The Misconceptions about Montessori and Competition

By Julie Kelly-Detwiler

This is me as a young girl, blowing bubble gum.
This is me as a young girl, blowing bubble gum.

As a Montessori educator, I field many questions about this unique educational approach, and contend with many misconceptions.  One that strikes a personal chord is the blanket statement that Montessorians don’t believe in competition, and thus, our children are not being trained to compete and win in the “real world.” I hear people equate the lack of external awards and class rankings inherent in Montessori education with the derivative “everyone gets a trophy” mentality that pervades our culture.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I love competition. Competition focuses me, motivates me, and thrills me—as it does many of us. But, here is where I was lucky: I grew up in the age of neighborhood backyard sports. There wasn’t an afternoon where I wasn’t engaged in a pick-up football, basketball or trampoline competition; who could ride their bike the fastest; who could climb the tree the highest. Sometimes I won, often I lost, but it was the game, the engagement, the community coming together that was the real prize. Our backyard games were multi-age. My younger brother was always included. When he was little, I looked out for him; as he got bigger, he looked out for me.

My high school tennis team.
My tennis team. I’m wearing the green sweater in the front row.

In high school, I played sports every season. We didn’t need to choose one sport because we could play them all.  My years were mapped by the sports seasons. Tennis, then basketball, then volleyball, then lacrosse, then tennis again. Most mornings, we had conditioning before school, and most afternoons, we had a practice or a game. And we had a full academic load to balance. No excuses. The priorities were clear: miss an assignment, miss a game. If you were benched, you were benched. No excuses, no parents intervened, no coaches wavered.

Competition, collaboration, and habits of mind

In some years in some sports, we were state champs. In other sports in other years, we were lucky to win a game. But always, it was the effort, the grit, the engagement, the idea of “leaving it all on the field” and “there is no ‘I’ in team” that was prized. I learned to win gratefully, and to lose gracefully. I learned that success and failure didn’t define me, but that the degree of effort and standard of excellence to which I aspired did. In short, what I learned through sports were habits of mind.  I haven’t competed in athletics since college, but those habits of mind still guide me today.

Now, as an educator at Inly, I see those same habits of mind developed through theatre; through participation in Model United Nations and science labs; through dance and visual arts; through scouts, camps, and youth groups. I have seen those same habits of mind developed in our classrooms as our students engage in and persist through personal challenges, relish in a job well done, or critically self reflect and set a new personal goal after a set back.

Maria Montessori on motivation and competition

It is clear to me that Maria Montessori was not against competition. As the first female physician in Italy, she was a woman of great drive and accomplishment. Rather, Montessori held a revolutionary idea that the adult’s role is to create a learning environment that entices children to explore and develop their potential through intrinsic motivation, and not one that uses the artificial construct of competition as motivation. She understood what behavioral scientists in the 21st century have come to know as well, that extrinsic rewards and punishments—such as grades, class ranking, and awards—are the worst kinds of motivators to sustained achievement and often work against the children they are meant to serve.

I would like to reclaim the concept of competition that I grew up with—a concept that I believe has a place in every Montessori school. I would like to remove the concept of competition from the idea of “organized.” I wish that our kids would explore spontaneous competition through play— without value judgments, identity attachment, or prizes.  I would seek to uncouple the concept of competition from the zero-sum game attitude our society has come to accept—that competition is about winners and losers—and would redirect our focus instead to the engagement rather than the outcome. I would welcome a broader understanding of competition that applies to all endeavors—not just sports—and that relies on personal discipline, true collaboration, goal setting, and critical self-assessment.

Competition and collaboration are not mutually exclusive. Not everyone wins at everything, but you can lose and still win from the experience. And ultimately, the greatest competitors are those who know how to sustain the engagement, even when no one is looking and no awards are involved.  I learned that in sports, but I now live that as a Montessorian.


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