Montessori Philosophy and Practice for the Middle School & High School Year


Age 12 - 15

The Montessori program for the young adult from age twelve to fifteen is very different from that of traditional school. Dr. Montessori felt that because of the rapid growth, the increased need for sleep, and hormonal changes, it is useless to try to force the adolescent to concentrate on intellectual work. She recommended an Erdkinder, or Earth school, where children would live close to nature, eat fresh farm products, and carry on practical work related to the economics of supplying food, shelter, transportation, and so forth. Intellectual work is still done, following the child's interests, but without pressure.

Adolescence is an arbitrary, contrived category. In past eras children were children until the early teens wherein, through some rite of passage, they were ushered into and took their place in adult society. Today there is no economic place for young adults and no rites of passage. We have, instead, created a holding stage that keeps young people in a limbo, into which children enter earlier and adults stay longer year by year.

—Joseph Chilton Pearce, Evolution's End

A Classroom Example

Years ago I was teaching adolescents in a Montessori school on a Caribbean island. A very bright thirteen-year-old boy was having trouble concentrating on math and other purely intellectual subjects, so I watched carefully to discover his real interests, which were: house, job, music, and parenting.

In our class the children designed and developed long-term research projects and presentations. This boy was behind in academic areas so I helped him weave his interests into projects that would utilize skills that he needed to practice. He spent hours planning his dream house, complete with indoor swimming pool and skateboard area. In doing this he researched houses of various cultures and used plenty of math, graphing, and geometry in constructing the house plans. He did a feasibility study for beginning a skateboard construction-and-repair business—rents, prices of equipment, market value of skateboards and labor costs. He began to study piano, recorder and guitar in class using classical and folk instruction books, with help when he needed it. This study of music was probably the greatest practice in self-discipline in scheduling daily practice, and the personal and social rewards were immediate. It seemed to help him express the changing emotions that otherwise would have no constructive outlet.

It was the interest in parenting which was most intriguing. Here was this tall gangly, adolescent boy, leading the group on the softball field, but if he heard a cry or yell of one of the children in the 3-6 class at the other end of the campus, he immediately put down the bat and ran to see what was the matter! There was one three-year-old in particular, Paloma, who seemed to have captured his fathering heart. They had only just met at the Montessori school, but he could single out her voice from all others, from quite a distance, and would always go to her aid. More than anything else, at this time when intellectual skills were low because of physical and emotional development, being needed as a protector by the young gave him a feeling of worth.

Age 15 - 18+

For age fifteen to eighteen, when the rapid growth of adolescence is slowing, a more rigorous intellectual schedule works, combined with social work and apprenticeships in the work world.

The need that is so keenly felt for a reform of secondary schools concerns not only an educational, but also a human and social problem. Schools, as they are today, are adapted neither to the needs of adolescents nor to the times in which we live. Society has not only developed into a state of utmost complication and extreme contrasts, but it has now come to a crisis in which the peace of the world and civilization itself are threatened. More than to anything else it is due to the fact that the development of man himself has not kept pace with that of his external environment.

But above all it is the education of adolescents that is important, because adolescence is the time when the child enters on the state of adulthood and becomes a member of society. If puberty is, on the physical side, a transition from an infantile to an adult state, there is also, on the psychological side, a transition from the child to the adult who has to live in society. These two needs of the adolescent: for protection during the time of the difficult physical transition, and for an understanding of the society which he is about to enter to play his part as an adult, give rise to two problems that are of equal importance concerning education at this age.

The world is partly in a state of disintegration and partly in a state of reconstruction... It is necessary that the human personality be prepared for unforeseen, not only for the conditions that can be anticipated by prudence and foresight. . . . he must be strengthened in his principles by moral training and he must also have practical ability in order to face the difficulties of life.
Men with hands and no head, and men with head and no hands are equally out of place in the modern community.

Education should not limit itself to seeking new methods for a mostly arid transmission of knowledge: its aim must be to give the necessary aid to human development. This world, marvelous in its power, needs a 'new man.' It is therefore the life of man and his values that must be considered. If 'the formation of man' becomes the basis of education, then the coordination of all schools from infancy to maturity, from nursery to university, arises as a first necessity.

—Dr. Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence

Money & Apprenticeships

In Montessori elementary classes children learn how to balance and schedule their time, to set work goals and to accomplish them, and the skills in budgeting and handling money.

In an Erdkinder ("Earth Children" a term coined by Dr. Montessori), for ages 12-15, children will have had as much experience as possible in handling money. By high school they really are becoming adults and can participate in planning the budget of the home.

One of the most important lessons is the experience of learning how much time and work is involved in earning money. There are few jobs for teenagers, and those which pay a salary are usually not educational. A better place to learn might be an unpaid apprenticeship.

It is time-consuming to take an untrained person in and share the work, and often, because of the lack of training and the short hours, having an apprentice is more of an expense than a help to a business. Young people should be aware of this and look for what they can offer or learn, instead of what they can get in the way of salary. Apprenticeships are not paid positions, but they can be extremely beneficial to the students, and sometimes open up important job possibilities in the future.

It is important that young people get in the habit of using what money they do earn for necessities such as food and transportation, or they will lack the skills to move out into the world and be independent—needing forever to live at home!

By the ‘80’s, three out of four high-school seniors were working an average of 18 hours a week and often taking home more than $200 a month. But their jobs, often in fast-food chains, were rarely challenging and earnings were immediately spent on cars, clothing, stereos and other artifacts of the adolescent good life. Indeed, researchers at the University of Michigan find that less than 11 percent of high-school seniors save all or most of their earnings for college or other long-range purposes.

In short, teenage employment has only intensified the adolescent drive for immediate gratification. Instead of learning how to delay desires, students are indulging what University of Michigan researcher Jerome Bachman calls "premature affluence." The problem, says Bachman, is that these adolescents tend to get accustomed to an unrealistic level of discretionary income which is impossible to maintain at college, unless they have extravagant parents. "And if they don’t go to school," he observes, "they will have to continue to live at home if they hope to keep up their personal spending habits."

One of the sources of this problem is TV, according to Ralph Nader, who says in Co-op America’s newsletter, “Building Economic Alternatives” (Fall 1989) that children “see 25,000 television ads by the time they are seniors in high school. Our leaders have exposed millions of children to a pattern of commercial exploitation that even shocks Western European merchants because they live in countries where children’s ads on TV are banished since small children are not able to distinguish between programs and ads."

—Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek, Winter/Spring 1990
from "Young Beyond their Years" University Age

Many educators recommend a year off between high school and university to give young people a chance to experience real life and its effort and responsibilities, and to learn who they are and where their interests lie.

A substantial majority of big British companies, and nearly all universities support the idea of students putting in a year at work immediately after school and before going to university.

—"The Education Guardian", London, England, 2/24/87

Both of our daughters had that experience, and both, at different times, had apartments within a few blocks of our home which they paid for by working. I remember the end of the first week of our first daughter's experience: "I can't believe how much time it takes to go to work, do the laundry, buy food and clean. It takes all my time when I am not at work. I don't know how you do it!" Ahhh, she was starting to learn . . . .

It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he - with his specialized knowledge - more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions and their sufferings, in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow men and to the community.

These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not - or at least not in the main - through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the 'humanities' as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.

Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.

It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects (point system). Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.

—Albert Einstein, "Education for Independent Thought"
New York Times, Oct. 5, 1952

And how far, we may ask, does it take one to hold a degree these days? [Written in 1949] Can one be sure of even earning a living? ...And how do we explain this lack of confidence? The reason is that these young men have spent years in listening to words and listening does not make a man. Only practical work and experience lead the young to maturity.

My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual.

—Dr. Maria Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence

Copyright 2015, Susan Stephenson

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The most valuable research being done today on the Montessori program from age 12-18 is being done by NCMAS, The NAMTA Center for Montessori Adolescent Studies ADOLESCENT STUDIES