Jesse McCarthy on Montessori and Independence


I sat down with the popular educator Jesse McCarthy to pick his brain about Montessori education and how it helps children develop independence—both in school and at home. McCarthy formerly taught elementary and junior high students, later becoming head of school and an executive at LePort Schools—a nationwide chain of private preschools and K–8 schools. Jesse now heads the organization Montessori Education. I’m particularly excited to interview Jesse because, along with his wide-ranging experience in education and his ability to communicate the value of Montessori, he taught my daughter. —Sarah Biddle

Sarah Biddle: Jesse, thanks so much for taking time to chat with me about Montessori education. I know TOS readers will gain a lot from your knowledge and expertise.

Jesse McCarthy: Thanks for having me!

Biddle: To set some context, what generally speaking is the Montessori method? And what is a Montessori education?

McCarthy: This is a notoriously challenging question even for veteran Montessori practitioners. Let’s start with a practical situation that many parents and educators face. Say a toddler is bawling his eyes out, throwing a tantrum. How do you know what’s upsetting him? How do you know what to do? Ultimately, if you want to aid the child and not go mad in the process, you’re going to need some sort of insight into how his mind works so that every situation is not brand-new and baffling. The Montessori Method provides this insight. I view it as the scientific method applied to the parenting and education of children.

Maria Montessori developed her method by observing children in the process of learning. And that’s the best way for us to understand it, too. The first step is to observe. For instance, you observe a young child picking up and putting down an object. The next step is to measure: How many times in an hour does he pick it up and put it down? Then you experiment: What happens when I add another object? Does he play with the new one or continue playing with the first? Then you might form a hypothesis: Something like, “Young children like to pick up and put down objects over and over again.” Any parent of a young child can see this.

Then you test this hypothesis: Is this true with all objects? Does he enjoy picking up heavy objects? How about light objects? And then you might modify your hypothesis accordingly: “The objects must be appealing to the child.” And then you repeat this process many times with different objects, different children, different environments.

This is the kind of thing that Maria Montessori did with countless children over many years. She used this method to develop what we call Montessori education: an educational approach that includes materials designed specifically for children based on what she learned through careful observation, experimentation, and integration. That was her basic method, the scientific method.

In the broadest terms, Montessori education is guided self-creation. This means that the child is creating himself and who he is going to be as an adult—and the teacher is his guide.

In the broadest terms, Montessori education is guided self-creation. This means that the child is creating himself and who he is going to be as an adult—and the teacher is his guide. Click To Tweet

The best way to illustrate this is with a personal example. So, let me ask you, do you remember a time as a child when you learned something new about the world, or yourself, or others that was very meaningful to you?

Biddle: Yes, I remember learning to sew as a young child. My grandmother taught me how to cut fabric and make different kinds of stitches. I recall it being very challenging, and I had to work at it over time. But the first time I sewed a dress for one of my dolls and it fit her and looked nice, I felt really happy and proud. I remember feeling so grown-up and accomplished. I loved that feeling.

McCarthy: It’s funny that you mention sewing, because in a Montessori classroom for three- to six-year-olds, they have elements of sewing for the children to explore and learn. A child might sew a button onto a piece of cloth and, in doing so, not only learn how to sew a button, but also gain general confidence that she can learn new things by trying and practicing. Montessori created an environment for just such moments. You want those moments when a child is so engaged in something that is uniquely important to her, and she’s guided by someone who knows what he or she is doing. That’s the Montessori environment in its most general sense.

A great deal of thought and preparation goes into creating that environment. And there are five or six things in particular that are at the core of a Montessori environment. First is child-sized, developmentally appropriate objects. To continue with your example of sewing, a Montessori environment would never have a child sewing really tiny, tiny buttons onto things with their tiny, three-year-old fingers. They just couldn’t manage that. They work with larger buttons that are easier for them to manipulate while developing their dexterity. A Montessori classroom also has child-sized furniture, not enormous adult-sized furniture. There are child-sized pitchers, cups, brooms, etcetera, so the children can work more easily with objects and tools that fit them.

Second, the work itself, as much as possible, is autodidactic, meaning that the materials are designed so that a child can see for himself whether he has completed a given task correctly or not. So, the children don’t need a teacher to check or validate their work. They can see for themselves whether the project is done correctly or whether they need to continue working on it. These autodidactic Montessori materials, or work a child can do with minimal adult involvement, range from practical life activities such as pouring juice and washing a table; to math—multiplication and division at five and six years old; to language work; to sensorial work (which engages the child’s hands); to culture, which brings in geography and science. And whenever possible, the materials are designed to be self-correcting so that the child can work as independently as possible.

A third element at the core of a Montessori classroom is freedom within limits. Suppose you, as a child in a Montessori class, want to sew one day. You can sew. Another child wants to do math; he can do math. But this is a freedom within limits. So, say little Sarah wanted to take the sewing needle and poke a friend. That’s not allowed. Or maybe she wanted to sew during lunch. The teacher would then step in and redirect her. There is freedom in Montessori, but always within clear limits.

Another core element of Montessori education is mixed-age classrooms. In traditional schooling, whether day care or elementary or beyond, you’re usually with kids your own age or within one year of your age. However, in a Montessori class, you would be in a class with a three-year age range. Some children would be your same age, but some children would be a year or two younger than you, or a year or two older than you, depending on where you fit within that three-year age range. There are huge benefits here for the kids, including getting help and a role model from an older student, or getting the chance to help younger kids and gaining confidence and pride from that mentoring experience.

Another element of Montessori is the focus on modeling and cultivating grace and courtesy in the classroom. Children are taught things such as basic respect for others, how to work together, and the importance of not interrupting someone when he is working alone. Children even learn things as simple as how to blow their nose without getting it all over a friend’s shirt. This is the kind of thing a teacher would model and teach a child how to do appropriately.

And last, a Montessori classroom requires a properly trained teacher. It can’t be any random person coming in and teaching the children. The teacher must know the proper way to guide children in a prepared environment. The training I had through AMI [Association Montessori Internationale is the organization Montessori herself founded] was a year of intensive study and practice of Montessori’s principles and methods.

Biddle: What are the main benefits for children of a Montessori education? What do they gain from being self-directed in such an environment?

McCarthy: The main thing, ultimately, is independence, and Montessori talks about this throughout her writings. One of my favorite quotes from her about the teacher’s role sums it up nicely. She wrote, “[T]he greatest sign of success for a teacher . . . is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’” The children in a well-run Montessori classroom are working and learning largely on their own. Of course, the teacher gives initial lessons on a material or activity, and she is there for aid, but the children generally go about their schoolwork independently. And they love it. Children love to be independent.

If you think about the classic example of the mama bird pushing the baby bird out of the nest, the ultimate goal is for the baby bird to be able to fly off—to be independent. That is the goal of a Montessori education.

However, it’s important to grasp the true meaning of independence. Some people, especially in pockets of the unschooling movement, take independence to mean “doing whatever I want, whenever I want.” But that is not what Montessori means by independence. In her view, independence involves three crucial values. First, is competence. The independent child knows what he knows, he knows how to learn things on his own, and he can act on that knowledge in the world.

The second thing is confidence, but it’s an earned confidence. In Montessori, self-esteem is very important, but it’s earned self-esteem. It is not as if the teacher tells a child, “Oh, Johnny, you can do whatever you put your mind to,” and that’s the source of his self-esteem. No. Real self-esteem, the self-esteem that children gain in a properly run Montessori classroom, is understanding that they can achieve things because they have achieved things. And you can see that for yourself in your sewing example. Man, the pride in that! You can literally see it for yourself. “Wow, I did that!”

If you get that experience over and over, spanning years, in all different areas—learning to read, learning to care for yourself and your environment, and many other areas—a huge confidence comes with that. That beaming pride of “I did it!”

So, we have competence and confidence, and the third value is connection. Children in a Montessori environment learn how to get along with other children and adults, even if they don’t like the other children. This is not the hippie “let’s all hold hands and everybody love one another.” The principle here is that you have to have a baseline respect for the others around you so that you can work with them. This is where the mixed-age environment is an aid, because the younger children can see the older children acting with more maturity and restraint. And the older children develop the ability to figure out, “How do I act with this crazy, little kid? I can’t just go over and slap him. How do I deal with him?” It leads to a lot of healthy connections among the children and to the development of great conflict-resolution skills along the way.

So this is real independence: children with competence, confidence, and connection. Such boys and girls know when to ask for help and are willing to ask for it. In a classroom where you feel respected and comfortable—where there’s not the phony competition of “I need to be better than him” or the anxious concern of “He’s better than me”—you get children asking for help when they need it, honestly and objectively.

Biddle: You’ve mentioned respect and courtesy between the students, but I know Montessori also writes about the importance of the teacher respecting the children’s work and not interrupting them. Can you speak a bit about that?

McCarthy: Yes. This comes back to how a Montessori teacher respects a child’s time and space. In a Montessori classroom, when a child is focused, working, and fully engaged, even an adult will not interrupt the child—or even stop to comment, “Oh, Johnny, what an amazing job you’re doing!” The child’s work time is sacred, and that is huge. Among other values, once a child is done with an activity and puts it away, man, he feels confident and good. He’s not in the mood to go mess with another child or disturb someone else’s work either. He enjoys a sense of calm, because he was able to have his time.

Biddle: What is the difference between Montessori education and typical education in America today. In particular, how does each affect children in terms of independence and values?

McCarthy: The main difference is that public schools and many private schools tend to breed dependency, whereas Montessori fosters independence. Think about the core, traditional American education. You sit down, whether at a group desk or individual desk, and the teacher serves up questions. Then you answer them based on what you’ve been taught. The questions are always coming from the adult.

But if you think about young children, they are so full of their own questions. “Why is this? What is that? How does this work?” It’s nonstop. In traditional schooling, the kids are so directed by adults that they don’t have a chance to wonder on their own or think about “What do I like? What don’t I like? How will I spend my time?” They don’t have a chance to direct their own learning or make their own choices about what to do. But they need such skills and experience to truly develop themselves and to function successfully out there in the world.

This reminds me of an experience I had years ago as a teacher. It’s stayed with me ever since. We were on a trip with middle school students to Washington, D.C., and our tour guide took us to the subway. She gave each of the kids some money, about a dollar and a quarter each, and told them this is where you’re starting, and you need to get to this other spot. The kids were instantly asking, “Well, how do we do that? How do we get there?” And she said, “You’ve got to figure it out. Here’s your money.”

I thought this was a cool experiment, and we all enjoyed it. But I didn’t realize how meaningful this was to those kids. These were kids who really loved learning. Many of them especially loved history, and we were in D.C. visiting some fascinating historical sites, and they were loving the whole experience. They were deep learners, and they loved the trip generally. But after we got home, I was asking them what part of the trip they enjoyed most, and they all talked about “that subway!” (I should mention that this was before I taught Montessori, back when I was teaching in a more traditional environment.) Almost without exception, their favorite part of the whole trip was the subway experience, and I think it was because they had to figure it out on their own. In their relatively traditional schooling, they had so few opportunities for this kind of independent learning, and I think that’s why this subway experience was so meaningful to them. They relished that independent use of their minds to solve a problem and the pride that came with figuring it out on their own. This is at the core of Montessori education—all the way through.

Another example that comes to mind was with a five-year-old girl in a Montessori classroom who was getting a lesson on fractions. The fraction materials are metal insets in a circle, but they are divided up like slices of pizza to represent ⅓, ¼, etcetera. As the teacher was writing out a fraction on paper, she used a ruler to make the straight line to separate the numerator and denominator of the fraction.

Then the five-year-old noticed the numbers on the ruler and the markings for inches. She became curious and began to measure the straight part of the metal fraction inset—the straight part of the “pizza slice.” This is not part of the actual activity, but she became enthralled with the process and started measuring things in the classroom. She measured shoes, her arm, pencils, all sorts of things. What was most fascinating is what came next. When she came back to the metal fraction materials, she continued measuring the straight part, but then she wanted to measure the whole thing, the full circle of the “pizza” so to speak. Of course, you can’t measure a circle with a straight ruler. But she persisted, asking the teacher, “How do you measure a circle?”

Compare that type of independent thinking and self-generated curiosity of a five-year-old with the typical process in a math class: “Kids, today we’re learning how to measure circles!” That comes out of nowhere, and unless you’re super-excited about math already, it’s boring. Why would I want to learn this? On the other end of the spectrum, this five-year-old was begging the teacher to learn how to measure a circle. So, that self-directed learning is a huge difference between traditional education and Montessori.

Biddle: Another aspect of Montessori that I know supports independence is the abundance of self-correcting materials. You spoke a bit about that earlier, but can you explain more about how these work?

McCarthy: Yes, in the above case you have a child receiving an introductory lesson and some assistance from the teacher. But after the material has initially been presented by a teacher, the child is able to work with that material to complete lessons on his own. Most Montessori materials are designed like this, so that the child can see for himself whether the activity has been done correctly or not.

For instance, the material for an activity called the Cylinder Block includes ten wooden cylinders of varying widths that need to be organized from thinnest to thickest. The material has been designed with holes made to fit each of the cylinders exactly. The child will not be able to place a thick cylinder into one of the smaller holes. And if the child places a thin cylinder in a larger hole, there will be extra space around it. The child may not notice that initially. However, when he attempts to place all ten cylinders into their respective holes, he will realize that one is left over that will not fit. So, he has to go back and more closely examine his previously placed cylinders to decide how to rearrange them to fit properly. When he gets “stuck,” he can generally wrestle with the materials on his own to figure it out for himself. This helps to foster pride in the child, as he develops the habit of looking to himself first for the answers and not automatically deferring to an authority for help or the answer.

There are many such self-correcting materials throughout a Montessori classroom. And they create an environment of guided self-education. The teacher is there to guide the child, but the child is largely educating himself. Consequently, Montessori kids really learn how to learn.

This is in stark contrast with the dependence inculcated by traditional education, where children almost always have to wait to get validation from the teacher on how they did. They wait for the teacher to grade or correct their work to find out what they got right or wrong, and there’s very little opportunity to struggle to figure out things on their own. In a Montessori classroom, the child doesn’t have to look to the teacher to find out how he did. He can look at reality. He knows it through the materials themselves.

Biddle: What three or four things would you recommend to parents who might not have access to Montessori schools or the means to send their children to such schools. What can they do to apply these principles at home or as a supplement to their children’s education?

McCarthy: A few quick practical things: First, make things child-sized in your home. I know this may be basic knowledge today, but I can’t stress how important this is. Get a stool for the kitchen so that children can help make meals or get their own snacks. Have a small pitcher and small cups so they can pour their own juice. Keep the juice on a low shelf in the refrigerator so that they can reach it themselves. Give them as many opportunities as possible to get that “I did it myself!” experience.

Second, offer choices whenever you can. This comes back to that Montessori idea of freedom within limits. When you go shopping, have your child make choices whenever possible. Let her choose her own snacks from a few options. Or say she needs a new toothbrush. Select two or three from the shelf, and then let her pick: “Which one do you like?” This way your child doesn’t come to feel dependent on you for every single thing in her life. She feels she has a choice in matters that affect her.

One of my other favorite educators, Dr. Haim Ginott, once said, “Dependency breeds hostility.” And he’s right. The more choices you can offer your child, of course within sensible limits, the better it is for her and for you.

Those are two practical tips. But a broader approach includes thinking about your relationship with your child: Are you aiding him to independence, or are you being an obstacle to it? I was a history teacher, so I sometimes relate things to history. This approach reminds me of the Protestant Reformation, where Martin Luther basically said, “We’re no longer going to have the Pope in between us and God. We can have a relationship with God directly through reading the Bible ourselves.” Now, I’m not concerned with the religion aspect here. The point is, as a parent, you can be a “guide on the side.” You don’t want to be like the Pope, standing between the world and your child. Your child should be able to see and act in the world on his own as much as possible, with you on the side guiding him, not directing him. View yourself as a helper whose role is essentially to ask, “How can I help my child see and experience more of the world for himself?” Basically, we want to be careful that we’re not always telling children what everything is or how everything works. We want to let them have opportunities to discover and figure things out for themselves.

I saw an example of this recently when I was out to dinner at a restaurant. There was a little girl at a nearby table with a plastic cup right at the edge of the table. I think the initial reaction of most parents, really most adults, would be to push the cup toward the center of the table for the child so that it wouldn’t spill. What I’m saying is that you should think about even these kinds of situations. What’s going to be more impactful for her? If that cup falls and she realizes, “Oh my gosh, I need to be more careful”—or if mom pushes the cup back toward the center of the table and the girl never gets to experience that fall. It’s simple things like that. They may seem inconsequential. But they’re not. They matter. And they add up over time. If someone is always stepping between the child and the world, the child misses opportunities to learn to function independently.

Incidentally, in this case I sat and watched to see what would happen. The girl must have been about four years old. At one point she barely bumped the cup and it wobbled, but it didn’t fall. She noticed that, and so she pushed the cup back toward the center of the table. Before this, while waiting to see what would happen, I myself had trouble not walking over to push the cup back from the edge. But what would have happened if I had? I would have stepped between this child and the world. She didn’t need that. She realized herself what would happen, possibly from previous experience, and fixed the problem. She grew.

Biddle: I agree. That kind of “stepping in” is something I really struggled with as a parent. It’s hard to restrain myself from assisting or stepping in to fix a problem, even though I know it’s better to let my child see and solve a developing problem for herself or suffer consequences and learn from her own experience.

McCarthy: Exactly! Being intentional about these moments requires discipline from parents and teachers. And it’s vitally important. The result is a more independent child.

Biddle: How does this independence play out as a child transitions into adulthood? In particular, I’m curious about intellectual independence in the face of new or challenging ideas. For instance, in universities today, many students are asking for “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” so that their minds won’t be “assaulted” by new ideas that make them feel uncomfortable. Indeed, college students at many universities shout down or try to block or “deplatform” speakers whose ideas they dislike. In your view, would students who had been educated in Montessori schools be inclined toward such fear of ideas? If not, why not?

McCarthy: This is a tough question to answer, because there’s so much more in a child’s life than schooling. Regardless of what type of school you attend, you’re also going to movies, listening to music, being exposed to news, and generally engaging in the broader culture. There’s certainly no guarantee that a Montessori-educated child would never shout down a speaker. But generally, in a Montessori environment, where there’s a stress on grace and courtesy, as well as emphasis on the importance of independent thinking, these kids learn how to act respectfully even when they disagree with someone. They can respect other people’s opinions and discuss things calmly and thoughtfully. So, I do think they are much less likely to become one of those young adults who yell at people or need shelter from ideas.

Having said that, I want to note that there are real bigots and bullies out there. And a perfectly independent-minded young adult can be legitimately fearful of such people. For instance, say I was gay and going to college in some deeply religious area where there’s widespread hatred of homosexuals. I might not be safe there. Montessori’s approach to dealing with young children who have “bullying” tendencies can help in this situation as an early preventative. For instance, when a two-year-old is biting or hitting other children in the class, Montessori teachers would refrain from judging him as a “bad kid” or a “bully.” They would view him as going through a developmental stage, and they’d try to figure out what is going on with him and why he is biting. They might ask, “When is he biting? What happened before he bit the other child? What does he want?” By means of this approach, teachers and other students in class can help this “bully” figure out better ways to deal with his emotions or to get what he wants through more cooperative means. Using this approach at a young age, and as necessary throughout his school years, can help prevent a child from becoming a bully. It can help him develop into a person who is respectful of others and can work with them instead of shouting them down or becoming violent.

This is also reinforced through the day-to-day structure of a Montessori classroom, where the child’s work is respected and not interrupted. A girl is not forced to share or sit with a child she does not like. So she doesn’t become resentful for having been forced. Respectful behavior is modeled in everyday activities, and the result is a particular outlook. When the child feels that her space, her work, and her values are respected, she tends to respect other people’s space, work, and values as well. She sees how important this respect is to her, and she comes to understand that it’s the same for others. This is in stark contrast to traditional education, where a child spends years and years with teachers telling him what to do all day long and forcing him to share and do projects with others. And for many kids, this constant adult-directed schooling is reinforced at home with an overbearing, “helicopter” parenting style. When such a child turns eighteen and goes to college, he may feel rebellious and want to tell that speaker what he thinks—even if that includes shouting him off the campus. He has not been shown much respect or experienced much independence in his own development, so it’s not surprising that, as a young adult, he has trouble listening to or respecting other people.

It’s important to note that not all Montessori classrooms are equal. And not all are run strictly on Montessori principles. For example, sometimes you’ll hear a teacher in a Montessori classroom say, “We’re all friends here.” But that may not be true. And nothing in Montessori’s approach warrants such statements.

This relates to something I do occasionally in my talks with adult audiences. I ask, “How many of you hate someone?,” and a few hands will go up. But some of them don’t want to admit that they hate anyone. So next I ask, “How many of you really, really don’t like someone?,” and then all the hands go up. The next question I ask is, “How many of you allow your child to feel hate, or to really not like someone?,” and no hands go up. This goes back to a vital lesson from Dr. Haim Ginott, who points out that all feelings are OK—even the ones we might not want or that we are uncomfortable with. Children should be taught to feel their emotions without shame. And they should be taught why they can’t hit someone they hate or spit on them or shout in their face. If you help a child to understand his emotions and that it is not always appropriate for him to act on them, he will learn how to interact peacefully and respectfully with people he may not like.

Biddle: What are your goals for your company, Montessori Education?

McCarthy: My primary goal is to help parents and teachers raise independent, flourishing children and to do that while enjoying the process themselves. All too often children become the center of everything, as if they are angels and you should sacrifice anything to give them “the best.” Or less often, but equally detrimental, there are parents who view the child as a pain, and they go off and do their own thing, largely ignoring the child. I think it’s possible to have better relationships between parents and children, and between teachers and children—so that it’s just a joyful experience throughout the whole process, for everyone involved. I want to get more of that into the culture.

For me it’s really selfish. I love being around kids who are happy, and I love being around adults who are happy. I think that what I’m doing with Montessori Education is helping parents and teachers—and adults generally—become more comfortable with a healthier, more productive approach to educating children.

Biddle: You mention helping parents and teachers. Regarding teachers, do you work exclusively with Montessori teachers, or do you work with teachers outside of Montessori environments as well?

McCarthy: I work with teachers of all backgrounds. I urge people to move toward a more Montessori classroom, because I think you really need that kind of environment to be most successful. But so much can be done even in a more traditional environment. For example, I’ve worked with a lot of teachers who struggle to handle children’s aggression. Some of these teachers also don’t know how to handle their own aggression when they’re upset with a child and maybe even justifiably frustrated. It can be really tough. I help teachers to deal with frustrated emotions, to confidently connect with challenging students, and to engage their own minds and grow.

Biddle: Where can people find more information about your work in Montessori education?

McCarthy: It’s pretty simple to remember the website. It’s montessorieducation.com. People can go to the site to check out the introduction to my forthcoming book. I also have a podcast. You can find it all at montessorieducation.com.

Biddle: Thank you again for your time and wisdom, Jesse. It’s been fascinating and inspiring.

McCarthy: Thanks, Sarah. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Montessori education means a great deal to me, and I’m happy to share my experiences.

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