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Motivation, Recognition and Montessori

Motivation, Recognition and Montessori

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Recognition is a valuable motivator. For centuries, money was the number one motivator in the workplace. Today with five generations often sharing work places with a variety of roles, we have numerous kinds of recognition that motivates people. Recognizing someone’s input to a plan or follow through with a project helps her feel valued as a member of the community. Children are also motivated to learn new concepts, social interactions and behavioral expectations in our Montessori classrooms.

Montessori education contributes to how children learn and feel valued and recognized. Education is a way of looking at and interacting with the world, and for Montessori-ans it is a lifelong journey. The Montessori method of education offers several components that promote executive function skills such as perseverance, self-motivation, and understanding delayed gratification – very important skills for human growth and development. These skills have a direct bearing on a person becoming thoughtful about what constitutes “recognition,” both as an individual and within social and work groups.

The Montessori method is an internationally recognized educational method developed over 100 years ago by Dr. Maria Montessori, a 19th century Renaissance woman. Montessori method is more than a curriculum. It is a professional movement whose practitioners typically feel passionate about its advocacy, and it emphasizes collaborative environments without grades or tests; multi-aged classrooms as well as self-directed learning; and students’ discovery within extended blocks of time. Originally developed for early childhood-aged students (ages 3-6 years typically), Montessori educational programs today have an age range of birth to 18 years of age. There are approximately 20,000 Montessori schools worldwide and 4,500 in the United States of America (NAMTA, 2015). Of the 4,500 Montessori schools in the USA, about 10% are in the public sector.

Montessori Child Painting

Montessori in not just a curriculum for teaching it is a philosophy of life. Being educated is not a destination but rather a journey for life. It is a way of looking at and interacting with the world. This view of education is more in sync what is happening in the workplace and the marketplace, which is good news. Firms and companies want people who are life long learners. (Denning).

One major contribution of the Montessori method is focus on a carefully prepared work environment. In order for children to take academic and social learning risks, they require an environment where mistakes are viewed positively as opportunities for learning to take place. Through scientific observations of the level of knowledge of each individual, Montessori teachers adjust the concept and skill-based activities sequentially in a classroom, achieving a balance of both comfort and challenge for the student.

Another universal tenant of the Montessori approach is to allow a large uninterrupted block of work time. Generally for children under 6 years, a 3-hour block of time is necessary. For children over age 6, the work time could be such as from the time they enter the classroom until they break for lunch. The term “uninterrupted” means that children are not pulled out of class for extra-curricular activities, nor are they interrupted if they are actively engaged in an activity. Similar to a constructive model, children make choices, repeat activities, participate in lessons, have a snack, read a book, look out of the window, etc. Research indicates that in order for people to be creative in the modern workplace, uninterrupted work time is essential.

Montessori classrooms encourage children to explore, discover, engage, share, and live within appropriately designed space. Montessori teachers carefully choose their words and communications to encourage rather than praise children for attempts to work a given task, experience trial and error, and gain successful completion of an activity. Encouraging, positive phrases are voiced by the teacher, such as “you worked hard on that (activity)”, or “you concentrated for a long time” or “ your tried again and again until your figured it out“. Recognition is focused on the child and his/her efforts. The teacher does not praise with “I” messages, or place judgment on work products such as expressions via art activities.

Much like an emergent curriculum model, Montessori children are permitted to follow their interests. Another byline of Montessori method is the concepts of “follow the child”. Through observation, teachers discern the interests of the children by noting the activities they are drawn to. Activities incorporating these interests are integrated into the curriculum areas such as language arts, math, science and geography. This type of evolving classroom and curriculum means that children have freedom within both external and self-actuated limits. The prepared classroom, consistent schedule, and respectful ground rules all contribute to what defines these limits.

Intrinsic motivation is another important tenant of Montessori education. Extrinsic rewards from adults in a traditional education setting, in the form of praise, stickers, trinkets, gifts, promises, etc., cause the child to feel good briefly and superficially, i.e., as long as the treat lasts. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand brings long-term pride, confidence, and self-worth to begin a meaningful life journey. Life-long learners are motivated from within.

Many of you probably understand that some of these educational approaches I’ve mentioned have counterparts in modern work place culture for adults. However you may not be aware that business leaders have gained benefits directly from the Montessori method. In 2011, Peter Sims wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Montessori Mafia.” In it he writes,

Ironically, the Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia: Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, video game pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, not to mention Julia Child and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.

Is there something going on here? Is there something about the Montessori approach that nurtures creativity and inventiveness that we can all learn from?

Interesting correlations between how creative business executives think was presented in a survey of 3,000 executives by Brigham Young University. Hal Gregersen, of the Institut Euopeen d’Administration des Affairs (INSEAD) business school said “A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity,” Mr. Gregersen said. “To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).”

Another confirming moment in Montessori education came when Sergei Brin and Larry Page told Barbara Walters on her USA-televised program that they did not attribute their out-of-the-box thinking to their Stanford University parents but rather “We both went to Montessori school,” Mr. Page said, “and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”

The Economist blog, named after Joseph Schumpeter, states: Montessori management has plenty of supporters in the higher reaches of business. The bosses of Google (Larry Page and Sergey Brin), Amazon (Jeff Bezos) and Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales) were all educated in Montessori schools. So was Will Wright, a video-game pioneer. Messrs Page and Brin credit their Montessori education with their enthusiasm for thinking differently. Mr. Bezos thanks it for his enthusiasm for experimentation—for “planting seeds” and “going down blind alleys,” as he puts it. Mr. Wright says SimCity “comes right out of Montessori”. (Schumpeter, 2013)

Those who work with Mr. Bezos, for example, find his ability to ask “why not?” or “what if?,” as much as “why?” to be one of his most advantageous qualities. Questions are the new answers.

Simon Sinek, optimist, ethnographer, and inspirational speaker for leaders, tells us to “Start with Why” in everything you do to discover the purpose, cause, belief or passion that inspires you. Likewise, the Montessori method encourages children to discover their interests and passions throughout their formative years.

So today many companies are mixing such progressive ideas with more traditional ones like encouraging competition and measuring performance. Companies encouraging Montessori concepts are facilitating free-flowing creativity, collaboration and open-plan work spaces. Although the interpretation of open work spaces is not necessarily Montessori in origins, a Montessori classroom has discernible work areas providing children the tools to define their work spaces so that they can make choices of where they want to be, or feel comfortable, working – collaborating or not, quiet space for an individual, or at a group area.

Mu Sigma, a decision science and analytics services firm in Chicago, modeled their promotion and motivation practices on Montessori principals like independence, freedom with limits, and respect for natural development with their workforce. Instead of promoting the top 10 percent, they promoted new hires as a group and gave them a new job title. During the first 18 months, managers met with employees one-on-one to provide feedback and discuss areas for improvement and growth. Instead of using monetary or status promotions as “carrots,” they are now giving workers interesting projects, guidance and encouragement. In other words, Mu Sigma has learned that this approach brings greater loyalty from their workers, and that intrinsic motivation is better than money and promotion for retention.

Tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grade for tests negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn (La Fabbrica Della Realta). In Montessori classrooms the challenging activity, time to explore and understand the solution is reward enough. Most young people do not choose start up jobs just for the money, of course they have to pay the rent and contribute to their hobbies, but for them the reward is the act of creation and innovation.

For all Generation X and Millennials we are hiring, the work has to be challenging, with autonomy and thus more enjoyable for everyone in the work environment.

Start-ups and large companies can benefit from the principals of Montessori education. A work environment that is thoughtfully prepared, allowing for movement within a variety of conditions and participation in challenging projects, that fosters collaborating with others allows for higher job satisfaction. Workers who pursue their interests within meaningful context have a deeper commitment to the work being done, which in turn provides for a greater positive “recognition” in their total life experience.  


Cassese, M. (2015). The Montessori startup and the dream of a Montessori workplace. April 5, 2015. Retrieved from

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Denning, Steve. (2011). Is Montessori the origin of Google & Amazon? Forbes: August 2, 2011. Retrieved from

Dhiraj, M. (2012). Develop leaders the Montessori way. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from M

ontessori, Maria. (2008). The Montessori method. Virginia, Wilder Publications, LLC.

National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS). (2015b) retrieved from on 2/6/15.

Pink, Daniel. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.

Schumpeter. (2013). Montessori management. The Economist: September 7, 2013. Retrieved from

Sims, Peter. (2011). The Montessori mafia. The Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2011. Retrieved from

Sinek, Simon. (2009). Start with why. New York: Penguin Group.

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