Steiner and Montessori
What’s the Difference?
The Steiner and Montessori educational movements both represent holistic philosophies which view the young child with respect and reverence. Often, one is mistaken for the other by parents unaware of the finer points of difference or, indeed, of the areas of similarity.
Who was Rudolf Steiner?Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian scientist, Anthroposophical philosopher and educationalist. Steiner schools exemplify the sensitivities of Anthroposophy as Steiner understood it: ‘a path of knowledge leading from the spiritual in man to the spiritual in the universe’ or, more simply, as ‘awareness of one’s humanity’.
What is meant by a Steiner education?The thirteen-year Steiner curriculum (K-12) seeks to balance academic achievement with age-appropriate physical, emotional and intellectual development, and promote the growth of the child as a social and spiritual being. The cumulative nature of the Steiner curriculum is designed to complement the inherent nature of the child whose developmental journey varies little, despite changes in society and culture.
Specific learning is presented when it will not only be most readily accepted but also when it will lead most easily to the next level of intellectual and emotional awareness.
Who was Maria Montessori?Maria Montessori (1870 - 1952) was an Italian doctor of medicine, anthropologist and educationalist who expanded on the learning material of (French physicians) Itard and Seguin to design learning, or didactic, materials which support children in various developmental stages, allowing them to learn by their own actions. She expanded her ideas into the fully articulated Montessori programme known today.
What is meant by a Montessori education?The Montessori approach (in Sydney, primarily pre-school and primary) also aims to develop the child’s potential, and is based on ‘following the child’ -- recognising and responding to the child’s developmental needs. Teachers have a strong belief in the innate capacity of children to do their own learning, and so focus on developing the qualities of independence, self-confidence and self-discipline, and the skills of concentration and orderly work habits. Subjects are seen as interconnected, and include conventional Key Learning Areas.
The Montessori philosophy embraces the notion of the child having an absorbent mind ready to soak up knowledge and life experiences, so children are presented with stimulating and increasingly challenging intellectual tasks. At secondary level, according to the literature, the development of a working ethic and the fostering of economic and social independence are given weight equal to the academic.
THE SIMILARITIESThere are many compatible aspects, not the least of which is the teachers’ attitude to children as independent learners on a developmental path.
Both curricula integrate the creative arts and place importance on the value of the aesthetic for the development of intellectual faculties. Both look to truth and beauty as teaching companions, and incorporate an appreciation of natural materials, a stimulation of the senses and a cultivation of moral values in their teaching practices.
Harmony based on respect is important to both, with classroom activity and excursions providing ample opportunities for interactive learning. Both methodologies attempt to foster a love of learning to last through life. They also share a perception of television as detrimental to the younger children, limiting physical, social and linguistic skills, and introducing concepts and a reality out of step with childhood. Indeed, both Steiner and Montessori attempt within their methodologies to protect the absolute right of children to childhood.
Socialisation of the child is important in the Steiner classroom, at both individual and group level and formal means are used to encourage this. Play areas for classes specifically overlap. Teachers greet and farewell each child each day. Children rotate sport positions and teams; and the absence of competitive interschool team sport reduces the incidence of bullying behaviour.
The Montessori classroom environment encourages individual learning tasks and socially acceptable individual behaviour, with the mixed-age groupings fostering social interaction and collaboration.
The Class Teacher/DirectorIn a Steiner school, as much emphasis is given to emotional security as to academic weight in a curriculum guided by the three developmental phases of childhood: imitation (ages 0-7), imagination (ages 7-14) and independent judgment (ages 14-21).
Even though specialist teachers are active from Kindergarten onwards, the child’s security rests with the Class Teacher. In the primary years, the Class Teacher commits to remaining with the same class for 7-8 years, and becomes a focal point in each child’s development. When based on trust and understanding, the relationship that develops between teacher and child can have a lifelong impact.
Montessori teachers are known as Directors because they see it as their role to ‘direct’ the children and provide a link between other teachers and the child. Three educational phases see children between the ages of 3 and 6 having one main teacher and an assistant. Children between 6 and 9 years and 9 and 12 years have one main teacher in each phase and, depending on the school, may also have some specialist teachers.
THE DIFFERENCESThe approach of the two educational philosophies to realising children’s potential differs in certain areas. Toys/didactic materials, structure and order, and artistic focus are addressed in both methodologies, but differ in emphasis according to the body of research brought to each movement by its founder. The two approaches to learning come from different perspectives of the way children learn.
Didactic materialsToys are not found in Montessori classrooms. Rather, they contain specially made learning equipment, which children use in specific ways. This equipment, known as ‘didactic material’, is designed to support children’s expanding consciousness and to provide experiences for their prevailing sensitivities; for example, response to colour, sound, touch etc. For Montessori educators, childhood is a time of constant mental activity. The didactic material provides incrementally challenging tasks, which are self-correcting with an in built ‘control of error’, and are intended to develop concentration, exactness and correlation skills; for example, the mathematically contained ‘pink tower’.
ToysThe value of toys in the Steiner philosophy is in their helping children to re-enact experiences from life as they happen. Toys are of natural materials and indistinctly featured, so that the imagination can take hold in creative play; wooden blocks, crystals, gemstones, hand-made dolls without strong facial features, hand-made puppets, and beeswax for example. The development of the imagination is seen as crucial to the growth of intellectual faculties.
Structure and orderMontessori teaching philosophy embraces the concept of ‘a right time to learn’. Montessori recognised periods of ‘heightened sensitivity’ in children’s lives when she believed they showed a strong, natural interest in certain aspects of the environment. For Montessori children, the didactic materials, the social groupings and the Directors provide a learning environment which is believed to be conducive to establishing precise language, movement and sensory abilities. Various ages and levels of development co-exist within the Montessori classroom. Directors observe children’s responses to materials given and provide linking activities which, while still allowing children their choice and the freedom to work at their own pace, direct them to the next intellectual level.
Using quite a different approach, Steiner methods aim to guide the child towards intellectual awakening. Steiner believed that ‘If a child has been able in his play to give up his whole, loving being to the world around him, he will be able in the serious tasks of later life to devote himself with confidence and power to the service of the world’.
In the Steiner Kindergarten, children are believed to need days of rhythm and purpose, to see actions worthy of imitation, and to indulge in creative and free play. The foundations for formal learning are laid in the experiences of Kindergarten; for example, grinding wheat to make bread, harvesting vegetables for soup, painting in pure water colours, acting, dressing up, listening to traditional fairy tales and nature stories, watching hand-made puppet shows, making a forest out of natural material for the gnomes and fairies, finger-knitting treasure bags, drawing, and joining in when the language teachers sing and play games.
ArtworkIt is perhaps the truest aim of artwork that the children are able, through a strengthened and more conscious inner life, to experience what they meet within and outside of school, with increased depth of understanding.
Dr Rudolf Steiner
Steiner believed in the value of artistic activities for children, not only for the fostering of self-knowledge, but also as a means of developing initiative. In the primary school, the themes, stories and ideas for the visual arts (modelling, drawing and painting) are taken from Main Lesson subjects. In the upper school, the students come to understand and value the art elements of line, colour, shape and texture as having an intrinsic, abstract and aesthetic value of their own.
Steiner introduced the psychology of colour to the external environment in which classrooms are painted and decorated in a manner designed to stimulate specific emotion and to facilitate learning. Steiner classrooms are distinguished by their use of colour and aesthetic appeal and are an extension of this artistic philosophy most immediately apparent in the beauty and detail of many Main Lesson book illustrations.
Childhood is an age of reasonMontessori holds that the child will best develop by being supplied with challenging intellectual tasks and absorbing enriching experiences. Montessori teachers believe that if children are allowed to follow their interests, they are capable of marvellous work and, by the time they are 12 years old, they will have become people of culture.
Montessori educators seek to integrate children with the world around them by presenting factual material particularly in the pre-school. The wonder of nature and science is explored in this way, and ‘true stories’ are a daily event. For Montessori, the protection of the child’s choice is a key factor and children are able to move about in ‘guided freedom’ within the classroom and outside it, and are able to choose their activities. Although primary level studies integrate different subject areas in Montessori’s Cosmic Education programme, an informality of structure and presentation is consistent with a belief that primary school is a period of expansion and growth, and students are often introduced to areas of study usually reserved for the secondary level..
The gift of fantasySteiner teachers endeavour to awaken the potential of each child through a curriculum integrating the Humanities, Arts and Sciences. Story-telling, festivals and fantasy are integral to a structured and age-appropriate tuition which acknowledges three developmental phases of childhood. The Main Lesson sequence is the focus of this curriculum: 3-week units (120 minutes each morning in the junior school, 90 minutes in the high school) with a unifying theme strongly connected with the needs of the stage of development reached by the child.
Development of the imagination does not exclude reality; for example, pre-reading and -writing skills are nurtured with fairy tales and histories stimulating imagination; and drawing with many coloured pencils, craftwork, and working with beeswax develop muscles and fine motor skills. These activities assist hand/eye coordination and promote good reading and writing mechanics. Formal reading and writing begin in Class 1, their pace dictated by the biological maturing of the child.
In the junior school (K-6), subject matter is brought to the children in an imaginative and pictorial way. In the upper school (7-12), the Main Lesson structure continues, with selected themes for study appropriate to the age; in Class 9, for instance, the subject matter reflects the children’s developing critical awareness of the world around them; in Class 10, the students become more objective and thoughtful in dealing with issues they encounter; they need to see justice and ethical living, so Main Lessons reflect these factors. Whether legend or history - this method of story-telling and verbally communicating is a pre-eminent medium of teaching in the Steiner school.
The active cultivation of the imagination is central to Steiner education and is considered by futures researchers, such as Rick Slaughter, Frank Hutchinson, Elise Boulding and Jennifer Gidley, to be a factor in helping students to envision their futures and a way of empowering them to create their desired, positive futures.
In summaryBoth Steiner and Montessori educational systems have their supporters. Both philosophies of education have stood the test of time worldwide, and both are continuing to grow. In deciding which to follow, parents can do no better for their children than to exercise conscientiously their right to freedom of educational choice.
‘A Look at Waldorf and Montessori’, Paper by Barbara Shell, Developmental; Director, Emerson Waldorf School, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, undated
‘Montessori Education in Harmony with Life’, Information brochure, Montessori Association of Australia Inc. 1996
‘The Power of the Imagination’, Jennifer Gidley, Educare News, February 1998
Writer Paulette Kay’s three children attended Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School.
This article was written in association with Wilma Grier, a Montessori pre-school teacher.
An edited version of this article appeared as “Steiner and Montessori: What’s the Difference?” in Sydney’s Child October 1998.