Building Better Brains

Neuroscience behind Montessori

Recently (October 2017), Dr. Angeline Lillard*** published a study in the prestigious scientific journal, Frontiers in Psychology, which examined academic, social and intellectual outcomes of children who were educated in a Montessori environment. In her study, Lillard found that Montessori children demonstrated significantly stronger social cognition skills. They performed better in academics and were better able to place themselves in the shoes of somebody else in social situations.

We are often asked to give a quick, 30-second “elevator speech” to explain what Montessori Method is all about. This has been made so much easier after watching  Dr. Steven Hughes, a Pediatric Neuropsychologist, speak at a Montessori conference.

Dr. Hughes stated that

Montessori education is a brain-based developmental method that allows children to make creative choices in discovering people, places, and knowledge of the world. It is hands-on learning, self-expression and collaborative play in a beautifully crafted environment of respect, peace, and joy.”

Neuropsychology is a scientific discipline that studies the structure and function of the brain. It researches the relationship to specific psychological processes and overt behaviors. Dr. Hughes draws the connection between brain development and early childhood education. He suggests that by learning about the development of the brain, a skillful Montessori teacher knows the stages of the child’s brain development. She can recognize a “sensitive time,” or a “critical time of development.” Critical time is the window of opportunity when the brain is predisposed to receive information. A Montessori teacher will use this time, when a child can learn about the world with no extra effort, to feed the child’s brain with information.

For example, at the age of 3 or 4, a child can master two languages without taking notes, writing summaries or studying for exams. If the child learns a second language at a later age of 8 or 9, it is past the “critical time” and the process takes longer because it requires more effort for the brain to learn.

Dr. Maria Montessori defined this critical time as the Sensitive Period and called the child brain’s ability to absorb information without extra effort the Absorbent Mind. Dr. Hughes, therefore, argues that Montessori education is the original and best brain-based model of education.

Dr. Hughes poses an important question: “Why do young children, who are still developing the ability to understand language, spend so much time sitting and listening to teachers using abstract materials? Wouldn’t it be nice to design an educational model around hands-on activity, physical manipulation, and engagement in the world?”

Those elements are fully practiced in the Montessori classroom.  Think of how birds learn to fly. They learn, not by listening quietly while an adult bird explains the various properties of flight, but by doing. For birds, and for humans, learning is best when it’s active and experiential.

To help develop the brain, it is best to identify a “critical time” and feed information using hands-on materials. Those materials should be specific and available for repetitive tasks. Repetition helps train our brain cells and enhance the child’s future ability to deal with novel tasks or what is referred to as Executive Function.

For example, a child will learn the novel task of how to grip a pencil through doing cylinder work. The little handles attached to the cylinders require the sort of handling as a pencil. When the child moves on to writing, they know how to hold a pencil, as a result of all the time they spent handling the cylinders. The novel task of holding a pencil is supported by previous activities.

Repetition is a big part of the Montessori environment. A child will repeat work over several months or years to reach mastery. Using hands-on and multi-sensorial materials help develop better brains.

Dr. Angeline Lillard, in her research, was able to compare children from a largely urban, lower-income, diverse study sample. Dr. Steve Hughes, a neuropsychologist says about Dr. Lillard work that

“children who attended Montessori schools displayed differences favoring 6-year-old Montessori graduates in executive functioning, decoding, and early math. They also displayed an understanding of social justice and social behaviors by the end of kindergarten. Those advantages were present early on, and remained at grade six.”

There is no reason that schools in our culture have to be the way they are, says Dr. Hughes. If a neuropsychologist designed a school today, it would not look like a conventional school, but more like a Montessori one.

Now, how would you translate this approach into an “Elevator Speech” about Montessori’? We used to focus on stating that we weren't like childcare,  with so much supporting scientific evidence we can say: a brain-based approach that uses the critical time to feed information with hands-on material and repetition of work in a beautiful loving environment. There is also elements of multi-age group work and independence of choice, but I would save that for a longer conversation !

*** Dr. Angeline S. Lillard, Frontiers in Psychology, Montessori Preschool Elevates and Equalizes Child Outcomes: A Longitudinal Study.
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About Dr. Hughes

Dr. Steven Hughes, a pediatric neuropsychologist, speaks about education and brain development at conferences, universities, schools and training centers all over the world. He also serves as Chair of the Association Montessori International Global Research Committee and is a member of the American Montessori Society Research Committee.

Check out this video to watch him share the neurological case for Montessori education, and visit his website to learn more about his research on Montessori education and the brain.

Montessori Education Explained by Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Steve Hughes from Steve Hughes on Vimeo.