Montessori vs. Reggio Emilia: Similarities and Differences

Listen. Learn. Practice. Apply. Repeat. The majority of us are educated in this philosophy as we file through one-size-fits-all under resourced public schools. Both the Montessori and Reggio Emilia programs offer an alternative approach to learning.

Montessori and Reggio Emilia are both rooted in constructivism, where students learn through hands-on exploration. The biggest difference between the two methods is that Reggio Emilia does not use a structured curriculum.

Trying to distinguish between the two programs can be overwhelming. We will analyze the similarities and differences between both approaches to developmental education in order to better understand each.

Comparison Of Development And Philosophy Of Each Program

Both Montessori and Reggio Emilia (often abbreviated to ‘Reggio’) were founded in Italy to serve a specific need in the community. Each program employs constructivism to guide its students’ learning.

The table below summarizes the key similarities and differences that this article will explain in greater depth.

Similarities And Differences Of Montessori And Reggio Emilia Inspired Schools

MontessoriReggio Emilia
Established at the beginning of the 20th century in ItalyEstablished mid-20th century in Italy
Originally founded to serve underprivileged children
Originally founded to serve a community that lost everything in WWII
Serves students of ages from infancy through 18 years oldServes students ages 2 to 6 years old
Multi-age classrooms foster relationships between students of differing agesMulti-age classrooms
Classroom environment is designed to be serene and calmClassroom environment is considered as a facilitator of education because the environment lends itself to learning.
Structured curriculum provides for sensory experiencesLess formal, less structure provided than their Montessori counter parts
Nurtures children’s strengths and interestsNurtures children’s strengths and interests
Teacher observes and directs learning as unobtrusively as possibleTeacher, parent, and child are educational collaborators
Self-exploration is encouragedStrong sense of community
Possibly more than one teacher in a classroomNo two Reggio centers are exactly the same  

History Of Montessori And Reggio Emilia From Italy To The U.S.

Both the Montessori and Reggio Emilia philosophies were developed in Italy. Each of these non-traditional methods of education are based on constructivism and self-directed exploration. The application of each program is implemented in different ways.

 A Timeline Of The Development Of Montessori Education

The Montessori method was founded by Dr. Maria Montessori, who was both a physician and educator. Her first school, Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) was opened in Rome in 1907. The program encouraged children to explore and learn from their surroundings.

Children’s House was designed to serve as a child care facility for the community of San Lorenzo, a poor, inner-city district of Rome.

In 1909 Dr. Montessori published Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica Applicato All’ Educazione Infantile Nelle Casa dei Bambini (The Montessori Education).

The book made its way to the United States by 1912 when some educators began experimenting with the Montessori method.

However, in 1914, celebrated Columbia University education professor, William Heard Killpatrick began campaigning against Montessori and published a criticism of the method titled The Montessori System Examined.

At the same time that Kilpatrick was criticizing Montessori, another esteemed Columbia professor, and educational reformer, John Dewey was pushing his educational philosophies. Thus, the Montessori method lost ground and was pushed out by the 1920s.

Just after Montessori died in 1951, a New York City educator named Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch traveled to the Tenth International Montessori Congress in Paris to learn how to incorporate the Montessori method into her own instruction.

Montessori Rises In Popularity

In 1958 Montessori made a resurgence in the U.S. when Rambusch began teaching small groups of children using the Montessori Method. Shortly thereafter, some families from Connecticut approached Rambusch about starting a private Montessori school.

On September 29, 1958, the first Whitby School was born in a small carriage house outside Greenwich, CT. The school was named for a story in Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, England. In the story, an Abbess invites a stable boy to join her school after discovering his musical talent.

Interest in the Whitby School and Montessori based education continued to grow. In 1960, Rambusch founded the American Montessori Society (AMS). Since that time, Montessori schools have continued to gain popularity and have a solid foundation in many different countries.

A Timeline Of The Development OF The Reggio Emilia Method

Reggio Emilia was founded in the early 1950s as a new form of childcare. Italian psychologist Loris Malaguzzi collaborated with a group of local parents from Villa Cella, just outside of the Northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia, and located near Bologna.

Beginning to grow just after the conclusion of World War II, the goal of this method of education  was to create a system that valued and fostered responsible, respectful citizens while enriching the lives of children born during war time.

Villa Cella had been an agrarian community for years. Almost everything in the small town had been destroyed during the war, and they were ready to create a new future for their children.

The citizens of Villa Cella, who were mostly laborers and had received little education themselves, came together with no money and few resources aside from stones to build a new school.

After physically constructing the school, Malaguzzi and the founding families of the Reggio Emilia method collaborated to create the curriculum. Its underlying philosophy is that children are innately curious as well as strong, capable, and resilient.

The Reggio Emilia program was developed ad hoc, and the program operated based on the underlying philosophy rather than a specifically developed curriculum. Teachers and parents encouraged children to engage in learning based on their passions and interests.

Reggio Emilia Rises In Popularity

The little school in the Villa Cella community was so successful that the first government preschool in town did not open until 1960. Thirty years later, 20 preschools used the Reggio approach.

Educators in the United States began to take notice of the Reggio Emilia method in the 1980s. In 1987 the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy sent an exhibit called “The 100 Languages of Children”.

The exhibit showcased work by the Reggio children that detailed the history of the program and explained the collectivist, humanistic teaching philosophy developed by Malaguzzi, the Reggio parents, and teachers that had been developed post WWII.

The exhibit drew the attention of U.S. educators, many of whom had already been exploring the program with interest.

Due to the way this educational program was developed by such a tightly woven community to address the specific needs of their children, the program can not be replicated exactly.

Instead of calling themselves Reggio Emilia schools, educational centers outside of Italy that apply this learning method are referred to as Reggio Inspired or Reggio Based schools.

Development And Class Groupings Based On Age Ranges

Montessori schools can start for children as young as 2 months old in a Nido (infant) program, and though preschool and kindergarten are the majority of schools offered in the U.S., Montessori does have programs for older children all the way through high school.

The subsequent age groupings are as follows:

  • Infant (2 months to age 3)
  • Primary (ages 3 to 6 yo)
  • Elementary (ages 6 to 12 yo)
  • Adolescents (ages 12 to 18 yo)

Reggio inspired schools differ in that they typically serve children between the ages 2 to 4 years old. However, some children stay up to age 6 depending on the school and what they can offer.

Both Montessori and Reggio inspired schools to place children in multi-age classes. The purpose is to foster relationships between age groups. It also promotes independence in learning as older students serve as role models to the younger students.

Philosophical Influence In Classroom Environment And Curriculum

There are many similarities between the Montessori, and Reggio Emilia inspired classrooms. However, there are some key differences that differentiate the two methods of education. 

The Montessori Classroom

The Montessori classroom is designed to provide a serene, calm environment, so children feel relaxed and free to explore and take educational risks. Self-exploration is the basis for developmentally age appropriate learning.

Students’ strengths and interests are nurtured, and children are encouraged to dig deeper into the topics they are passionate about. Choice and self-direction are key tenets in Montessori learning.

There is a structured curriculum that includes:

The curriculum provides sensory experiences to help children make meaning out of the world around them.

Teachers set up specific materials and spaces to allow for choice in activity,  as well as individual and group stations. Because hands-on exploration is integral to learning, teachers mindfully select materials based on texture and color to inspire interest.

Having stations set up around the room facilitates movement, which is an important aspect of Montessori learning.

There is usually more than one teacher in the classroom. The roles of the Montessori teacher include:

  • Co-collaborator
  • Observer of student learning
  • Directress of learning

Because there is more than one teacher in the classroom, teachers must collaborate and plan regularly, so they are consistent.

The teacher (or directress) is constantly:

  • Observing students
  • Taking notes
  • Providing feedback

Montessori classrooms are purposefully designed so that there is nowhere for children to obscure themselves from view.

Student progress is tracked through these observations and notes on how students interact with the learning materials. As students get older, assessment expands to include daily recording of activities by the student and one-on-one conferences.

Dr. Montessori herself preferred the term “directress” to the teacher. The teacher’s role is to show students how to use manipulatives and then let them work on their own to solve problems and create meaningful learning.

The Reggio Emilia Inspired Classroom

Like the Montessori classroom, the Reggio inspired classroom is a calm and nurturing environment that promotes and inspires academic exploration. The classroom itself is considered a facilitator of learning because learning centers are stationed all around the room.

Community is still an important factor of Reggio inspired schools. No two schools provide the same atmosphere because the environment is designed to meet the needs of its own community of learners.

There is no specific Reggio Emilia curriculum. Rather instruction is based on a specific value based system of beliefs. Student strengths and interests are also a driving force in learning and children are active participants in their education.

Reggio inspired curriculum is much less formal and less structured than the Montessori curriculum. This is one of the main differences between the two programs.

The teacher, parent, and child are collaborators who evolve throughout the learning process. While there isn’t a set curriculum, instruction and learning are based on the Scientific Method, centered around:

  • Investigative
  • Questioning
  • Experimentation

Students engage in interdisciplinary, hands on projects to get a more holistic view on different subjects and how they fit together in real world scenarios.

Teacher assessment of student learning is based on observation and documentation of student performance rather than formal standardized testing.

What Does A Constructivist Lesson Look Like In Each School?

So what might a Montessori or a Reggio inspired classroom look like in the midst of a typical lesson? There are many similarities in how students in both programs experience their learning, and there are a few key distinguishing factors.

A Typical Lesson in Montessori

The philosophy of Montessori education is that children can naturally pick up and retain knowledge from their surroundings. Through exploration, students self-direct their learning.

A typical lesson will incorporate multiple stations for students to fully explore a topic. Each station is well organized and allows for easy access to learning materials. Let’s use a language lesson as an example of how this might look.

One station incorporates kinesthetic learning with the use of sandpaper letters to put words together. It would also include cut out movable alphabets for children to manipulate into sounds and words. Age appropriate books that focus on rhyming or phonetics are present.

A second station is the spoken language station. Books and art work are included to discuss the parts of a whole as well as the meaning. Song lyrics, poems, and sound games are also components of this station.

A third station contains various phonetic activities such as, but not limited to:

  • Phonetic word cards
  • Phonogram word cards
  • Word puzzles
  • Grammar activities
  • Word study activities
  • Folders with individual work for students

A fourth station is a specific theme, such as vertebrates. It will include classified definition books that allow students to practice reading while learning about various elements of the theme.

For example, the vertebrate theme might include a series of books on different vertebrates, such as:

  • Fish
  • Birds
  • Dogs
  • Snakes
  • Turtles
  • Frogs
  • Horses
  • Many more

This offers students an interest based choice as they learn about vertebrate characteristics.

A fifth station is an independent reading station. This station may be in a low lit area with a comfy chair and a pretty area rug. Books are age and reading level appropriate and are changed out to meet students’ needs as their reading skills progress.

A “Typical” Reggio Inspired Lesson

It is hard to paint a picture of the “typical” Reggio Emilia inspired lesson because there is no typical lesson. For what Reggio inspired education lacks in structured curricula, it makes up for in flexibility and child centeredness.

The classroom itself is designed in a way that is inspiring and nurturing. Classrooms are usually outfitted with:

  • Framed pictures
  • Comfortable chairs
  • Pretty area rugs

Materials are well organized and easily accessible for children.

Dr. Malaguzzi’s poem titled “The Child Has 100 Languages” captures his belief that there is no one correct way to learn. It illustrates children as naturally curious, capable, and competent thinkers. This belief is key to the Reggio classroom.

The idea behind the poem is that aside from written and verbal expression, there are many forms of self expression and learning.  The 100 (symbolic) languages include but are not limited to:

  • Dancing
  • Drawing
  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Playing
  • Construction
  • Dancing
  • Music
  • Role playing
  • Expressing emotion
  • Listening
  • Movement

Similar to the Montessori method, the Reggio inspired classroom provides for a diverse array of learning of sensory experiences. Learning Areas (stations) presenting different forms of hands-on, experiential learning are set up around the classroom.

Students are provided opportunities to:

  • Revisit
  • Revise
  • Extend their learning

Activities presented in various modalities (audio, visual, kinesthetic) allow children to express their learning using various forms of their 100 languages.

Teacher and Parent Roles

Because teachers and parents are considered “co-learners,” their roles vary slightly from traditional parent/teacher roles.

Teachers are charged with providing information, then guiding students in their quest for learning. Their role is to:

  • Observe, listen, document, and reflect
  • Provide stimulation and dialogue that fosters discovery
  • Develop students’ questions and questioning skills
  • Provide time for learning conversations

Observing and documenting student learning and progress is a key part of the teachers job. It serves as a catalyst for the evolution of the learning process.

The parents are seen as a child’s first ever teacher, which is a crucial role to play in another person’s life. The Reggio Emilia method highly encourages parent involvement in the child’s education.

Parental involvement includes the following activities:

  • Volunteering in the classroom
  • Reviewing the day’s learning and outcomes with the child at home
  • Maintaining a clear line of communication and collaboration with the teacher

Similarities and Differences Summarized

Distinguishing between the Montessori and Reggio Emilia methods can be cumbersome as there are a lot of similarities between the two.

In general, both methods encourage student exploration and self expression. Parent involvement is essential in both, but perhaps more so in Reggio inspired schools.

Students are placed in multi-age groups, although the age range of students served varies much more greatly in Montessori schools. 

Non-traditional assessments include observation and documentation of student performance and interactions with the work.

The biggest distinguishing factor between the two methods is that Montessori has developed a set curriculum. Reggio Emilia instruction is less formal and planned for based on daily student progress, allowing flexibility in meeting student needs.

As community and culture are extremely integral components of the Reggio inspired school, no two schools are exactly alike.

In determining whether a Montessori or Reggio Emilia inspired school is the right fit for your child, make sure to research each program and visit the specific schools you are considering.

Armed with accurate information on the educational programs as well as a working knowledge of your child’s needs, you will be able to select the right school.

See also our comparison on Montessori school versus Waldorf school.

Related: Is Montessori right for every child?

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