What are the effects of a method such as Montessori education?

I often get the question what is better: traditional schools or method schools – I would prefer to call them modern schools – such as Montessori, Jenaplan, Freinet, … Last week I explained to my students that this is something quite difficult to examine as many parents who opt for such a school are often already very much involved in the education of their children, an element that already can predict a lot of the gains at school. A recent review study on Montessori-education showed that a lot of the research suffers from this.
I now have two different studies that use the same trick to bypass this hurdle. They look at a lottery situation and compare the children who won the lottery – who were admitted to a Montessori school – with the children who weren’t but who’s parents equally thought this would be important.

The first study has some great news: the children seem to benefit from the approach, as Best Evidence in Brief reported:

A longitudinal study published in Frontiers in Psychology examined how children in Montessori schools changed over three years compared with children in other preschool settings.>The Montessori model involves both child-directed, freely-chosen activity and academic content. Angeline Lillard and colleagues compared educational outcomes for children allocated places by a random lottery to either Montessori preschools (n=70) or non-Montessori preschool settings (n=71) in Connecticut. The research team carried out a variety of assessments with the children over a three-year period, from when the children were three until they were six.

The researchers found that over time children in Montessori preschools performed better on measures of academic achievement (Woodcock-Johnson IIIR Tests of Achievement effect size = +0.41) and social understanding while enjoying their school work more, than those in conventional preschool settings. They also found that in Montessori classrooms, children from low-income families, who typically don’t perform as well in school, showed similar academic performance as children from higher-income families. Children with low executive function similarly performed as well as those with high executive function.
The findings, they suggest, indicate that well-implemented Montessori education could be a way to help disadvantaged children to achieve their academic potential.

The second study by Nienke Ruijs has the same research-approach, but… didn’t find any influence:


  • I use school admission lotteries to investigate the effects of Montessori education.
  • I find little evidence that Montessori education affects academic achievement.
  • Montessori students show similar levels of motivation.
  • Montessori students do not score better on measures of independence.

This is the abstract of the study:

This study investigates the causal effects of Montessori secondary education by exploiting admission lotteries in Dutch Montessori schools. Results from 308 to 625 students indicate that Montessori education provides an alternative way to attain similar outcomes. Montessori students obtain their secondary school degree without delay at the same rate and with similar grades as non-Montessori students, although the route towards the exams is somewhat different. Further, Montessori students show similar levels of motivation and do not score better on various measures of independence, even though these are the main characteristics Montessori education claims to foster.

So, now what? I do think that it is important to notice that while the first study looked at primary education, the second looked at secondary education, which could explain in part the difference. But maybe there could be also another element involved: a lot of schools label themselves Montessori, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are fully working to her vision even if they do use her materials or mention her vision. This seem to be more the case for secondary education as Nienke Ruijs notes:

Montessori secondary education programs are less standardized than Montessori primary education programs, and the results of this study should not be generalized to the small number of rather radical Montessori boarding schools with ‘Erdkinder’ programs. The schools considered in this study are, however, part of a long tradition of Montessori secondary education. Montessori secondary schools in other countries are based on the same philosophy and have similar approaches with respect to choice of activities and field projects.

Both studies have the benefit of having a randomized group, but at the same time they both risk to still be underpowered for strong conclusions.
(H/t to Daniel Willingham for tweeting the Dutch study)


2 thoughts on “What are the effects of a method such as Montessori education?

  1. Good point. My mum was a principal of a Montessori Nursery School in the early 1970s in England. She had a very structured classroom but was behind Montessori’s child centred learning 100%. She was a huge fan but also insisted that there be order, and structure with the daily lessons.

    However when we moved a few years later to the States, she found to her dismay that the Montessori schools she had hoped to enrol us kids in, was very, very different. They were very different in how they taught wee kids and she didn’t care for it…at all. We ended up in public school, which served us fine.

    She has often said that the Montessori method doesn’t always mean the same thing; depends on the interpretation. We see this with many kids here on Vancouver Island, Canada, as well. Thanks for the article.

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