Angeline Lillard

Montessori in the 21st Century


During her 15-minute talk, Dr. Lillard discusses:

  • 21st Century needs in education;
  • Education reform;
  • Montessori vs. Conventional schooling

Lillard defines a "Prepared Adult" as, one who has equanimity — balance — is open and ready, with a full and loving heart, to help others on their journey, without taking for themselves, but simply ready to give.


Through decades of research, Dr. Lillard has come to the conclusion that the strongest educational system for the 21st Century promotes: self-determination; order and organization; peer collaboration; intrinsic rewards; teacher warmth and direction; interconnected, interesting, and engaging work; self-correction; strong emphasis on executive functions She has found that these principles are most coherently utilized and implemented in Montessori schools.

Dr. Angeline S. Lillard is an author and researcher funded by sources like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Institute for Educational Sciences (IES), and the Wildflower Foundation. Lillard’s primary research interests include early childhood education and developmental psychology, with emphasis on study of the Montessori model. She is also interested in the development of theory of mind, children’s executive function, children and media, neuroplasticity, contemplative practices, and culture and development.


Well. So I wanted to talk to you today about 21st century needs in education and why I think Montessori is something that has real potential to fulfill those needs. And so let's start with just thinking about what do we need in the 21st century. We certainly need an education system that's a bit different from the one that we primarily have. I'm not going to go through these one by one. I'll just let you read through them. But, you know, we hear various people talking about 21st century needs a globalized world, a world that's having crucial climate issues, a world that's having crucial social issues that are caused in part by that. And we need a new kind of kind of thinking. And and yet our existing school model has been really hard to get away from. And I think about this in terms of kind of the physics of it and, and, and the attractor state that is. What conventional schooling I think is so. So in physics and attractor is a set of numerical values that specify the state to which a dynamical system naturally gravitates. And I think we keep in school and gravitating back to the factory model and behaviorism because we're not doing something radical enough to change it. So Resnick and Hall 1998 mentioned this, that despite three decades of research and cognitive science and related disciplines, the assumptions of the 1920s are firmly ensconced in the standard operating procedures of today's schools.

And then, as recently as 2019, Dean Smith went around the country and looked at schools and saw that most classrooms are still using that model. So people in schools of education argue that things are changing. But when I talk to people that are actually in schools, they say, no, we're really still doing that same old thing. So why Montessori? Well, Montessori capitalizes on natural and formal ways of learning that have existed for all time. And in all cultures, people will sometimes say, you know, it's got to be out of date. It's from the early 1900s. But we don't say buddhism's out of date. You know, it's about human psychology. And that's what Maria montessori was looking at, as well as human psychology. And so through observing children and she was a genius observer, she came up with a very different system. And that system has shown itself to be profoundly successful. And that's what my and other people's research is repeatedly showing now, not to a single study. There are studies that don't show it to do well. But my argument is that those studies generally are not using proper implementation of Montessori, that when you implement it in the way that she describes in her books, it's really highly successful. And I think too, we have to think about the fact, although there are other alternative models out there that I think are wonderful, the books, even in Spark that you may hear about later, presents many of those.

Montessori is the one that's been around for over 100 years and is still very prevalent. So many school systems have sort of come and gone and you hear a little about Dewey schools or Dalton schools or whatnot, but there's not a whole lot of them. Montessori is quite prevalent and it's lasted over 100 years and that's because it's really good. So I think if we're going to think about alternatives, we should really look hard at it and think about it. So now I'm going to walk through some results from from my studies. Again, there's there's other studies, too, that are really impressive and just show you some of the outcomes that we've seen. This first one is from a lottery control study that's very important. So we know it's not just the parents. We looked at children in public, Montessori and Hartford, which is one of the poorest cities in the United States. And children had entered two schools that were Montessori through a random lottery, and they were tested against children who lost the lottery and were at other schools. And these were magnet schools. So half of the other children were at private schools. Their parents were fairly wealthy. There was a strong there was a huge range in income levels from 0 to 200000, which is a very healthy income.

So what we found was that in the first fall when they were in preschool, there was not a significant difference. This is time one in how they do on an academic achievement composite that was somewhat cut Johnson tests by the end of the year when they were three. It's still no difference, in fact, that it closed a little bit. I think the the beginning difference might be because we tested the children a little ways into the year they are randomly assigned and there's no difference statistically. But by time three, the end of the year when they're four years old in these Montessori preschool classrooms versus all these other classrooms that they wound up in, you're starting to see a significant difference and a time for an even stronger difference. So across preschool, you saw this change. And when we look just at the lower income children in this sample, you really saw some impressive change where they're catching up to the higher income children. By the end of the study, it wasn't statistically significantly different for low income children in Montessori versus high income children, whether they were in Montessori or not. So so really impressive outcomes there then. We don't like these state exams particularly where they're. You know, giving children standardized tests under the No Child Left Behind Act. But they're out there and public Montessori schools, like all public schools, have to have children take them.

And we thought, you know, how do children do on this test? So we went to the ten states and regions in the United States that have the most public Montessori, and they had about just under 200 public Montessori between them. And we compared how children did in the Montessori school with the scores of the district that the Montessori school was in correcting for the scores of the contributions of the Montessori schools in those districts. And I'm going to show you now a graph that shows the difference in the percentage proficient, and that's each state sets that, but it's consistent between the school and the district at eighth grade, controlling for that same school at third grade. So these aren't the same children, but we don't have any reason to think that the third graders and the eighth graders are different in any way. So so that's so and the school is really our unit, our participant here. And so what we found was that all results favor Montessori where the growth from from third to eighth grade, if you can think of it that way, is stronger in Montessori and blue is math and read is ELA here, English language arts or reading and language. And so you can see overall Montessori is doing quite, quite a bit better, more than around 10% more efficient for black children who go to Montessori schools.

It's a group that we're particularly concerned about in the US for historical reasons have not done as well and you can see even greater gains for them. Hispanic children in economically disadvantaged children. It's just across the board. Montessori seems to be helping children more than than other schools. Of course, there is the possibility that it's parents who sign up for Montessori here. So it's important to take this in the context of lottery control studies. So here's another lottery control study. Again, this one has many other results. So did the first one. I'm just trying to give you a selection. This was published in Science in 2006, and we, in addition to many other tests that showed five year olds doing better on just about everything and 12 year olds doing better on many things, when we watch them on the playground, we saw that children who go to Montessori are engaged in almost four or more minutes of positive, shared play in a 15 minute session, significantly less ambiguous rough play and just about the same amount of independent play. So another way of looking at it, their social skills are better, so. So they're doing better academically. They seem to be doing better socially. We've also got several findings on executive function and so does a meta analysis that I'm working on that will have its results up soon.

So I can't remember it's Cochrane or Campbell, but one of those collaboratives. So in this study we were we got pre test and post test data. So we're looking at school year change. And the comparison group here was conventional schools that the parents said they would send their children to of Montessori were not available and we're comparing it with what's sometimes called Monto, something schools schools that are not implementing it fully according to Montessori program. And our index for this was that they had a lot of non Montessori materials that children were using, a lot of non Montessori materials. Sorry. At any given time. And then classic Montessori. Those are classrooms where there's only Montessori materials that are very much going by the book. And what you can see is on the head, toes, knees, shoulders, measure. This is one where if I say touch your head, you need to touch your toes. If I say touch your toes, you need to touch your head. So children need to use a lot of executive function to bear those rules in mind to inhibit the pre potent response, to follow your instruction. And, and a second command is added later. And then then the children who do really well, there's a third command where you actually swap it. So when I say touch your head, you have to touch your knees instead of your toes. And what we see here is children who are in classic Montessori classrooms, the amount that they're doing better at the end of the school year and these are three, four and five year olds is quite a bit more than the amount that the other children are doing better.

And these were very good, conventional and supplemented Montessori schools, but classic Montessori really one won the day over them. Another finding that we got from that Hartford study that I showed you first was we gave children a test of mastery. Orientation and mastery orientation is, of course, really important, is from from Carol Dweck work showing that when you're faced with a challenge, you will take it on. You want to go and engage with challenges. And it's a marker of having a more incremental theory of intelligence and notion that if I work hard, I can change as opposed to my intelligence is something fixed and tests are going to show what that is. And and people that have that fixed sense up for easy things and aren't ones who are really going to be pushing the envelope in society. So we look for a strong mastery orientation. And the way that we tested for this was a test that Dweck and one of her former graduate students had come up with. Where children are given puzzles to solve in the beginning of the test session, there's an easy one that they can solve fairly quickly, and then there's a super difficult one that is actually impossible to solve, but that it doesn't appear to be impossible.

And so children are given an opportunity to work at both of these puzzles. And then at the very end of the test session, you bring the puzzles out again and you say, we have a little more time. Would you like to work on one of these puzzles again? And we looked at how often children chose to work at the difficult puzzle again. And what we're going to see here is at three years old, there's no difference between the children who by lottery got into Montessori and the children who didn't in terms of how often they choose the difficult puzzle. But by the time that they're at the end of the year when they're four and then particularly when they're five, you're seeing the Montessori children are far more likely to want to embrace, challenge and take on that difficult puzzle. So so we're seeing Montessori is leading to because we can really say it's leading to in these lottery studies a lot of positive changes. The next studies I'm going to tell you about don't have that control in them. But we just went to adults and we ask them questions. So we've got one study that is submitted now where we're looking at how much people like school and what features made them like school with the idea that we don't need to change the school model if everybody loved it because some people love schools and especially people who are in academia tend to be people who love school.

So we thought, how much do people say they like school? Because some people hated it, some people liked it. How do people feel overall? So we had a large sample and we started out with just a metric to see how how school fits on a scale. How much did you like running errands as a child? How much did you like school? How much do you like scraping your knee and how much did you like getting a special treat? And what you can see is for people who did not go to Montessori at all when they were young, it's about the same as running errands. But for people who went to Montessori, it's significantly more than if they didn't go to Montessori. And there's a number of other findings from from the study about the circumstances and why people like school. So so you've got a situation then where people do better. They've got a lot of better outcomes and they even like it more. And then we also have done a study with around 2000 people where we looked at their well-being outcomes as adults. And we're also we also had some Waldorf people in this sample, but the green here is Montessori and what you can see is the red is conventional people who went to Montessori. If we look at their psychological well-being, their social well-being, subjective vitality, their mindful attention, all kinds of things, they're doing better. They also say that they played hookey less in elementary school. That means they skipped school less, there's less truancy. So we've got this model out there that I think there are many different findings suggest do better. Now, why is that? We can talk about that a lot today. Many people are looking for the one secret ingredient that they could plant and conventional schools. And I say no, Montessori is a system. And I think at the core it's got this element of self determination and many aspects of it make good sense in light of that. And I talk about it in this educational psychology review article that's that's noted here. But if you look at Montessori, every element works in with every other in this very sensible way that I think is part of where these outcomes come from. So with without further ado, I'm close on my time here. So I want to thank some of our recent funders. We've got another big trial, actually, a national trial using lotteries in public, Montessori preschools going on now and and many other studies. And I look forward to talking to you all more today. So thank you very much.

Made possible by the Prepared Adult Initiative.