Montessori with Integrity – Part 2: DEI and ABAR Practices as Essential to Quality Program Implementation
In Part 1 of “Montessori with Integrity,” we asked what makes a Montessori program authentic, what it means to claim fidelity to Montessori pedagogy. Specifically, we looked at a number of factors to consider when determining the quality of program implementation, including the core elements as outlined by The Montessori Public Policy Initiative (MPPI):
- prepared environment
- uninterrupted daily work periods
- high degree of freedom
- 3-year mixed age groups
- higher adult-child ratios and group sizes
- Montessori trained teachers
While the list is fairly straightforward, we found that evaluating fidelity of implementation to each element is less so. Adding materials or using a less-than-full complement of Montessori materials, for example, may render a classroom or program inauthentic in the strictest definition of the word (Lillard and McHugh 2019), but it remains an open question whether programs containing variations of Montessori's original view are necessarily inferior. Furthermore, if a program is deemed to be inauthentic because of supplementary or absent materials, can it still be implemented with integrity? (We’ll come back to materials later in this piece.) The nuanced distinctions—not to mention different perspectives—between authentic, high fidelity, and integrity make these questions difficult to answer.
One difficulty lies in evaluating the implementation of those elements of Montessori’s writings and philosophy that don’t have a row on the rubric or in the list above. Implementing the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and anti-bias, antiracism (ABAR), for example, is fundamental to Education for Peace and, as such, would seem to be essential to a high-fidelity Montessori program where teacher preparation, curriculum, and materials are concerned. We focus on this area in this installment of “Montessori with Integrity.”
Teacher Preparation for the Implementation of DEI and ABAR Principles
We noted in Part 1 of this series that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work, together with anti-bias, antiracist (ABAR) practices, are inherent in Montessori philosophy, but are not necessarily implemented in every classroom. While DEI and ABAR were not part of Montessori’s lexicon, the principles they represent were and are foundational to her philosophy of Peace Education, as many readers may be aware. The premise of Montessori’s Peace Education is that “the young child is fundamental to the peace and progress of humanity” (2019). From this and other ideas in her writing, it is reasonable to surmise that Montessori would have recognized that DEI and ABAR principles were essential “to the peace and progress of humanity” and would have, therefore, advocated for their place in Peace Education. Then why is this only now coming to the attention of many in the Montessori community? Let’s explore this question.
Most Montessori classrooms include the following elements as part of Education for Peace:
- respectful interactions
- cooperation and collaboration
- peaceful conflict resolution
And most include lessons and materials that promote awareness of and appreciation for a range of cultures and the people who comprise those cultures:
- Fundamental needs of humans
- Timeline of civilizations
- Study of a continent
- Multicultural events and celebrations
- Global citizenship projects
Some Montessori teachers legitimately believe that this is enough. Indeed, why is it not? This work takes place external to the teacher; and as Jeannot Rene Jonte remarked (in Oesting and Speed 2019):
It is easy for those of us in Montessori environments to implement cultural relevancy, as the foundation of respect should already be present. However, there are less obvious elements of cultural relevance requiring specific training for the adult. We all have unconscious biases that are part of our cultures that we must overcome.
These thoughts get to the root of Montessori’s directive for the teacher to:
… be humble and root out the prejudices lurking in our heart. We must not suppress those traits which can help us in our teaching. We must check those inner attitudes and characteristics of adults that can hinder our understanding of the child.
Montessori did not expressly write about recognizing one’s implicit bias, nor about practicing culturally responsive pedagogy, but we can infer from her directive that she meant for teachers to look inward and, among other things, do the hard work of “lean[ing] into our own transformation by hearing the personal truths of diverse voices from our community and beyond” (Oesting and Speed 2019). And while it is true that many Montessori schools, both private and public, are engaging their staffs in DEI and/or ABAR training to some degree, teachers must still do the individual work of Montessori’s mandate—a systematic study of self that involves “reflecting on our understanding around our notions of difference and how we perceive people who are different from us” (Gay in Peters 2019).
Some individuals embark on this work alone; others require the support of a mentor or group. Such work may take one or more directions, for example:
- personal reflection and journaling
- personal or group reading from recommended books on DEI and ABAR
- participation in conversations and training with dedicated groups through, for example:
- AMS Connect
- AMS Affinity Groups
- AMS Anti-Bias, Antiracist (ABAR) Certificate Program, which “provides a thorough examination of ABAR education to support Montessori schools and classrooms in creating just and equitable spaces for all.”
Other Montessori organizations also offer a range of support measures—peer connections, tools, training, and professional learning:
- The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS) equity resources
- Association Montessori International (AMI) equity and inclusion resources
- Montessori for Social Justice equity resources
Through whatever form an individual chooses to pursue this work, the thoughtful cultivation and internalization of cultural competence “expands the capacity of educators to serve students from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds,” helping to reduce disparities that occur between different groups of students when it comes to:
- school discipline policies
- teacher expectations
- students identified as “at risk”
- attendance rates
- the returns of education
By ignoring the important work of Montessori’s mandate, we run the risk of perpetuating these inequities.
Finally, it is important to remember that while some tend to think of culture in terms of ethnic or national groups, culture also includes race, gender, sexuality, abilities, or class, and often the intersection of two or more of these categories, as well as others.
Culturally Relevant Curriculum and Materials
In addition to the personal work described above, the teacher is also responsible for ensuring that the materials and lessons are culturally relevant to and representative of the students in their classroom. As we saw in the previous section, some Montessori materials and lessons promote a multicultural awareness of and appreciation for differences. This is not a guarantee, however, that these are culturally inclusive; it may be that some of our students don’t see themselves represented in books and other classroom materials.
In an earlier piece on the power of literature, for example, we pointed out that, at times, relevant voices are missing from a story, or certain perspectives have been silenced. In these cases, it is often appropriate for the teacher to carefully guide a discussion, giving voice to students who feel unheard, unseen, or erased. This is especially important for older students, who are developmentally ready to read and think critically about why and how these omissions occur in some pieces of literature.
We might also have non-fiction books and Montessori-certified materials that give a culturally inaccurate, incomplete, or inappropriate account of history. What are the implications of this if we are, in fact, using authentic Montessori materials? Do we teach with integrity if our lessons, books, and materials do not engage diverse and/or underrepresented populations? These are questions that need to be considered when evaluating a program’s fidelity to Montessori core values.
Maati Wafford, AMS director of equity & engagement, makes the following important point:
There is no formal statement that Montessori materials must be culturally relevant, appropriate, and anti-bias, antiracist. It falls to individual teachers and school leaders, therefore, to ensure that classrooms are providing proper representation in their materials, honoring the neurodiversity, race, gender identity, religion, national origin, etc. of all our students.
While some teachers may be informed enough to navigate these waters—to sift through their materials and books and evaluate the impact of their lessons—many others need guidance and support in the form of mentorship, training, or other professional development. Readers are encouraged to avail themselves of the range of resources and support measures provided by the major Montessori organizations listed in the previous section.
Are New Criteria Needed for Assessing Fidelity to a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy?
Given the importance of DEI and ABAR work, and of a culturally inclusive curriculum, do we need criteria for assessing the degree of fidelity to this aspect of Montessori pedagogy? Moreover, should such an important area be considered an essential element of Montessori education? What tools do educators have for assessing their personal, classroom-related, and school-wide progress of their practice in this area?
We have established that the implementation of DEI and ABAR are essential to Peace Education, and Peace Education is an important element of the Montessori curriculum. Yet neither curriculum in general, nor the more specific components of curriculum like Peace Education are included in the:
This may be because Montessori education has always been thought of as culturally relevant; its global presence in a multiplicity of cultures for over one hundred years would seem to make it so. But that umbrella might not cover as much area as we thought, and here we find ourselves circling back to our big question. Is it enough to offer a curriculum that fosters appreciation for a multicultural world if, in the end, we neither represent nor engage marginalized students in our classrooms?
One could interpret “embrac[ing] core Montessori principles” to include the important work of implementing DEI and ABAR principles and, indeed, the American Montessori Society has incorporated requirements for the inclusion of ABAR topics in its teacher education programs and school accreditation standards. Individual schools are also taking important first steps by including this work in staff training and professional development. But the question remains—in these times more than ever—whether this work should be elevated and spelled out more clearly when assessing program fidelity, when evaluating whether we are, truly, practicing Montessori with integrity.
Part 3 Preview
A second challenge in evaluating program quality is that some schools, both public and private, face legitimate barriers preventing high-fidelity and/or authentic implementation. We’ll examine those barriers, and the consequences that ensue, in Part 3 of this series.
Montessori, Maria. Citizen of the World. Netherlands: Montessori Pierson Publishing Company, 2019.
About the Author
Cynthia Brunold-Conesa, MEd, is an educator of adult learners at two AMS teacher education programs. She has 23 years experience as a lead guide at the Elementary and middle school levels. Cynthia also publishes on a variety of Montessori topics. She is AMS credentialed (Elementary I – II). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .