Montessori at work

Montessori at work

Businesses can learn from the principles espoused by a doctor and educator that changed the game for schools at the start of the 20th century – and continues to today.

As our oldest daughter was approaching her third birthday, my wife began to discuss with me what she wanted to do with preschool education for our children.

In short, she wanted our children to attend a Montessori preschool and if at all possible a Montessori primary school as well. I didn't know anything about Maria Montessori or the education system she founded but it sounded like the type of alternative system that my wife, who has deep Nelson hippie leanings, would like. Besides, there are some topics that aren't worth debating and this had all the appearance of one of these topics.

As time went on I slowly began to learn more about Maria Montessori and the Montessori system and I became more involved with the school including taking on the roles as treasurer and board chairman at several different schools. The more I learnt about Maria Montessori as a person and about her education system, the more I began to realise what a visionary she was.

Owen McCall
Owen McCall

Over time I began to realise Dr Montessori's ideas were as relevant to the work environment, particularly to the creative knowledge based work that characterises the IT industry, as they are in education.

Dr Montessori’s system is based on and linked to human psychology and natural development cycles. Over time I began to realise Dr Montessori's ideas were as relevant to the work environment, particularly to the creative knowledge based work that characterises the IT industry, as they are in education and I began to look at how I could apply her educational principles in the work place. As I pondered this, three principles stood out.

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The prepared environment: Dr Montessori believed the most important role of the teacher was to prepare and maintain a well ordered, attractive classroom designed to support children to learn. A prepared environment includes thinking about the physical space, the learning materials and equipment, and ensuing that there are appropriate interactions within the classroom.

As I looked at our traditional work environments it was obvious that they were not designed to facilitate successful work. Here are some questions I began to ask to start preparing for a supportive work environment:

● Is your work environment deliberately designed to support your team to be successful? If not, what would you change to ensure that it is?

● Is "success" clearly defined and understood by your team?

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● Does your team have the tools and information they need to be successful?

Child centric, not teacher centric. In a Montessori system the child chooses what work to do, when to do it and how to go about it. The child is free to choose their own way of working and also what they want to learn at any particular time within the structure of the prepared environment. The teacher observes the children at work and supports the child only when needed. Our industrial era management systems are designed primarily to allow managers to supervise and control workers. Some questions you could ask to move away from supervise and control and towards a team centric environment are:

● Can your team choose how to get the job done (within agreed standards)?

● Do you as leader focus on observing progress and supporting as needed (vs ensuring compliance)?

Peer-based learning and teaching: Montessori classrooms are mixed age classrooms covering three years within a cycle. Within this mixed age and mixed ability environment the children learn from and teach each other. Indeed over the course of a day it is likely that a child will at one moment be the teacher, the next a student and often you will see groups of children working collaboratively together.

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Some questions you could ask to support peer collaboration:

● Do you incentivise individual performance or team performance?

● Do your work spaces encourage collaboration or individual working?

● Do you invest in your teams coaching and mentoring skills?

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Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos

Does the Montessori system work and is it really relevant in the workplace? I don’t know for sure but I do know it provided a great start for my children and it has produced its fair share of tech luminaries including Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Jimmy Wales and Will Wright, not to mention Peter Drucker, perhaps the greatest management guru of our time.

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Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Owen McCall is director of and a member of CIO New Zealand’s editorial advisory board. He can be reached through and through his blog at

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Tags educationSergey BrinJimmy WalesmentoringLarry PageOwen McCallJeff BezosPeter Druckercontinuing educationMaria MontessoriWill Wrightpeer collaboration

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