What Can We Learn From Maria?

An Analysis of Personalized Learning and Montessori Education

by Jim McLure, Professional Development Specialist

The most familiar memory that has remained with me is not the famous pink tower, or the wooden, sandpaper letters. I don’t recall learning letters in cursive or counting with beads and rods. What has stayed with me for the past 35 years, since I was last a Montessori Preschooler is simply a feeling. The pure feeling of ownership over my learning and freedom to explore. I recall engaging in various tasks that grasped my interest or receiving a lesson on a particular activity and then having the opportunity to get my hands on those materials and work towards mastery. Most of all, I remember enjoying this new thing called school. At that time, my definition of school was rather different from what I experienced in the legacy model that the majority of people have experienced. My definition shifted from one of freedom, exploration and excitement to eventually viewing school as a place that held me in rather that boosted me upward. It became the cardboard box with a tight fitting lid, rather than the rocket ship to new adventures in learning.

As I entered the workforce as an educator, I began to work tirelessly to make certain that the learners that I was privileged enough to educate built a definition of school that was similar to my own initial experiences. Although I taught in schools where traditional schooling practices were the norm, I found ways to implement an extremely learner-centered experience. Each year, I attempted one or two additional learner-centered practices and as time went on, my definition of the role of educator and a system of education began to change, build and develop. The definition began with a legacy model, built on assumptions that I didn’t necessarily agree with and over time eventually and gradually shifted towards systems that respected all learners, accepted each individual where they were and took them forward and in a joyful and meaningful way.  

Similar to my start in the teaching world, when one first begins to learn about something new, the human tendency is to connect the learning to prior knowledge or past experiences. When I first began learning about Personalized Learning, I immediately put it in a few categories … blended learning, computer-based learning, flipped classroom, etc. I viewed the work from this lens because I was enthusiastically told that because I was a technology implementer, I simply had to be involved with the schools implementing personalized learning within the district. I began building my understanding of what personalized learning really is by observing in many of the schools and classrooms in the area that had been implementing for quite some time and by attending professional development opportunities that were available regionally. I recall my definition changing over the course of the last three years. Certainly my description changed, but what was most notable was the connections that were made by whomever I was describing personalized learning to. When I first began learning about the work, my description would often lead to a response of, “Oh, like blended learning?” Within the past year, I receive a very different response of, “Oh, like Montessori, but with technology to assist.” After consistently receiving this response, I began to compare and contrast the two pedagogies with my wife, who is a Montessori teacher. I showed her our design model of The Honeycomb and in doing so, began realizing that although the educators and learners in Montessori Schools could benefit from several of the Personalized Learning Elements, we also have much to gain from learning more about the Montessori system of education as well.

In Montessori schools and classrooms, there are systems in place that develop learner ownership, agency, efficacy and independence in a highly sophisticated manner. They came to the realization that these were learner dispositions necessary to have the intrinsic motivation to grow on the continuum from a motivated and engaged learner to becoming a fully independent learner as they enter into the upper grades. The Montessori schools are also built around the philosophy of gradual release of learner independence. Their youngest learners are surrounded by tools that build a foundational knowledge base. These learners receive lessons, often one-on-one with their teacher, on the tools in various sections in the classroom. Each of these tools, and the activity that accompanies them, are designed to concretely teach a given skill that is an essential part of their foundation. This foundation, and the learner independence that has been built, eventually leads to an entire school of learners that can engage in many of the practices that we value in a personalized learning environment. This strategy works well, when it comes to having learners find success in the upper grades as the classroom teacher takes on even more of an advisor role that allows for interest or passion based and project based learning experiences. Below, you’ll find a chart that demonstrates similarities and differences between our model of personalized learning and that of the Montessori model. I hope that you’ll find that there are certainly areas that we can learn from each other to improve the experience for our learners.

  Montessori Education Personalized Learning
Pedagogy Based Based on 5 Principles: Respect of the Child, The Absorbent Mind, Sensitive Periods, The Prepared Environment, Autoeducation Based off of Core Components and Additional Honeycomb Elements
Learning Aligned Tools Have set, established hands on tools for the early years and work on interest based material in the upper grades. Educators and learners are encouraged to align tools and resources with standards and learning needs and goals. Tools are selected for optimal learning experience based on each learner and their strengths.
Learning Aligned Technology Technology is used to demonstrate knowledge and conduct research when necessary. Technology is used to explore interest based concepts,curate resources, receive customized instruction, demonstrate knowledge and create media that demonstrates new learning.
Educator Preparation Educators receive preparation over the course of a calendar year or three consecutive summer sessions. Education is based on the above mentioned principles. Educators receive support through their district, online courses,other colleagues engaged in the work or through The Institute for Personalized Learning
21st Century Skills Learner Collaboration and Self Directed Learning are strengths. Learner Collaboration, Self Directed Learning, Technology, Focused Creation are strengths.
Learner Independence Learner Independence skills are taught from an early age and built. Learners span the continuum from motivated to demonstrating full ownership and independence over their learning Learners and educators build independence skills at various ages. Learners span the continuum from motivated to demonstrating full ownership and independence over their learning
Standards Based Educators use standards, based on learner readiness, to design a learning path and assess for, of and as learning. Educators use standards, based on learner readiness, to design a learning path and assess for, of and as learning.
Co-Designers of Learning Learning in early years is educator driven. Autonomy is generally given over to the learner through the progression of the grades. Learners work with educators to co-design the learning experience. Personal learning goals and customized paths are built in collaboration.
Learner Voice and Choice Learners are frequently allowed to have voice and choice over the pace, place time and space of their work. Learners are frequently allowed to have voice and choice over the pace, place, time and space of their work.
Formalized Process of the Core Components? No, educators decide on what lesson to give based on interest and observation. Yes, educators use a system of building a learner profile, co-creating a customized learning path which is built around a set of benchmarks and proficiency-based progress.
Scalable & Sustainable Montessori is certainly sustainable, but scaling is difficult due to the extensive nature of teacher licensing and preparation.   Personalized Learning has proven to be scalable and continues to build sustainability and rapid growth.
Parent Education A system is in place to educate parents and regularly communicate what skills are being worked on and how parents can assist in their child’s education. Parent education varies widely from district to district and school to school. Generally speaking, the districts, schools and classrooms that have a well organized communication plan have supportive parents and stakeholders.
Instructional Style Lessons are taught around the use of the tools and the concepts that they are designed to teach. Learners work towards mastery of skills and concepts. Learner Profile and Customized Learning Path are co-developed. Seminars and conferences are regularly held to co-create the learning path, provide rapid cycle feedback and complete interest-based work towards proficiency-based progress.


Morrison, G. (2014, April 30). Principles of the Montessori Method. Retrieved January 8, 2016, from http://www.education.com/reference/article/principles-montessori-method/