It occured to me one day that the Montessori method and the method of homeschooling called "unschooling" are surprisingly similar. I had learned about unschooling in college when I researched different methods of homeschooling. It struck me as a beneficial way for children to learn (by being able to choose what, when, to what extent and for how long they learn) yet I was pretty sure I wouldn't unschool my own children. What if they grew up never wanting to learn about math, or learn to read, or (fill in the blank...)? And by establishing that they were in charge of their education, it would leave me as their worried parent with no power to teach them if they chose not to learn something. I read a number of glowing examples of children who excelled in the unschooling method, but still...not for me.
Montessori education is unschooling with structure. It gives children freedom to choose what they learn, when they learn, to what extent and for how long they learn...within the confines of a classroom. They are (at least in the preschool years, and the majority of the elementary years) limited in their choice to what is laid out for them by a competent teacher. And there is a game-plan to the Montessori method, though the children are largely unaware of it...they are led gently step by step through various interesting materials and lessons, entirely at their own pace, advancing when they are ready.
Structure is integrated throughout a Montessori classroom. The children learn how to take care of themselves and others, how to interact with each other, and how to care for the physical space they are in. They learn to respect the work of others, and to admire a job well done. There are many "rules" in a Montessori classroom, but they are not taught in a harsh no-nonsense way. They just become a part of the joy of learning- something else to be learned, and practiced, at a child's leisure. For example, note the difference in tone between a rule at a public school ("No running in the halls or you will go to the principal's office") and a Montessori school ("This is how we walk quietly at school. Do you hear a noise as I (the teacher) walk? You may practice walking quietly whenever you like, and when you think you are able to walk without making a noise you may come and ask me to listen to your feet.") The latter rule offers a challenge to a preschooler, who does often walk quite loudly, and also demonstrates the goal quite clearly.
Montessori and unschooling are both great learning methods, but Montessori takes unschooling one (large) step further by offering needed structure. As a teacher and a parent, that is a huge relief to me, and that is why I am still a huge Montessori fan.