Montessori Meets Kaizen: Promoting Lifelong Learning

Sometimes one of those random websites that I stumble upon on the internet delivers information I’m grateful to know but wouldn’t have known to seek out. In seeking information about Montessori education, I didn’t expect to discover that a business concept called “kaizen” from Japan would stop me in my tracks, but it did.

The Kaizen Institute defines “kaizen” as the practice of continuous improvement. In Japanese, ‘Kai’ means ‘change’ and ‘zen’ is ‘good’.

The principle behind kaizen is that regular small changes can lead to an exponential change over time. I’m not sure I understand all the intricacies of kaizen, but the idea of continuous improvement resonates with me.

It got me thinking about how my entire adult life has been chasing this idea of kaizen without knowing what to call it. I love to learn. Seeking new experiences and searching for opportunities to grow have defined both my professional (as a Montessori teacher and trainer) and personal (world traveler) lives. Lifelong learning (kaizen’s “continuous learning”) is a critical skill for preparing the students of today for jobs that have yet to be invented.

Lifelong learning is a critical skill for preparing the students of today for jobs that have yet to be invented.

Reflecting upon the small changes that come about each time I consciously sought out the advice or wisdom of another, I can now see my growth pattern as a teacher is linked to my lifelong love of learning that is now part of my marrow. Such growth is usually coined “experience”, but if you reflect upon the power of exponential experience you might join me in using the term “kaizen”.

If the term “kaizen” was in common parlance a hundred years ago (in Italy, no less), I believe Dr. Maria Montessori might have adopted it in describing a component and an effect of the Montessori curriculum.

Continuous Learning in Montessori

With the opening of the first Casa Dei Bambini in 1907, Dr. Montessori designed a whole curriculum for children 3-6 years of age complete with specially engineered and beautifully rendered materials that are introduced sequentially and absorbed in the 3 years the child interacts with the environment.

Because the child is free to choose what interests them and their hands-on progression through sequential curriculum strands, the Montessori child benefits from kaizen. Increasing learning of concepts in small increments lead to greater and more critical understanding.

Steps to Mastery

An excellent example of this progression is from the Montessori math curriculum strand for 3-6 year olds. I have witnessed preschool children relish working with the hierarchal math curriculum called the “Golden Beads” that Dr. Montessori designed. The beads are perfectly scaled and increase in concrete representations of quantity in one unit, 10 bar, 100 square (ten 10 bars), and 1,000 cube (ten 100 squares). Quantity is usually presented to the child, then the symbol that it represents (e.g. a set of buttons are counted to three, then the symbol 3 represents the set of buttons).

Montessori math material: the Stamp Game
Montessori math material: the Stamp Game allows the child to practice math operations in place value.

Oftentimes, children that once loved working with the Golden Beads begin to find them tedious to work with and are ready to move towards the more abstract “Stamp Game”. The Stamp Game was originally designed by Dr. Montessori with postal stamps all the same size but worth 1, 10, 100, 1,000. Modern Montessori Stamp Games feature a divided box with identically sized and hierarchy-colored Scrabble-sized wood pieces as the stamps. The child is next introduced to the same hierarchy-color as beads on a Montessori-style abacus. From here the child moves fully from beads to dots on a paper.

These smaller steps to abstract thinking are key as they represent a leap of understanding that the concept of place value can be symbolized. Kaizen at work.

Web of Learning

Not only is each strand in the Montessori curriculum designed as a step to be built upon but the areas of the curriculum are integrated to best deliver the optimal learning within a greater context. For instance, in a preschool Montessori classroom, you would find a “work” called the geometric solids.

Montessori geometry material: the Geometric Solids
Montessori geometry material: the Geometric Solids

Wait a minute, Geometry is taught in preschool? Yes, it is! In Montessori classrooms around the world, teachers introduce beautiful wood or blue painted solid cubes, cones and spheres before planar circles, squares, and triangles are shown.

The first time a child discovers that the chains of beads can transform into a cube, or that 10 one-hundred squares can be stacked into a cube, the connections the child makes over time transcend the original lesson of the cube.

These examples of progressions of difficulty and integration are embedded into each Montessori curriculum strand whether it be math, geography, language, art, science, or Practical Life (exercises of daily living). This ingenious web of learning allows the child to grow at their own pace, to their own potential.

It Takes a Team

When it comes to education, I contend that Montessori is an approach that promotes lifelong learning. Authentic Montessori environments entice the child to access their environment with exercises designed to increase comprehension by building up from small changes over time.

In Montessori classrooms worldwide, these changes are actualized by a team of hard working adults trained to deliver positive learning experiences to their students.

The idea of “kaizen” is usually applied to business models for long-term competitive strategy, but I’ve been thinking about it not only in terms of describing how children benefit from Montessori environments, but how kaizen is a great way to describe how adults can approach their own growth. As an effective business model, kaizen also means that everyone seeking the goal needs to make improvements to affect change.

The key to classroom performance then, as seen through the lens of kaizen principles, is an entire team working together to meet their collective goals.

As a school consultant, I am witness to how rich collective learning environments inspire students and teachers alike to embrace their love of learning. In Montessori environments, the hidden work of ‘kaizen’ elevates the learner’s understanding and promotes lifelong learning.

How can you incorporate kaizen into your life? Learn something new every day and find a network of people also working to help you continue that learning. There is an endless world of interesting subjects to learn about and ways to learn them.

If you are a parent, the principles of kaizen remind us to be patient: great learning happens over time.

If you work in education, remind yourself of your school mission and seek the people around you that strive towards the same goals. Be an example of lifelong learning to your students and embrace the small differences that over time are transformational.

Share resources and embrace your love of learning. You never know, that next website you stumble upon just might stretch your brain in new ways.

Don’t worry, change is good.


Written by Tammy Oesting – American Montessori Society certified 3-6, 6-12 Montessori teacher, teacher trainer and coFounder of ClassrooMechanics, Tammy Oesting writes about education and learning. To find out about optimizing your Montessori environment, contact her at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.