Education seems to be a topic on everyone's mind these days. With ongoing debates about the state of public schools and President Bush's education reform policy, known as "No Child Left Behind," many parents are beginning to look intently at methods of education that are considered non-traditional. Montessori is one such approach that is growing in popularity.

In Prince George's County, public school officials are discussing expanding the system's Montessori program, which is among the more than two dozen magnets created as part of an integration plan to draw students to schools outside their neighborhoods by offering enticing academic options. A recent study of the magnets showed that the Montessori program has boosted academic achievement over the years, while most of the other magnets have not.

As head of Henson Valley Montessori School in Temple Hills, a private school and the county's oldest Montessori program, I am frequently asked:

Just what is the Montessori method and how does it differ from a traditional education?

Montessori is an approach to education based on the research of Dr. Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy during the early 1900s, who spent years studying how children learn. She concluded that intelligence is not rare among human beings and that it manifests itself in the natural, spontaneous curiosity of a child from birth.

Montessori observed that when children are exposed to a classroom environment that is intellectually and artistically alive, they question, investigate and explore new ideas. She found that children are capable of absorbing information, concepts and skills from their surroundings like a sponge absorbs water. She coined the phrase "the absorbent mind" to describe this phenomenon.

The classroom setting and instructional method she designed help children learn to trust their own ability to think and solve problems independently.

Unlike more traditional schools, the Montessori approach allows children to learn at their own pace in a lively, hands-on environment that encourages independence, self-discipline and analytical thinking.

Literature, the arts, history, social issues, civics, economics, science, math, languages and the study of technology all complement one another in the Montessori curriculum. This integrated approach is one of Montessori's strengths.

You won't find children sitting quietly at their desks in neat little rows, listening to a teacher lecture all day in a Montessori classroom. Instead, children are free to move throughout the classroom, to work solo or in small groups, to work on mats, at tables or on the floor. Students choose the order of their lessons and the amount of time they devote to a subject.

They progress at their own pace. For example, in a primary class where children are learning to read, one 3-year-old may be learning letter sounds, while another has progressed to putting the sounds together to begin reading. At any given time, each 4- or 5-year-old in the class is likely reading different books, geared to his or her level.

Throughout the school day, there are no blocks of time devoted to a particular subject or bells that signal a change of classes. When students need to go to the restroom or get water, they are free to do so. The teacher moves around the classroom and observes each student closely, offering individual help and guidance, where needed.

While this system may seem to offer little structure, quite the opposite is true. Children learn the ground rules and correct procedures early, and a formal system is developed to help them keep track of what they have accomplished and what needs to be completed. The goal is to lead students to think for themselves at all times. Even a 3-year-old student who decides to work on a project on a mat is learning to think and act independently.

The student knows that there are ground rules she must follow when deciding where to place her mat. For example, she knows that her mat shouldn't touch another student's mat, that she isn't allowed to walk over her peers and that she is responsible for rolling up the mat and returning it to the proper place when she is done.

In the Montessori environment, order is important. All supplies and equipment have an assigned place, and the students are responsible for returning items to their proper places and maintaining the sense of order.

Most traditional schools group students of the same age together in classes. But Montessori schools group children in classes that have an age span of about three years. For example, a primary class may have students ages 2 1/2 to 6; a lower elementary, ages 6 to 9. Children stay with the same teacher for three years, which allows the teachers to get to know the students personally and discover each child's learning style, strengths and weaknesses.

This also allows younger students to learn from their older peers, while promoting a sense of responsibility among the older students, who are encouraged to mentor their younger classmates. Some public schools in the Washington area recognize the importance of this kind of continuity in the lives of children and have begun to emulate this practice.

One of the concepts that new Montessori parents often find difficult to accept initially is the practical learning built into our curriculum. Among the early skills our students learn are washing tables, polishing silver, pouring and spooning.

Montessori works from the premise that children learn best through discovery, trial and error. Hands-on lessons are particularly important.

After nearly 100 years, Montessori still demonstrates its relevance in the 21st century. It is a method you must see to believe. Feel free to visit Henson Valley and see the Montessori method in action. Valaida Wise is head of school at Henson Valley Montessori School, 7007 Allentown Rd., Temple Hills.