Student Driven Learning

Freedom to choose is a hallmark of Montessori and Reggio Emilia Schools

Students work on their own projects depending on their interests in this class at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan.

When I was in kindergarten, I had the freedom to choose how I spent my mornings:  I could construct a tower of blocks, assist a younger classmate as she learned to count beads or find a quiet corner of the classroom and finger paint. I had this freedom and autonomy because I attended a Montessori grade school.

In an age when many schools feel pressured to teach to the test, Montessori and Reggio Emilia-inspired schools prove that child-centered classrooms and student-driven programs foster children’s creativity and curiosity, creating independent, self-confident thinkers.  The programs arecharacterized by an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development.

Reggio Emilia and Montessori 101

“The Reggio Approach allows teachers to be co-collaborators with children, as we investigate and explore together,” notes Nellie Berkman, Pre-School/Pre-Kindergarten teacher at Walker-Jones ES. “Children feel respected and valued, and develop a sense of independence.”

The Reggio Emilia Approach enables children to drive their academic exploration without a set curriculum. Teachers create the curriculum around their students’ interests, and group-work and collaboration is emphasized.

“Nothing without joy,” is an integral tenet of this academic philosophy.

“After World War Two, women in Reggio Emilia, Italy wanted a quality of learning for their children that would not tolerate injustice or inequality,” according to Carolyn Cobbs, Principal of Ludlow-Taylor ES, which uses this educational approach in their early childhood classrooms.

Similar to the Reggio Emilia Approach, Montessori education, named for Italian physician and educator Dr. Maria Montessori, emphasizes that schools must be child-centered. Classrooms are multi-age and allow students to learn and develop at their own pace, guided by a Montessori-trained teacher.

“Montessori allows you to see where your child’s interests truly are,” parent Anita Mingo said. Mingo’s daughter attends Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan (CHM@L) and her son attends Northeast Stars Montessori Preschool.

“Children show interest in something, the teacher introduces it, then children learn it,” Mingo explained, describing the instructional approach at CHM@L and at other Montessori programs, which have a set curriculum students move through at their own pace.

Where These Approaches Align

“Montessori helps kids think outside box,” Brandon Eatman, Principal of CHM@L, said. “It gives kids a sense of freedom to do research on elements that interest them and extend this through a project,” Eatman pointed out. For example, one student’s study of the Middle Ages inspired him to build a castle out of cardboard boxes, enabling him to explore an individual interest while fostering his creativity, spatial sense and fine motor skills.

“Some parents don’t see that there is a higher level of responsibility,” in these types of programs and instead may view the student’s autonomy as a lack of academic structure.

“If your child has strong executive functioning skills, they will already know the process of how to think creatively,”  said Tanya Morgan, Academy Leader at Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School (CAPCS), explaining the skills her students are able to apply when taking standardized tests, such as the DC-CAS.

“Literacy, math, social studies, science, music and arts are all emphasized through a framework of hands-on experiences,” according to Bini Silver, Director of Early Childhood, Youth and Family Programming at the Washington DCJCC.

“My eight-year-old daughter knows long division and long multiplication,” Mingo said. In both Montessori and Reggio classrooms, students use various manipulatives, such as blocks or beads, to learn core mathematical principals such as multiplication tables and how to count by 10.

“Students have an ability to translate skills they learn in school to the world around them,” Sandra Moscoso, a parent at CHM@L, said, describing how during a trip to the National Gallery of Art, her son’s hand continually shot up to answer every one of the guide’s questions.

In Reggio-inspired and in Montessori classrooms, students learn life skills as well as academic ones. “Students learn grace, courtesy and all things that should be part of school,” Moscoso noted. Mingo mentioned that her daughter – willingly - helps with household chores, such as cooking dinner.

The Differences Between Montessori and Reggio Emilia

Instead of rows of desks, a typical Montessori classroom has large tables or mats for children to use as workspaces and features designated quiet spaces, as well. Students learn one skill or concept at a time through various, hands-on activities, and the materials are arranged on open shelves and in order of complexity.

In a Montessori classroom, the sense of cooperative learning manifests in the multi-age classrooms, which usually span three years. “My daughter is responsible for giving lessons to younger kids,” Mingo mentioned, noting that her daughter seems more confident as a result.

“Children have a tendency to listen to their peers,” Mingo said in explaining the efficacy of students helping each other with some lessons. The teacher acts more as a navigator, often speaking to one student or group at a time rather than the class as a whole.

“The students select their work but are still held accountable for common core standards,” Eatman noted.  “It’s freedom, but not freedom without limits.”

The Reggio Emilia-Approach emphasizes “the hundred languages of children,” or the many ways that children have of expressing themselves. Reggio teachers provide children different avenues for thinking, revising, constructing, negotiating, developing and symbolically expressing their thoughts and feelings. Children have the right to express their theories, knowledge and emotions in a wide variety of ways. Students may use different media and communicate their ideas through drawing, clay, music, or dance.

“Through the projects that we work on, children are exposed to academic and social-emotional topics in a meaningful way,” Berkman, Walker-Jones ES teacher, noted.

Students may work on a particular project for a few days or even for a few months. As such, Reggio Emilia classrooms have an emergent curriculum which is driven by students’ interests rather than a curriculum set by the teacher or by the school.

“The skills they use through the Reggio Approach, such as investigation and problem-solving, will carry on through their academic and non-academic lives,” Berkman explained.

Learning is a cooperative venture which includes other children, their teachers, their families and the larger community.

Why These Schools Work

“We see our children as strong, independent, and thoughtful citizens, not as gaps to be filled,” said Jennifer Azzariti, Reggio Coach at Walker-Jones ES. “We believe that all children have the right to an education which values and nurtures the whole child, her ideas, intelligence and creativity.”

Educators find that by allowing children to drive instruction and follow their interests, they internalize more than just literacy and math skills. They also become thoughtful individuals and life-long learners.

“By involving parents and other key stake-holders at school, we are also able to extend these learning processes to our children’s lives beyond the classroom walls,” Berkman said. Montessori and Reggio-inspired schools have been so successful, in fact, that CHM@L, for example, is adding a middle school over the next few years.

“There’s a freedom in the hallways,” Moscoso noted, adding, “It seemed like the kids owned the school.”

“We’re excited about the expansion of the program at Capitol Hill Montessori and Langdon Education Campus, so more families can have access to this type of learning,” DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson has stated. Henderson herself attended a Montessori school from Pre-K through Kindergarten.

As a student in my Montessori school, I learned math skills by building a tower of blocks, my patience and communication skills improved as I worked with younger students and I had the freedom to explore interests on my own.

With the growing number of DC schools offering the Reggio Approach and Montessori programs, I hope families will be encouraged to try this non-traditional approach to learning. Their children will thank them for it.

Ellen Boomer is a Hill resident, writing tutor and freelance writer. She can be reached at 

Aidan Montessori School
2700 27th St. NW
Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan
215 G St., NE
Franklin Montessori School
4473 Connecticut Ave. NW
Georgetown Montessori School
1041 Wisconsin Ave. NW
The Montessori School of Chevy Chase
5312 Connecticut Ave NW
Montessori School-Washington
4380 MacArthur Blvd NW
Northeast Stars Montessori
1325 Maryland Ave NE
Shining Stars Montessori Academy
1328 Florida Ave NW