Latest Research (Part 2)

In the last post we talked about what is probably the best current study comparing the traditional North American Public School education and Montessori education. That post jumped straight to the conclusion. Here, we’ll go into greater detail on the measures used and what they mean and speculate a bit on what caused the differences between traditional public and Montessori education.

The final sample included 141 children, 70 in Montessori and 71 in other schools, most of whom were tested 4 times over 3 years, from the first semester to the end of preschool (ages 3–6), on a variety of cognitive and socio-emotional measures. (Lillard, 2017)

Academic Achievement:




Academic achievement was measured using the Woodcock–Johnson IIIR Test. At the beginning and end of the first year of preschool the students performed equally well, statistically speaking, in both the Montessori and Traditional Public schools. By the end of their second year the Montessori students started to pull ahead significantly and this gap continued to grow into the end of the third year of preschool, the end of the study.

The human brain undergoes marked development in the first 6 years, and the environment interacts with gene expression producing changes that appear to be permanent (Zhang and Meaney, 2010). Furthermore, neural development proceeds in a hierarchical fashion, with later attainments built on earlier ones (Merzenich, 2001). -Lillard, 2017

It’s been long understood that the human brain’s ability to learn is greatest in the early years of life. The research by Zhang and Meaney shows that there are also permanent physical changes in the brain that are affected by the environment, or preschool. Lillard goes on to say that learning, and neural development, is often based on what has already been learned in the past. Maria Montessori talks about the Sensitive Periods of a child’s development, “if a child has not been bale to act according to the directives of his sensitive period, the opportunity of a natural conquest is lost, and is lost for good” (Montessori, The Secret of Childhood, 1966). As an example, Maria gives ages 1.5 to 2.5 as a sensitive period for Coordination of Movement. This is a substantial burst of growth for walking, running, jumping. She also discusses sensitive periods for Order, Language and Refinement of the Senses.

Maria’s Sensitive Periods have similarities to Piaget’s stages of development which are taught in many B.Ed. programs. Piaget was actually a student of Maria Montessori but unfortunately he was less thorough than her in quoting the researchers he based his work off. We’ll likely do a future post on that topic.

Finally, Lillard quotes Heckman, 2006  in that “economic analyses show that the highest rates of return on educational investments in human capital are derived from preschool programs.” So if you want to reap the highest return on investment for education, forget Harvard, put the money into a Montessori education system!

In a bit we’ll cover enjoyment of school/learning, but I’m sure that you can see here how an increased love of learning, and self guided learning also impacts later stages of life.

Theory of Mind:

This area is comparing different mental state understandings (desires vs. belief, ignorance vs false beliefs).

Again, the difference is insignificant at the start of preschool but by the end of year two the Montessori students start pulling ahead and continue to increase the gap.

Imagine if everyone were able to tell the difference between propaganda and well documented news.

Social Problem Solving:

For example, “children were shown two other preschoolers, one of whom had a coveted resource like a swing and had had it for a “long, long time” and the other of whom wanted that resource. Children were asked what the second child could do or say to get the resource, what else they could do or say, and what the child him- or herself would do or say.”

“Children in the two samples were equivalent throughout the study.” (Lillard, 2017)

Moving on…

Executive Function:

First, the children played a game of head-toes-knees-shoulders. Complication was added when they were asked to touch the opposite body part of what the researcher said.

The second test was of Visuospatial Processing, this effects your ability to tell where things are in space, like your own body parts, or for reading a map. The children were given a grid with different figures in every second row. They were told to copy the figures into the blank rows.

The differences were insignificant except at the end of the second year but insignificant at the end of the third year of preschool.


In the final post we will cover Mastery Orientation, School enjoyment, Creativity and our own conclusion.

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