Childpeace Montessori School in Portland Oregon

What business can learn from Montessori

Maria knew hundreds of years ago what businesses are just now figuring out: people learn best when motivated by their own curiosity. The teacher’s job is simply to act as a resource and foster that innate drive to learn.

Late in the Spring of 1997, I was on the lunch crew in a small Montessori school in Portland, Oregon. I gazed out the windows with light lament to see my classmates playing foursquare outside while I absentmindedly scrubbed the pasta pot. “Why am I even doing this? You can probably clean these way faster.” My teacher shot me the look he gives when he’s about to unload some annoyed wisdom. “I could probably do your math project faster than you, too”.

Lunch Crew

Lunch crew was the only mandatory activity at the Montessori Adolescent Project Northwest, a middle-school started by a handful of parents along with Elise and David, the couple that served as the only teachers, administrators, and counselors at the experimental school. I suppose that made me something of a guinea pig: I was part of the first nine-student seventh-grade class. Looking back, it was amazing Elise and David got the better part of a dozen sets of parents to risk their kids’ future on an “optional” education.

It paid off, although to this day it feels almost farcical. I only remember us being in a half dozen math classes over two years with zero assigned homework, but we were all ahead of our peers in Algebra when we ended up in more traditional high schools.

The “why” of the Montessori system isn’t as interesting to me as the “what”, and its observable efficacy. Plenty of ink has been spilt on the nineteenth-century teaching philosophy and why it works, but we’ve only recently started getting data[1] to prove what Maria Montessori saw in her classrooms: the Montessori method of self-directed learning works.

Institutional education is fighting through a quagmire of inertia and politics. And schools like MAP NW take considerable risk and investment from everyone involved. Your company can eschew tradition and implement a low-risk, MVP learning-and-development program based on self-directed learning. I suspect that if you let your employees pick what and when to learn, you’ll discover what Montessori teachers across the world have known for years: curiosity is a hell of a drug.

[1] Counter to what we might think given Montessori’s “artsy” reputation, its students performed similarly to their traditionally educated counterparts in social sciences, but came out considerably ahead in physical sciences and math.