Dutch primary education: Montessori & The Dalton Plan

Dutch primary education: Montessori & The Dalton Plan

In this two-part article series I examine the educational approach of general specialised schools in the Netherlands, and explain the pedagogical philosophy behind Montessori, Dalton plan, Jenaplan and Steiner schools.

This first article explores the Montessori and Dalton plan school systems. The second article covers the Jenaplan and Steiner school systems.

Dutch primary school categories

The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science lists four different types of primary schools as well as special education. Directly translated into English, the four categories are:

 Public schools (openbare basisscholen)

Schools, open to all children, which don't follow a specific educational or religious view.

 Specialised schools (school voor bijzonder onderwijs)

Where children are taught from a religious or philosophical point of view.

 Extended schools (brede scholen)

Schools that work closely with other organizations to provide better education e.g. in sports or music.

 General specialised schools (algemeen bijzondere scholen)

Schools which teach according to their vision of education and upbringing (not religious). The school systems I discuss in this article fall under this category.

General specialised schools

This article focuses solely on general specialised schools and explains the educational approach behind Montessori and Dalton Plan schools. I will explain the "philosophy" behind each approach; the specific way schools apply them is out of the scope of this article.

Montessori education

"Help me to do it myself"

An educational approach developed by Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori. The basic principle of Montessori education is that a child should be given possibilities to develop freely and naturally as well as receive personalised education; emphasis is put on children's individuality.

The approach can be summoned up in one sentence: "Help me to do it myself". A child is seen as an active learner, who investigates his/her surroundings, learning consciously as well as unconsciously. The development of each child happens according to the child's own pace and this increases his/her self-confidence and sense of independence.

During learning activities, the teacher doesn't lead but acts more as a mentor and offers guidance when the child needs it. The child has freedom to choose his/her learning tasks and the teacher makes sure that the child has enough time to finish them.

Montessori periods of development

Montessori education distinguishes four sensitive periods (ages 0 to 6, 6 to 12, 12 to 18 and 18 to 24) during which the child is especially sensitive to particular stimuli (I will explain only the first two periods here).

 1st period: 0 to 6 years

Language acquisition; independent movements and movement coordination; idea of order; refinement of the senses and learning of good manners.

 2nd period: 6 to 12 years

The child continues building his/her personality by doing hands-on activities. The skills that a child develops are outward orientation, morality, adoption of cultural heritage, imagination, developed sociability, intellectual effort and the capacity to seek an explanation.

Dalton Plan

Learn to take responsibility of your own learning

Helen Parkhurst created Dalton Plan at the turn of the 20th century to achieve a balance between the child's talent and the needs of the growing American community.

Parkhurst had three objectives for the education programme and they were influenced by the work of Maria Montessori:
 to tailor the programme of each student to match his/her needs, interests, and abilities
 to promote both independence and dependability
 to enhance the student's social skills and sense of responsibility toward others

In the Dalton Plan students work at their own pace, and receive individual help from the teacher when necessary. There is no formal class instruction. Students draw up time-tables and are responsible for finishing the work on their syllabuses or assignments.

From an early age, students are encouraged to make their own educational planning and while doing so, discover how to find their interests and responsively pursue them.

Dalton Plan schoolwork components

In everyday schoolwork, three components are important:

› The House

The House is the base (a classroom) at school for each Dalton student, and the House advisor is the key contact person between school and home. In lower grades, all the students in a House are the same age; in high school each House includes students from all the grades.

› The Assignment

The Assignment is the contract between a student and a teacher. It defines common obligations for the daily classroom work as well as long-term projects and homework.

The unique structure of Dalton Assignments promotes internalisation and refinement of time-management and organisational skills, as well as offering students opportunities to develop their individual strengths and address their specific needs.

› The Lab

The Lab refers to the one-on-one and small group sessions that are scheduled between the students and teacher. In these sessions, questions of interest that arise in class are discussed, unclear issues are clarified and new aspects of topics a student wants to pursue are explored.

The Lab adds to the traditional classroom instruction by combining study, research, and collaboration.

Curious to learn more about general specialised schools in the Netherlands? Check out the second article in this series: Dutch primary education: Jenaplan & Steiner.


Marja-Ilona Koski


Marja-Ilona Koski

I am a theoretical Computer Scientist turned into a Computer Science teacher. I have taught in primary and secondary schools in Finland, I have been working in the field of...

Read more



Leave a comment