Montessori and Constructivism

By Elkind, David | Montessori Life, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Montessori and Constructivism

Elkind, David, Montessori Life

Every approach to education presupposes an epistemology, a set of underlying, unquestioned assumptions about how we come to know the world. While every educational program presupposes an epistemology, it does not always start from a set of explicit philosophical assumptions. For some educators, their pedagogy is an outgrowth of their day-to-day experiences with children in the classroom. It is only when these innovators try to articulate their methods that they seek out a philosophy that provides a rationale for their practice. In contrast, other educators start from an explicit epistemology and attempt to derive a set of curricula and teaching methods in keeping with their philosophical predispositions. The road between epistemology and pedagogy is thus always a two-way thoroughfare.

This said, it is also true that gifted teachers resemble one another regardless of their theoretical persuasion or type of classroom experience. This speaks to the fact that talented teaching is, in part at least, an art that cannot be derived from, or translated into, any general abstract epistemology. That is why I have chosen to compare Montessori and the constructivist approach from the perspective of their epistemologies rather from that of their practice. Teaching materials aside, in the hands of gifted teachers, the emotional climates of classrooms in either program are more alike than different. Accordingly, in this paper I will first present the three basic epistemologies and then analyze and compare the two approaches with respect to their philosophical rationales.

The Three Basic Epistemological Positions


One way to look at how we come to know the world is the empiricist perspective. From this point of view, the world exists quite independently of our minds and we learn about it by, in effect, taking pictures of it with our senses. Our senses operate like a camera and our memory is like unused film that gets exposed as we look, touch, listen, taste, and feel the world about us. For the empiricist, the difference between children and adults is that adults have taken many more pictures of the world and have larger film albums. Individual differences occur because people are born with different cameras and different types of film. Some people may have 35mm minds, while some have Polaroid mentalities. Some people have fast film, while others have slower but more light-sensitive celluloid. Regardless of camera or film type, however, learning about the world is a matter of taking pictures of a pre-existing reality. "Nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses" is the mantra of the empiricist epistemology.

Translated into educational theory and practice, empiricism would suggest a teacher-directed, rote-learning approach to helping children learn about the world. Recall Professor Gradgrind in Dickens's novel Hard Times. Professor Gradgrind did not want to have plums on the wallpaper because plums do not grow on walls, they grow on trees. He wanted children to learn facts, nothing but the facts. Gradgrind was opposed to any sort of fiction or works that deviated from what he regarded as real-the touchable and seeable. Empiricism was also reflected in the major premise of behavioristic educational research as expressed by its founder, Edward Lee Thorndike. It was Thorndike who said that "if it cannot be measured, it does not exist." And in general behaviorism and behavioristic, stimulus/response, reward/punishment approaches to education are examples of the empiricist epistemology. Although the early behaviorists eschewed mentalistic concepts, many contemporary writers now take cognition into account.


At the other end of the epistemological spectrum is the nativist position. In contrast to the empiricist, the nativist position is that we are born knowing everything we will ever know about the world. This knowledge is, however, latent and needs to be elicited before it can be put to use. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Montessori and Constructivism


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.