Montessori Education: Do Mats Matter?

Montessori education takes a different approach from the traditional by employing multi- age classrooms, student-chosen work in long time blocks, the absence of grades and tests and a special set of educational materials. Some have criticized the method, saying that pre-K and primary students lag behind in reading and other skills.

Dr. Angeline Lillard (UVA) was drawn to study Montessori education by its close alignment with research on learning. “I decided to do a study to see if it actually makes a difference,” Lillard said. Usually the home environment is the dominant influence in a child’s social skills but this research suggests that the Montessori education itself fosters improved social and academic skills.

With Nicole Else-Quest (University of Wisconsin, Madison) she studied two groups of five- and 12-year-old students in Milwaukee, Wis. The parents of the students in the study had average incomes ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 annually. All parents entered their children in the school district’s random lottery for the Montessori school. The Montessori group attended a public, inner-city, traditional Montessori school. The control group attended another school because they were not selected in the district lottery.

The results indicated that by the end of kindergarten, the Montessori children performed better on reading and math tests, as measured using the Woodcock-Johnson Test Battery that assesses letter-word identification, word attack and applied math problems. Montessori students also engaged in more positive interaction on the playground and showed more advanced social cognition and executive control. They also demonstrated more concern with fairness and justice. The Montessori 12-year-olds wrote more creative and sophisticated narratives, performed better on a test of social skills, and reported feeling a stronger sense of community at their schools, the authors said.

“Inner-city children who attended a well-implemented Montessori program were found to have social outcomes that were superior to those of children attending traditional schools,” said Lillard.”And they had academic outcomes that were at least as good on all measures, and on several measures were better,” she added.

Now Mad Science Mama would love to know what specific aspects of Montessori matter– is those mats (defining the child’s own work area and fostering a sense of ownership) after all?

More fascinating research on birth, babies, children at Mad Science Mama’s site

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9 thoughts on “Montessori Education: Do Mats Matter?”

  1. I’ve a number of friends that are teachers and in early childhood, allowing children to have their own mat gives them a space they can call their own. Their observation’s from allowing children to have their own mat is improved behaviour and so a better learning experience. They’ve started to use play mats of which there are many

  2. Actually, since the control group had an equal interest in attending the school, they probably share the closest attributes with the test population. I believe they were denied acceptance based on a true objective lottery (not denial based on scores, SES, ethnicity…) You’d have to read Lillard’s study for more details. The study seemed quite well developed when I saw it presented. However, it’s only a preliminary study, much more should be done for reliability and isolation of factors (a point reinforced by Lillard herself).

  3. One factor that is never considered in evaluating Montessori schools is that they do not use too-close side-by-side seating. That arrangement creates the situation if not the full special circumstances for exposure from Subliminal Distraction.

    No one outside the designers who build Systems Furniture for business offices is aware of the problems too-close spacing for knowledge workers can cause.

    Researcher “at”

  4. Indeed, there are a multitude of factors that differ between Montessori and traditional classroom settings. An interview with the authors of the study reported that the next step in their work will attempt to isolate the critical parameters.

    Although I mention the use of mats to define workspace, by no means do I think this is the single important difference. My hunch is that the ability of the child to choose lessons/acitvities that appeal to them and then to work with them as long as they desire fosters a positive educational experience. Just as adults who work in fields they love feel that their “work” is a source of pleasure.

    Of the 3 factors you mention– parental involvement and home life were controlled for in this study. Class size is an interesting one. In its original incarnation, the Montessori class was designed to operate with a very high ratio of 30 students to one teacher (called a “directress” because the role is to oversee students as they pursue individual lesssons, rather than to instruct the whole class as a group). In the U.S. ratios are usually much lower, especially in the primary and elementary levels, to comply with state law.

  5. “The control group attended another school because they were not selected in the district lottery.”

    This statement alone causes all credibility of this study to be tossed out the window.

    This study is clearly sub-par in terms of following the standard scientific method

  6. Seems like the factors they are comparing are so different it would be impossible to isolate the ones that made for better learning.

    What was the class size, how much were the parents involved, and what was it like at home?

  7. I agree with your follow-up comment, madsciencemama, that there are many important differences between Montessori and regular education. I don’t know if using rugs to define the workspace could be singled out as the most important thing.

    But, the rugs are a concrete indicator of the underlying philosophy of respect for the mind of the child. The child’s work is respected and honored, and having a defined workspace is just an outgrowth of that. So really, if mats do matter, it’s more about what they represent than focusing on the actual mats themselves.


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