Thoughts on The Montessori Method
An idea fundamental to Montessori philosophy is that the child has an innate desire to develop her human potential in all its dimensions. Equally intrinsic to Montessori philosophy is the belief that the young child has an “absorbent” mind. Maria Montessori believed that just as a baby learns to walk and talk spontaneously and without the direction of an adult, so is the child able to absorb and process all sorts of information from her environment, and in effect, to teach herself. Thus, Maria Montessori believed that the primary job of childhood is for the child to “create” herself.
Maria Montessori was the first woman accepted by the University of Rome Medical school and was graduated with honor in 1896. She did a great deal of her early work in children’s wards of the local hospitals and went on to work with retarded children under the supervision of Itard and Seguin, innovative scientists of the time. Using their methods and didactic materials, she worked extensively with the education of these children. At the end of her work with them, many of them passed the state tests on a level with the normal children. Montessori then concluded that there was something wrong with the regular education program and devoted the remainder of her life to studying and improving that education. Many of her recommendations such as movable tables and chairs, the need for special nutrition, and time out of doors came from her background as a physician.
In 1903, Montessori was asked to start a special program which she named “Casa de Bambini” or “Classroom” for the children of working parents in a new public housing area in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. The developers hoped that with organized activities, the children would not mark the walls and be otherwise destructive to the new buildings. By observing these children and their teachers (whom she called Directress) Montessori further developed her philosophy of education.
Through these undertakings, Montessori became aware of the value of a prepared environment, which meets the child’s needs, and of a child’s need for joy in learning. This philosophical framework leads to the Montessori environment: an environment that is carefully planned to include materials that meet the cognitive and developmental needs of the child, and which enable the child to learn through her personal interactions with the environment. Because the child has been prepared for each new material she is able to proceed at her own rate. The self-correcting characteristics of each exercise, combined with the fact that the child has been prepared for each new step, leads to successful experiences which lead to further successful experiences.
The Prepared Environment
Dr. Montessori wanted this environment to be open-ended, not a fixed system. She believed the classroom should be innovative, full of constant experimentation based upon observation of the child. It is a nourishing place; a place of self-construction which reveals personality and growth patterns. Not only must it contain all it needs, but all obstacles must be removed as well.
Although Maria Montessori placed such emphasis on the environment, it is important to keep in mind several key ideas:
- She regarded the environment secondary to life itself. In the Montessori Method she states: “It can modify, it can help or hinder, but it cannot create. The origins of species and individuals lie within. The child doesn’t grow because the environment is nourishing. She grows because the potential life within her grows, making itself visible.”
- The environment is carefully prepared for the child by a knowledgeable and sensitive adult.
- The adult is a participant in the child’s life, living and growing within it. The eventual outcome of the class depends upon the teacher’s ability to participate with the children in a life of becoming.
The Montessori Classroom environment has four major areas. The activities in the Practical Life area aid in the development of the child’s sense of order, self-reliance, and muscular development. Each material in the Sensorial area provides a means for the child to focus on a particular sensory perception, thereby enhancing the child’s ability to perceive similarities and differences, to grade and match, etc. The purpose of the materials in the Math area aid in development of the mathematical mind. Beginning with the concrete, the materials gradually enable the child to comprehend abstract mathematical concepts. The materials in the Language area lay the groundwork for reading and writing. There are also many activities in the areas of Art, Music, and the social and natural Sciences, which enrich the child’s development, and well as her understanding of the world around her.
The Montessori Elementary environment is prepared so that individualized learning establishes an intimate contact between child, teacher, and work. Instruction deals in the concrete and concerns itself with the basics as compatible with the development of the child. Everyone knows everyone; it is like a family. Work is shared and learning is vitalized by social life. Adding to the community spirit is parent involvement. Because of the open-ended Montessori environment, there is no limit to what the child can do. In collaboration with the teacher all kinds and levels of learning take place, thereby maximizing the individual potential of each child.
The Montessori method is named after a real person. Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870 and was a pioneer in many ways.
1870-1896 Early Life and Studies - Montessori studied engineering specifically with math as major components of those studies, subjects in that time that were reserved for men. Coming from a family of supportive mother and a conservative father, Maria Montessori became the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree – this was accomplished in 1896.
1896-1906 Period of Indirect Preparation - During this time Maria had many varied experiences and positions. She later related this to her philosophy of education in that the child should be offered opportunities that lead to new skills and other experiences. Montessori was on the staff of Orthrophrenic Psychiatric Hospital for “mentally deficient” children. She studied Itard and Seguin who had researched how people learn. She also studied anthropology, psychology and philosophy.
1906-1910 Discovery of the Child - Montessori was in charge of setting up day cares in the slums of Rome. The children in the San Lorenzo slum were developmentally “deprived.” They had not had any direct experiences linked to their sensitive periods of development. They were “normal” children except for their deprivations due to two working parents, lack of understanding, and being left alone all day. By careful observations, Montessori realized that children related to and reacted with their environment. In the classrooms, she began to put out materials and observed the children. Many of these materials developed daily living skills (practical life skills such as personal hygiene, food preparation, cleaning the environment ) and enhanced the child’s senses (sensorial materials).
1910-1929 Development and Expansion of the Montessori Movement - Montessori and her staff observed that children in different settings reacted to the environment in a similar way. Montessori expanded her centers all over Italy and began training programs for the adults in the environments. The Montessori elementary program was developed during this period.
1929-1939 Consolidation of Ideas and Practice - In 1929, Maria established Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) to support her training programs and the development of new materials for classrooms. In 1936 AMI was permanently established in Holland.
1939-1946 Articulation of Philosophy - This was a time of upheaval but also a period of deep development for Montessori. She was asked by Mussolini to train the children of Italy in his doctrine and when she refused, she left her homeland. She moved to Spain and Holland and eventually moved to India where she remained during W.W.II. She realized what war did to the children and began to develop her philosophy for the spiritual view of life.
1946-1952 Developed the Cause of the Child - Her Education for Peace was developed during this time. She viewed the child as the hope of mankind, the builder of culture and took great care to articulate this philosophy to others. Maria Montessori died in 1952 but her son Mario took over her work. In 1960 the American Montessori Society (AMS) was established in the United States.
1952 to present Growth of Montessori Educational Philosophy - The Montessori philosophy continues to grow and thrive throughout the United States and the world. There are many organizations that support the Montessori philosophy – often a point of confusion for the parent searching for a program for their child (see future articles of What to Look for in Montessori).
For more information on Maria Montessori and her life’s work, please refer to these books.
Rita Kramer, “Maria Montessori : A Biography“, 1976.
E.M. Standing, “Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work“, 1957.
Barbara O’Connor, “Mammolina : A Story About Maria Montessori“, (Creative Minds Biography)
Maria Montessori was a true pioneer. Maria lived from 1870 to 1952 (see – Montessori History for more information). Montessori had a particular view of learning. The Montessori philosophy therefore depends on three proponents, each having equal value – the child, the aware adult and the prepared environment.
A) The child is the base. Montessori felt that each child was unique and the child’s mind and process of learning varied throughout the stages of the child’s development.
Birth to age 6 – The child constructs themselves and absorbs their environment The child’s personality is laid down.
Ages 6 to 12 – The child constructs his/her social self. The child begins to socialize with the world, to absorb their culture through interacting, observing and through the use of imagination, and begins to develop a sense of morality.
Ages 12 to 18 – The child continues to construct the moral self. They begin to participate in society and to search for and establish their place in it. The teenager requires protection during this time of great changes and therefore, intellectual pursuits often take second seat to social development.
Ages 18 to 24 – The young adult is preparing themselves for his/her place on earth. They are sustaining and expanding their culture, developing leadership abilities with the goal of becoming responsible, contributing members of society.
B) The aware adult, whether a parent or teacher, acts as an observer, protects the child’s right to learn, models desired behavior, prepares the environment, and also accommodates the needs of the child. In the classroom setting, the adult is neither simply the central authority nor “imparter of knowledge”. When presenting a lesson, the adult’s role is to model the learning activity. This is done in a slow, concise way, modeling care and respect. Different modalities of learning are considered when a lesson is given. That is, when the adult speaks, they are not demonstrating, and when they are modeling, there is little language. In this way the child’s attention can be focused more on what is said or on what is done. The child is then invited to do the task. Most of the Montessori materials are self correcting so that the child can “learn as they go.”
C) The prepared environment is one that encourages exploration and movement (especially for the young child) and will allow “freedom within limits.” The child is shown how to respect the environment, how to make choices and is allowed to develop the abilities of concentration, coordination, and a sense of order and independence. Montessori realized that children first needed concrete objects to hold and manipulate. Subsequent materials would then gradually lead the child to abstraction. The furniture in Montessori classrooms fit the child’s size. An example — tiny, light tables and chairs are available for even the youngest Montessori toddler students. Materials for the child’s use are complete, attractive and available for the child’s choosing. Teacher materials, storage areas and even teachers’ desks are ideally out of sight and inaccessible to the child.
Maria Montessori wrote many books during her time. Some that come recommended are; “The Discovery of the Child,” “The Absorbent Mind,” and “The Secret of Childhood.” Many of these can be found in local libraries.
There are also many books written by other authors about Montessori and her philosophy.
Recommendations, in no particular order, include the following:
Lynne Lawrence, “Montessori Read and Write; A Parents’ Guide to Literacy for Children“
J.G. Bennett, Mario Montessori, “The Spiritual Hunger of the Modern Child“
Elizabeth Hainstock, “Teaching Montessori in the Home – The Preschool Years“
Elizabeth Hainstock, “Teaching Montessori in the Home – The School Years“
Helen Yankee, “Montessori Math – the Basics“
Timothy Seldin and Donna Raymond, “Geography and History for the Young Child“
The century in which we live has sometimes been called “The Century of the Child”; and certain it is there has never been another epoch in which there have arisen so many movements centered in the child and its welfare. No one has better represented this movement than the great Italian educationalist – Dr. Maria Montessori.
Many others have loved children, worked for them, and with them; but no one has so completely understood the soul of the child in its depth and greatness, in its immense potentialities, and in the mysterious laws of its development.
What Wordsworth said of the child – ‘Oh thou whose exterior semblance does belie thy soul’s immensity’ – was the foundation of her work. It was the child himself, his soul, his person, which she cared about, not just ‘Education’ in the narrow sense of the word. Because children are living, immortal souls they are entitled to as much reverence and respect – as persons – as adults. In fact, Montessori’s whole life’s work might be summed up as a defense of him whom she used to call Il cittadino dimenticato (‘The Forgotten Citizen’) and for the establishment of his rights.
Alone amongst the long line of great European educators – Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Herbart, etc. – she maintained that the one really essential preparation for a would-be teacher is a moral and spiritual one. No one, she said, is fit to direct the child’s development who has not striven to purge herself of those two sins, to which teachers are most prone, – Pride and Anger.
Most people think of Dr. Montessori as the founder of the educational method which bears her name, but her real significance lies deeper. She will go down in history as one who discovered and revealed to the world qualities in childhood different from and higher than those usually attributed to children. By giving freedom (in a biological sense) to children in a specially prepared environment, rich in motives of activities, she was able to show to an astonished world children of 41/2-51/2 years who learned to read and write spontaneously; who chose to work rather than play or eat sweets; who loved order and silence; who displayed long-sustained and quite spontaneous intellectual concentration; who developed a real social life in which mutual helpfulness took the place of competition; who, though able to carry on their life with astonishing independence of adult help, were nevertheless extraordinarily docile and obedient, and finally children in whom liberty, far from producing chaos, resulted in a hitherto unknown collective discipline.
Dr. Montessori was par excellence the great interpreter of the child: and though she herself has passed on from the scene of her labors her work will still go on. Indeed, it will last as long as children are born into this world to grow up in it with loving hearts, eager searching minds, and eyes wide open with wonder.
In the words of her son:
(from Education for Human Development, Mario Montessori)
All children are born geniuses.
9999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently, ‘de-geniused’ by grown-ups.
This happens because humans are born naked, helpless, and — though superbly equipped cerebrally — utterly lacking in experience, therefore utterly ignorant. Their delicate sensing equipment is, as yet, untried. Born with built-in hunger, thirst, curiosity, the procreatvive urge, they can only learn what humanity has learned by trial and error — by billions upon billions of errors. Yet humanity is also endowed with self-deceiving pride. All those witnessing the errors of others proclaim that they (the witnesses) could have prevented the errors had they only been consulted. “People should not make mistakes” they mistakenly say. Motivated entirely by love, but also by fear for the futures of the children they love, parents act as though they know all the answers and curtail the spontaneous exploratory acts of their children, lest the children make “mistakes’. But genius does its own thinking; it has confidence in its own exploratory findings, in its own intuitions, in the knowledge gained from its own mistakes. Nature has her own gestation rates for evolutionary development. The actions of parents represent the checks and balances of nature’s gestation control. Humanity can evolve healthily only at a given rate. Maria Montessori was fortunately permitted to maintain, sustain, and cultivate her innate genius. Her genius invoked her awareness of the genius inherent in all children. Her intuition and initiative inspired her to discover ways of safeguarding this genius while allaying fears of parents. But the way was not always easy. Hers was the difficult frontiering task of genius.