When Jeff Bezos announced last week that he and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, would create and operate a national network of Montessori preschools, few were more surprised than Montessori organizations and leaders themselves.
In a statement released on Twitter, Mr. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and the wealthiest person in the world, said the preschools would be “in underserved communities.” He continued, “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”
News of the initiative, called the Bezos Day One Fund, came with an eye-popping commitment: $2 billion, some of which will support organizations that help homeless families.
But with high-profile education gifts from tech titans like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg not always going according to plan, Mr. Bezos’ announcement, the corporate language he used in it and the many unanswered questions it raised have made some in the education world wary. Leaders of a half-dozen prominent Montessori groups said that although they were excited by Mr. Bezos’ commitment to Montessori, they had not yet spoken to the Bezos family or their representatives, and did not know which Montessori experts, if any, were advising the project.
Rebecca Pelton, president of the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education, said a key challenge would be recruiting and training enough quality teachers to staff the network’s schools. She warned against online-only teacher-training programs, which have proliferated, but may not offer hands-on student teaching experience in Montessori classrooms.
Still, Dr. Pelton said, “I have faith that he’s going to do the research and ask the right questions.”
Montessori’s unique combination of freedom and rigidity — a famously “child-centered” practice with a host of rules and restrictions — can make its classrooms look drastically different from traditional ones.
Students span a three-year age range, say, between 3 and 5. Dressing up or talking about fairies or superheroes is not allowed. Instead of a play kitchen, there may be a real one, where students might pour their own juice into a glass cup, not a plastic one, so that they will learn the lesson that a glass can break if they are careless.
And every day, students get three-hour blocks of unscheduled, uninterrupted “work” time — the word “play” is not used — in which they are free to choose their activities, whether finger-painting or sorting wooden pegs.