The Montessori Approach to Teacher Training: An Interview With Jackie Cossentino

By 12/11/2015

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As part of Bellwether’s forthcoming work on teacher preparation, we’ve been reading and talking to smart people about different ways to prepare teachers. To learn more about the Montessori approach to teacher training, I spoke with Jackie Cossentino, a Senior Associate and the Director of Research at the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector. Nationwide, the public sector offers more than 400 Montessori programs which now enroll more than 100,000 students. Those numbers are growing as more places offer Montessori programs and more families opt into it.

Jackie graciously took the time to talk to me about the Montessori approach, how educators train to work in Montessori schools, and how Montessori works in the public sector. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. For anyone interested in learning more about the Montessori approach or how to become a Montessori teacher, check out

Chad Aldeman: Can you tell us what a typical Montessori training experience would look like?

Jackie Cossentino: Yeah, I’ll focus on what they typically have in common. There are many flavors of Montessori training, but they all have several ingredients in common. The first is a huge emphasis on human development theory. Maria Montessori developed the method over the course of 50 years of experimentation, and the pedagogical theory is grounded in the theory of human development which emerged over those same 50 years. So, before you begin addressing the question of how to teach, there is a strong focus on how human beings learn, starting at birth. There’s a lot of emphasis on concepts like stages or planes of development, psychological characteristics, human tendencies, things like that.

Then there’s also a very strong emphasis—and this is one of the most distinctive elements of Montessori—in mastering a repertoire of lessons. Some people would describe these lessons as “scripted,” but that’s the wrong word. They exist as a canon, that has been perfected over close to a century, and teachers master them. But they are not a fixed “curriculum” to be delivered in lock-step. Instead, they form a repertoire of highly detailed moves, which a teacher deploys based on individual student needs. There are upwards of 300 pieces of material for a preschool teacher, which translate into roughly 1,000 different lessons. In an elementary program, it’s 2,000 lessons, and a trainee observes a trainer delivering those lessons, step-by-step-by-step. And then they reproduce those lesson plans in a set of manuals that Montessorians call “albums.”

The albums are not textbooks, which is what they can often seem like. But, again, it’s not a “set” curriculum so teachers use their albums more as reference tools for all the lessons they master in the course of a 9-month [or two to three summer] training.

Each candidate creates an album of these lesson plans, and then do they submit those albums for approval or just keep them for their own purposes?

Yes, they usually make between 5 and 6 albums. For example, for the ages 3-6 program, there will be an album on Practical Life, which includes things like tying, zippering, cutting with scissors, scrubbing tables, or washing windows, and an album on the Sensorial Exercises, which use materials that are designed to help the child master sensorial discrimination, things like graduated blocks, rods, and cylinders, color tablets. Each candidate will also prepare separate albums on Language, Math, and Theory.

Wherever you take your Montessori training, it’s organized according to developmental levels [birth to three, three to six, six to twelve, twelve to eighteen]. Trainees submit pages of their album each week. In the old days, they used to do this all by hand, and they’d illustrate the lessons with beautiful ink or colored pencil drawings. Today it’s mostly all digitized.

Some training centers provide text for the lessons and expect the trainee to add their own illustrations. Some centers provide everything so that the trainee doesn’t have to worry about producing it themselves. That level of detail, from training center to training center, can vary across Montessori traditions.

So each candidate will have their own album, and by the time they finish they’ll have completed albums. Will those essentially be a curriculum that they could start with on Day One at a school?

That’s right, but “program” is probably a better word than curriculum.

And how much would that cover? A full year? Or a full age range?

Everything. It covers everything in an age range. The Primary albums cover all lessons and extensions for 3-6-year-olds. The Elementary albums (which are created in a separate course for teachers of children between the ages of six and nine or six and twelve) include lessons for all 6 years in all the disciplines. This is why the albums are thousands and thousands of pages long. And the Montessori teacher is a generalist who masters the program in a holistic manner, so he or she can present it in the same manner.

There are an array of training traditions, but everything sort of branches off the original training method (from the Association Montessori International, or AMI). In addition to making your albums, you also write theory papers. You also have to observe in classrooms for at least 90 hours and write papers about what you see. Observation is a fundamental, methodological skill. Everything revolves around observing what children need to do and when they need to do it.

You also have to do oral exams where you present a lesson to a panel of examiners. Lessons are chosen at random, so trainees might pull a lesson and then they’re expected to perform it right then. Examiners will then question you about the purpose of the lesson, when it might be offered to a child, why you did it a certain way, why it’s organized in a certain way. It’s a really high level of technical rigor.

How would a candidate demonstrate mastery? What does it look like for a candidate to show that they’ve learned a particular lesson?

They’re looking for several things. One is a kind of physical mastery of how to lay the material out in a particular way. This is a really important part of Montessori in terms of why we think it’s a high-quality methodology. Lessons progress from simple to complex, including multi-step sequences which, among other things, help students develop working memory and other executive functions. The trainee needs to get that—they need to understand where in the sequence of learning that particular lesson comes—how you would know that Student A needs this lesson today, as opposed to tomorrow, because the lessons are almost never given to the whole class at one time (at the 3-6 level). It’s all one-on-one or in very small groups.

The teacher has to maintain 25-30 individualized education plans, but they have to be improvisational at the same time. So there’s the skill of presentation, and there’s an assessment piece that’s implicit, the skill of diagnosis, on how to know when a child is ready for the next lesson.

I want to come back to this personalized learning point later, but right now I want to hear more about the training experience for candidates. Do they take courses, or how is the sequence arranged for them?

Montessori training courses – and this is fairly common across all traditions – are holistic, integrated, immersive experiences. Traditionally a trainer is a generalist and presents material in a sequence that demonstrates one of two key concepts. First is the hierarchical nature of the materials – mastering one leads to the next. Concepts become more complex, sequences become longer, cognitive load becomes heavier. And it’s the teacher’s job to understand how the sequence is embodied in the materials and how and when individual children might move through the sequence. Second is the integrated, experiential nature of learning. This is particularly true in elementary, which is focused on enabling the child to appreciate the manner in which humans developed – and continue to develop — culture. And by “culture” I’m really talking about the disciplines – Biology, History, Geography, Geometry. These are all areas of study that began as practical modes of inquiry focused on solving human problems.

For instance, an important sequence of lessons in the Geography album involves seasons and solstices: how the earth revolves around the sun at an angle, and how that angle has an effect on everything from temperature to light to concepts of time, and how those interactions go on to influence things like plant and animal life, human migration. The connections a child can make are practically unlimited. It also connects to geometric concepts like angles, perpendicularity, and so on.

Trainees need to be able to demonstrate that Math and Language are always in the service of “the cultural subjects.” And the trainee experiences all the lessons and materials first as though they are the child and later (through supervised practice and album making) as an adult presenting to the child.

Some training centers may have a faculty approach, where particular trainers have particular specialty areas, but I don’t know of a training program in which the material is delivered in course-like bites like a traditional school of education.

Can you walk us through what an individual lesson looks like? What are the components of the type of lesson that someone might learn and master? Let’s say an example for 3-year-olds?

One of the first things we teach a 3-year-old to do is how to roll and unroll a work rug. A work rug looks like a little mat, a cotton mat. They’re typically rolled up and kept in a container, and the child is taught, in painstaking detail, how to pick it up, put it down, and roll it up. The teacher demonstrates it, then asks, “Would you like to try it?”

There’s actually very little language used. It should never be silent, but there shouldn’t be too much chatter either. The child is learning to focus, and too much distraction undermines that ability to focus. It’s one of the things that Montessori is sometimes criticized for, for not being “talky” enough. We would say that chatter is actually functioning as a distraction for the child.

So back to the rolling of the mat. Each trainee will have a particular method, but there will be a focus on precision and making sure the sides match up neatly. It’s incredibly satisfying to a young child. You’re smiling, because you can picture it?

I have young kids, so I can imagine my daughter trying to do this.

Right, 3-year-olds LOVE precision. It’s why they line their shoes up, it’s why they line up their toy cars. It’s one of those things that is often misunderstood about children. It’s easy to envision children happy when they’re boisterous and singing, but they’re also happy when they’re quiet. The lesson is designed to allow the child to experience the satisfaction of doing something with precision.

This changes, of course. By the time a child gets to 5 or 6, they’re not as interested in precision. And so the environment is prepared differently to reflect those changing needs.

What would a more complex lesson look like?

Let me give you an example of a more advanced language lesson for a 4 and half-year-old. This is built on a foundation of earlier lessons that begin with 3-year-olds learning the sounds associated with each letter symbol, stringing those sounds together to write words with stencils of letters in a material called the Movable Alphabet, leading up to the earliest lessons in phonetic reading.

This lesson is called The Phonetic Object Box, and in the box is a collection of five to seven miniatures. The lesson begins with an exploration of the objects to establish a common vocabulary between the adult giving the lesson and the child. So one of the objects might be a tea cup, and the teacher will call it a cup, which is a phonetic word. The teacher makes the activity a game by asking the child if he can guess what the adult might be thinking. So the child might say “Is it the mop?” And the teacher, very purposefully, says “no” for two or three times. This is both to build interest and to allow the child to pronounce words. Then the teacher asks if the child would like a clue. The child, of course, says yes. And the clue turns out to be a written word, which the adult writes slowly, letter by letter, allowing the child to articulate the sound of each letter as it’s written. So at the end of the teacher writing c u p, the child reads “cup.” When this lesson is timed just right, the child not only reads the word, but realizes that they can read.

When candidates are going through their training, how big are the classes? How many people would be in the room at one time?

It varies by training center, but in most cases you can have up to 30 people. That’s probably the optimal size, because so much of the training involves working in what we call the training room, which is an environment that looks like the environment they’ll be working in in Montessori schools.

This is a big difference compared with traditional teacher preparation. We’re not that interested in teachers “personalizing” their classroom, up to a certain point. You can select fine art for the walls, but you don’t get to be an interior decorator and re-arrange things too much. There’s a sort of canonical way to do it, and your job as a teacher is to absorb that. In order for the trainees to have enough feedback on their albums and their work in the practice room, there can’t be too many trainees at once.

Going back to the personalized point that we talked about before, how would a trainee learn to identify a student’s needs and when they were ready for a particular lesson? Is it based on a student’s interest, or is there some diagnosis on the part of the teacher?

Montessori educators have a fundamental assumption that children are born to learn, and that if there is a disruption, more often than not it’s because adults have done something to get in their way. So our job is to eliminate obstacles to learning or development, this is why we call it a developmental approach. We as humans are wired to learn.

If students are not able to concentrate and learn, something is in the way, and we need to figure out what it is. Two things are happening in that regard. The basic answer to your question is observation, observation, observation. But you have to know what you’re looking for. You’re framing your observation of children around this developmental theory.

Maria Montessori talked about things called stages or planes of development and sensitive periods, which are particular moments when a child is especially disposed to absorbing knowledge and skill. The entire first plane (0-6) is a sensitive period for language—if you think about how an infant moves from no ability to communicate verbally to babbling to speaking to writing to reading, all in the space of about six years, and if you think about the fact that most of what that child is learning he or she masters simply by absorbing what goes on around her, it’s amazing. Between the ages of 2 and 4 is a sensitive period for small objects, and also one for order which is why your daughter wants to organize small things. We want to catch those sensitive periods and offer children the activities they’re developmentally ready for.

For example, ages 3-6 is a time when language really opens to the door to everything. In Montessori land, language progresses from speaking to writing to reading. Writing comes before reading. The ability to encode precedes the ability to decode, which is supported by research on how students learn language.

We watch for signs of interest as well as boredom. One of the ways that Montessori works is that it’s mixed-age. 3-year-olds are always seeing more advanced work, and they often begin their careers in the classroom by observing older students. That’s perfectly fine! We watch where they gravitate. This question comes up all the time, people say, “what if they only want to do math?” The answer is they may only want to do math for a couple of days. Normally, they want to do what they need to do, within reason.

Montessori teachers tell stories of children who use certain materials or certain lesson for days. And then they’re done, and ready for something new.

How would you ensure that students are developing their full selves, not just jumping from one math lesson to a new math lesson?

If a child is only doing math because he’s avoiding something else, that’s a different situation than if he’s completely fascinated with math and wants to exhaust that fascination for a period of time. It’s the teacher’s job to discern those distinctions.

The latter is good—it’s good to develop passion and initiative—while the former is not so good. We’d have to figure out if there’s something going on that would make the student avoid a certain area of the classroom. The property of choice and free movement is essential, because we can’t see the child unless we watch what they do of their own volition. That tells us what they need and how to build on what they’re interested in.

This might be too deep in the weeds, but you’ve mentioned that candidates will master hundreds or thousands of lessons. How are Montessori rooms set up to accommodate that many lessons at once, or how do teachers choose which ones to set out?

They’re all out! This is a difference between an early childhood environment with a finite number of stations and a Montessori program with hundreds of choices. How do kids know what to do? Well, in any given year, only a portion of the class is new [for example, the 3-year-olds may be new, but the 4, 5, and 6-year-olds are not]. So the majority of the class already knows what to do. The new children watch the adults, of course, but they’re really watching their peers. They take it all in.

Alright, I’m getting this. So it’s not that there are literally 2,000 different sets of materials for kids at one time, but that a smaller set of materials are all out and can be manipulated in various ways depending on the level of the child?

Right, there are variations. For example, there’s a material called “Number Rods” that can be used to introduce counting to ten, link the number symbols to each quantity, and also to give an impression of addition and subtraction. All that happens before material teaching math operations is presented.

Can you say something about the scale and scope of Montessori programs nationwide? How many candidates go through Montessori training each year?

There are not enough. We know that there are about 270 programs nationwide, and none of them are at full capacity. Some are close, but we know that in the public sector alone we need to hire 1,000 teachers a year, and we’re generating less than 2,500 overall.

Who runs the training programs? How are they set up?

There’s a wide variety. Some programs exclusively use trainers who themselves have been through a special training of trainers program. In a lot of other centers, anybody can call themselves a trainer. Also, “Montessori” is not protected by copyright, so anybody can claim it, which makes universal quality control a challenge. It’s sort of astounding the quality is as consistent as it is given the lack of formal controls. There are also on-line training programs though there is near universal agreement that this is not the optimal way to train Montessori teachers as so much of how the materials are presented is hands-on.

Are candidates paying out of pocket, or do they get some sort of compensation during their training?

For the most part they pay out of pocket. That’s the big challenge for us compared to some places like TFA or KIPP. They have built up a system in which smart people who want to make a difference can enter without a big disruption financially. It typically costs between $6,000 and $12,000 to complete a Montessori course, depending on length and location. It’s essentially graduate-level work, so it’s not that expensive if you think of it in those terms. But a lot of folks entering the profession expect to have their training paid for.

It does have amazing job security, but not a lot of people know that. We believe one reason the training centers aren’t full is because we haven’t been marketing them sufficiently.

Can you say more about the job application process? After the trainee has gone through the program, what does the job search look like? Are they linked up with schools beforehand?

Sometimes they are. In a lot of cases, people come to training knowing they will have a job when they finish. Some training centers have scholarships for teachers who are going to work in the public sector or high-need areas. There are some schools that sponsor trainees so the individuals don’t have to upfront the costs themselves.

What are the biggest challenges for publicly run Montessori programs?

The biggest pain point is finding qualified teachers and keeping them. By qualified I mean really knowing their Montessori lessons and being able to deal with issues around special education and testing. Testing is a huge pain point, but it’s not unique to Montessori. Montessorians get a little exercised around the amount of time that is spent preparing for tests, and the fact that the tests don’t capture all the other outcomes we strive for in Montessori.

In certain places, when there’s no funding for pre-k, it’s common for Montessori schools to start in kindergarten, but there are many reasons why that’s not ideal for our model. It’s difficult to run a high-fidelity program when starting that late, and yet we feel like kids are better off with it than without it.

—Chad Adelman

This post originally appeared on Ahead of the Heard

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