Imagine an education system that trained students to be creative innovators and leaders without the use of grades, tests or homework. It actually exists and it’s called the Montessori Method.

The Montessori Method focuses on fostering a hands-on, self-paced, collaborative and enjoyable learning experience.

It teaches students to start small with their ideas, to build them through experimentation and to solve the problems that come up along the way with a sense of stimulating curiosity.

One of the most striking aspects of Montessori education is its similarities with the “fail fast, fail forward” do-it-yourself hacker mentality that has built many of the most innovative companies in Silicon Valley.

Even the popular innovation frameworks in the global start-up scene, like agile development and lean startup methodology, share similarities with the experimental process of Montessori learning.

The Self-Directed Learning Principles of the Montessori Mindset:

The Montessori Method

I believe that if we want to become better creators and innovators, we would be wise to study the self-directed learning principles of the Montessori Method.

Even though the Montessori Method is usually associated with the primary education of children, the seven pillars of self-directed learning that it is based on also apply to adults with the growth mindset who are highly creative, adaptable and self-motivated:

1. Independence
2. Responsibility
3. Self-Discipline
4. Leadership
5. Initiative
6. Academics
7. Lifelong Learning

Montessori and The Mindset of Lifelong Learning

With the rate of change in our world accelerating and all kinds of new opportunities being created by technological innovation, lifelong learning is now a necessity for keeping up-to-date, staying relevant and thriving.

Unfortunately, our public education system — with its narrow focus on rote learning and standardized testing — is failing students and jeopardizing the future prosperity of our society.

While this traditional form of education was suitable for training people for 20th-century industrial economy jobs in factories and corporate bureaucrats (jobs that are on the road to obsolescence), it does a poor job of instilling the self-directed initiative and flexibility to adapt knowledge and skills as new challenges arise.

In his popular TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson points out the process of how our schools kill creativity (it’s the #1 TED Talk of all time so it clearly resonates with a lot of people).

He argues that to thrive in the post-industrial 21st-century economy, the most important skills are self-directed initiative, curiosity, and social intelligence. This is especially true for the most coveted high-paying jobs in our knowledge-based economy.

Most education reformers agree our public education system doesn’t do a great job of teaching students how to innovate. But the problem is that in a learning environment geared toward providing the right answers on standardized tests, failure is discouraged and conformity is encouraged.

This makes it difficult for individual students to follow their own trial-and-error process of learning from failure, which is required to develop their capacity to become creative innovators.

If you want to learn about the differences between teaching in Montessori and traditional schooling, I highly recommend watching this video:

Silicon Valley’s Innovation Secret: The Montessori Method

The Montessori Method may just be Silicon Valley’s best kept secret. The connections between the innovators who built Silicon Valley and Montessori education run deep.

I frequently hear people joking around about the “PayPal Mafia” and their remarkable influence in Silicon Valley (three former members of PayPal have become billionaires: Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, early Facebook venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn) but there may be a “Montessori Mafia” also, which Peter Sims argues in his excellent book Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries.

It turns out that a lot of Silicon Valley’s brightest minds and most successful innovators have a Montessori education in common.  Here are just a few of the innovators that went through an early Montessori education:

Google's Montessori Doodle

Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the founders of Google were asked in a 2004 television interview with Barbara Walters if having parents who were college professors was a major factor behind their success. Instead, they credited their early Montessori education.

“We both went to Montessori school,” Mr. Page said, “and I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, doing things a little bit differently.”

What’s most remarkable about their success is that Google didn’t begin as a brilliant vision to make the world’s information accessible for everyone to search, but as a project to improve library searches at Stanford University.

As Peter Sims points out referencing Montessori: “most highly creative achievers don’t begin with brilliant ideas, they discover them.”

Page and Brin discovered that their initial idea of improved library search had broader application and eventually unlocked a revolutionary business model and an indispensable tool you probably use many times each day.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon went through Montessori as child and he has made experimentation and discovery an integral part of Amazon’s workplace culture. Bezos thanks his Montessori education for his enthusiasm for experimentation.

Talking about the risks of the experimental innovation process he acknowledged that most of their projects fail, “But every once in a while, you go down an alley and it opens up into this huge, broad avenue.”

Will Wright, the inventor of best-selling video games series “The Sims”, heaps similar praise on his Montessori education:

“Montessori taught me the joy of discovery, it’s all about learning on your own terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you.  SimCity comes right out of Montessori…”

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia went to a Montessori-influenced school and like many of today’s tech elite he sends his children to a Montessori school. As you can imagine, Montessori schools and similarly structured Waldorf schools are very popular in Silicon Valley.

Even Thomas Edison, the American inventor and in some ways the Godfather of modern America’s innovation culture (I recommend watching this biography The Wizard of Menlo Park)  founded his own Montessori School.

He said, “I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being . . . The present system casts the brain into a mold. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning.”

Other prominent people who went through Montessori education include singers Taylor Swift and Beyonce Knowles, renowned celloist Yo-Yo Ma, legendary management guru Peter Drucker, actor George Clooney, illusionist David Blaine, author Helen Keller, techno-philosopher Jason Silva and English royals Prince William and Prince Harry.

While Montessori education may not be ideal for everyone, it provides a great philosophical blueprint for anyone to follow to become more curious innovators.

It teaches a process that is fundamental to innovation: that we must take action and start building things by taking small, achievable steps toward making our ideas happen.

When we are following a deep sense of self-directed experimentation and inquisitiveness this leads us to create new things that may have value to society.

"Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create." - Maria Montessori

Want to learn more about the Montessori Method?

If you want to learn more about Montessori, I’d recommend watching the documentary below about its founder Maria Montessori.

Her biography is an inspiring story of a modern woman challenging the orthodoxy of her time and through sheer determination overcoming the enormous social barriers erected to prevent her from reaching her full potential.

Maria became one of the first women to practice medicine in Italy and was one of the most prominent voices openly challenging the prejudice and extremist ideology inherent in all forms of authoritarianism.

She would eventually be driven from her homeland during the reign of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who closed down the Montessori schools in Italy.

All of Maria Montessori’s books are in the public domain. If you want to learn more, her best-known books are The Montessori MethodDr. Montessori’s Own Handbook and The Absorbent Mind.

I’ve been working to apply many of Maria Montessori’s ideas in our online programs in my Flow Experience Design training.

In a fast-changing world, self-directed learning and creativity-based education will teach the next generation skills that change the world.