Montessori Method and History
Maria Montessori was the first female physician in Italy, an amazing accomplishment at the turn of the twentieth century. However, becoming a medical doctor was only the first step in her long successful career. She began her professional research involving children with observations of mentally challenged children, and was greatly influenced by the work of the psychologists Itard and Seguin. In 1901 she seemed to be at the high point of her medical career, yet she felt a need for further study and re-enrolled in the University of Rome to study philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. In 1906 she was 36 years of age, an educator, writer, lecturer and medical doctor. She started a school for underprivileged children in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. Since funding allowed only office style furnishings, she contracted a carpenter with her own money to make smaller, child-sized furniture and equipment of her own design. She began this trial school with 60 deprived children under the age of six. As she worked, she observed and modified, modified and observed. Within six months, her results were phenomenal. She began attracting countrywide attention. The children displayed self-discipline, preferred learning materials to toys, and worked with a profound concentration and joy. They had a love for order, respected their environment, and enjoyed working in silence beside their friends. The children would carry on “business as usual” with or without the teacher’s presence.
Gradually, her work became known and practiced world-wide. She refused to patent her name or work because she wanted to see it grow freely, but sometimes the name “Montessori” has been used in schools where the method is practiced incorrectly. Regardless, the books she wrote, the materials she developed, and the discoveries she made have greatly influenced the early childhood programs of today. There was wisdom in her decision to allow the method to evolve.
Maria Montessori believed the child’s mind from birth to six years is quite different from the adult’s and labeled it “an absorbent mind.” She saw a tremendous need for the child to have respectful and intelligent help during this absorbent mind stage as the child effortlessly soaks in everything in his culture and environment. She saw the child as constantly unfolding and developing himself, and saw the adults that were trying to “train” him as obstacles to his progress. Modern scientists continue to find scientific data to support her discoveries. Her life’s work could be summed up as defining the nature of the child and the role of the adult in helping him, thus easing the tug-of-war that exists when two completely different natures meet:
...The child loves concentration - the adult entertains, distracts or interrupts him
The teacher in this prepared environment respects his concentration and allows him to complete an inquiry or exploration. This involves everything from watching an insect on the window sill to drops of water on a table.
...The child loves repetition - the adult becomes bored with it.
Montessori allows this freedom, with respect, as the child perfects his movements.
...The child loves order but the adult provides a toy box that offers nothing but disorder.
(Try keeping your kitchen organized within one large box.) The prepared environment offers shelves with neatly arranged activities always in the same place.
...Children prefer work (learning) to play (toys) - adults do not.
A child’s “work” is his preparation for life: hopefully when he matures he will enjoy his work, for he has perfected what he likes to do best.
...Children do not need rewards - adults like to think they do.
Accomplishment and creativity are reward enough. A child is self-motivated at this age and with the right environment will remain so as he grows.
...Children love silence - adults demand it.
The Montessori environment creates an awareness of silence. “Let me see if you can tip toe away so quietly I can still hear the birds chirping.”
On and on her discoveries move toward providing a practical way to a peaceful coexistence with children.
The Montessori Classroom
Maria Montessori developed materials for refining the senses. The “sensorial” materials help the child to discriminate sound, color, size, shape, smell, and touch. While the manufactured materials are expensive, many can be home-made and get the same results. The materials in the classroom area called “practical life” address the child’s love of movement, concentration and repetition. The activities involve pouring, sweeping, dressing, stacking, folding, wiping, polishing, and washing that include care of the environment, care of self, grace and courtesy. Conversational manners, table manners, and courtesy to others are all part of the activities in a Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori’s math equipment is regarded by many as the most complete available. Four year olds can have a thorough understanding of the decimal system effortlessly. Many of the reading exercises are hand-made and can be supplemented at home. There are also geography, music, art, science and history materials. The method is adaptable to all subjects. All Montessori exercises employ movement, manipulatives, free choice (within limits) and a point of completion. The materials are usually self-correcting allowing a child to discover their own mistakes and truly internalize a concept. The Directress prepares the environment and is trained to know when to intervene in the child’s self-learning. This knowledge comes through her practice of the art of observation. The child is given what is termed as “freedom within limits.” What are the limits?
... He may freely choose to work only from materials he has been shown how to use.
... He must use the materials properly and return them properly.
... He may not infringe upon the rights of others.
Within this framework the child develops freely in individuality and self-confidence. The child is given the opportunity to become independent and care for himself in a responsible way. He thrives and becomes an inner directed member of his school and family. All of this will happen to the extent the child is exposed to these ideas. The more cooperation between the family and directors, the more benefit the child will receive from his Montessori experience.
Maria Montessori was a wonderfully gifted individual who was ahead of her time. She unfolded many of the mysteries, not only of childhood, but of human nature. Her books are read all over the world in many languages. The significance of her discoveries is yet to be fully understood. She died in 1952 in Holland, after training teachers all over the world.
Volumes have been written on Montessori philosophy. The Montessori Method is a universal method that, when practiced correctly, has the potential to guide humanity towards peace. The practice and the pursuit begins within each individual.