At the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, a glass-walled Montessori classroom quickly became the most popular exhibit at the fair. As thousands of visitors stared, two dozen children remained absorbed with what they were doing, sometimes to the point of remaining with a task long after the class moved on to communal projects. The children appeared to be discussing their work and helping each other like adults, although no child was more than six years of age.
The woman responsible for this remarkable classroom was Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy's first woman physician. While interning in psychiatry, she became interested in retarded children, an interest which resulted in her being appointed head of Italy's first school for defective and incorrigible children. After two years of working with her pupils, she presented them for civil examination and discovered that not only could all of them pass the exam, but also that in most cases they surpassed the normal children two years older. From that point on she was an educator.
The Montessori Philosophy of Education. Dr. Montessori then went into seclusion for about six years in order to begin developing her philosophy of education, which she later applied and modified in her famous Case Dei Bambini in the Roman slums. Her philosophy includes many basic concepts, none of which can be fully appreciated by studying them in the abstract. (It is the lack of firsthand experience with Montessori principles in action that explains why some persons, including professional educators, completely misunderstand it).
Dr. Montessori believed that another person educates no human being; he must do it himself or it will never be done. She therefore felt that the goal of the educational process should not be to fill the child with facts but rather to cultivate his own natural desire to learn. Children between the ages of two and six can pick up knowledge and understanding effortlessly, spontaneously and joyfully. Dr. Montessori called the child's mind at this stage "absorbent" and compared its soaking in knowledge to a sponge's soaking in water.
She also discovered that during these years there are sensitive periods when the child shows unusual ability to acquire particular skills and when it is actually easier for him to learn those skills than at any other time in his life. She found that small children possess a deep-seated love of logic and order in the arrangement of things around them and will work best within a carefully prepared environment that gives order and logic to the impressions they receive. The classroom environment that she prepared was scaled to a child's size and geared to his inner needs. It allowed him to experience the excitement of learning by his own choice and at his own speed. She believed that children are best able to comprehend their environment in very concrete ways, through immediate personal contact, and so she designed concrete tools to lead the child toward the ability to work in abstractions - the numbers, letters and ideas which older people use to represent concrete things. She meant her equipment to be only a means to an end and to be relied on less and less as the child was more and more able to work with abstractions. Feeling that there is an important correlation between muscular activity and learning, she incorporated movement into the use of the equipment, particularly constant use of the hands. Error-control factors were included that indicate a child's mistake to him without his having to be told. The teacher's role is to serve as an enthusiastic guide in the child's progress from simple to complex, from rudimentary to refined tools and from outer to self-control.
She saw that next to learning from his own experience, the child learns best from other children. Therefore, her children were grouped together in four year age spans in order to give the younger ones a graded series of models for imitation and the older ones an opportunity to reinforce their own knowledge by helping those younger. She believed that competition has no place in education until after the child has gained confidence in his own abilities. Her research indicated that children have fantastic powers of concentration if properly stimulated, far exceeding that of most adults. It also showed that children would rather work than play when given a choice between toys and really stimulating work. Last of all, Dr. Montessori concluded that freedom is a goal, not a starting point, and that educators have a responsibility to train children's characters to achieve self-discipline and self-direction, which result from the mastery of meaningful first-hand experience and the fulfillment of the inner urge to expand and grow in one's own way (without jeopardizing the rights of others to have this same privilege).
These are some of the basic Montessori principles, but all the explanations in the world can give the parent little idea of the way children can respond to Montessori's profound insights into the inner needs and working of children, her respect for their initiative and ability, and her expectation that they will naturally do what is right without being forced. When you observe the Montessori class in action, you understand the secret of her success. Dr. Montessori was an experienced classroom teacher, not just an educational theorist. Her ideas stemmed directly from observation of children in actual classroom situations. Every educator of this era who is searching for authentic historical success with pre-school and primary school children (whether defective, normal or exceptional) must come to terms with Dr. Maria Montessori and her Unique success in the classroom, where it ultimately counts.
Some Things to be Seen in a Montessori Classroom: There are three main groups on Montessori materials: the practical life exercises, which are the first activities, essential to two, three and four year olds and enjoyed on a different level by older children; the sensorial materials, which can be used by all ages in the class; and the academic materials, which await each child's moments of interest in reading, arithmetic geography and science.
The practical life activities involve care of the person or the environment (such as washing, polishing, pouring and serving. Buttoning, tying, etc., and putting things away after use). These activities are not done primarily for the purpose an adult would do them, but rather to satisfy the child's inner need to imitate purposeful adult activity, to help perfect his coordination, to lengthen his concentration span, and to teach him the good working habits of paying attention. Later he will, meet abstract challenges with the same pattern of orderly thinking and, therefore, a very good chance of success.
The sensorial materials serve to sharpn the child's senses so that he may better understand and organize the many impressions he receives through them. Each of the pieces of equipment isolates one defining quality such as color, weight, shape texture, size, sound or smell. The basic idea behind them is that what the child needs is not more and more sensory experience (to which he can be totally oblivious), but the ability to categorize and appreciate what he does experience. In addition, it is through the five senses that the child most directly and successfully receives preparation for reading, writing and mathematics. For example, the child who has learned to listen carefully will be able to perceive subtle differences in the sounds of letters. The grasping of small knobs on such equipment as the graduated cylinders enables a child to gain control over the small finger muscles he will use for writing. And the child who has worked with the ten graduated pink cubes, the ten graduated brown stairs, and the ten graduated red and blue rods has experienced the concrete representation of size in one, two and three dimensions.
The academic materials were designed so the common stumbling blocks of the elementary grades could be presented in concrete form at an age when children enjoy manipulating objects with their hands. Dr. Montessori devised equipment representing all types of quantities that the child can demonstrate to himself the basic operations of mathematics. Montessori children are taught the alphabet, which they pronounce phonetically and trace with two fingers over sandpaper letters affixed to individual cards. Not only is the visual impression reinforced by the sensation of touch, but also the outline of the letter is gradually being impressed upon the muscular memory, to be drawn upon when the child begins to write the letters for himself. After learning the sandpaper letters, the child begins to construct simple words with large movable letters. From pronouncing words he has constructed himself, he moves naturally into reading words someone else has written. Montessori children are introduced to the function of words (grammar) with materials and games in which the child manipulates a word according to its purpose: sit under, around, behind, on, in back of, near the table. It should be pointed out that because interest is stimulated and the materials are at hand whenever a child is ready, some Montessori children begin to read, write and calculate at an unusually early age. However, very early learning is not the norm or the objective. When a child does begin these activities, he learns them in the same natural way he learns to walk and talk.
The Montessori child is introduced to geography by means of sandpaper globes followed by puzzle maps. The individual teacher makes many of the grammar, history, geography and science materials, but all demonstrate Dr. Montessori's theory that children can learn factual information if it is brought to their level in manipulative, concrete form.
Individual work with the Montessori materials is nearly always supplemented with other activities. Group singing, music appreciation, art, outdoor play, poetry and games are all coordinated with the Montessori program according to the interest and talents of the teacher.
There is no simple answer to this question. The first thing to be considered is how well the Montessori goals have been realized in the individual child. The entire program of learning is carefully structured; therefore, optimum results cannot be expected either for a child who misses the early years of the cycle or for one who is withdrawn before he completes it. Moreover, each child profits to a different degree from each aspect of the training. If the goals are reasonably well fulfilled, however, how will he fit into a group of children who have not had similar preparation?
To facilitate the transfer from Montessori to traditional schools, good communications between the Montessori school and the other schools in the community must be maintained. Montessori parents and teachers should enthusiastically prepare the child for what he will find in his new school, and the traditional school teachers should be encouraged to become familiar with the Montessori method. In many ways the Montessori school seeks to prepare the child for the traditional school by giving him concrete background experience for working with abstractions. Because of this training, the Montessori child should be able to avoid the confusing learning problems so common in the early grades.
Obviously, the class setting, methods and attitudes of the next school play an important part in the Montessori child's successful adaptation. Any good teacher meets the child at his own level, makes allowance for what he already has achieved and offers enrichment work to keep alive his interest in learning.
Some Montessori parents have been overly impressed with the academic success of Montessori training, expecting their children to read, write and calculate at an unusually early age, but well-trained Montessori teachers deplore such pressure. Dr. Montessori herself never singled out one kind of growth at the expense of another. She provided many interrelated ways to help a child develop his individual abilities, personality, and spirit. The Montessori goal is not an intellectual genius, but a responsible, secure, balanced human being, who has discovered the joy of being able to do things for himself.
Dr. Montessori explained in her writings that her entire method is aimed at the release of the child's creative soul. Montessori methods stimulate creativity by development the perception, judgement and skills necessary to express thought and emotions, as well as the ability to appreciate this talent in others. Dr. Montessori encouraged children to work creatively, not only in the more obvious areas of art and music, but also with language, mathematics and all the other academic disciplines.
The purpose of the methodical Montessori steps used in the practical life activities is simply to enable a young child to accomplish otherwise impossible tasks that can make him feel more competent and independent. The self-confidence that comes with learning to do for himself, together with the sensory training that better enables him to interpret and evaluate his environment, makes the Montessori child unusually adaptable to strange situations.
It is a misconception to think that the children are taught that there is "one right way to do things". Montessori does not teach that the apparatus has only one use; the child uses the apparatus for learning and discovery. The apparatus is designed to teach by discovery. If a child is to learn what a tool has to teach him, he must learn how to maneuver that tool correctly toward the desired result. Dr. Montessori encouraged a child to master the fundamental concrete relationships first, because she discovered that once he gained a clear understanding of such relationships, his mind would expand spontaneously into abstract reasoning. She used the word "explosion" to describe this phenomena and experience has proved that after such an "explosion", a child tends to be daring, questioning and original in his approach to learning. The real danger is not in holding the mind too long in contemplation of the concrete but in rushing it into abstract reasoning and calculation before it has had sufficient experience with the concrete.
The Montessori system is sometimes criticized as being too individualistic. Observation of a Montessori classroom settles any doubts one might have about the opportunities for socialization. Although individual work in common, the children are constantly helping one another, sharing each other's successes, borrowing and lending comparing their work, and asking each other's opinions. Most interesting is the fact that a number of children will spontaneously band together to accomplish a particular task by division of labor or will do the same task side by side at the same tie. A Montessori classroom provides excellent opportunities for children to learn patience, sharing, consideration for others, and a meaningful communication with their peers.
There are usually between 25 and 35 children in an ideal Montessori classroom. This is in order to have enough children in each age group to provide sufficient opportunities for the children to learn from each other. In such a situation, the older child learns responsibility, as well as gaining an opportunity to reinforce his own learning. The younger child has the benefit of observing the more concentrated work of his older friends. Although the student/teacher ratio is high, the Montessori setup enables each child to get more individual attention than he would in most smaller traditional classrooms.
Montessori discipline emphasizes positive methods that avoid personal humiliation. Whenever practical, the unruly child is redirected toward equipment that will spark his interest and therefore more fully absorb his attention. If this fails, he is temporarily separated from the group, and may be asked to work in a less heavily traveled area or stay with the teacher.
If Montessori methods were originally devised to teach brain-damaged and environmentally deprived children, why are they now used for normal children?
Dr. Montessori, after several years work with deficient children, realized that they were scoring at least as well as normal children in testing. She then transferred her work to the normal child, to see what he could accomplish under such training. This proved to be her life's challenge. She designed the bulk of the apparatus used in Montessori classrooms for normal children. Basic pieces, designed for the deficient, proved equally useful as beginning activities for normal children and therefore were kept in the environment.
Ideally, the child should enter Montessori school at about age 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 years old, depending upon his individual readiness.
Montessori teachers regard their methods as exceptionally good and well proven. They do not regard them as the one and only right method, or as a magic cure-all for every child's problems. Parental expectations, the child's temperament and the home environment all contribute to or detract from a child's response to a Montessori experience.
Page Update: August 19, 2006