Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: An Intersection with Montessori Education

Spring 2019

By Cynthia Brunold-Conesa

A pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental cultures offers full, equitable access to education for students from all cultures.—“Teaching Diverse Learners: Culturally Responsive Teaching,” The Education Alliance, Brown University

Maria Montessori originated and advocated for a new pedagogy based not only on her scientific observation of human development but on her belief in the child as a symbol of human potential, as the hope for humankind. She maintained that education holds the key to promoting children’s sensitivity to and appreciation of a multicultural world, resulting in a worldview conducive to understanding and working with people of other countries and cultures.1

These values, essential components of Montessori’s peace education, are built into the curriculum at every level, from preschool through high school. Presently, Montessori schools operate in at least 110 countries worldwide. That Montessori schools have existed and thrived on a global level and in a multiplicity of cultures for over 100 years is a testament to the universality of the Montessori education model, but its international presence is but one element of its culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP). This work outlines the basic tenets of CRP and examines how Montessori education, through specific components of its philosophy and curriculum, together with the thoughtful cultivation and internalization of cultural competence, is in alignment with this pedagogical orientation.


Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Gloria Ladson-Billings, the founding expert in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy, outlines its three primary goals: student learning, cultural competence, and socio-political consciousness2 (discussed in subsequent sections). The Education Alliance of Brown University outlines some avenues educators can take toward addressing the goals of a culturally responsive pedagogy: All of the above characteristics are highly compatible with Montessori pedagogy, and while some are inherent in the philosophy, methodology, and curriculum, others exist only insofar as teachers make a concerted and willing effort “to lean into our own transformation by hearing the personal truths of diverse voices from our community and beyond.”4 Following is an examination of the cultural relevance of Montessori pedagogy as per the defining principles above.


Montessori, Culture, and a Global Perspective

The promotion of global citizenship through peace studies has been a major objective of Montessorians for more than 80 years and is integral to and links together different curriculum areas at the preschool, elementary, and secondary levels. One component of the Montessori integrated history/geography curriculum known as the fundamental needs of humans helps children recognize that all people on all continents throughout history had and have the same basic needs. In preindustrial times, especially, it was the geographic context, together with local natural resources, that determined how different groups of people met their needs. While children learn that all people have a fundamental need for shelter, food, and clothing, for example, they recognize that people in extreme northern latitudes will meet these needs very differently than those living in the equatorial zone, even today when resources from other regions are widely available.

This specific curriculum component, explored in early childhood, elementary, and secondary Montessori classrooms at ever-increasing levels of complexity, is not only content-appropriate for children of any culture or faith (free of ideological bias) but also promotes intercultural sensitivity and empathy at a very young age, foundational for the development of attitudes of global citizenship. The fundamental needs of humans work, among other work in the Montessori curriculum, presents “a framework for preparing children … for their work within a larger community”5 as citizens of the world.
           
What is global citizenship, and why is it important? The research reveals a long list of descriptors, including tolerance, acceptance, cooperation, and the ability to identify and solve global and international problems;6 promoting multiculturalism;7 respect for other cultures and concern for human rights;8 and belief in the unity and interdependence of humanity.9 Such outward-looking attitudes help lay the foundation for culturally relevant learning and for students’ place as global citizens, vital for future work and life in an increasingly connected world.


Montessori and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

As children acquire intercultural sensitivity and understanding, they also develop not only tolerance but appreciation of differences as well as “the ability to navigate differences with respect.”10 In the Montessori classroom, this often translates into exploratory projects about people and cultures other than one’s own. For very young children, this might mean listening to a variety of folk tales or singing songs from around the world, learning to say “hello” or “good morning” in all the languages represented by members of the class, or inviting the children’s families to the classroom to share different holidays and traditions (quite common in Montessori classrooms at all levels). One early childhood Montessori educator described what happened when she invited family participation:
Each child was given a map of the world and the parents marked where the family members originated and where they settled in the United States. They also included stories about the family. From this, all sorts of celebrations and activities occurred … families began sharing their traditions with the school, and those activities became part of the independent work in the classroom.11

The attitudes and activities described above align with at least three of the seven defining principles of CRP as outlined by the Education Alliance:
  • Positive perspectives on parents and families—inviting families to be important and effective partners in the education process
  • Culturally mediated instruction—ongoing activities that promote an awareness of cultural history
  • Reshaping the curriculum—including topics relevant to the students’ background or culture
These types of activities are common rather than the exception in the Montessori early childhood classroom.

Exploring personal history involves more in-depth work for the older (elementary and secondary) Montessori student and hits some of the remaining targets of CRP, including teachers as facilitators: “[Teachers] act as guides, mediators, consultants, instructors, and advocates for the students, helping to effectively connect their culturally- and community-based knowledge to the classroom learning experiences.”12

Montessori guides provide opportunities, for example, through which the older child or adolescent can embark on a personal quest of sorts—long-term independent or collaborative projects that deepen the connection between students and their personal history, including culture. To illustrate, an older elementary child might explore his ancestors’ past lifestyle in the context of the fundamental needs of humans; an adolescent could conduct an in-depth investigation into any historical event in which her parents, grandparents, or other relatives were directly involved, such as the Civil Rights Movement; the Great Depression; or any one of a number of wars, forced displacement, or refugee migrations. Every family, no matter how superficially unremarkable, has a past of personal, cultural, and historic value associated with emigrations, livelihood, traditions, travel, and so on. Any aspect of a child’s family or broader cultural life can serve as a catalyst for or focus of meaningful and culturally relevant classroom work.

These types of projects, like most work in Montessori classrooms, are student-centered, one of the defining principles of CRP, in that “students are encouraged to direct their own learning … on research projects and assignments that are both culturally and socially relevant to them.”13

Facilitating student-centered culturally relevant projects that invite family participation is an example of a first step teachers can take toward creating a culturally responsive pedagogy. But this work is largely external in terms of the teacher’s role. Other aspects of CRP necessitate important inner work on the part of the teacher:
It is easy for those of us in Montessori environments to implement cultural relevancy, as the foundation of respect should already be present. However, there are less obvious elements of cultural relevance requiring specific training for the adult. We all have unconscious biases that are part of our cultures that we must overcome.14

This is the more difficult work for the teacher—in Montessori classrooms or otherwise. To understand its importance, we need only consider by way of example the cultural history of children of First Nations people in our American schools and recognize that forced displacement and removal of children to boarding schools resulted in deculturization and the loss of the identity of an entire generation. There is ample discussion in the literature about American Indian children being separated from their families for up to eight years, punished for speaking their native language, forced to renounce their culture, and placed in non-Indian foster homes where they were generally mistreated or abused. Such cultural oppression effectively laid the groundwork for a legacy of mistrust on the part of American Indians toward white culture and its institutions.15

Education was and is, understandably, one such target of suspicion, especially given that some children in our schools today have living relatives who can speak of their direct experience of this trauma. When we add to this history differences in American Indian pedagogies—including experience-based knowledge; learning preferences; and the use of language, time, and space—we are left with nothing short of a culture clash, which, in many cases, plays out with teachers viewing some minority students as uncooperative, defiant, unmotivated, or in need of special education services. As Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, explains, “Too often, implicit bias leads teachers to not see the cultural and linguistic assets and skills diverse students use to navigate the content. Too often teachers see culturally diverse students’ behaviors as problematic.”16

Hammond promotes use of the Mindful Reflection Protocol17 as a tool for teachers to recognize their biases. The method involves viewing an incident through three lenses: description, interpretation, and evaluation. First, describe the incident with no judgment; second, interpret—ask what the child’s actions mean to you—again with no judgment; and finally, evaluate, that is, reflect on your judgment of the behavior. This protocol is nearly synonymous with the Montessori principle of teacher observation, which is foundational to the pedagogy. Guides observe to gauge the student’s competence with and interest in a particular material or concept, as well as his or her academic, social, and emotional development, together with physical wellness. Critical to the success of observation is reflection in the form of interpretation. As with the Mindful Reflection Protocol, Montessori guides reserve judgment until a reflective interpretation of the behavior has been made.

For the teacher, Montessori or not, who is committed to creating a culturally responsive pedagogy, there must be a “willingness to learn from and relate respectfully to people from … other cultures … to begin (or continue) to minimize their harm and dismantle systemic oppression.”18 This becomes the inner work of the teacher and aligns with Ladson-Billings’ principle of cultural competence, or “the understanding that [the teacher’s] own worldview and understandings may or may not align with those of [his or her] students.”19

Cultural competence, as defined by Ladson-Billings, is not necessarily inherent in Montessori pedagogy but, once internalized and thoughtfully executed in the classroom, complements the role of the teacher as facilitator in a student-centered learning environment. Intrinsic to the role of a Montessori guide is the ability and willingness to “vary teaching approaches to accommodate diverse learning styles and language proficiency [and] utilize various resources in the students’ communities.”20 All students, regardless of cultural background, have options for how to complete an assignment or demonstrate progress and mastery; that is, Montessori offers differentiation of content, process, and product based on student need—readiness, interest, and learning preferences.21

One of the essential elements of differentiation is to maintain high expectations for all students; differentiation, when effectively applied, helps close the achievement gap that often arises when, because of cultural bias, we do not prepare students for rigorous work, often resulting in loss of confidence in those students as learners. Culturally competent teachers differentiate in order to “help culturally and linguistically diverse students leverage their cultural learning tools and accelerate their own learning.”22

One final point to consider is whether Montessori promotes socio-political consciousness, that is, guiding students to the notion that “education can and should alleviate [social, cultural, civic, environmental and political problems],”23 a type of activism compatible with the work of Paulo Freire.24 Montessori believed in education as a weapon for peace in that children educated to be respectful, cooperative, caring, and supportive community members are more likely to grow into peaceful citizens and ultimately wise societal leaders. Conflict resolution skills and contributing to a strong community form the foundation for peace in the classroom, and the child’s developing sense of ethics and emerging global perspective cultivate an interest in and concern about global issues, such as food and water shortages, human rights, and the environment. Finally, in a fitting synthesis of peace education, problem-solving, and socio-political consciousness, some older Montessori students (nine to 15 years) participate in the Montessori Model United Nations, wherein they take on the role of ambassador or press corps reporter and meet in committees to discuss contemporary world issues found on the actual UN agenda:
Through the process of role-playing, each student becomes a delegate of a selected nation. They write, present and debate issues affecting their nation and peoples of the world. By assuming the character of a citizen of their selected country they fully develop an understanding of the needs of a people and the importance of accepting differences.25

The development of socio-political consciousness toward the end of improving the human condition is, in fact, the objective of Montessori’s peace education.


Conclusion

While some of the hallmarks of culturally responsive pedagogy are inherent in Montessori education, others must be thoughtfully cultivated and internalized. Montessori pedagogy is more than a methodology and beautiful materials and necessitates that teachers do much inner work, including that of developing cultural competence by “reflecting on our understanding around our notions of difference and how we perceive people who are different from us.”26 As Zaretta Hammond reminds us, culturally responsive pedagogy is not a set of clever techniques and strategies, nor is Montessori pedagogy. Both are “about your stance as an educator”27 and a discipline of caring. 

Notes

  1. Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method (New York: Schocken Books, 1964; originally published 1909).
  2. Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” American Educational Research Journal 32, no. 3 (1995), pp. 465-491; online at http://lmcreadinglist.pbworks.com/f/Ladson-Billings%20%281995%29.pdf.
  3. The Education Alliance, “Teaching Diverse Learners: Culturally Responsive Teaching,” Brown University; online at https://www.brown.edu/academics/education-alliance/teaching-diverse-learners/strategies-0/culturally-responsive-teaching-0#ladson-billings.
  4. Tammy Oesting and Ashley Speed, “Exploring Diversity and Inclusivity in Montessori (Part 3),” Montessori Life, Spring 2019, p. 49.
  5. Marie Scott, “The Needs of Humans: A Beginning,” Montessori Life, Autumn 2006, pp. 32-35.
  6. Kieran James, “International Education: The Concept and Its Relationship to Intercultural Education,” Journal of Research in International Education 4, no. 3 (2005), pp. 313-332.
  7. Paul Poore, “School Culture: The Space Between the Bars; the Silence Between the Notes,” Journal of Research in International Education 4, no. 3 (2005), pp. 351-361.
  8. Vivien Stewart, “Becoming Citizens of the World,” Educational Leadership 64, no. 7 (2007), pp. 8-14; online at www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr07/vol64/num07/Becoming-Citizens-of-the-World.aspx.
  9. Rebecca Duckworth, Lynn Walker Levy, and Jack Levy, “Present and Future Teachers of the World’s Children: How Internationally-Minded Are They?” Journal of Research in International Education 4, no. 3 (2005), pp. 279-311.
  10. Derrick Gay, quoted in Dane L. Peters, “Unpacking ‘Diversity’ in Our Lives and Schools: An Interview with Dr. Derrick Gay,” Montessori Life, Spring 2019, p. 45.
  11. Gina Lofquist, online course discussion post, February 26, 2019.
  12. Education Alliance, “Teaching Diverse Learners.”
  13. Ibid.
  14. Jeannot Rene Jonte, quoted in Oesting and Speed, “Exploring Diversity and Inclusivity.”
  15. Mary Hermes, “The Scientific Method, Nintendo, and Eagle Feathers: Rethinking the Meaning of ‘Culture-Based’ Curriculum at an Ojibwe Tribal School,” Qualitative Studies in Education 13, no. 4 (2000), pp. 387-400; online at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.536.6854&rep=rep1&type=pdf; and Derald Wing Sue and David Sue, Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, 3rd edition (New York: Wiley, 1999).
  16. Zaretta Hammond, quoted in Larry Ferlazzo, “‘Culturally Responsive Teaching’: An Interview With Zaretta Hammond,” Education Week Teacher Blog, July 8, 2015; online at https://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2015/07/culturally_responsive_teaching_an_interview_with_zaretta_hammond.html.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Oesting and Speed, “Exploring Diversity and Inclusivity.”
  19. Lisa Fink, “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” Literacy & NCTE Blog, National Council of Teachers of English, February 21, 2016; online at http://www2.ncte.org/blog/2016/02/culturally-relevant-pedagogy/.  
  20. Education Alliance, “Teaching Diverse Learners.”
  21. Carol Ann Tomlinson and Marcia B. Imbeau, Leading and Managing a Differentiated Classroom (Alexandria, VA: ACSD, 2010).
  22. Hammond, quoted in Larry Ferlazzo, “‘Culturally Responsive Teaching.’”
  23. Theo Helm, “Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Originator of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Addresses ACE Teachers and Leaders,” Alliance for Catholic Education, University of Notre Dame, 2017; online at https://ace.nd.edu/news/dr-gloria-ladson-billings-addresses-ace-teachers-and-leaders.
  24. Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998).
  25. “The MMUN Program,” Montessori Model United Nations, 2018; online at https://montessori-mun.org/us/.  
  26. Gay, quoted in Peters, “Unpacking ‘Diversity.’”
  27. Hammond, quoted in Ferlazzo, “‘Culturally Responsive Teaching.’”
Cynthia Brunold-Conesa

Cynthia Brunold-Conesa (cynthialconesa@gmail.com) is a graduate-level adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.