Examining Montessori Middle School through a Self-Determination Theory Lens: A Mixed Methods Study of the Lived Experiences of Adolescents

Montessori education was developed over a century ago. Dr. Montessori and her followers designed learning environments to meet the academic, social and psychological needs of students from eighteen months to eighteen years old. Within her writings and books, Dr. Montessori described strategies and structures that support autonomy, competence and relatedness. These same supports are found within Self-determination Theory (SDT) literature. Research points towards a link between satisfaction of the basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness and increased resilience, goal achievement, and feelings of well-being. . This study examined the influence of enrollment on the development of self-determination in a Montessori middle school which is intentionally created to support the development of autonomy, competence, and relatedness on adolescents. Bounded by self-determination, critical, and student voice theory, this research was designed to give voice to the most important stakeholders in education, add to the discourse on middle school reform, and provide the perspective of the student to the critique of middle level education. Based on the analysis of narrative, the major themes which represented all participants in all cycles were indicators of the importance of autonomy and relatedness. Two themes, “choose type of work”, “choose order of tasks” illustrate the importance of autonomy to this group of students. The last major theme, “help me stay on top of things” highlighted the importance of relatedness to the study group. From these themes implications for middle level educators, educational leaders and future researchers were developed. Participants in the study voiced strong opinions about practices which supported autonomy and relatedness. Students valued the ability to choose the order of their tasks and the tasks they could choose to demonstrate understanding as well as the ability to re-take tests. These changes require a paradigm shift to a student-centered learning environment. Educational leaders can support this shift through providing staff development and planning time. Future research suggested by this study include studies which could further examine a possible link between relatedness support and student achievement and studies designed to capture the voices of students with a low measured SDT.