, blog-wise, please let me know. Now… on with the blog!

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askateacherWhat is the difference between a Montessori preschool and a Waldorf preschool? Both come highly recommended by parents in my community, but I’m not sure what may be best for my child? —Christine

Great question! These, along with Reggio Emilia, are the big “brand names” for preschool approaches in the United States, and the terms get bandied about quite a lot. But different schools often mean slightly different things, and we rarely take the time to really explain what we mean by the names to non-experts. Let me give you my take on what school espousing these philosophies might look like.

Montessori is a kind of school modeled after those created by (unsurprisingly) Maria Montessori, one of the first female doctors in Italy in the late 19th century. She worked with children with special needs in a psych clinic, and noticed that in a “prepared environment,” children often teach themselves. She created the first “Casa dei Bambini” (House of Children—not to be confused with House of Waffles, a popular chain of diners) in Rome in 1907; the approach got hip in the United States in the 60s. There’s no overall licensing or accreditation for Montessori schools or teachers (though there are several smaller ones), and the name isn’t copyrighted, so anyone can call themselves a Montessori school. However, to my knowledge, most schools calling themselves Montessori hew to the program fairly closely.

Montessori schools view the child as having a natural desire to learn, to work, to play, and to help others. Their goals for children are qualities like creativity, self-regulation, and critical thinking, as well as becoming “fulfilled people” and contributing to society and the environment. They treat education of character with equal importance to academic instruction. Structurally, Montessori schools are likely to have children in mixed age groups participating in long periods of uninterrupted free play, learning via particular Montessori-specific toys and materials designed to teach lessons through exploration. (Their toys are, frankly, amazing—though very expensive.) The teacher in a Montessori school tailors interactions with children to their individual needs, carefully guiding a child in his explorations. They also place emphasis on “Practical Life” skills, like sweeping and sewing and pouring drinks at the table.

There are several common criticisms of the Montessori approach. They can have very high student-to-teacher ratios. They believe there is a right way to use materials, which can limit creativity, and they aren’t particularly interested in pretend play. Some people feel that the Montessori focus on uninterrupted solitary work can lead to social isolation—though looking at how kids turn out at the end of a Montessori school experience, there’s no particular reason for concern.

When Montessori schools are working right, kids emerge calm, thoughtful, well-regulated, and socially responsible.

Waldorf schools are pretty different from Montessori. They were started by Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner in 1919 at, of all places, the child care facility at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Waldorf schools can go from preschool up through (sometimes) high school, and they’re best known for being “artsy.”

Waldorf schools believe in self-governance, big time. Children in Waldorf schools tend to have tremendous freedom in their activities; schools are not centrally organized with each other; individual schools are run by groups and committees that include administrators, teachers, and family-members. They place heavy emphasis on social learning, valuing responsibility, compassion, tolerance, and respect—Waldorf schools have a history of being socially radical (for instance, they were the first racially integrated schools in South Africa, and operate schools in the middle east that serve both Palestinian and Israeli families). There is an influence of spiritualism in the Waldorf approach, though no ties to any particular religion. An individual teacher will often stay with a particular group of children over several years of schooling.

Waldorf schools believe that children learn through hands-on experimentation (constructivism), and that the best hands-on work is within the arts. Children at Waldorf schools are often prolific in their production of visual art, music, theater, and dance. To that end, artistic techniques are often directly taught. Additionally, Waldorf teachers encourage pretend play as an essential part of learning.

Common criticisms of Waldorf schools are that they are too wishy-washy and don’t teach children what they need to succeed in the “real world.” However, from everything I’ve heard and seen, children coming out of Waldorf schools tend to do extraordinarily well in traditional school environments. When Waldorf schools are working well, children emerge energetic, creative, curious, and community-minded.

You didn’t ask about Reggio Emilia schools, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Strictly speaking, there are no Reggio schools outside of Reggio Emilia, Italy; schools here may only be “Reggio-inspired” (but many, many schools in the US are Reggio-inspired). After World War II, folks in this region of Italy said, “How do we make sure this awfulness never happens again? By nurturing good children, that’s how!” They proceeded to put tremendous public resources into educating young children, and created a system that’s the envy of the western world. Thousands of American teachers travel to Italy every year just to sit in a corner of a Reggio classroom and watch.

The Reggio approach views children as active, powerful agents in their own education. Starting from toddler-hood, Reggio classrooms follow the children’s interests as the source of curriculum (“emergent curriculum”), building ambitious, long-term projects around those interests that push children’s natural inclinations for investigation and creativity to the next level (“the project approach”). A classic project, as described in the canonical book The Hundred Languages of Children, takes a group of children who are interested in dinosaurs, helps them learn more through various kinds of research, hones in on their particular interest of dinosaurs’ size, and through a series of progressing “challenges” allows the children to eventually create a life-sized drawing of a tyrannosaurus rex. Along the way the children learn about math and science and cooperation and patience and all sorts of other things.

Reggio schools also place tremendous emphasis on community—both within the school, building social skills and friendships, and outside the school, making sure the children feel connected with their local area, and vice versa. They strive to involve family-members as fully as possible. Reggio schools value “reflective practice” for teachers, and devote serious resources to professional development and program development.

Remember, schools in the US can only be “Reggio-inspired,” and a lot of schools say that they are, because there’s no one to stop them. One criticism of Reggio-inspired schools is that without extremely competent teachers it’s easy for “emergent curriculum” to become “kids do whatever they want,” and the line between education and chaos can be dangerously thin. Also, without the bone-deep educational culture developed over 70 years in Italy, it’s nearly impossible for a school to fully implement this model of schooling.

When Reggio-inspired schools are working well, children emerge confident, curious, self-directed, and creative.

Personally? In my classroom I get the most mileage out of the Reggio approach, and every time I go back to the Reggio materials I come away with a new strategy to deepen my practice. But I think all three a great models, and kids benefit from all of them. On the other hand, all of them can be poorly implemented, and there’s a big difference between the really good version and the mediocre version. To me, the particular model or curricular approach is a distant second to the importance of high-quality teacher-child interactions.

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Need help figuring out which preschool is right for your family? I can help!

And if you have a question for “Ask a Preschool Teacher,” please submit it!


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