Montessori Lessons for Innovators

Since the revelations that many stars of silicon valley are alumni of Montessori schools there has been a lot of interest in what managers can learn from the Montessori approach to education. I hadn’t realized this until Tim told me but the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales are all members of the US creative elite called the “Montessori Mafia“.

This seems to be more than a circumstantial relationship with a survey of 3000 executives of innovative companies showing that many were influenced by a Montessori education, as one of the authors of “The Innovator’s DNA” tells in an Harvard Business Review interview.

A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity. To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).

My own children have been fortunate enough to attend a Montessori preschool and as someone who works as a teacher I have been fascinated by the philosophy and techniques of Montessori education. When I tell my friends that my kids attend a Montessori school they immediately jump to the aspects of Montessori that make it seem so different from standard education practice. They ask about the way kids are free to choose what they want to do and are not pushed into any particular program of learning.

This is also the aspect of Montessori that business has tapped into. Employees should be allowed to follow their own ideas and giving them challenges allows them to develop. Employees need to be nurtured rather than measured and labeled.

Maria Montessori's School

The encoragement of curiosity and self directed development is an important part of Montessori teaching philosophy but it is only one dimension. As one friend said to me before Christmas, ‘this do-what-you-like stuff sounds really nice but aren’t you worried that your kids won’t learn anything? The classroom must be anarchy!’.

But that’s the whole point. A good Montessori classroom is highly ordered and there is a big focus on what Maria Montessori called ‘the prepared environment’. My son is in primary school this year but late last year I took the morning off work to spend time in his classroom. I suppose that I was expecting a chaotic environment too but spending an hour and a half seeing four-year old children moving calmly from activity to activity is really quite something with my first thought being ‘why can’t I do this at home?’.

The answer is that there is a lot of structure to the Montessori classroom that enables creativity and self-directed learning. The environment is prepared to support children to explore and learn under careful guidance. Activities or ‘jobs’ are designed to be used by children with shelves and desks placed at the right height and the room is set up so that there is space to work quietly or in groups, depending on the job. New activities are demonstrated and the rules for using the job are explained to the children.

The other part to this is that there has been a year or two of training for children to work in this way. Right from the beginning they are taught how to begin and finish a job in an orderly way. In a Montessori classroom there is no sense of ‘anyone can do whatever they like’ in a way that creates chaos and dysfunction.

Tim’s recent posts on the innovation matrix talk about building innovation competence. A big mistake for organizations trying to be innovative is that they tell employees to innovate without creating a prepared environment for innovation. The prepared environment that creates innovation competence has many facets including the right people, tools, resources and rewards. It is structured but the structure supports experimentation and learning rather than dictating what will be learnt and what the experiment will be.

An important Montessori lesson for innovators is that if you want people to be innovative and creative then you need to create the structures and processes that will support them.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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15 thoughts on “Montessori Lessons for Innovators

  1. You learn something new every day! I didn’t know this was how Montessori schools worked, John. I guess I always thought they were some kind of private, semi-private satellite-type school.

    Now I’m intrigued. The model sounds fascinating. You can’t keep someone from learning something he wants to learn, so it seems this model is built around practicing skills which support exploring education on personal terms. No matter the student’s aims, she is empowered to discover knowledge in meaningful ways.

    Awesome.

  2. Hi Brian. Thanks as always for your comment! Maria Monstessori opened her first classroom in Rome in 1907 – she was way ahead of her time. The first Montessori school opened in the US in 1911 but was ridiculed by the education establishment.

    The most surprising lesson for me is that kids seem have an inate interest in math and language, which most education systems extinguish sometime during primary school (at least in my case) with rote learning of times tables anf the like. Seeing kids choosing to work with math jobs like Montessori counting rods is a real revelation about how we learn about the world.

  3. This Montessori connect is fascinating. Did you know the SAS, consistently ranked one of the best places to work, offers Montessori day care for employees? The next generation of innovators perhaps?

  4. HI John, a really fascinating post. I think we have much to learn about learning, particularly if you listen to Ken Robinson (you can find his talk Are Schools Killing Creativity on TED.org).

    I lovel the focus on curiosity and elaboration. The ability to get interseted in something and drive yourself to find out more. An important skill we seem to be losing in our rush to paraphrase, summarise and aggregate.

  5. Hi David. I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing. Like many boys I did badly at school to the point where I was councilled away from attending university when I was 16. I just wonder how many kids are not suited to the standard mode of eduction and would benefit from a Montessori approach. SAS are very enlightened.

  6. Hi Brendan. Ken Robinson’s TED talks are an inspiration! I shared them with someone who has been a high school teacher for nearly 15 years and her response was something like, ‘that’s all very well but….”.
    Institutions are powerful things.
    Hope you are doing well. It’s been a while since we last caught up.

  7. Interesting post John. My experience at Montessori certainly chimes with yours. Looking back, I certainly can’t recall any “sense of ‘anyone can do whatever they like’ in a way that creates chaos and dysfunction”. It was an interesting combination of order and autonomy.

    Us Montessori-ers also have two other important advantages. First, we’ve got pretty great “top-management support” for our learning efforts. Our parents valued education so much that they invested all the extra resources required to get us to Montessori. This is a pretty strong signal that they’ll continue making such investments over the years (e.g. helping us with homework or funding tutors at high school). The second advantage is associated with time, I spent a year or two learning about stuff while many of my contemporaries were running around the kindergarden. When I arrived at school I found a big difference between what I had been learning over the last two years and what they had.

  8. Hi Sam:
    I thought you might like this one. You share an educational history with some very successful people. I think those early years are pretty important for establishing attitudes to learning.
    Hope the snow is clearing in London.

  9. Montessori explained why her schools are superior to government schools:
    “Discipline must come through liberty. Here is a great principle which is difficult for the followers of common-school methods to understand. How shall one obtain discipline in a class of free children? Certainly in our system, we have a concept of discipline very different from that commonly accepted. If discipline is founded upon liberty, the discipline itself must necessarily be active. We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.”

    I blogged on the subject:
    http://brophyworld.com/google-schools/

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  11. John, nice work. You state “A big mistake for organizations trying to be innovative is that they tell employees to innovate….” . Indeed! You can’t ASK/DEMAND or LEGISLATE that “people be innovative”. Either they are prepared to be that way or they are not – it’s a learned skill. And, of course, conventional education merely drains students of innovation/creativity. That’s why Montessori kids do well with this: the whole environment/approach gears them to be this way – for more info see my blog.