Math in Montessori

Lessons for unschooling math

See part one of this series on unschooling math

The Montessori approach to math interests me because students are able to work fairly independently on math tasks and have some choice on the math work they’re doing at any given moment. These attributes align well with the goals of unschooling, so perhaps there are lessons to apply in unschooling.

I also like the use of hands-on manipulatives so that students can physically experience math, which can sometimes be fairly abstract. The way that Montessori teachers use questions and stories to explore ideas with students helps to build deeper understanding of the content.


It’s helpful to see Montessori math in action. Here are three videos from a parent night at a Montessori school in Maryland where the teachers were explaining how they approach math learning with different age groups.

Primary Years

Lower Elementary

Upper Elementary

I could certainly imagine a self directed learning space filled with Montessori-style math work sets that students can work on as they wish.

However, there are a lot of materials and the cost of the materials could be quite cost prohibitive for a new SDE micro school. The facilitators (or parents of those unschooling at home) would also have to know how to use the work sets with students and have some understanding of how to guide them through questions and illustrations.

I wonder, to what extent, the Montessori approach to math or math in general lends itself to students learning concepts in nonlinear ways. Say, for example, a student is cooking and learns that fractions are a thing, and then after cooking, wants to explore more about fractions, but he hasn’t done much with addition or subtraction yet. How far can he go in learning about fractions before he hits a wall? In theory, he could go practice more addition and come back to fractions. What would that feel like for the kid?

The other obstacle with Montessori math is that Maria Montessori only mapped out guidelines for teaching students through the upper elementary years. After that, each Montessori middle and high school takes their own varying approaches to curriculum. As an SDE high school founder, I have thoughts on how to approach unschooling math with teens that I’ll share in a later post. But it would be helpful to have more of a Montessori model into the teen years, for reference.

Here’s how the same school above approaches math in middle school.

I have some questions about what math should be learned in the middle school years. It seems like the middle years are a no man’s land after building foundational math skills and before diving into algebra and geometry. I have no rush for students to get into algebra and geometry before high school, unless they want to, so that they have more time for their brains to develop and be ready for more abstract thinking when they’re older.

Middle school could be a good time for building skills around math logic, financial management, and measurement/building. Now that they’re bigger, they can go out in their communities or around their schools to make money, build stuff, do odd jobs, and explore more complex puzzles. But as students get closer to high school, parents, even in SDE, feel pressure to have their kids learn “pre-algebra” or dive in to Algebra 1. (And sometimes SDE kids feel this same pressure from their parents and/or from their peers in traditional schools)

What might feel like “real math” for “the worried” but still be hands-on, engaging and real world for students?

Read Part 3 on how interests develop.