Cover image courtesy of Montessori Around the World.
Written by Amelia Murray, The University of Oklahoma
Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor who founded an education system based around respect and freedom for children as well as an independent learning environment. Though these ideas are a great shift from the lack of voice that African communities have had in other humanitarian organizations, the fact remains that Montessori is a European system of education being implemented in communities which already had their own customs and ways of educating children. There are many benefits and downfalls of the organization “The Corner of Hope” in Kenya through the “Montessori Sans Frontiers” program. The organization aims to work for progress in the community as a whole and strives to create independent thinkers. Maria Montessori herself spoke about her goal to educate humanity itself rather than one nation or another in order to fulfill a global community. This illustrates the belief that this method of education is superior (through a Western lens) to traditional education around the world, but also encourages the idea of all people having common goals of peace. Montessori philosophy also emphasizes more hands on, real world skills which are beneficial in any community such as gardening and sewing as well as the ability to work and think independently. The Montessori community also claims to practice culturally responsive pedagogy, meaning that Montessori should take into account each child’s culture and heritage in the way that their education is approached. There is also a program which involves the training of local teachers in the Montessori Method, which also gives more autonomy and power to the local community rather than creating a structure with only western white people in positions of power. However, it is inevitable that both the ideals that have been brought into the Kenyan communities and the framework used to measure progress are from a Western worldview and may not align with those of the Kenyan people originally. However, it is true that these skills will help children and communities succeed in our more Westernized world. The “Corner of Hope” project also provides a safe community with resources for housing, food and other community support systems.
The organization “Corner of Hope” in Nakuru, Kenya is an outreach program by the Association Montessori Internationale through the Educateurs sans Frontières program. This effort seeks to bring the ideas of Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor, to places which are struggling economically and educationally in order to create more self-sustaining and prosperous communities. This program operates under the assumption that the Montessori method of education is superior to the methods and styles of teaching which have developed within the community. However, the organization also provides a long-lasting and effective way to give people in this community opportunities within the Westernized job market. The program trains future teachers in the community so that the outside Western white people would not be the persistent source of power within the community. In addition to educational goals, the “Corner of Hope” also provides housing, food and other community support systems.
Corner of Hope
The organization Corner of Hope is one of many outreach programs for Montessori in Kenya as well as across the world. It began in an Internally Displaced People camp which means that those who were first involved with the project were refugees due to the violence surrounding the 2007 elections . The goals stated by the organization are to emphasize “self-reliance not dependence, community not school”  and to engage the community by training local Montessori teachers. It is an interesting combination of humanitarianism which places the “helpers” above the “helped” and Montessori philosophy which gives the child choices and independence as well as room to grow as a person. However, it is biased and prejudiced to assume that local communities did not have their own ways of achieving the same goals.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Corner of Hope school in Nakuru was steadily maintaining around 100 students and several groups of teachers (48 total) had been trained in 3-6 years old and 6-12 years old instruction. The camp also provides electricity, a vegetable garden, and other types of snacks for children as well as housing and clean water. A new school had also been initiated in Kisima which had grown to 80 students in attendance but with some issues with housing, clean water, and construction and maintenance .
According to this same resource, parents and children are very pleased with the reputation and successes of the Corner of Hope schools and have had no trouble gaining access to further education after finishing the program (this was before the elementary program had initiated) . The parents stated that they only had to say that they came from the Corner of Hope school and they would be accepted into the elementary school program. While this is great news for the reputation and quality of education the students are receiving, it also has some social implications for the children. If the Corner of Hope schools are viewed with resentment as privileged or set above the rest of the community, it may cause tensions within the community especially for the children. It is also sometimes jarring for students from Montessori schools to transition into a traditional school setting. I made this transition in my awkward teenage years and was not prepared for the harsh social realm of public school. This is another thing to take into account when transitioning students out of this program and into the next stages of their lives. Depending on how these Montessori schools are viewed in local communities, it may be a source of judgement or difficulty for children to feel accepted.
Another positive aspect of this program is that once teachers are trained, they create their own Montessori teaching materials so that they can be self-reliant. This means that, if they wish to leave this school, they could take aspects of the philosophy and teach somewhere that has not been reached by this specific program. In this way, the community can take advantage of whatever pieces of Montessori that they wish without being tied to Westerners in positions of power . This fact also may counter some of the resentment and ideas of inequality from the community—if teachers choose to take their knowledge on their own, they could give access to this type of education to a wider range of children then the few schools created by Corner of Hope. It is also a possibility that the Corner of Hope program is widely accepted and respected enough that the community sees a demand for other schools in the area which would also make it more accessible. One of the draws of a Montessori school is often a more personal relationship with peers and with teachers, so it is difficult to create accessibility in a limited number of schools.
The other side of this, however, is that the choice to decline Montessori schools should always be an option. If parents wish to give their children a more traditional education or feel that the Western ideas of Montessori are imposing upon their culture, then they should always have an alternative available. This is more difficult in communities such as those in Kenya of displaced people and of those who have been affected by conflict and violence since, as explored later, these factors can make it difficult to obtain quality education.
Montessori, a Western doctor and philosopher, revolutionized the way some think about the education of children. If you have ever walked into a classroom and found tiny chairs or tables, you have seen the impact of Montessori. Rather than approaching education as filling up the empty heads of children with facts, Montessori went about helping a child form themselves into a whole, cohesive person. There is more of a focus on life skills. Young children do work related to developing motor skills, recognizing shapes and letters, and cooperation with other peers. Older students begin to learn mathematics through physical representations of concepts, study other languages, and explore their own interests and strengths. This enables children in Kenya to find a sense of self as well as learn applicable skills and concepts.
Whereas the children in traditional schools often sit in lines of desks facing the teacher, a Montessori school is set up so that the students can move about as they please and the teacher is simply a guide when they are needed. Montessori schools do not typically assign homework as it is believed that the time children spend at home with their families serves as much of a purpose toward their development as their time doing schoolwork. Children spend the day choosing their own work and doing it independently or with peers. If they are interested in a certain work, they can ask for the teacher to explain it to them. If they want to do a project, they are free to do so on their own initiative. They are also not evaluated or praised excessively for their work—all of the motivation comes from their own desire to learn rather than extrinsic rewards . This could foster a sense of independence and self-worth in children of Kenya.
Though there is not as much extensive research on the results of Montessori education as other fields, the field is developing rapidly and some of the world’s most successful people (Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin) came from Montessori schools . Since testing is not something that often happens or is encouraged in a Montessori environment, it is more difficult to find quantitative research methods in these schools than traditional ones. However, there is a deliberate push to develop more quality evaluations as well as increase the breadth of research on benefits of the method. The creativity, self-discipline, and independent thinking that is nurtured in a Montessori school is more difficult to obtain in situations where state testing determines the curriculum and every child is expected to know the same things at the same time. Every child develops differently, so Montessori education provides an environment where education is not homogenized .
While Montessori education exists for ages birth through adulthood, it is most popular in and associated with early childhood education. Since Kenyan public education only offers schooling beginning at age six, this early childhood development is something that would not be formalized in traditional government funded school systems. This means that the Corner of Hope program provides the crucial early childhood education which is provided only in private institutions rather than the public option.
Montessori was developed originally with under-resourced children in Rome and with a focus on children with disabilities. This background of working with children who do not come from privileged backgrounds provides evidence that the success of the method is not simply a side-effect of primarily consisting of private schools and privileged communities with more access to resources like tutoring and one-on-one learning at home. This association with Montessori with upper-class families is beginning to shift, however, as more publicly funded Montessori schools develop. This push to welcome more diverse student populations also aligns with the principles of Montessori embracing individuality in children .
It is also worth mentioning that, despite the increasing amount of research and evidence to support Montessori’s educational method, the stigma surrounding it is typically that the children do nothing but color and play with toys and that this is called work. It has also been referred to as “guided play” and similar not entirely accurate descriptors. This stigma may not have reached the communities in Africa which the Corner of Hope attempts to aid, but it regardless will affect how the organization is viewed in the U.S. where so many are infatuated with extrinsic reward systems and extensive testing and may not take it seriously. This could impact the support or funding that Westerners are willing to give to this program versus programs which cater to more traditional views of education.
Culturally Responsive Pedagogy
In order to gain context for the Corner of Hope program, we can examine how Montessori is being explored around the world in places like Japan, Hawaii, and diverse socio-economic communities in the U.S.. Angeline Lillard claims the method to be a “culturally responsive pedagogy”  and details how the classroom and philosophy itself is structured in a way that forms to the needs of the community without attempting to mold it to the predominantly white upper-class background which it is from. In contrast to the “no excuses” approach that many have taken to achieve “better” education in less privileged communities, Montessori focuses on giving the children voices that they can use in fights for racial equality and whatever they believe in. Rather than focusing on increasing test scores, Montessori creates a positive environment where children love to learn and foster respect for themselves and their peers as well as their teachers.
Montessori education also melded exceptionally well with the beliefs of indigenous Hawaiian people. Aspects of the method have been incorporated into the pedagogy of some Hawaiian language immersion and culture-based educators. The principals of how children best learn and develop (independently and according to their own talents and interests), ideas and beliefs of human nature (inherently curious and motivated), and actual techniques of teaching children are all common ground between Montessori and indigenous Hawaiian culture. This made the adoption of this teaching style or at least some of its elements very natural to this culture . Other indigenous communities have experienced a similar effect in addition to the alignment of Montessori theory toward a sustainable and environmentally friendly education system. Because Montessori does not assign work and much of the work done in the classroom requires only the child’s brain and hands, the pedagogy is widely more sustainable than more traditional systems. The focus on a connection and awareness of nature in Montessori classrooms is also a connection to many indigenous cultures. These instances of Montessori education melding with diverse communities and adapting to fit the needs of each community are insightful as to how the methodology might progress in the future for the Corner of Hope. It shows that Montessori can be translated to and benefit many different people rather than being a purely Western ideology imposed onto the Global South.
Due to systemic inequality and poverty, Kenyan children often cannot stay in school past the required eight years and do not typically receive early childhood education . They are needed to support their families in short term financial and practical ways. Though there is a focus on education in the country, infrastructural issues make it difficult to prioritize it over feeding a family . This means that many Western-style opportunities for employment and financial gain are not accessible for most people in these communities. The first eight years of primary education as well as the next four years of optional secondary education are free in Kenya (apart from costs of uniforms, lunches, and other extensive fees), and this development has increased the number of children receiving secondary education. However, the number of students who did not complete secondary school was still over one quarter of young people and around one in ten did not finish primary school . This is also accompanied by a dramatic gender disparity in access to education. A study in the Journal of Comparative and International Education found that only 69% of women qualify as literate while 86% of men meet this mark . Though progress is being made in literacy and standards of education as well as prioritizing children staying in school, there is still much progress that could be made when looking though a Western lens .
An article by Novelli, Mario, and Mieke proposes that education, poverty and conflict are impossible to separate. One way in which these are intertwined is the fact that “27 million children are out of school due to war and conflict” . The psychological impacts that conflict and lack of resources has on children is another undeniable connection. In this way, education is not only an investment for the future of a country but a necessity for children’s wellbeing in the short-term. However, it also suggests that one source of low enrollment, access to quality education, and priority of children’s development may be in greater conflicts in the community.
Though Kenya has not experienced a large-scale conflict in recent years, they have experienced minor conflict relating to political unrest. In a conflict analysis report from 2015, Brigitte Rohwerder explains that there are “high levels of sexual and gender-based violence”  and that there is significant terrorist threat as well as violence surrounding perception of corruption in the government. There are also significant efforts to mitigate these conflicts coming from within Kenya as well as from other nations. Some of these efforts have been effective, such as a new constitution in 2008 which aimed to create more equitable governance as well as allot more power to local regional government systems. Others, however, have only served to add fuel to the flame—an initiative called “Operation Usalama Watch” only served to alienate and persecute Muslim people further in the community . Clearly, conflict is still a prevalent and concerning issue in Kenya which makes it difficult to prioritize education.
This seems to suggest that, in terms of foreign aid, Kenya may benefit more from conflict resolution which could help to lessen the roadblocks they are experiencing in the field of education. However, there is also a focus in Montessori philosophy on that of peace—both internal and external—which could be a way to encourage resolution to these conflicts in a more constructive way. If presented in the wrong way, though, this emphasis on peace could easily come across as tone-deaf or insensitive to the complicated nature of current conflicts. Within the sources on the Corner of Hope program, there is not an overt focus on peace and conflict resolution which means that the program may be aware of this possibility. The environment provided in a Montessori classroom, however, is inherently peaceful and productive, so I hope that this influence is a source of calm and stability for the children involved and their families.
Other Education Outreach Programs
There are of course countless other education programs across Africa and the Global South—some Montessori in theory and some traditional or based on another method. There are several other Montessori school programs in Kenya through Montessori for Kenya which is connected with Corner of Hope and several which are independent of the organization. A partner organization called Montessori for Kenya provides management and oversight as well as long-term planning for many Montessori schools in Kenya.
We can compare the organization CHOICE Humanitarian which provides training for traditional education as well as community building and other types of aid for a short period of time before leaving the community to their own leadership and resources. While this does give the people of these communities more autonomy and power in the program, it also is a rather harsh and abrupt means of giving aid. Rather than providing financial and other types of support while the community attempts to rebuild, the organization calls the village “fixed” due to their trainings and engages in cliché photo opportunities and moves on to another village. Though the intentions and some ideas behind this program may be valid, it is rather self-important and naïve to believe that three years and telling a community that education is important will suddenly lift the community from systemic poverty. From the information available, it does not appear that any actual reform was made in the method of educating children other than the physical environment and provision of necessities like food plans. While these aspects of education are undeniably important, they address more surface-level issues than a shift in education methods would (of course only if the community chose this shift) .
This organization also does not seem to acknowledge the difficulties which the communities are facing due to conflict, violence and systemic poverty. As the Novelli, Mario, and Mieke article describes, the conflict and violence in a community, even if it is not directly around education or relating to children, still has a vast effect on quality and accessibility of education. The CHOICE organization simply addresses the symptoms of this difficulty without acknowledging the source. The choice of words (“training” and “teachers not being paid”)  and facts presented on their website also lead the reader to believe that these circumstances were due to neglect by the community and local governments rather than long-term conflict and poverty which make focus on education nearly impossible. In this circumstance, the idea of early childhood education being a good start to escaping the poverty trap is one that has merit, but the methods which the organization approaches this reform are not as effective or understanding of circumstances as they could be.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Corner of Hope school was forced to shut down from March of 2020 to January of 2021. Since then, however, the schools have reopened and are currently following Covid guidelines in order to keep their approximately 148 students safe. The schools provide face masks for students and faculty, hand sanitizer and temperature checks as well as the assurance of clean water—a necessity which many Westerners overlook . It is unfortunate, given the unique structure of Montessori education, that even if each of these students had access to internet and a computer, this program would not have been able to function in a remote way. Despite this difficult and tragic interim, the Corner of Hope has actually increased numbers of students enrolled since the pandemic and took the opportunity of time with no children in the schools to due crucial repairs on the buildings as well as installing the sanitization methods preemptively.
Apart from complications due to Covid, this organization has allegedly done well and had a fairly good reception with local people. As one source says, “The growth to date has been organic and led by demand” . This is encouraging as it implies that the decisions and preferences of those in the community are being respected and heard. In this case, providing the option of Montessori education to communities which may not otherwise be exposed to these ideas is not necessarily a condescending or paternalizing act. The issue now, with an established reputation of quality education and respect from other schools in the area, is to fight to prevent a stigma of privilege and inequality from the community. Since there is demand for growth of the program, it is hopeful that more growth will take place in the future and will mitigate any ideas that the program is elitist or inaccessible.
While it is rather subjective whether introducing a Western style of teaching onto a non-Western audience is imposing this in a patronizing way, it seems that the Corner of Hope program, like most Montessori outreach programs, values things like a child’s individual voice and development as a person with a connection to nature more than test scores and ensuring each child can repeat facts. This makes the system both empowering to those involved and appealing to many non-Western cultures. One issue to consider, however, is the fact that testing is still a major factor in higher education in Kenya and is in most other parts of the world as well. It is important that children who come from Montessori schools are prepared for these tests and systems so that they can compete for future opportunities.
The principles of Montessori philosophy tend to align with those in rural areas in terms of an ideal of inner peace and development of the whole child as well as a connection with nature. The idea of respecting children as human beings with unique interests and talents and with valid opinions and choices is also a strong point in the debate of whether the philosophy, though Western in origin, can be translated to the Global South without a condescending, paternalizing or imposing nature. Montessori in particular can be seen to respect and uphold different cultures and traditions due to the nature and structure of these schools.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
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 Lillard, Angeline Stoll. Montessori the Science behind the Genius. Oxford University Press, 2005.
 “Montessori Alumni.” Montessori Resources for Schools, Teachers, Families and Parents, 2021, amshq.org/About-Montessori/Montessori-Alumni.
 Lillard, Angeline S, et al. “An Alternative to ‘No Excuses’: Considering Montessori as Culturally Responsive Pedagogy.” Journal of Negro Education, n.d..
 Schonleber, Nanette S. “Hawaiian Culture-Based Education and the Montessori Approach: Overlapping Teaching Practices, Values, and Worldview.” Journal of American Indian Education, vol. 50, no. 3, 2011, pp. 5–25. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43608610. Accessed 15 Apr. 2021.
 Ominde, Simeon Hongo, et al. Kenya in the 21st Century. 1999, www.britannica.com/place/Kenya/Kenya-in-the-21st-century.
 Clark, Nick. Education in Kenya. 17 Dec. 2018, wenr.wes.org/2015/06/education-kenya.
 Shabaya, Judith. “Unequal Access, Unequal Participation: Some Spatial and Socio‐Economic Dimensions of the Gender Gap in Education in Africa with Special Reference to Ghana, Zimbabwe and Kenya.” Taylor & Francis, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 21 Oct. 2010, www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0305792042000294805.
 Novelli, Mario, and Mieke T.A. Lopes Cardozo. “Conflict, Education and the Global South: New Critical Directions.” International Journal of Educational Development, vol. 28, no. 4, 2008, pp. 473–488., doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2008.01.004.
 Rohwerder, Brigitte. 2015, Conflict Analysis of Kenya, gsdrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/KenyaConflictAnalysis.pdf. Accessed 5 May 2021.
 Early Childhood Development. www.choicehumanitarian.org/early_childhood_developmnet.
 Corner of Hope SCHOOLS Reopening, January 2021. 2021, montessori-esf.org/blog/corner-hope-schools-reopening-january-2021.