A Comparison of Montessori and Traditional Middle Schools

A Summary of Dr. Rathunde’s Research on Montessori Middle Schools
by Deborah Gilbert, Ph.D.

Rathunde, Kevin (2003):  A Comparison of Montessori and Traditional Middle Schools:  Motivation, Quality of Experience, and Social Context; NAMTA Journal, volume 28, number 3.

Dr. Kevin Rathunde is an Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah.  He received his Ph.D. in 1989.  His research focuses on adolescent development in the family and the role of interest in education and lifelong learning.  Prior to this research study, Dr. Rathunde’s only experience with Montessori education was his eldest daughter’s one day a week preschool experience in a program with a Montessori approach 16 years ago.  He is not a member of the Montessori community.  David Kahn, a prominent Montessorian, asked Kevin Rathunde to take on this project.

Theoretical Background:
Kevin Rathunde has had a longstanding interest in flow theory and issues of motivation and optimal experience.  David Kahn suggested to Kevin Rathunde that the Montessori philosophy has many commonalities with flow theory and asked him if he would be interested in being a principal investigator on a research project on this topic. 

Dr. Rathunde began reading the Montessori literature and discovered the connection between the flow experience and Maria Montessori’s emphasis on spontaneous activity. Dr. Rathunde wrote that flow theory, or optimal experience theory is familiar to many Montessorians.  He said, “Flow is an intrinsically motivated, task-focused state characterized by full concentration, a change in the awareness of time, feelings of clarity and control, a merging of action and awareness, and a lack of self-consciousness.  The experience is triggered by a good fit between a person’s skills in an activity and the challenges afforded by the environment.”  Flow or optimal experience has been applied to educational contexts, development, and learning because “experiences of deep and total concentration are intrinsically rewarding, and they motivate students to repeat an activity at progressively higher levels of challenge.”

Maria Montessori believed that children’s spontaneous concentration revealed the essence of being human and she was impressed with children’s powers of concentration.  She said, “It has been revealed that children not only work seriously but they have great powers of concentration…Action can absorb the whole attention and energy of a person.  It valorizes all the psychic energies so that the child completely ignored all that is happening around him.”

Design of the Study:
Dr. Rathunde studied five Montessori schools that included 150 students in the 6th and 8th grades (60% male, 40% female).  He compared the Montessori students to 160 6th and 8th grade students from traditional middle schools (55% female, 45% male).  

The data collection included a method called the Experience Sampling Method.  The students were given programmed watches that signaled them approximately 8 times a day between the hours of 7:30 am and 10:30 pm for 7 consecutive days.  When the watches beeped, the students took out response forms and answered questions about how they were feeling the moment, where they were, what they were thinking about, and other questions about their momentary experience.  Both the traditional middle school students and the Montessori students participated in this process over a week and then their responses were statistically compared.

The Experience Sampling Method asked the students questions to measure the following variables:  1) affect (general mood or happiness); 2) potency (energy level or excitement); 3) salience (feelings of importance); 4) intrinsic motivation (sense of enjoyment and interest); 5) flow (optimal level of challenge and skill); and 6) undivided interest (enjoyment and importance come together).

In order to ensure that the two groups of students were comparable and to eliminate other factors that could account for differences in their responses to the Experience Sampling Method, Dr. Rathunde chose study participants who were “matched” in terms of parent education, ethnicity, parental employment, socioeconomic family resources, parental involvement, number of siblings, number of intact homes, and similar grades.

Dr. Rathunde used a statistical technique known as multivariate analysis of covariance to assess the differences between the six variables collected using the Experience Sampling Method.  This statistical procedure allowed Dr. Rathunde to determine, in an objective manner, whether there were significant differences between the two groups of students (Montessori and Traditional) and to adjust or “control” for any differences that were due to other factors such as background variables.

The statistical analysis revealed that there were strong differences between the Montessori and Traditional students.  The differences included:
1) Montessori students reported a significantly better quality of experience in academic work than the traditional students,
2) Montessori students appeared to feel more active, strong, excited, happy,
relaxed, sociable, and proud while engaged in academic work,
3) Montessori students enjoyed themselves more, they were more interested in what they were doing, and they wanted to be doing academic work more than the traditional students,
4) Montessori students reported significantly higher percentages of undivided interest, higher motivation and higher levels of importance with regard to schoolwork,
5) Montessori students reported more conditions where the challenges and skills used while doing academic work were above average.

Why are these results important?  

First, the results address a problem of traditional middle school where the focus is on performance goals in such a manner that the importance of intrinsic motivation is undermined.  The developmental and psychological needs of the adolescent are emphasized and valued in Montessori education; thus middle school students are more engaged in the educational process and this results in higher levels of achievement.    

Other research studies have shown that high skill, high challenge, motivation, and intrinsic motivation (all qualities found to be highest in the Montessori students) predict superior talent development in adolescent students.  

Several studies confirm that the high levels of interest and intrinsic motivation evident in the Montessori students of this study, results in superior student achievement.
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