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Popular Classroom Teaching Methods

While most public schooling programs follow the same style of teaching and trust in the same learning theories, there are alternative options for schooling which focus on slightly different styles of teaching and learning. These programs focus on children’s social lives, hands-on or self-determined learning, the effects of a variety of experiences, and communities of learning, among other things. Three of the most common alternative teaching philosophies are Montessori, Steiner/Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia. These teaching methods have a following around the world, with teachers and parents who swear by their effectiveness and just as many critics who claim they don’t work or aren’t rigorous enough to produce children who are ready for the difficulties of higher education.

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Montessori began in 1907 when educator and physician Maria Montessori opened an inner-city child care program in Rome. In 1982, Montessori launched the California teacher education program and created an international accreditation council in 1986 to assure standard program criteria was met worldwide. Today there are over 7,000 schools throughout the world, with 4,000 located within the United States. The majority of Montessori schools are private, and the tuition fees vary depending on the location, overhead, teacher salaries, and other factors.

Although some public schools offer the Montessori method of teaching, they are not considered part of the International Montessori Society (IMS) and are not required to follow the guidelines set forth by Montessori. You should always verify accreditation if you're not sure of a school's affiliation with IMS.

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What Grades Does This Method Cover?

The Montessori educational method is designed for children from birth to middle school (ages zero to 14). That being said, because each school is independently owned, they may restrict their classes to specific age groups to focus solely on preschool-age children or a similar demographic.

Montessori schools use a multi-age classroom division for instruction, so each child is placed in their corresponding group:

  • Infant (ages 0 to 3)
  • Preschool (ages 3 to 6)
  • Lower Elementary (ages 6 to 9)
  • Upper Elementary (ages 9 to 12)
  • Middle School (ages 12 to 14)

The multi-age structure allows each child to learn at their own speed with an uninterrupted series of "learning passages" that reflect the interests and natural characteristics of each child rather than forcing children to conform to a specific test standard to advance.


In Montessori programs, only 20% of work is teacher-directed, with the remaining 80% being independent activities. This is a direct reversal of traditional schools and the main principle of the Montessori learning experience. The four main principles of Montessori are:

Prepared Environment

The prepared environment concept allows each child to move to various areas within the classroom, working with specialized learning tools such as grammar symbols and counting beads. Each child is allowed to explore in-depth an area of interest, whether it is dinosaurs, history, or multiplication.

Having a prepared environment allows each child to pace themselves and also teaches self-discipline as their developmental needs grow within a structured setting.


Montessori encourages each child to learn through choices in order to encourage independent learning rather than the lecture-type setting found in traditional classroom teaching. This encourages curiosity-driven learning and promotes enthusiasm to discover new skills. For example, instead of learning about animals or trees from a textbook, they might instead have a field trip to the zoo or a park and discover the animals and plants in their natural habitats.

Hands-on Learning

Montessori provides organized learning materials instead of textbooks, so each child has personal experience with the subject being learned. For example, when learning about history before modern inventions were readily available, a child might wash an article of clothing by hand or create a project using a handloom instead of reading about how it was once created. Each classroom is filled with age-appropriate materials to explore and learn from hands-on.

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Adults in Montessori must show respect for each child as a person, and each child is treated as an individual rather than a segment of the entire class. In this way, each child in turn learns to respect others.

The key to respect in Montessori is to acknowledge the individuality of each child. One child may be comfortable jumping into a new activity while another child may be shy, withdrawn, or reluctant with the new agenda; the goal is to show respect for their feelings, abilities, and individual needs.

Areas of Curriculum

  • Practical Life
    This portion of the curriculum encourages concentration, coordination, and independence through activities such as sewing, polishing, and pouring, and teaches students how to care for the environment and themselves while learning socialization skills as well as both fine and gross motor skills.
  • Sensorial
    Sensorial materials promote the refinement of a child's senses as they learn to differentiate between sizes, shapes, and forms. The child learns to visually discriminate by matching, sorting, and grading; laying the foundation for them to analyze their environment and develop a mathematical mind and even musical skills.
  • Mathematics
    Math materials promote basic skills, concepts, and operations as children learn to understand value and quantity, building the foundation for abstract concepts such as addition and subtraction as well as multiplication and division.
  • Language
    Each child learns the basic skills needed for verbal communication as well as writing and reading skills through phonetic based language materials. Note this may be combined with other materials as well, so a movable alphabet set might build words and sentences while promoting sensorial dexterity.
  • Culture
    Children learn culture by exploring geography and the different cultures within. They might explore maps, listen to stories and songs, or hear foreign languages from the cultures they’re learning about.

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The Steiner/Waldorf approach, commonly referred to as Waldorf schools, Steiner education, or Waldorf education, is based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner. The first school opened in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany and focused on a holistic approach to instilling intellectual, practical, and artistic skills in students. A hundred years later, it is the largest alternative teaching method in the world, with schools in 75 countries, including over 200 schools and 175 kindergartens in North America.

The most significant difference in Waldorf schools is the integration of arts into all academics from preschool to high school graduation to enrich and enhance the learning experience and develop a lifelong love of learning.

What Grades Does this Method Cover?

Waldorf schools are typically for elementary and middle school students, although the method covers all grades through 12. In the US, preschools are usually separate entities that teach students from birth to age six. Other grades are divided as follows:

  • Primary: grades one to three
  • Middle: grades four through six
  • Upper: grades seven and eight
  • Secondary: age 14 and up (high school)

The Waldorf method believes children six and under benefit most from an environment that is sensory focused, so preschool children are encouraged to explore and use their imagination to lay the foundation for emotional, intellectual, and physical development. Only when they enter the primary grades are academic subjects introduced. During the elementary years art, history, cultures, and music are interwoven in the lessons and each child may develop at their own pace, which is why ages are taught in blocks rather than separate grades. Upon entering secondary school, teens learn to develop individual critical thinking as they focus on specific academic subjects.

  • Four Temperaments
    The four temperaments in Waldorf are used to loosely evaluate each student to allow a teacher to connect with them individually. The four temperaments are:
    • The choleric, a person who is fulfilled by deeds
    • The sanguine, a more sociable temperament
    • The phlegmatic, who thrives with more solitary time
    • The melancholic, who tends to think and feel things on a deeper level
  • Anthroposophy
    Anthroposophy is a spiritual philosophy reflecting the deeper aspects of humanity. In Waldorf, it's used to bridge the gaps between arts, sciences, and religions in human culture to give students a correlation between idealistic tradition and scientific research in all aspects of study for a more encompassing learning experience.
  • Qualitative Assessment
    Qualitative assessment allows the teacher to assess each student's progress rather than comparing them to the rest of their peers. It allows the teacher to modify the learning experience individually as they understand each student's best learning experiences. Because students learn in age groups rather than grades, there is less stigma attached to learning subjects at slightly different speeds than other children of the same age.
  • Spirituality
    Steiner believed humans are all spiritual creatures and, as such, spirituality should be taught alongside academic subjects such as science and mathematics. Spiritual growth is encouraged in Waldorf schools. Spirituality is not assigned a specific religion; many world religions and belief systems are explored throughout the students’ academic life.

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Reggio Emilia

Developed by Loris Malaguzzi after WWII to address the educational needs of his native region of Italy, the Reggio Emilia method of education is named after that region and is now taught throughout the world.

The Reggio Emilia educational philosophy is based on the premise that young children can learn from all things in their environment and should be exposed to as many new experiences as possible to develop communication, self-expression, problem-solving, and logical thinking skills. The Reggio approach does not use a linear or curriculum-driven method to teach children, as most methods do. Instead, they focus on the child's environment to stimulate learning and development. Schools and classrooms are filled with natural materials, plants, and windows as well as photographs, mirrors, and artwork, so each child is enriched by their surroundings as they learn.

What Grades Does This Method Cover?

Reggio method schools are for children from infancy to age six and are split into three-year increments with children staying in the same group for the entire three years. There are also elementary schools that embrace the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy, but they are the exception rather than the norm.

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At Reggio preschools, this split is to allow different focus on infant-toddlers than on preschoolers. Infants naturally require more nurturing and sleep times while, by the age of three, preschoolers are more likely to explore and learn about their environment on their own.

Emergent Curriculum

Reggio has no predefined curriculum, instead allowing the learning experience to develop through project work that allows each child to explore their interests in specific areas. If a child is interested in learning to read, they may do so at their own speed, but it is not mandated. The goal is to encourage enthusiasm for learning new things without placing restrictions or requirements on the subject matter. This is turn allows each child to develop a lifelong love of exploring and learning new things. The focus is on introducing a broad range of subjects, spanning music and art to science and math.

Importance of Documentation

Reggio teachers learn to document each child's development through the child's words, creations, thoughts, and actions in order to make a visual progress chart of the child's growth. This wide range of media has several benefits:

  • Each child sees that their work is valued.
  • The teacher can track each child's progress, evaluate, and plan for further development.
  • Parents can easily see their child's development rather than relying on a graded system.
  • A proper school record can be maintained.

Parent Participation

Parents are a vital component of the Reggio approach to education as they are seen as a child's first teacher as well as a major part of the educational process. Parents are recognized as the child's primary teacher, and their ideas and skills are valued in the classroom as well as outside of school. Reggio schools see parents as an integral part of the program, and they are encouraged to participate both in the classroom as well as in a variety of events throughout the school year.

Making each parent a part of the educational process reduces the gap between teacher and parent and allows each child to thrive at school, at home, and within the community.

Importance of Communities and Classroom Environment

Reggio schools consider the community to be a partner in child development and encourage child community interaction with field trips and events as part of the curriculum. The classroom environment is considered one of the most important aspects of the method as Malaguzzi felt a child's physical environment to be the third teacher. The classroom is designed to capture the attention of children and help them learn through visuals, touch, and exposure to natural elements such as plants and sunlight.

The classrooms are also designed to integrate with their surroundings, so they fit smoothly into the rest of the school as well as the local community. This nurtures exploration and acceptance of nature as children develop relationships with other children, adults, and their outside world.

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