The Montessori Approach to Gender Neutral Education

Last week I wrote a little about the self-proclaimed gender-neutral preschool in Stockholm, Egalia. There, the teachers make an effort to use gender-neutral pronouns and to help the children realize their capabilities in many areas. As a former Montessori teacher, as I read the article, I was a little surprised at the stir caused by this topic. For over 100 years, the Montessori method has been promoting gender equality without even trying.

Over 100 years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, developed a method of education by working with “defective” children (her term, not mine). In institutions designed for children with special needs, Dr. Montessori observed them and designed a method of education to meet their needs. What started as something to do for a female physician who couldn’t find a job anywhere else has turned into a world-wide education movement that has benefited generations of children of all abilities across all socioeconomic classes. I could go on for hours about the magic that is Montessori, but today I’m going to focus my few hundred words on how Montessori education is gender neutral.

Because Dr. Montessori was first and foremost a scientist, she based her methods on hours of observation. What she learned is that all people, regardless of status or ability, have sensitive periods and human tendencies that guide development. She didn’t buy into the “children learn through play” theory of her contemporaries; rather, she realized that children learn through work.

Work? For 3 year olds? Yes. Real and purposeful work for 3 year olds. This translates into instead of playing with fake food in a pretend kitchen, Montessori had the children preparing real food for their peers to eat. Instead of dressing up dolls, the children learned the skills needed to dress themselves. Instead of building with a random set of blocks, children are shown different sets of blocks designed to focus on a particular attribute.

This approach lends itself to being gender neutral because the activities appeal to all children. The materials in the classroom are sequential, and each child moves through materials at her own pace. Most lessons are individual for the 3 and 4 year olds, and as the child matures, more group lessons are given. Children are drawn to activities that speak to them, not to activities that are dictated by a teacher. Since dramatic play is not a factor and free-form block building is not included in the curriculum, a lot of gender bias is automatically eliminated. Montessori materials are designed for a particular purpose, and once the child has a good grasp of the concept, she’s shown the next material in the sequence.

Every child is shown how to wash a table, how to wash a window, how to button a shirt. Every child is shown the geography puzzle maps and the land and water forms that illustrate geographical features such as lakes and islands. Every child is introduced to the alphabet phonetically and given the tools with which to write at an early age. Every child is prepared for mathematics by being introduced to the base-10 system first.

The Montessori materials are brightly colored and appealing – there’s the Pink Tower, the Red Rods, and the Brown Stair. Not once in 15 years of teaching did a boy tell me he didn’t want to do the pink tower because it was pink. Not once did a boy tell me he didn’t want to do flower arranging. Not once did a girl say no to hammering nails. They didn’t say no because the work was appealing and purposeful.

My daughter, who will be six soon, has spent the last three years in a Montessori classroom. She’s a girl who likes to play with dolls, who isn’t interested in sports, and who likes to wear dresses. I asked her if there was boy work and girl work at school, and she looked at me like I had two heads. “Well, is there any work that’s just for boys? Or work that’s just for girls?”

Her answer? “No, mom – the work is for all of us, we all use the same things.” Isn’t that a great way to start an education?

5 thoughts on “The Montessori Approach to Gender Neutral Education”

  1. My son spent a morning in a Montessori while we were trying out preschools, and oh do I wish we could afford to send him there. It was amazing watching him work so busily with no direction. The ‘gender neutral’ aspect made me giggle, though. Of the four teachers I met there, I was unsure of the gender of two of them. It seems that, here at least, Montessori is dominated by those on the progressive end of the spectrum, and defined gender roles are not the norm for the teachers as well. I wonder if, as Montessori becomes more mainstream, that will change and those gender roles will find a way into the classroom.

  2. Athens, GA, where I live, seems to be a huge fan on the whole of the Montessori movement. We have at least a dozen schools within the city limits. I have several friends who are Montessori teachers (both men and women, teaching grades 2 all the way up to 10). I am a huge fan of the Montessori school. I’ve sat in on a few classes and I really feel that it is a good method. It is my dream to send my son to a Montessori school. I’ve even considered getting my training to teach, simply so I can afford to put him in Montessori. Here in Athens it is crazy expensive, and there is a huge waiting list at every school. It’s definitely picking up momentum. I just hope that I can send my little dood there.

  3. If there is a silver bullet in education, it’s Montessori.
    I worked in a public option Montessori school, which is a little different than how they do it in private Montessori schools, but Montessori magnets all over the country, in all socio-economic areas AND with all at-risk groups, are succeeding.
    As a special ed teacher with a self-contained classroom, I was able to make sure my curriculum was chronologically on par with my fellow gen ed teachers, because all of the Montessori materials and methods were just as beneficial to the life-skills curriculum I was required to teach as they were to the academic skills I wanted my students to have the opportunity to learn. The cherry on top? It taught independence and self-direction, two skills which are normally dreadfully lacking in curricula for kids with pervasive disabilities.
    I don’t understand why it hasn’t been the focus of our Big Discussions on education, other than the cost of implementation on a wider scale.

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