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Intersections between Montessori Practices and Culturally-Based Curriculum

for African-American Students

AMS Research Committee White Paper
Horace R. Hall, PhD, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Research, DePaul
Angela K. Murray, PhD, AMS Research Coordinator, Editor
One of the goals of AMS is to disseminate research relevant to Montessori education. The AMS
Research Committee is publishing this white paper to present a conceptual model that illustrates
similarities between Montessori practices and instructional needs of African American children.
Dr. Maria Montessori, Italian physician and later educational visionary, developed teaching and
learning strategies that largely contrasted the behaviorist view of education in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries. As opposed to seeing the student as an empty receptacle waiting to be
filled with facts and information by the teacher, Dr. Montessori viewed children as active and
self-directed participants in constructing knowledge of the world around them (Lillard, 2005;
Montessori, 2006). This constructivist approach is at the core of Montessori methods in
developing cognition in early childhood learners (Loeffler, 1992).
Over the past few decades, Montessori instruction has increasingly been seen as a viable
alternative to the behaviorist approach to teaching and learning. Based on its programmatic
success, Montessori schools have extended beyond the private sector and into the public domain
(Dohrmann et al., 2007). Despite this expansion, these programs are still perceived as elitist
given that Montessori schools have been traditionally private institutions requiring tuition. Thus,
the accessibility of such education can be limited to families in lower income brackets (Peshkin,
2000). Additionally, as Montessori curriculum is often consigned to its own schools, there tends
to be a partial understanding as to what exactly is Montessorian educational theory and practice
(Benham, 2010; Zarybnisky, 2010).
The context
Scholars have long argued that in our urban public schools there exists the ever-increasing
epidemic of academic failure and dropout among African American students (Bennett & Fraser,
2000; Blanchett, 2006; Fordham, 2001; Hale & Bailey, 2001; Perry, Steele & Hilliard, 2003).
Academic underachievement for these youth has been associated with teachers overreliance on
direct instruction, socially and culturally irrelevant curriculum, excessive classroom discipline,
as well as a lack of student self-discipline. Research literature also associates these students high
educational hurdles with their out of school livese.g., the disintegration of the traditional
family unit, community fragmentation, poverty, gang violence, and scarce community resources

September 2011

(youth organizations, athletic groups, violence prevention programs) (Fleming, Barner, Hudson
& Rosignon-Carmouche, 2000; MacLeod, 1995; Wilson, 1992).
In school settings where direct instructional teaching methods are vigorously employed, how
might African American students benefit from Montessori instruction? Equally, in what ways
can such pedagogy extend beyond the classroom and into the communities of these youngsters?
The answers to this query may be found in observing intersections between Montessori
educational theory and culturally-based teaching practices best suited for African American
students. These practices have been documented in over twenty years of educational research
literature. The following is a brief discussion of these intersections.
As existing studies report, the learner-centered, socially-mediated setting that Montessori
practices yield has positive learning outcomes for students who are not thriving in traditional
school environments (Dohrmann, et al. 2007; Harris, 2007; Lillard, 2005; Rathunde &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2005). In noting contemporary research literature on African American
students, we find that factory model school settings are not conducive to their academic
success as these spaces are frequently devoid of curriculum that enables children to learn through
exploration, intuition and emotion (Hall, 2006; Kunjufu, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Noguera,
Scholars from disciplines of education, psychology and sociology contend that African American
students require a range of instructional methods in order to be academically successful. These
methods include being exposed to positive self-images (Hale-Benson, 1986; Kunjufu, 1995;
Perry et al., 2003; Porter, 1998); strong self-esteem building activities (Tatum, 1997); culturally
and social responsive curriculum (Perry et al., 2003; Ladson-Billings, 1994); use of the four
learning modalities (Kunjufu, 2005); freedom and flexibility in the classroom (Hall, 2006;
Majors & Billson, 1992); cooperative learning environments (Kunjufu, 2005); critical thinking
instruction (Hall, 2006; Kunjufu 2005; Ladson-Billings); responsibility for actions and decisions
(Fashola, 2005; Noguera, 2003); building strong relationships with school and community
(Hopkins, 1997); personal responsibility and autonomy (Wright, 2011).
The multiple approaches to teaching African American students listed above are, in many ways,
obvious and direct reflections of Montessorian methods. There exists multiple in and out of
school connections between Montessorian pedagogy and the social and educational needs of
Black children (as stated above). The application of phonemic awareness in Montessorian
instruction, for example, via interactive games is represented in the pedagogical need for the
four learning modalities in Black student instruction. Similarly, Montessorian ideals on autoeducation correspond with African American students being engaged in a classroom setting that
promotes flexibility, creativity and inner-discipline.
From an out of school perspective, ideals of peace and community education, as well as being
accountable for others is analogous to the necessity to assist African American students in being
responsible for their actions and decisions, as well as building strong relationships with
school and community. Likewise, comparisons can also be observed between Maria

Montessoris intention of having children become economically self-sufficient with the abovementioned claim that Black students progress towards personal responsibility and autonomy.
Further inquiry
This white paper presented a cursory review of literature and obvious links between Montessori
practices and the educational needs of African American learners. This work can further be
expanded on by employing longitudinal studies that assess the outcomes of Montessorian
pedagogy on African American students, who are coming from schools that adopt behaviorist
principles and teacher/text driven instructionthe same schools where we find a majority of
these youth struggling academically and socially.
As part of future educational inquiry, researchers should also take note of diversity issues within
Montessori curriculum. For instance, in what ways can traditional Montessori classrooms
incorporate positive self-images and culturally responsive curriculum for Black students and
other ethnic minorities? Indeed, further studies have the potential to not only present us with a
deeper understanding of the learning styles of Black students, but also concrete and specific
ways Montessori practices can lead to their long-term academic and social success.
Benham, C. (Winter 2010). Montessori life. American Montessori Society, 22 (4), 26-33.
Bennett, M. D., & Fraser, M. W. (2000). Urban violence among African American males:
Integrating family, neighborhood, and peer perspectives. Journal of Sociology and Social
Welfare, 27 (3), 93-117.
Blanchett, W. J. (Aug. 2006). Disproportionate representation of African American students in
special education: Acknowledging the role of White privilege and racism. Educational
Researcher, 35(6), 24-28.
Dohrmann, K. R., Nishida, T. K., Gartner, A., Lipsky, D. K., Grimm, K. J. (Winter 2007). High
school outcomes for students in a public Montessori program. Journal of Research in
Childhood Education, 22(2), 205-217.
Fashola, O. S. (2005). Educating African American males: Voices from the field. New York:
Corwin Press.
Fleming, J., Barner, C., Hudson, B., & Rosignon-Carmouche, L. A. (2000). Anger, violence,
and academic performance: A study of troubled minority youth. Urban Education, 35 (2),
Fordham, S. (2001). Why can't Sonya (and Kwame) fail math? In W. H. Watkins, J. H. Lewis, &
V. Chou (Eds.), Race and education: The roles of history and society in educating
African American students (pp. 140-158). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Hale, J.E., & Bailey, W.A. (2001). Learning while Black: Creating educational excellence for
African American children. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hale-Benson, J. E. (1986). Black children: Their roots, culture, and learning styles. Baltimore,
Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Hall, H. R. (2006). Mentoring young men of color: Meeting the needs of African American and
Latino students. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Press.
Harris, M. A. (2007). Differences in mathematics scores between students who receive

traditional Montessori instruction and students who receive music enriched Montessori
instruction. Journal for Learning through the Arts, 3(1), 1-50.
Hopkins, R. (1997). Educating Black males: Critical lessons in schooling, community, and
power. New York: SUNY Press.
Kunjufu, J. (2005). Keeping Black boys out of special education. Chicago: African America
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Noguera, P. A. (2003). Schools, prisons, and social implications of punishment: Rethinking
disciplinary practices. Theory Into Practice, 42 (4), 341-350.
Perry, T., Steele, C., & Hilliard, A. (2003). Young, gifted, and black: Promoting high
achievement among African American students. Boston: Beacon Press.
Peshkin, A. (2000). Permissible advantage?: The moral consequences of elite schooling. New
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Porter, M. (1998). Kill them before they grow: Misdiagnosis of African American boys in
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Rathunde, K., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (May 2005). Middle school students motivation and
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Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? and other
conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.
Wright, B. L. (Jul. 2011). I know who I am, do you? Identity and academic achievement of
successful African American male adolescents in an urban pilot high school in the United
States. Urban Education, 46 (4), 611-638.
Zarybnisky, E. M., (2010). A ray of light: A mixed-methods approach to understanding why
parents choose Montessori education. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University
of Nebraska-Lincoln. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.ED516180) Retrieved
June 30, 2011, from ERIC database.