Maria Montessori (August 31, 1870 – May 6, 1952) was an Italian educator, scientist, physician, philosopher, feminist, and humanitarian. Her innovative pedagogy emphasized the importance of an environment that supports the young child's natural desire to learn. She rejected the norms, assessment programs, and constraints imposed by the educational system of the time. Her desire was to free the child to experience the joy of learning and her creative efforts succeed in providing a stimulating environment for the development of certain skills and knowledge. She used the environment, developing child-sized furniture and age-appropriate materials, to provide structure to the child's experiences.
Montessori saw psychological development proceeding through a sequence of developmental stages and noted sensitive periods for learning particular skills, such as sensorimotor skills, language acquisition, and social relationships. The "Montessori Method," as it came to be known, sees the teacher not as the director in control of the classroom, but rather as an individual guide to each student who determines the pace of their own learning experiences.
Montessori was born in Chiaravalle (Ancona), Italy, in 1870, the same year in which Italy became a unified, free nation. Her father, Alessandro Montessori, worked as a government official and was a member of the bourgeois civil service. Her mother, Renide Stoppani, was well-educated and a wealthy woman devoted to the liberation and unity of Italy.
Montessori's family moved to Rome in 1875, which allowed her to receive a better education as well as have access to the libraries and museums. With her mother's support, she entered technical school (the Regia Scuola Tecnica Michelangelo Buavarroti) at the age of 13, where she studied engineering. Her family was quite relieved when she decided not to continue in this un-ladylike discipline. It was there that she began to have ideas about education and, at least, what a school should not be like.
She entered the University of Rome's medical school in 1896, graduating with a score of 100 (out of 105). She became the first Italian woman to become a physician in the modern era; the diploma had to be altered to accommodate her gender. Shortly after her graduation she was chosen to represent Italy in a women's international congress held in Berlin, Germany and again in London in 1900. She was appointed as surgical assistant at Santo Spirito hospital, at the same time as working at the children's hospital and keeping a private practice.
At Children's Hospital she was given the "menial" task: to try to educate the "mentally retarded" and the "ineducable" of Rome. There she realized that these children did not need to be hospitalized, rather they needed to be trained in schools much like any child.
She began to direct a small school in Rome for "challenged youth" in 1900. It was there that she began to develop the "Montessori Method," experimenting with various techniques saying, "We should really find the way to teach the child how, before making him execute a task."
As the result of an affair with a colleague, she gave birth to her only child, a son, in 1898. They agreed to keep the identity of the father a secret and promised that neither of them would ever marry another person. It was when he broke this promise that Montessori left the Orthophrenic School in 1906, and took a job as the director of a system of daycare centers for working-class children in Rome. At the same time, she gave up her position at the university and, by 1907, she had opened the first Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) in the San Lorenzo district of Rome.
There her teaching method grew and developed, as she held her students in high regard and had the teachers under her do the same. She watched as the "wild and unruly" children learned to read, write, and gain self-respect as a result of her methods.
From 1907 to the mid-1930s, she devoted her life to developing schools throughout Europe and North America. From then until 1947, she traveled to India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), training thousands of teachers in the Montessori Method.
By 1913 there was an intense interest in her method in North America, which later waned, although Nancy McCormick Rambusch revived interest by establishing the American Montessori Society in 1960.
Montessori was exiled by Mussolini to India for the duration of World War II. There she influenced many religious groups, mostly because she refused to compromise her principles and make the children into soldiers. Montessori lived out the remainder of her life in the Netherlands, which became the headquarters of the AMI, or the Association Montessori Internationale. She died in Noordwijk aan Zee in 1952. Her son, Mario, headed the AMI until his death in 1982.
Most of all, Montessori wanted to help free a child's mind to be unfettered and free to learn without any negative input. The Montessori Method is success oriented in that almost everything is self-teaching and self-correcting. The children learn by doing and by experimentation. There are no graded assignments in Montessori schools. The environment is specifically prepared for the children to allow them to interact with it freely: everything is child-sized, and safe for children to touch and use. In fact, Montessori called her center "The Children's House."
The main goal of Montessori education is to provide a stimulating, child oriented environment that children can explore, touch, and learn in without fear. In a Montessori classroom everything is oriented to the child: there is no teacher's desk or teacher's side of the room, because the teacher is only a guide and facilitator, never dictator or director. An understanding parent or teacher is a large part of this child's world. The end result is to encourage life-long learning, and reinforce the pleasure of encountering and mastering a new skill or idea. The child thus retains and reinforces his or her joy of learning, rather than having it buried under rote memorization or mass production, and is free to explore his or her own path and purpose in life.
The Montessori Method is described as a way of thinking about who children are. As a philosophy, it emphasizes the unique individuality of each child. Montessori believed in the worthiness, value, and importance of children. Comparisons to norms and standards used by traditional educational systems are discouraged in Montessori practice. Instead, Montessori adherents believe that children should be free to succeed and learn without restriction or criticism. Montessori believed that rewards and punishments for behavior were damaging the inner attitudes of children and people.
As an educational approach, the Montessori Method’s central focus is on the needs, talents, gifts, and special individuality of each child. Montessori practitioners believe children learn best in their own way at their own pace. The child controls the pace, topic, and repetition of lessons, independently from the rest of the class and from the teacher. The driving concept is the fostering of the child's natural joy of learning. This joy of learning, according to Montessori theory, is an innate part of any child; when properly guided and nurtured it results in a well-adjusted person who has a purpose and direction to his or her life. Children who experience the joy of learning are believed to be happy, confident, and fulfilled.
Additional important skills emphasized by the Montessori Method are self-reliance and independence. Independence is encouraged by teaching a child "practical life" skills: Montessori preschool children learn to dress themselves, help cook, put their toys and clothes away and take an active part of their household, neighborhood and school. Montessori education carried through the elementary and high school years begins to encourage more group work, but still relies on the student as the guide and guardian of his or her own intellectual development.
I have studied the child. I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it and that is what is called the Montessori Method. —Maria Montessori
- the instruction of children in groups based on three-year age ranges, corresponding to sensitive periods of development (birth–3, 3–6, 6–9 and 9–12 year olds with an Erdkinder program for early teens)
- viewing children as competent beings who are encouraged to make maximal decisions
- the observation of the child in the environment as the basis for ongoing curriculum development (presentation of subsequent exercises for skill development and information accumulation)
- child-sized furniture and creation of a child-sized environment (microcosm) in which each child can be competent in their own world
- parent participation to include basic and proper attention to health screening and hygiene as a prerequisite to schooling
- delineation of a scale of sensitive periods of development (including sensitive periods for language development, sensorial experimentation and refinement, and various levels of social interaction), which provides a focus for class work to be appropriate and uniquely stimulating and motivating to the child
- the importance of the "absorbent mind," the limitless motivation of the young child to achieve competence over his or her environment, and to perfect his or her skills and understandings as they occur within each sensitive period. This phenomenon is characterized by the young child's capacity for repetition of activities within each sensitive period category (for example, exhaustive "babbling" as language practice leading to language competence).
- self-correcting "auto-didactic" materials (some based on the work of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Edouard Séguin).
Montessori lessons work in a methodical way. Each step leads directly to a new level of learning or concept. When a child plays, he or she is really learning the basis for later concepts. Repetition of activities is considered an integral part of this learning process. Children are encouraged to repeat activities as often as they wish until they tire of them.
For young children, Montessori is a hands-on approach to learning. It encourages children to develop their observation skills by doing many types of activities. These activities include use of the five senses, kinetic movement, spatial refinement, small and large motor skill coordination, and concrete knowledge that leads to later abstraction.
For a primary education-stage child, Montessori encourages a child to proceed at his or her own pace onto abstract thinking, writing, reading, science, mathematics, and, most importantly, to absorb his or her culture and social environment. Culture is defined to include interaction with nature, art, music, religion, societal organizations and customs. Many Montessori schools also include studies of foreign cultures and languages. These cultural lessons are used to introduce concepts that will be used in reading comprehension, especially the use of nomenclature cards with both labels and pictures.
A Montessori teacher or instructor observes each child like a scientist, providing every child with an individual program for learning. Some adults are put off by some Montessori teachers' manners—some appearing too subdued, others too stern, none of them necessarily praising or coddling the children. Phoebe Child, head of the Montessori trust in London, said that "we must be prepared to wait patiently like a servant, to watch carefully like a scientist, and to understand through love and wonder like a saint." Montessori encouraged each guide to be like a light to the children, helping to open their eyes to wonders around them rather than amusing them like a clown.
The teacher should be an individual guide, not the leader of the classroom. Adults are present to guide and help the child navigate his or her own learning process as the child receives knowledge, information and experience from the prepared environment.
Home schoolers may find both the philosophy and the materials useful to them since each child is treated as an individual and since activities are self-contained, self-correcting and expandable. The Montessori Method easily scales down to a home schooling environment.
On pedagogical materials
The original didactic materials were specific in design, conforming to exacting standards. All of the material was based on SI units of measurement (the International System of Units). For instance, the "Pink Tower" was based on the one-centimeter cube. The standardization of sizes allows the materials to all work together and complement each other.
A wide range of often mutually exclusive criticisms have been launched at the Montessori Method. Some parents believe the Montessori environment to leave the children "too free," while other see the Montessori principle of "freedom within limits" to be stifling to children. Some see Montessori schools as "prep schools" for preschoolers, while others decry the children spending time on such menial tasks as washing tables or arranging flowers.
Historically, within the Montessori professional community there have been squabbles ranging from the minutiae to the core principles of the philosophy. Accusations assert one training background to be too strict or dated, while others are accused of diluting Montessori's scientifically derived vision of ideal environments to support human development.
The widespread lack of public Montessori programs led some to the conclusion that Montessori schools are elitist and only for the rich (ironic considering the movement's origins). Efforts have been made to shift away from this impression, enabling any family who wishes to participate in Montessori environments to enroll their children in the school.
The educational systems of the world, especially in Montessori's time, had a strong emphasis on discipline, norms and standards. This may indeed have had the effect of stifling the child, to the point of losing the desire to learn. However, it would not be a stretch to say that the lack of discipline and standards in American schools in the latter half of the twentieth century has been the cause of many problems. Montessori's solution, while lessening the strictures of rigid discipline, nevertheless focused on providing an environment conducive to learning, individually tailored to suit each student.
The Montessori system was advocated by writer/philosopher Ayn Rand and it became popular among objectivist parents for their children's education.
The term "Montessori"
The method of education that Maria Montessori derived from her experience at Casa dei Bambini has subsequently been applied successfully to children in many parts of the world. Despite much criticism in the early 1930s–1940s, her method of education has been applied and has undergone a revival. It can now be found on six continents and throughout the United States.
Thousands of schools label themselves as Montessori schools either directly or through notations such as "founded on Montessori principles." Because the term "Montessori" is not trademarked and there is no single accrediting body, there is no single definition that can be associated with a school having Montessori in its title.
Montessori in the United States
There are two major Montessori Teacher Training bodies in the U.S.: AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) and AMS (American Montessori Society). The accrediting body for Teacher Training Programs in the U.S. is MACTE (The Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education).
By the end of the twentieth century, there were over three thousand privately held Montessori schools in the U.S., as well as several hundred public schools that included Montessori programs. Most of these schools have a primary program (from 3–6 years) and often a lower elementary program (6–9 years). Less common is the upper elementary programs (9–12 years), although about one school in eight may have this program. The Montessori environment for toddlers is also a bit of a rarity.
There is no "standard" Montessori high school, as Montessori's work was primarily centered around younger children, although several pilot Montessori high schools were opened based on writings by Montessori on Erdkinder. Schools such as the Arthur Morgan School in North Carolina and the Hershey School come closest to meeting the goals Montessori had for adolescent education.
Observation of children
Montessori's pedagogy and theory were based on her own observations of children. Many teacher training programs and schools for children encourage adults to observe children, within and without Montessori environments, to discern what the child is seeking, doing, longing for and achieving.
- Montessori, M. 2002 . The Montessori Method. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. ISBN 0486421627
- Usually seen as the classic statement of her approach. Contents examine the new pedagogy, the pedagogical methods of the 'Children's House', methods, discipline, sequencing etc.
- Montessori, M. 1995 . The Absorbent Mind. Henry Holt & Co. ISBN 0805041567
- Montessori, M. 1986 . Discovery of the Child. ISBN 0345336569
- This is an easier read than The Absorbent Mind. It explains the nature of the child and how to engage the child in learning.
- Montessori, M. 1988 . Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook. ISBN 0805209212
- This book gives a more detailed description on how to use Montessori’s didactic materials.
- Montessori, M. 1992 . The Secret of Childhood. ISBN 0345305833
- Montessori gives the child’s perspective in learning.
- Montessori, M. 1989. Education for a New World. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio. ISBN 1851090959
- This book illustrates how the teacher’s best teacher is the child.
- Standing, E. M. 1998 . Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. ISBN 0452279895
- Montessori had previewed and approved of the book before her death.
- Lillard, P. P. 1996. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood. ISBN 080521061X
- This is a description of the Montessori philosophy for each developmental stage with more information on the elementary-aged child and the theories on adulthood.
- Lillard, P. P. 1988. Montessori: A Modern Approach. ISBN 0805209204
- This is an easy-to-read description of the Montessori philosophy and information on contemporary American Montessori schools through the 1970s.
- Mooney, C. G. 2000. Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erickson, Piaget & Vygotsky. ISBN 188483485X
- Wolf, A. D. 1989. Peaceful Children, Peaceful World: The Challenge of Maria Montessori. ISBN 093919502X
- Wolf has edited passages from Maria Montessori’s book Peace and Education (1932) in order to provide insights into Montessori’s view of reaching peace through education. It is amazing how relevant Montessori’s writings on peace are today.
- Wolf, A. D. 1995. A Parents' Guide to the Montessori Classroom. ISBN 0939195151
- This is a simple guide explaining the materials a child in a Montessori classroom would be using; it is a helpful guide to parents in understanding what activities their child talks about working with at school.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Lillard, A. S. 2005. Montessori: Science Behind the Genius. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195168682
All links retrieved November 6, 2022.
- American Montessori Society
- Association Montessori Internationale
- The Montessori Foundation
- North American Montessori Teachers Association
- Montessori Association of New Zealand
- The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori
- Montessori Programs in Public Schools – ERIC Digest
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