Alternative schooling: Steiner & Montessori

By Bridie McArthur

We live in a world of choice. There are more options available for practically every decision an individual could make, and education is no different; parents and students who find their preferences, needs, and desired style of learning doesn't gel with traditional or 'mainstream' schooling are able to look to alternatives that better suit them. There are many different alternatives, but let's look at two major players: Steiner and Montessori. 

What is Steiner education?

Also known as Waldorf, Steiner education is built on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, originating in 20th-Century Germany. Its ethos is steeped in the idea of self-directed learning. Steiner Education Australia describes the approach as "helping young people develop flexible, agile thinking alongside an ability to collaborate and thrive in a 21st Century world". Steiner learning focuses on the "human spirit", taking a highly holistic approach with the overarching aim of preparing students for post-school life — a "learning environment that is oriented towards moral growth, social consciousness and citizenship" is fostered.

The Conversation writes that though the learning is self-directed, "children’s motivation doesn’t come from rewards. Instead, they are engaged because they find it satisfying". Steiner educators take on an alternative role to traditional teacher in that they aim to "role model" and are more removed from the children's learning and play. Instead of marking or evaluating students based on standardised or uniform expectations and guidelines, assessments are highly specific and personal to each child. 

This style relies on minimal, simple resources to stimulate learning, such as "weaving materials, crayons, puppets, and natural fibre" according to The Conversation. There is low to no technology used.

Browse Steiner schools here.

What is Montessori education?

The Montessori approach was developed by Dr Maria Montessori — a doctor and psychiatrist — she based the style on her direct observations on how children learn. She combines a focus on play and work, with the core idea that children are capable of directing their own learning. This includes the students being able to choose their own resources for their leaning. The learning materials and resources offered in Montessori schools are used to foster skills for practical life; according to The Conversation piece, "the aim is to develop independent skills and to build their gross and fine motor control and hand-eye co-ordination". There is a strong emphasis on developing the skill of self-correction, with children learning through doing. In Australia, many early education schools are influenced or incorporate elements of Dr Montessori's philosophy, but if you are after the full experience, ensure the schools you look into are Montessori-registered.

Montessori contrasts the Steiner approach in that it groups students not by age but by ability. Research has shown that multi-age classrooms can enhance student learning by allowing them to work at the pace that best suits them, rather than at a pace that is lower or higher than their capacity to keep up with/be challenged by.

Does it work? There has been limited research, but a "US study found higher academic and social skills, as well as better mastery of skills and executive function in children aged 3–6 who had attended a Montessori service, in comparison to children in non-Montessori settings". 

Browse Montessori schools here.

Which is better: Steiner or Montessori?

As is central to both philosophies and alternate styles, education is individual and specific to each child. It is important to consider the needs and characteristics of your child as well, as what you value about learning. A key point is that Steiner schools group students by age, whereas (registered) Montessori schools group students by ability.

Montessori schooling places a high emphasis on learning practical skills, whereas Steiner schooling tends to steer more towards an emphasis on the spirit, flexible thinking, and moral and social growth. It would be helpful to visit schools and websites to see which you are most drawn to or which aligns the best with your idea of what your child's education would ideally look like. All in all, it is great to see more options and choice of what learning can look like that includes and bolsters all different types of students.

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