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Alex Beam

Succeeding at their own pace

The Montessori approach to education and some of its famous alumni have made great strides in recent years

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / August 26, 2011

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One of my favorite writers, Steven Levy, has published a new book about Google: “In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives.’’ Cynics might call it a disguised ad for the cabinet of many wonders that is Google - as if the company needs promotion. It is also a heartfelt Valentine to the Montessori educational system, which, Levy writes, inspired the Google experience.

“You can’t understand Google unless you know that both Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were Montessori kids,’’ one staffer tells Levy. “Montessori really teaches you to do things on your own at your own pace and schedule,’’ Brin says in the book. “It was a pretty fun, playful environment - like Google.’’

Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor who believed that young children could learn better and more quickly in a school environment that didn’t feel like a school. Hallmarks of Montessori schools include child-appropriate furniture, older children teaching younger children, and lesson plans that are invisible to the pupils.

Typically, Montessori teachers shepherd children into and out of learning experiences, at their own pace. If a 10-year-old girl is enjoying long division, for instance, she can do long division all day. No bell will ring. Spelling can wait, until next week if necessary.

I gleaned some Montessori background from Wikipedia, founded by - you guessed it - self-described Montessori kid Jimmy Wales. Wall Street Journal writer Peter Sims recently included Wales in a distinguished “Montessori mafia’’ that includes Brin, Page, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, and Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims.

Forget for a moment what you think about Amazon (my friends in publishing hate its predatory price behavior) or whether you disdain Wikipedia as a sewer of error and confusion (I see it has corrected that mistake about my being born in Oakland) - both organizations are stupendous acts of applied imagination. I’ve raved, in a good way, about Google before. SimCity? I’ve been there. It’s wonderful.

You wouldn’t want to compete with Amazon, but it does keep adding fascinating new fillips to its business. My latest enthusiasm: Amazon Singles. I am dying to write one. It turns out that I’m too lazy. But I digress.

If Montessori was a stock, you would buy it. There are almost 4,200 private Montessori schools in the United States now, compared to 3,500 a quarter century ago. In the past 20 years, more than 140 charter schools have been founded on Montessori principles. A quarter century ago, 50 public schools used the Montessori method. That number is now 280.

Not hard to explain, says Dr. Kathy Roemer, who is the president of American Montessori Society and executive director of three Montessori schools in Manhattan: “Brain research shows that all the characteristics those Internet entrepreneurs value - divergent and innovative thinking, intellectual self-reliance - develop before the age of 10.’’ That has always been the primary focus of Montessori education. “In the Montessori classroom, mistakes are opportunities for learning, chances to get children to think for themselves.’’

Roemer recently returned from Asia, where she says interest in Montessori is high. “They’re curious - Why do Americans have all the patents? We’re a very confident and inventive people. They score better on standardized math and science tests, but we are obviously doing something right.’’

Here in America, it seems that the teach-to-the test ideology of the No Child Left Behind Act is in retreat and that Montessori-like principles may be coming into vogue. Roemer agrees: “Leaving teachers no choice but to teach to the test is going to be passe.’’

Not everyone is as gaga about Montessori as I seem to be. Italian blogger and young mother Francesca Amè, quoted on the Forbes magazine website, criticized the “general anarchy’’ of Montessori schools she saw in Milan. Amè warned of “tyrant kids’’ produced by a “falsely libertarian education.’’

Roemer allows that a Montessori classroom may seem chaotic, because each child isn’t sitting down and listening to the same lesson. “The children have freedom of movement, they’re not all doing the same thing at the same time.’’ Good Montessori teachers are well prepared, she says, and have a daily plan for each student.

Understandably, the Montessori Society has been anxious to solicit testimonials from its distinguished Internet alumni. So far, only Wright has done so: “SimCity comes right out of Montessori - if you give people this model for building cities, they will abstract from it principles of urban design.’’ But next year’s annual conference will take place in San Francisco, not far from Brin and Page’s famous Googleplex. Says Roemer: “We’re hoping we might get them to come out.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.