Maria Montessori and Lev Vygotsky were both influential theorists in child development and education in the 20th century. While there are some similarities in their ideas, there are some key differences as well.
Primarily, Montessori’s work tends to focus on and emphasize education while Vygotsky’s work tends to focus more on development. However, they are both considered to be Constructivists.
In other words, development comes before learning. In this way, Constructivists believe children are actively engaged in the construction of their own concepts and ideas, as opposed to simply being fed information and miming the behavior of others.
Montessori versus Vygotsky
Here is a brief summary of the key similarities and differences between Montessori and Vygotsky. Below, we will take a deep dive into Montessori and Vygotsky and compare and contrast their educational philosophies.
Key Similarities of Montessori and Vygotsky
- Both are considered Constructivists
- Both incorporate historical and social elements in their development theories
- Instruction and introduction of relatively complex concepts at an early age
Key Differences between Montessori and Vygotsky
- Vygotsky gives us a “cultural-historical” model of development, while Montessori gives us a “biological-anthropological” theory of education
- For Vygotsky, the role of the “knowledgeable other” is to explain or demonstrate a lesson to a student until they ‘absorb’ it. For Montessori, the role of a teacher is to guide a student to the right place and time and provide the tools they need and ‘allow’ them to learn
- Vygotsky’s ideas are highly theoretical (although they have Practical Value). Montessori’s ideas are highly practical (but based on theory).
Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was a Russian Soviet psychologist from Belarus. He lived from 1896-1934 and was born to a middle-class, non-religious Jewish family. Often compared and contrasted with notable development theorists like Piaget, his work was introduced to the West in the 1920s. It did not see prominence in the West until the 1980s, however, with the rise in popularity of “Social Constructivism” of which he was a pioneer.
Vygotsky died of tuberculosis at the age of 38. In fact, he was in the process of refining and modifying his development theory when he passed. Unfortunately, the world will never know how much his theory might have been improved, or what kind of insights he might have given us had he lived to a ripe old age.
We should also keep in mind that Vygotsky’s theories changed, developed and evolved even though he lived only a short time. Montessori’s methods and theories are more or less consistent and her ideas did not change drastically throughout her life.
For these and other reasons, most of the actual methods of teaching and learning were left up to Vygotsky’s adherents and admirers. This means you will find a wide variety of actual teaching styles and education methods depending on how this or that follower or Vygotsky applies his theories. Montessori, on the other hand, laid down clear methods, and oftentimes, direct instructions on how we might best teach children.
Three keys to Vygotsky
- Focus on Social Interaction
- Development does NOT occur in biological “phases”
- Zone of Proximal Development
Both Montessori and Vygotsky seem to agree, unlike Piaget, that there are very important aspects of development that are primarily social, and not just psychological. Both theorists seem to understand that human learning and development, as we know it, can only be understood as a process of interactions in a society.
Vygotsky, however, seems to focus on the social and historical aspects, almost exclusively. Montessori, meanwhile, seems to incorporate many of Piaget’s psychological insights. Not only this, but her methods are based in concrete sciences like medicine and physiology, and not just social sciences.
Check out our full article for more information on Piaget versus Montessori.
Vygotsky also rejected the notion that child development must occur sequentially, or in any specific order, or in stages or phases. It would not be based on age or biology that someone would be able to learn a particular lesson or skill. This would vary, radically, according to Vygotsky, depending on the individuals, their cultures and their teachers. This is explained by the third key point.
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is often described as the area between what you can accomplish by yourself, now, and what you might accomplish with the help of a “more knowledgeable other” (MKO).
For example, if I can play “twinkle twinkle little star” on the piano, but I can’t play Mozart, then most of the world of music would be in my ZPD. Furthermore, if I had only one hand, my ZPD would be somewhere between “twinkle twinkle little star” and what one could accomplish on piano with one hand (probably not Mozart!). This zone is crossed through problem solving in collaboration with an MKO, usually an adult, but often something like a book or instructional video.
Prior to Vygotsky’s ZPD theory there were essentially three main ideas on development and learning. First, we have typical constructivism, which simply says development precedes learning. A child cannot learn anything until they reach a certain maturity. Second, we have Behaviorism which states that learning and development occur simultaneously and can’t be separated. Third, there is Gestaltism, which claims that learning and development are always interactive and co-dependent, not unlike the chicken and the egg.
So, the notion of the ZPD takes the place of stages, phases, or other sequential ideas of development, for Vygotsky. He is still a constructivist since development comes before learning, but learning can come at radically different times and in different ways for different people and even different cultures.
Vygotsky’s Early vs. Later Works
Having mentioned Gestaltism, now is a good time to make a few observations about the differences in early and later Vygotsky.
His early works were highly focused on not only language and linguistics, but its development, and its relationship to thought, generally. At that time he tended to focus on inherently ‘meaningless’ symbols (tokens) and how they acquired meaning when arranged in certain ways, and formed psychological development. This interpretation was highly mechanistic and reductionist. One example is the role of ‘pointing’ (ostensive definition) and other gestures and activities we use in acquiring language. His focus tended to be the relationship between language, culture, society, and tool-use.
This all focused on the notions of internalization and appropriation. Internalization would be mastering a skill via social interaction. Appropriation would be using those skills for your own personal goals. This gives some detail to his notion of Constructivism.
His later work is clearly more holistic, less reductionist. This is due to the influence of the German Gestalt psychology movement. It was during this time that he came to see “Play” as the main source of psychological development in children. His theory also began to strive for unity and consistency in explaining emotional, volitional, and cognitive development. At this point, he also abandons the idea of lower and higher psychological functions.
In many ways, later Vygotsky shows the influence of the philosopher Spinoza, who he read avidly. This influence emphasized the role of emotion in higher psychological thought and development.
Two Kinds of Constructivism
As we’ve noted, Vygotsky and Montessori are Constructivists. This means that children do not learn simply by mimicking what they’ve seen or “parroting” other people’s activities. They create or “construct” their own concepts by combining what they see with what they already know, or what’s already in their mind. So what’s the difference?
Simply put, it’s the difference between Normalization of Development (Montessori) and ZPD. Montessori doesn’t necessarily have the same view of learning as Vygotsky’s ZPD theory. She does agree that the best way for children to learn is under the guidance of an adult. But the adult’s main role is to present the student with the proper tools at the proper time, as opposed to “carrying them across the threshold” of the ZPD with demonstrations and repeated explanations. Montessori would say that the role of the adult is to help the child or student be exposed to the proper activities or ideas when they are at the appropriate stage.
For example, a child may best learn counting and arithmetic by being exposed to the concepts at the proper time, when they are ready, and given the proper tools. You would be unlikely to find this in a proponent of Vygotsky, who might instead insist that a child must learn counting and arithmetic by crossing the threshold of the ZPD along with a more knowledgeable other.
Montessori does not even necessarily believe that the teacher/learner relationship is what drives human development, at all. Clearly, Vygotsky does. She does agree that the best way for children to learn and develop is under the guidance of a knowledgeable other, but how and when this other helps is key for Montessori.
This leads to the notion of “normalization”. If a student is not emotionally or hormonally prepared to understand a lesson, a knowledgeable other will have difficulty teaching the student, no matter who they are. Montessori might say certain “Zones…” are meant to be crossed at certain times, according to scientifically determined stages.
Thus, in Montessori, emotionally and psychologically normative stages are developed to tell us when children are ready to learn certain ideas. This will be determined again, by observing when the child shows that they are ready and interested in the lesson or stage in question.
Check out our full article for more information on Normalization in Montessori.
This is also tied to the different views these two have on language. For Montessori, language is, more or less, a way of expressing the thoughts that are inside of your mind. For Vygotsky, language is practically the building blocks of the thoughts in your mind.
When Vygotsky praises a teacher for teaching a student the alphabet at an early age, he does so because the child is learning a societal expectation. He believes this is how they develop the higher forms of thought they will use throughout their life. Montessori, does in fact, teach children how to form letters at an unusually early age, but not for any of these reasons. Rather it is because it is an appropriate time and method for learning fine motor skills. These fundamental skills will be built upon later. A Vygotsky proponent, by contrast, might suggest children not learn to form letters until they could read.
For Vygotsky, any natural aspects of knowledge and learning are overshadowed by the role of society. How and when the child deals with new things under the ZPD takes precedence over maturation, stages of development or any natural predisposition children may have.
Montessori, however, says there are biological and neurological factors that will at least influence, if not determine, how and when a student will be ready to develop. So for Montessori, culture and society are certainly important in learning and development. For Vygotsky, they seem to be the whole story.
Montessori views education in a way that emphasizes the nature of evolution. It is based on “hard” sciences like anthropology and physiology. Vygotsky’s ideas, while scientific, are based primarily on psychology and sociology. We noted that in his early work, Vygotsky divided the mind into “lower mental functions” and “Higher mental functions”.
He believed that the explanation of lower mental functions might be explained mechanically, according to hard science, but that higher mental functions required the newer, more refined, although less objective sciences. Eventually, he would even incorporate emotion as an integral part of learning and development.
This relates to another difference. Vygotsky was trying to understand development as an internal, cognitive process. One of his main points of interest was understanding how the earliest concepts form in a child. He was working on developing a full-blown theory of consciousness before he passed away from Tuberculosis at age 38.
Montessori, however, believed that observation was the best method for understanding development. It is more important to know when a child forms certain concepts than how they do so. So, while Vygotsky’s ideas may be more ambitious or address areas that Montessori doesn’t, we should note that they are also less objective, speculative and theoretical.
Views on Play
This comes to light when we look at the respective notions of “play” between these two. Montessori did not see much, if any value, in “make-believe” forms of play. She noted that, given a choice, children would almost always choose to engage in ‘real-life’ activities as opposed to ‘pretend activities’. Make-believe kinds of activities are generally seen as “useless amusement” in Montessori theory.
Vygotsky, however, believes that make-believe play is a critical learning experience. He says it is during these activities that children learn to symbolize objects and actions in abstract ways, as well as understand their cultural functions. He also says this is how the child develops their ZPD, almost as if, during make-believe play, they can be their own “knowledgeable other”.
Even if the child learns nothing concrete about whatever it is they are imagining, they establish how the ZPD works. Even if they don’t learn anything specific, they are getting a feel for “how to learn”. As a Montessori adherent, one might note that it is true that a child would rather bake actual cookies than play with mud pies. But Vygotsky would say that it is the playing with mud pies that allowed the child to look to a “knowledgeable baker” for the “real instruction” in the first place.
I hope these insights have given you a better understanding of not only Vygotsky and how he relates to Montessori, but also Constructivism, generally speaking.