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How does Finland's education model compare to Montessori? Part 2

Their Shared Philosophy: A Child-Centered Approach

The greatest similarity between the Montessori and HEI Schools philosophies is that they are both child-centered. Grounded in the belief that early childhood is a time when children should be free to explore their interests and discover new things about the world around them, they emphasize the importance of letting children take the lead in their own learning experiences. Active agency and freedom of choice are hallmarks of both educational systems, and as such, emphasize the importance of fostering children’s independence from a young age.

Additionally, both models account for the developmental phases, strengths and personality of each child. They take a holistic approach to teaching because they recognize children as individuals, and as individuals, children learn differently. Both models acknowledge these differences by creating classroom environments that serve a variety of learning styles and allow children to learn at their own pace.

Photo by    Troy T    on    Unsplash

Photo by Troy T on Unsplash

The two models also integrate the ‘sensitive period’ of learning into their approaches. Proven by research, this concept is grounded in the idea that there are certain periods of development in which children are most receptive to certain types of learning. Their brains are incredibly flexible and growing exponentially, so it is much easier to learn certain skills in this time period than it would be later on. For example, preschool-aged children are particularly adept at language learning, so they should be exposed to language as soon as possible in order for them to learn new words and even new languages most effectively. 

However, it is important for the teacher to be sensitive to and support  the diversity of children’s individual development because children learn and develop at different rates. Both Montessori and HEI Schools integrate these factors into their models so teachers are trained to be attuned to these differences and provide support accordingly.

Instead of forcing children to learn certain skills, the Montessori and HEI Schools models both focus on developing and building upon children’s existing abilities with pedagogically informed activities and opportunities to practice and experience them. Teachers working within both frameworks engage children by following their interests and expanding upon their previous knowledge and capabilities. This makes children feel confident in their abilities and capable of learning more. Teachers scaffold those skills that a child cannot learn independently but can acquire with help, thereby respecting that child’s competencies and helping him or her to grow in a way that is healthy and natural. These models consequently empower children, build a strong foundation of internal motivation and instill a lifelong love of learning.

The models actually work quite well together. If you’re a teacher or owner of a Montessori school looking to upgrade your curriculum, consider the HEI Schools Toolkit, an online subscription package that complements an existing preschool or kindergarten’s materials. Watch our webinar recording to learn more about how you can integrate it into your daily operations!

The Learning Environment and Materials

A typical Montessori classroom   Source: Natalie Cho, WikiCommons

A typical Montessori classroom (Source: Natalie Cho, WikiCommons)


Premeditated Outcomes in Montessori

Though the Montessori and HEI Schools models both have child-centered philosophies, meaning they follow the child’s interests and encourage the child’s active participation in the learning process, the classroom environment differs greatly. In a Montessori school, children learn in a “prepared environment.” In such a classroom, there are child-sized tables and chairs, practical household items, and a variety of toys and tools on display on low shelves, in cabinets and other easily accessible locations. In these learning spaces, there are many learning materials and stimuli present and readily available to the children.

Montessori Counting materials   Source: Thacher Montessori School, WikiCommons

Montessori counting materials (Source: Thacher Montessori School, WikiCommons)

The learning materials are organized within the classroom by curriculum area, namely Practical Life, Sensorial, Mathematics, Language and Culture. Scientifically developed to align with appropriate levels of development, each toy is designed to accomplish a certain goal within a curriculum area, regardless of how the child initially perceives them. For example, in the practical life section, there are bottle caps that children learn how to open and buttons they learn how to button. The teacher demonstrates how to complete each task, and the children are then expected to copy these actions.

Montessori learning materials are intentionally sensory, so children can engage all of their senses in the learning experience, which aids their intellectual development. They also focus on occupational education and real-life skills. They provide tools from ‘real life,’ such as glass cups, knives, brooms and watering cans so children can develop practical skills like cooking, cleaning and gardening. Children also practice their fine motor skills because many tools are delicate or fragile, so they learn how to handle these objects with care and dexterity.

However, integral to all Montessori learning materials is a control of error. Built into the design, this concept helps children easily recognize when they have done something ‘incorrectly.’ For example, if they are building a structure and make a mistake, a piece will be left out or pieces do not fit together properly. Because of this, children are then capable of ‘fixing’ the error without adult instruction. Though this encourages independent action and autonomy, it does not foster unconventional creative thinking because children perceive that there is only one correct way of doing something, so there is no room for further exploration or discovery.

Worlds of Possibility in HEI Schools

HEI Schools, on the other hand, does not have traditional classrooms but rather, we provide a variety of learning spaces that serve multiple purposes. One of the tenants of the HEI Way is that learning happens everywhere and all the time, so it is not limited to certain experiences or spaces. Therefore, all areas in the school are learning spaces. For example, there is the HEI Base, which is a large, open area where children play freely and have activity-based learning sessions with the teacher. HEI Downbeat is a smaller area where children can nap and rest without distractions. HEI Workshop is another spot for crafts, activities and free play.

Some examples of less obvious but equally important places for learning are the restroom, hallway and HEI Cafe. In the restroom, children learn basic life skills, like how to use the toilet, wash their hands and take care of their personal hygiene. In the hallway, they practice how to walk in an orderly fashion, navigate their space and greet others in passing. In the HEI Cafe, children enjoy meals together with their teacher, learn culturally appropriate table manners and develop healthy eating habits. 

A typical HEI Schools Classroom.  Source: HEI Schools Collection

A typical HEI Schools Classroom (Source: HEI Schools Collection)

It should be noted that children do sit and eat with their teachers in a Montessori setting as well, and they teach similar skills, but unlike HEI Schools, the Montessori teacher does not actively show children how to use the restroom or walk down the hallway. Though seemingly inconsequential when viewed from a traditional perspective, these areas provide enriching learning opportunities for children that are just as important as those moments created in more traditional learning spaces. Get a sneak peak into our Learning Center spaces here!

Unlike Montessori's prepared environment, HEI learning spaces do not have all of the toys and tools on display. Scaling for age, HEI Schools Learning Centers display some learning materials, such as books on child-sized trolleys and other materials on shelves, but many of our learning materials are often out of sight, stored in predictable spaces for children to easily access. That way, the learning space is relatively free from distractions. Additionally, HEI School learning spaces have natural colors and materials in order to minimize visual and audio noise and create a calming atmosphere. This open canvas of space allows children to use their imagination and explore, and it can be beneficial for more active children because there is less visual distraction.

Source: HEI Schools

Source: HEI Schools

Another important aspect of HEI Schools is its emphasis on nature and spending time outdoors. Playing outdoors features heavily in the Finnish education system’s guidelines, which recommends at least two hours outdoors every day regardless of the weather. The HEI Schools Curriculum has similar recommendations, but adapts to suit each country’s specific needs. However, it is important to include HEI Outdoors as a conceptual learning space in every school because children have less boundaries outside than they do indoors. They can run, shout and feel free, and it is very healthy and natural for children to have these opportunities.


Being outdoors also gives children a chance to experience nature. One of the HEI Way’s cornerstones is cultivating a sustainable way of living, and in order to do that, children must first establish and build a strong relationship with nature and the earth. HEI Field Trips often provide children with opportunities to explore the natural surroundings, and teachers are encouraged to find natural spaces near their schools to bring children for regular visits. It is only by experiencing nature that children can learn to appreciate and cultivate respect for it, which in turn leads to an awareness and practice of environmental sustainability.

As for learning materials, HEI Schools draws inspiration from Montessori and even incorporates many of its tools into its own learning materials. The learning materials in HEI classrooms are categorized by learning areas, namely HEI Play, HEI Read, HEI Explore, HEI Craft, HEI Express and HEI Move. 

However, unlike Montessori, HEI Schools learning materials allow for and even encourage different interpretations. Indeed, there are many intentionally open-ended learning materials in HEI Collection which have no prescribed method of use and welcome curious minds to use them as they see fit. For example, each HEI Schools center has climbing ladders, unusually shaped wooden blocks, an adaptable train set and more. Though children learn how to use certain tools, such as paintbrushes, they are free to explore and utilize many learning materials in a variety of creative ways and to do so with other children rather than individually.

Teacher with HEI Pictogram in hand   Source: HEI Schools

One unique example of the learning materials offered at HEI Schools is the set of HEI Pictograms. These are cards with graphics that illustrate objects, activities, emotions, concepts, days of the week and more, along with the corresponding English term. Teachers utilize them in a variety of ways throughout the day, and the Pictograms offer an alternative way for children to communicate, interact and learn the English language. They allow children to express themselves in a way that feels comfortable for them, so everyone participates and feels included. For example, children can make choices based on HEI Pictograms, which simplifies the incoming information, or they can utilize the emotion pictograms to express their feelings. HEI Pictograms can also be helpful for children who have little or no English skills because the pictures allow them to participate and engage with the visual representations on the cards and slowly build their language abilities.

Additionally, HEI Pictograms are an integral part of the learning space. They label certain spaces and locations of learning materials. For example, a HEI Pictogram of arts and crafts indicate where those materials are stored. Children can easily find and return them, which contributes to their sense of independence and responsibility. HEI Pictograms are also used to create a visual representation of the daily schedule, which allows children to exercise their autonomy because they can individually prepare for the next part of their day. Because they can anticipate what comes next and there is predictability built into each day, children may feel less anxious in such a calm and safe atmosphere.

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