Montessori’s Brain Gain – A Lecture by Dr. Michelle Keightley

(Poster credit: AMI Canada)


On January 25, 2018, some staff and parents attended a lecture by Dr. Michelle Keightley at the University of Toronto. Dr. Keightley eloquently discussed how “Montessori works because it inherently capitalized on the fundamentals of developmental neuroplasticity.” She addressed how an authentic Montessori approach fosters brain development.

Dr. Keightley also covered a published 2006 study by Lillard & Else-Quest that demonstrated Montessori’s effectiveness over traditional preschool education.

This blog post aims to highlight some of these key points presented by Dr. Michelle Keightley. All photos are taken directly from Dr. Keightley’s lecture slides, unless otherwise stated.

Please keep an eye out for our upcoming Parent Education evenings at both our Christie and Sorauren campuses. As always, your child’s classroom teacher welcomes any additional questions you may have.


Montessori works because it inherently capitalized on fundamentals of developmental neuroplasticity.

1. Brain development follows a general pattern. Montessori Method follows this pattern.

a. Sensory – ability to perceive our environment and what is going on around usb. Motor – ability to move, respond to and explore our environment
c. Communication – ability to understand and be understood within our environment
d. Cognition – ability to think about how to influence our environment, which involves a lot of skills/abilities

i. Ability to focus and pay attention
ii. Remember information
iii. Organize and plan
iv. Self-regulation of emotions

2. Brain development is uneven and is different for each child. They can’t work on everything at once!

Even within each child, development is uneven. The Montessori Method allows the child the time to work on aspects that fulfill the child’s needs at each particular time. Instead of forcing the child’s attention to be divided or diverted, the child is able to work to his or her contentment/mastering that task. The child, at times, may seem to be going forward and taking two steps back. This process is messy but necessary as the brain reorganizes and neural pathways are formed and strengthened. We must remember to look at the overall picture – the macro, not the micro. This keeps in mind that the child’s overall development is still within the range expected at particular ages and stages without rushing a child or hindering a child along.

3. Gains are made while they are resting, NOT while they are working

4. The brain continues to mature and become more efficient and precise into our 20’s by enhancing its ability to send messages between brain cells.



Montessori’s “Brain Gain” Principles

1. Brain development is uneven – need to work to saturation with adequate rest and recovery.

2. Intrinsic motivation results in normalization or flow.

“… The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter, the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it… for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975)

3. A state of normalization develops critical white matter (myelin) that enhances neural efficiency.

4. External rewards decrease intrinsic motivation.

5. Montessori lessons (Aha! Moments) capitalize on emotional salience which activates regions in the brain that serve to enhance memory and recall.

6. Handwriting wires the brain differently than printing or typing which builds a better brain and enhances learning and memory.

7. Technology may assist with visuospatial development but impairs attention and concentration.


Montessori More Effective than Conventional Teaching Methods

 During her lecture, Dr. Keightley covered the following study (click the photo to go to the source):


FIGURE 2. Academic achievement across preschool by school type. The figure shows significantly greater growth in academic achievement across preschool for children enrolled in Montessori preschool (dashed blue lines, n = 70) than waitlisted controls (dotted black lines, n = 71). Groups were statistically equivalent at Time 1 (the non-significant difference at Time 1 is likely due the Time 1 tests occurring into mid-December, thus school programs could already have made a difference) and Time 2 (late in the spring of their 1st year in preschool) and significantly different by the end of their 2nd and 3rd years in preschool (Times 3 and 4). Dashed/dotted lines represent actual data and solid lines represent fitted linear growth curves. Standard error bars are shown.

“… the present study offers evidence that high fidelity Montessori preschool programs are more effective than other business-as-usual school programs at elevating the performance of all children, while also equalizing outcomes for subgroups of children who typically have worse outcomes. First, Montessori programs reduced the income achievement gap, raising achievement of lower income children well beyond the levels achieved by the lower income waitlisted controls. In addition, Montessori programs appeared to work as well for children who were lower in executive function at the outset as for children who were higher in executive function at the outset…”


Further Reading:

 Lillard and Else-Quest tested one set of children after completing primary education, at around five years old.[ …] On a variety of tests, ranging from letter-word identification to math, these Montessori kids outscored their public school counterparts. When confronted with social issues, such as another child hoarding a swing, they more commonly resorted to reasoning–43 percent to 18 percent. And on tests of so-called executive function–the ability to adapt to changing rules that increase in complexity–Montessori children again outperformed their peers.

 Click here to read “Students Prosper with Montessori Method” by David Biello from The Scientific American.


Click here to download “Evaluating Montessori Education” by Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest.


Levels of objectively-measured sedentary behavior were significantly lower among children attending Montessori preschools compared to children attending traditional preschools. Future research should examine the specific characteristics of Montessori preschools that predict the lower levels of sedentary behavior among children attending these preschools compared to children attending traditional preschools.

Click here to read “Objectively measured sedentary behavior in preschool children: comparison between Montessori and traditional preschools” by Pate et. al.


Marie Hui is the Vice Principal of Odyssey Montessori School. She began her tenure with Odyssey as the student teacher in Casa 1. Marie then went on to lead Casa 2 as the Directress for several years. With a love of children and a passion for Montessori, Marie strives to connect parents to the Montessori philosophy - hoping to bridge some gaps between home and school.

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