Montessori Distance Learning During Covid: A Review of Research Findings from the Journal of Montessori Research
This article summarizes the research findings contained in the article, Montessori Education at a Distance, Part 1: A Survey of Montessori Educators’ Response to a Global Pandemic featured in Vol. 7 No. 1 (2021): the Journal of Montessori Research.
The Journal of Montessori Research is an online, biannual publication of the American Montessori Society. Double-blind and peer-reviewed, the journal advances knowledge of Montessori education through empirical research studies and critical reviews of the literature. All content is publicly available in an open-access forum.
A global pandemic is sure to yield a substantial impact on all areas of life, including the operation of a school and classroom. The emergence of Covid-19 as a global pandemic caused an unprecedented rising death toll, revealed inequities in healthcare and childcare systems, placed a heavy burden on front line/essential workers, and created vast uncertainties for people all over the world. When coupled with the racial injustices and protests occurring at this time, society was in a state of unrest. Murray, Brown, and Barton set out to gather more information about Montessori educators’ response in adapting such a unique pedagogy to a distance learning model during a global pandemic.
As the learning environment shifts from the classroom setting to the home environment and many interactions with teachers and peers become virtual, students and educators alike must learn to adjust, while attempting to simultaneously come to terms with the saddening events happening in the world around them. For Montessorians, educating from a distance presents a unique set of challenges.
A short, online survey was distributed via email and social media to Early Childhood (EC) and Elementary I (E1) Montessori educators from independent and public sectors mostly from large cities, midsize cities, and suburban areas. The Montessori logic model served as the basis for the survey which included closed-ended questions and Likert-scale items (Likert-scale questions use statements and respondents then indicate how much they agree or disagree with that statement) about teaching practices employed as well as open-ended questions about teachers’ perceptions regarding the experience. As Murray, Brown, and Barton describe, “This study provides insight into many aspects of the experience of Montessori educators during the pandemic, including their teaching situations, their interpretation and application of Montessori principles, their assessment of their own effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes of Montessori education, and their perceptions of the successes and challenges of families and children.”
The overarching results of the survey suggest that Montessori guides developed distance-learning models that utilized both virtual and hands-on experiences for their students. Educators reported that students spent just over half of their work time engaging in hands-on activities and approximately 38% of their time dedicated to screen-based activities. The vast majority of Montessori guides at the EC and E1 levels engaged in live video conferencing with students. E1 teachers were twice as likely as their EC counterparts to have distributed digital materials to families and were almost twice as likely to report using an electronic learning platform such as Google Classroom.
Resources and actions from the Montessori logic model (a model published in 2019 that outlines key elements of Montessori practice including resources, actions, and goals across grade levels) served as the basis for developing a large portion of the survey as a means of examining educators’ application of Montessori principles during distance learning. As Murray, Brown, and Barton describe, the model “outlines the resources necessary for Montessori implementation, appropriate actions of children in Montessori classrooms, and the desired goals that would result.” It outlines seven important resources as the foundation for Montessori education; the results from these areas will be analyzed below.
Open-ended data from Montessori educators revealed that EC guides relied heavily on parent involvement, followed by providing learning materials in lieu of Montessori hands-on manipulatives, preparing lessons, and preparing for video conferencing interactions with students. Parents played a smaller, yet still substantial role at the E1 level, but providing learning materials in lieu of Montessori hands-on manipulatives and preparing lessons were still prevalent. Providing technological resources played a much larger role at the E1 level. Educators shared that parent involvement was crucial in preparing the environment at home. One EC teacher noted, “It’s dependent on the family and their involvement in helping with their child’s prepared environment at home.” Another added, “I hope we don’t have to continue having to work like this. It’s difficult to prepare an environment at [a] distance. I explained to the parents the importance of letting the child do [the work] themselves, but it was almost impossible.” Teachers at both levels indicated parents and caregivers needed the most support with establishing clear expectations and freedom within limits, enabling sustained focus, and fostering independence.
Broad, Interrelated Curriculum
Montessori guides shared that Language and Math constituted nearly half of instructional time for both EC and E1 levels during distance learning.. Science/Social Studies and Cultural Subjects followed behind Language and Math. The least amount of time was dedicated to Practical Life and Sensorial for EC. Educators’ responses indicated attempting to make connections among various parts of the curriculum.
Approximately half of E1 and EC guides reported giving personalized assignments, materials, and lesson plans. However, the number of EC educators who indicated all of their students received the same lessons, materials, and assignments was nearly double than their E1 counterparts. E1 educators also reported being more likely to differentiate assignments based on grade level and to regularly meet with their students individually. Traditionally, observations occur in a Montessori classroom environment to allow educators to tailor instruction to each students’ needs. Given the unique structure of distance learning, three-quarters of EC educators indicated relying on parent or caregiver input, including narrative and photos, as a substitute for in-person observation. While almost two-thirds of E1 participants used parent or caregiver reports, the majority of these guides indicated analyzing students’ work themselves, usually during live video conferencing.
Positive Emotional Climate
Despite the challenges presented by distance learning, Montessori educators felt confident that they continued to provide a positive emotional climate for their students. More than three-quarters of guides indicated they were able to provide these resources moderately well, very well, or extremely well. Only 1% of guides surveyed did not believe they did this well at all.
Clear Expectations and Freedom Within Limits
Open-ended questions assessed how guides provided limits during distance learning. Both EC and E1 educators reported relying heavily on collaboration and communication with parents, as well as providing online etiquette lessons for students. E1 teachers also indicated they relied on schedules, work plans, and work records to provide structure and limits. However, many Montessori guides indicated they were simply unable to set limits, or were unsuccessful setting limits, given the unique circumstances of learning from home.
Experiences With Nature
More than 80% of educators reported relying on families to facilitate experiences with nature, encouraging them to spend time outside with their children. More than three-quarters of teachers designed outdoor activities for students at home. Guides, particularly at the E1 level, also introduced electronic resources to promote learning about the natural world.
Adaptation for Atypical Development
Montessori guides reported providing additional one-on-one contacts via phone or video conferencing and increased family support for students with disabilities. Additionally, a vast number of educators indicated that they consulted with special educators to develop ways to better serve students with disabilities. Less than a third of teachers surveyed reported providing physical materials as an accommodation. Approximately one-fifth of E1 guides reported making revisions to student’s Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), while only 5% of EC teachers said they had done so.
E1 Montessori guides reported incorporating greater opportunity for choice for their students than their EC counterparts. More than 50% of teachers at the E1 level allowed students to choose which works to do, or at least in specific curriculum areas. They also reported using technology to encourage student choice. EC educators indicated that it was very difficult to implement choice strategies for the youngest children in a distance learning setting. In general, guides revealed other opportunities for choice including the order to complete assignments, when to take breaks, when to engage in their work, and even the ability to opt in or out of some activities. However, the opportunity to provide choices in the distance learning model still failed to reach the level which is typically provided in the classroom.
Real-Life and Manipulative Materials
Most commonly, Montessori educators indicated that they provided instructions and templates for families to replicate traditional Montessori materials at home. A reduced, yet still substantial, proportion of guides reported using digital versions of Montessori materials for student manipulation; the incorporation of this type of technology was more common at the E1 level. Less than a quarter of teachers reported allowing students to borrow materials from the school to use at home.
Collaboration and Peer Teaching
The majority of Montessori guides reported providing virtual social time including lunch bunches over Zoom and virtual circle time as ways for students to interact with each other. Teachers at both levels also reported using Flipgrid and encouraging families to have virtual playdates. About one-third of E1 educators also indicated that they provided group projects including book groups and reader theater.
Support for conflict resolution was not common during distance learning with less than one-fifth of teachers at either level reporting that they had provided access to a virtual Peace table or some other method of resolving conflicts. Some respondents suggested this support was not needed since students were not gathering together in person.
A bit more than half of Montessori educators at both levels reported that children were offered the same amount of opportunities for artistic expression as before the pandemic.
Freedom of Movement in Classroom
Distance learning was not conducive to guides facilitating freedom of movement; thus, the concept for this survey was expanded to include various elements of independence. E1 educators reported intentionally assigning work that students could complete independently. Many teachers indicated the need to provide encouragement for parents and caregivers to allow independence in their children; families often needed reminders to “allow for mistakes and self-correction” and only “provide guidance when needed.”
Maintaining the Environment
Montessori guides believed children had less opportunities to care for their environment at home, particularly at the EC level. Researchers surmise that a possible explanation for this is that caregivers were less equipped to provide these real life experiences as they may have lacked the tools and patience while sheltered at home. It is also likely that parents may have either been working out of the home as essential workers or needing to work full time from home alongside their children who were engaged in distance learning, making it difficult for them to dedicate their time and attention to their child’s work. Many teachers reported providing support for families including suggestions for setting up their homes.
The Montessori logic model describes seven goals of Montessori education:
- Purposeful activity
- Sustained focus
- Compassion for others
- Positive attitude toward school
- Confidence and initiative, and
- Becoming a contributing member of society.
Overall, educators felt moderately effective in achieving these objectives via distance learning. Guides at both levels reported feeling most successful at fostering a positive learning environment during distance learning. They indicated that fostering sustained focus was most challenging given the circumstances.
Montessori Education Post-Pandemic
Given their findings, Murray, Brown, and Barton believe it is likely that Montessori educators will need to adapt to a few changes distance learning may cause. Parents and caregivers may desire to continue to feel more connected to their child’s educational experience or may desire to reduce their responsibility in regards to their child’s school work. Students may require extra patience and understanding as they adjust to the freedom of choice and independence provided in the classroom environment. Additionally, the exposure to increased amounts of technology may make it more difficult for students to sustain attention during a complete work cycle. Dedicating time to observation and providing additional accommodations for the students’ varying needs should help to make this transition easier for everyone. School leaders should be available to support guides and to show their appreciation for their hard work during such trying times.
More in-depth analysis of some of the study’s findings may positively impact the future of Montessori education, both in the classroom and for distance learning models. Analyzing the methods Montessori guides implemented in order to continue providing a positive emotional climate via distance learning may provide key information about the value of the community that is established and supported in a Montessori classroom. Further, collecting information regarding the successes and challenges families faced when attempting to replicate traditional Montessori materials at home based on instructions and templates from guides has the capacity to transform the connection between home and school.
The future of Montessori education is sure to be impacted by the existence of distance learning during a global pandemic. Children, families, and educators are likely to need additional support and understanding now that face-to-face instruction has resumed.
Murray, Angela K., Brown, Katie E. & Barton, Patricia, "Montessori Education at a Distance, Part 1: A Survey of Montessori Educators' Response to a Global Pandemic. Journal of Montessori Research," Journal of Montessori Research 7, no. 1, (Spring 2021): 1-29, https://journals.ku.edu/jmr/issue/view/2007/461.
About the Author
Heather White, EdS, is a Montessori in-home teacher and nanny, a Montessori educational consultant for the Andrew’s Institute, a Montessori educator for adult learners, and a volunteer moderator for the Montessori at Home 0 – 3 Facebook page. Formerly, she was a Montessori teacher, Lower Elementary coordinator, and associate head of school. She also has experience as a School Psychologist intern. She is AMS credentialed (Early Childhood, Elementary I). Contact her at email@example.com.
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.