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1110 College NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Higher Expectations:  Why we Chose Stepping Stones Montessori School


Higher Expectations: Why we Chose Stepping Stones Montessori School

Elizabeth Topliffe

by David Vessey, PhD

Montessori pedagogy is often misunderstood as a free-for-all, where children do whatever they want—whenever and however they want to do it. But nothing could be further from the truth. We chose Stepping Stones Montessori because the Montessori method cultivates in children independence, diligence, and self-management. These are crucial foundational skills that will be essential throughout their lives.

One of the most important aspects of a Montessori education is providing the children with an environment that is pleasant, peaceful, and orderly. In a thoughtfully managed Montessori environment, children learn to control their bodies and voices, choose work and put it away when they are finished, and take pride in stewarding the space they share together. A Montessori student’s education is not just academic—it’s sensory. In a classroom designed around children’s minds and bodies, students learn to be sensitive to the optimum conditions for their physical, emotional, and intellectual development. The classroom and the teacher’s guidance make it possible for students to observe, experiment, and learn to the best of their abilities.

We recently experienced the alternative when we sent our son to first grade at a local public elementary school. The difference was remarkable. The student-teacher ratio of the traditional classroom (about 23 to 1) inverted the educational priorities that we had seen in Montessori. Instead of starting with an environment that was conducive to learning, the teacher had to prioritize class management before she could focus on children’s learning.

Our son’s first grade teacher relied heavily on parent volunteers to divide the classrooms into small groups and do rotations of lessons and activities on designated days. This structure compromised students’ natural inquisitiveness and forced them into compartmentalized learning in fifteen-minute blocks. The teacher was excellent—she was gifted and sensitive to all the children’s needs—but she was hamstrung by a lack of qualified support in a teacher’s aide or assistant. As regular volunteers, my husband and I saw up close how the children behaved. Some were focused, but those who were impulsive and distracted disrupted the entire classroom.

Overall, the children did not manage themselves as well as the children we had observed in our son’s Children’s House classroom. In a Montessori setting, that energy could have been channeled into learning and self-management. Because the structure of the classroom functioned first to keep order and second to administer lessons, it was impossible for a child to pursue independent inquiry. The classroom environment simply could not accommodate, let alone cultivate, a child’s natural curiosity.

Our son performed well in the traditional classroom, but the educational priorities were wrong. We want our children to learn how to manage themselves, not how to be managed for the sake of institutional efficacy. At this stage in their lives, they ought to experience reading, writing, history, and math in the context of a world that is ripe for their curiosity and wonder. The next year we returned to Stepping Stones, and made a commitment to enroll both our children in the elementary program.

We expect our children to do great things. We expect them to grow up to be people of substance, to discern what they are uniquely suited to offer the world, and to share their gifts with care and poise. Stepping Stones Montessori works with children’s natural learning energies so they experience what it means to be self-directed, diligent, and sensitive to the world around them. When they graduate from the Montessori environment, they will be able to do the same for themselves.