Last week saw the release of Issue #2 of the Journal of Montessori Research (JMR), a new, bona fide peer-reviewed scholarly journal of Montessori research.
The issue features a comparison study of place value and arithmetic in Montessori and non-Montessori preschoolers, a qualitative study of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in Montessori adolescents, and an experimental design study examining Montessori children in classrooms with and without supplemental materials.
This last study, co-authored by prominent Montessori researcher Dr. Angeline Lillard and Megan J. Heise, is significant in that it provides experimental validation of Lillard’s “high-fidelity Montessori” concept. In the current study, children in classrooms from which non-Montessori materials had been removed showed gains in reading, math, and executive function.
But publication by a big name researcher in a peer-reviewed journal doesn’t just happen. How is it that there is (at last!) such a thing as a Journal of Montessori Research, and what does that really mean?
“Where’s the research?”
That’s been the question, in and out of Montessori, for 50 years or more.
Sometimes it gets asked like this, in a bewildered and somewhat wounded tone: “Here we are in our classrooms, seeing children thrive and flourish daily. Why isn’t someone doing studies to prove how amazing this is, so everyone will know?”
Meanwhile, the outside world looks at the absence of research, shrugs, and concludes that there must not be much there.
But neither one of those stories — “Nobody’s even looking!” or “There must be nothing to see…” is how research really works. A more well-formed question might be, “Why doesn’t Montessori have a presence in the academic ecosystem of professors, grad students, departments, and published papers?”
There are several reasons for that. One is that Maria Montessori herself, a published researcher during her academic career, largely opted out of the academic world after the first Casa dei Bambini in 1907. She continued to innovate, experiment, and document her work, but she published and disseminated it on her own, rather than submitting scholarly journals or becoming, let’s say, a university department chair.
Another reason is that, for a long time, there wasn’t all that much Montessori to study. Montessori is the largest alternative pedagogy in the world, but that’s a bit like saying Linux is the largest alternative computer operating system: at 1.6% , it ranks a distant third after Windows and Mac OS. Montessori, at under 5%, is easy for researchers and funders to overlook. Montessori is in a growth phase now, but it’s easy to be the fastest growing when you are the smallest, and it’s still small.
Finally, until recently, Montessori itself and the Montessori outcomes haven’t been all that well defined, especially since anyone can use the name ‘Montessori’, and there have been competing standards and organizations. “Montessori is just so much better” is the claim, deeply and passionately felt to be sure. “What exactly do you mean by ‘Montessori’ and ‘better’?” is the sober, hard-headed response from the academy.
Now, with increased recognition of MACTE-accredited teacher preparation, documents such as NCMPS’ Montessori Essentials Rubric and MPPI’s more general Montessori Essentials, the development of the “high-fidelity Montessori” concept, and new research on the importance of so-called “soft skills” such as executive function, these issues are less of a challenge.
The last 50 years have seen some research and publication, to be sure, published in the NAMTA Journal, Montessori Life, and even outside the Montessori world and in Lillard’s book, and reviewed by AMS here. But until now, there hasn’t been a true scholarly journal.
A scholarly journal
So how does something like the JMR happen, and why does it matter?
As is so often the story, children were the driving force. Dr. Angela Murray, Ph.D., a lecturer and educational researcher at Kansas University, found Montessori in high school as a dance instructor for child care centers in Dallas, Texas. “One program — a Montessori school — was really different from the rest,” she told me. “I was fascinated by the way the children interacted, and the tone of the place.” When the time came, she found a Montessori school for her own children, and fell in love with their experience. Like many parents, she wanted to know more, and as a corporate researcher professionally, she started to look into the research. But, like others before her, she soon discovered that there wasn’t much there.
So Murray went back to school at KU for a Ph.D. in educational research, and went to work with the American Montessori Society Research Committee. At a planning meeting in 2008, the group set some goals, including an “aspirational goal” of starting a scholarly journal of Montessori research. Why “aspirational”, one might ask? Why would that be so hard to do, for an institution the size of AMS, and if it’s so hard, why is it that important?
As it turns out, anyone can launch a scholarly journal, especially with the rise over the last five years of open access online journals, published online and available at no cost to the reader. Establishing a journal with true academic legitimacy, on the other hand, takes a lot of hard work, networking, and investment. But by early 2014, the research group had met many of their strategic goals, and, looking around, began to see the “critical mass” of research and working researchers necessary to support an academic publication.
The first step was leveraging Dr. Murray’s connection to KU. As a research professor there, Murray had access to the resources, support from library staff, and the open access platform the institution offers to faculty to support their scholarly work. Editorial and advisory boards of respected scholars and prominent Montessorians were assembled, and a peer-review procedure was developed. It took about a year of sustained effort, but by the spring of 2015, the first issue was ready.
Why this matters: swimming in the big pond
The research JMR has published is important to the Montessori world. But what’s really significant is the role a journal plays in the academic ecosystem, as a legitimate outlet for Montessori research, an incubator for newer authors less likely to be published in a bigger journal, and a platform from which to engage with scholars from outside Montessori.
As an example, Murray shared her experience at this year’s American Education Research Association (AERA) Conference. As the largest gathering of education scholars in the country, AERA is “kind of a big deal”, Murray said, and historically Montessori hasn’t had a lot of visibility there. (Searching AERA.net for Montessori yields zero results.) But journal publishers can sign up for a Journal Talk, an “informal session designed to facilitate journal editors’ communication on a one-to-one basis with reviewers, authors, and potential authors,” which gave Montessori a presence on the program at a 10,000 person conference. Journal representatives can attend the Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting, and momentum is building for a Montessori SIG.
Throughout the conference, Murray was amazed at how many people she spoke to had a Montessori connection from their own schooling or their children’s, and how few had brought Montessori into their own scholarly work, seeing it as something too insular to study. Just being present at the conference helped dispel Montessori’s “secret society” image and bring it into the mainstream, and the JMR was the ticket in.