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An Introduction to Montessori

April, 2006
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01_MM_child Montessori education owes its name to Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the first Italian woman to become a physician, a profession then exclusively dominated by men. Maria Montessori was a willful and determined woman, a trait she already evidenced as a child. Rita Kramer, in her biography of Montessori, today considered the most comprehensive and objective, speaks of the Italian physician as a young girl that “found it possible to bend the rules of her world. She began by breaking the traditional barriers between males and females in education, as she would later break those between teacher and pupil, and in the process redefine the roles of each. She managed her career and her own education with the attitude that change was possible and the conviction that she could affect it.” Maria Montessori did research as an anthropologist, and later ended up working with children who had a variety of disorders and were at the time, and according to custom, labeled “feeble minded,” “idiots” and “insane.” A scientist with uncommon observation skills, she soon started realizing what few before her had become aware of: that most children entrusted to her care, could do, and indeed did much better, if cared for, rather than only attended to or shut in a room and kept behind closed doors, as were those she saw entrusted at first to her, in an asylum. Dr. Montessori started studying what had been done and said before her, the works of Itard and Séguin; she published articles, gave lectures, and experimented with several didactic materials, while developing others. In 1907, she opened the first Casa dei Bambini, or “children’s home,” and since, Montessori has spread t02_firstWomanMDinItalyo be a highly regarded approach to education worldwide.

  Everything she did was based on observation and experimentation never merely on theory and this became the number one reason why she  herself saw Montessori not as a method, but as an approach to education, a philosophy, better yet, an understanding of what education is: a self-directed process, which thrives in freedom. Montessori is thus not a set of rules to be blindly applied or followed. Because based first and foremost on observation and experimentation, Montessori, if its philosophy is respected, is not only universal and applicable to all situations and in all cultural backgrounds, it is also an approach that never ages, because it is constantly being updated and renewed, not only as time goes by, but as each and every child is cared for, with respect for its uniqueness, individuality, natural tendencies, interests and inclinations. Montessori is thus different and unique for each individual, not only each child, but also each adult. Montessori is effective with children, as it is with adults with dementia and babies. Infants, toddlers, kindergartners, teenagers all benefit from an environment that thrives on Montessori philosophy and principles and its approach to learning. This may sound like a one-size-fits-all-too-good-to-be-true solution for all educational problems as well as social, but the fact is that Montessori does work and the outcome of working in a Montessori prepared environment always brings about positive results. Why? Because, by respecting individual freedom, and thriving for win-win situations, it never compromises the individual’s integrity. How can this be accomplished? By following the child; and to “follow the child” is another Montessori pillar when it comes to creating and maintaining a favorable environment for children and adults alike. When there is pressure, there most certainly will be reaction. Oppression is always followed by a counteracting force that is defensive, as all beings struggle for independence, and no single, healthy individual likes to be forced to do what they do not feel inclined to do, nor willingly submits to abusive authority. Obedience, is an inside-out process, chosen by the individual, not an outside imposed rule. In a Montessori prepared environment, Children chose to respect boundaries because they feel that they too are respected.

04_lecturingInIndia   We have touched so far several ideas and principles that are essential to Montessori, and as we progress, we will introduce and discuss many others. To help readers understand some concepts and terms commonly used, we will provide definitions, and, for those interested in further learning and researching Montessori, suggest a bibliography. Opinions, both in favor of and against Montessori will be presented and discussed and misconceptions clarified.

  Let’s start with Dr. Montessori, and then, define a few basic Montessori concepts.

  Maria Montessori A Short Biography

  By Ursula Thrush[1]

  Dr. Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, in 1870. Her parents were very supportive of her, even in the face of Maria’s very strong will and spirit, which expressed itself in such caprices as deciding at an early age that she wanted to become an engineer, which was an unheard of occupation for a woman at the end of the 19th century. Consequently she demanded to be transferred from her all-girls school to a boys’ school where more mathematics was taught. At the expense of any social interaction with her classmates, she worked hard and graduated cum laude. However, by that time Maria had changed her mind and wanted to become a physician, working with humans instead of roads and bridges, but that was an equally unheard of occupation for a woman at that time. Nevertheless, Maria prevailed and became the first female co-ed at the University of Rome. As a consequence, her father did not speak to her for two years. She braved that hurt, together with the derisions of her male classmates, and within a very short period of time convinced her professors of her dedication to her task by her diligence and excellence of work. There was only one occasion when she almost gave up: when she was prevented from participating in an autopsy together with her classmates, because it was unseemly for a young lady to see an obviously naked corpse. However, she was offered the opportunity to perform the autopsy by herself, at night, in the mortuary, by candle light. She accepted but gave up in the middle of the process and left, only to return a few minutes later with renewed resolve. Maria graduated cum laude in 1898 as the first female doctor of medicine in Italy. She became instantly famous and was elected as the Italian delegate to the first Women’s Congress in Berlin that same year. Here the attractive, well spoken young woman advocating equal rights and equal pay (!) was warmly received and invited to join the international lecture circuit. Maria politely declined, stating that she had other work to do - and returned to the University of Rome to continue her studies in biology, psychology and anthropology, while maintaining her private medical practice. 1stPageAdvertising_300dpi_newPICs_2006.03.19

  During her studies of psychology she was assigned to observe some mentally challenged children who supposedly behaved like little animals. Dr. Montessori was horrified by the bleak room, devoid of any sensorial stimuli in which the children were kept. As soon as the food was brought in - the yellow pasta, red sauce, green salad, and white bread - the children started painting themselves and walls with it instead of eating it, kneading the bread into little shapes as if it were clay and picking bread crumbs off the floor. Maria realized that sensorial deprivation caused their bizarre behavior. She brought in sensorial materials designed by Drs. Itard and Séguin during their work with the wolf-child of Aveyron and consequently developed her own sensorial materials some of which we still use today. Within one year Dr. Montessori was able to mainstream these children into public schools, and was looking forward to an opportunity to try her discoveries with normal children.

  That opportunity arose in 1907, when in a slum area of Rome the first Casa dei Bambini (children’s home) was opened and Dr. Montessori, by that time lecturer of anthropology at the University of Rome, accepted the position joyously. It was here that she ordered the first child-sized furniture which we now take for granted, she taught the dirty little street urchins hygiene, which they promptly tried to introduce to their parents and which eventually evolved into our present practical life exercises. She brought in the sensorial materials she so successfully used with the mentally challenged children and combined them with language and math exercises. Her previous success was repeated: these little offspring of illiterate parents learned to write and to read - and her fame spread around the country once more. Eventually, when the Fascists took over in Italy, it also attracted the attention of Mussolini, who considered this method the perfect vehicle to brainwash the children of Italy. However, brainwashing is diametrically opposed to Maria Montessori’s educational aim of self-directed individuals. When given the choice to cooperate or leave the country, she chose to leave. However, she took with her the touching realization of how teenagers can be inspired by an ideal, right or wrong. This impression she would remember later when working with that age group.

  Maria then settled in Barcelona, Spain, with her son Mario, where she started a school and teacher training center. Once again her fame spread, she was visited and invited to lecture by international educators. Maria and Mario started to travel, Mario translating when needed. They were on a lecture tour in India when World War II broke out and they were prevented from returning to Europe. Here Maria was introduced to Eastern thought and philosophy. Her western scientifically trained mind was able to meld the two admirably. Eventually she opened a school, this time also including elementary aged children and she and Mario set about developing the curriculum and materials for this age group. They called it Cosmic Education. Maria was very productive during these years of enforced idleness, she wrote several important books, including the Absorbent Mind, and conceived of the Montessori high school called Erdkinder, e.g. Children of the Earth, a farm school for teenagers.

  After the end of the war the Montessori’s returned to Europe and settled in Holland, where they established the Association Montessori International. Teacher training centers were established in England, Spain, Italy and America, in addition to the ones they organized while in India. In 1948 Maria Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the first time, and traveled to New York to address the United Nations. This was not her first time, she traveled to the USA in 1915 at the invitation of Alexander Graham Bell and his associates, and consequently won a gold medal at the Pan American Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco for the glass encased Montessori classroom where children were working unphased and undisturbed by the curious observers outside the windows.

  Dr. Montessori was nominated two more times for the Nobel Peace Prize, however, unfortunately, she did not receive it. This world would be a better place today had her Peace Education been implemented globally in the meantime. She died in Holland in 1952.

  After her death Mario Montessori continued her work, traveling, teaching and lecturing all over the world, spreading the benefits of the Montessori way of learning and teaching.

03_1915_SanFrancisco  Montessori: A Few Basic Concepts

   There are some very basic principles that define and help parents recognize a real Montessori environment. Montessori is neither a method nor a set of techniques and, although mostly every single Montessori environment is equipped with a very similar set of didactic materials, Montessori is not about the materials either. Montessori is, above all, if not solely, about a vision, an understanding of laws of Nature, attitude and respect for the child’s uniqueness.

  The Prepared Environment: A Montessori classroom, even the school as a body, is usually understood as being a prepared environment. The adult is responsible for making sure that this environment can support the developmental needs of the children who use it, at all levels. As children evolve, change, grow, so does the environment and it often is adjusted to meet the needs of each individual child. Often, the needs of one single child are all it takes for a new set of cards, didactic material, sequence or variation to an existing exercise to be created. All Montessori prepared environments offer child sized equipment, and are characterized by the presence of a mixed aged group of children usually spanning (at least) three years, for example, 3 to 6 year olds who move around freely, choosing their own work and activities, interacting with each other, and receiving assistance when needed. The prepared environment is thus created and maintained cooperatively by both adults and children.

  The Teaching Materials: The didactic apparatus in a Montessori classroom is special in that it presents children with a number of opportunities to acquire concepts in a precise way; the materials allow the child to realize, without adult intervention, when a mistake is made and the child is thus able to correct it herself; this is because all materials are developed with what is called control of error in mind. All materials are conceived and designed in such a way that when a mistake is made, it is the materials themselves that tell the child that something is off and needs extra concentration and attention. This quality of the materials fosters in the child confidence: because he can find his own mistakes, and is not told he is, or did, something wrong by the adult, the child does not feel intimidated; it also promotes independence: since the adult does not need to help the child correct his mistakes directly, and the materials themselves are guiding the work, the child can correct her own mistakes and keep experimenting, progressing at his or her own rhythm, only requesting direct adult intervention when the child herself feels help is necessary; even if not directly asked for by the child, the observant directress knows when help, in the form of gentle guidance, is necessary. A child assisting and helping another child is a common sight in a Montessori prepared environment.

  Basic Concepts: Other than those already mentioned above, the prepared environment, self-correcting materials, and independence (“help me do it myself!” is a motto in Montessori), there are a number of other basic concepts, maybe the most important ones being the so-called absorbent mind, sensitive periods and inner teacher. The absorbent mind refers to the ability the child has of absorbing information from the environment, acquiring concepts, language, etc., in a way and with a spontaneity that will never again be possible later in life. This is tied to certain periods of sensitivity, that all children go through, and that, according to laws of Nature, allow children to learn effortlessly, because they are merely satisfying their most basic needs, a need inherent to all human beings and even animals: the necessity to be independent. The concept of the inner teacher is also fundamental, because it helps adults understand that children can in fact teach themselves, and that all that they learn, must be learned by doing; children learn mostly by doing things, so hands-on work is essential, opportunities to experiment are vital. When this is understood, adults will gain a high degree of respect for all that a child does, as a new light is shed upon the child’s every doing, choice, need, request, even tantrum and complaint. All the child is constantly doing is saying, "Please let me do it myself! I need to grow! You cannot do it in my place." There are other concepts also very important, but these are the most basic.05_visitingLondonGateHouse

  Teachers: The adult in the Montessori school, when working side-by-side with the child in the classroom or, to use that specific Montessori term, prepared environment, is not seen as a teacher, but as a helper, someone who assists the child and only when needed; that is why they are called directresses. The adult directs the child, gently leads the child, providing the means for the child to develop. This help is characterized by a discreet adult presence, non-interference, and a very highly developed power of observation as the adult needs to meet the needs of children, s/he must be able to respond when a need is noticed and the environment is no longer responsive. Other than being a keeper of the environment, the directress is also a record keeper; Montessorians keep very detailed records of all activity a child engages in, how work is progressing, what interests and inclinations the child shows, how s/he interacts with the environment, others, the materials, how the child acts and feels, her likes and dislikes, etc. All this information is kept and processed with one single objective and purpose: to ensure that the best possible environment can be provided for each particular child, so s/he may develop and carry her potential as far as possible!

Further reading:


· The Absorbent Mind, by Maria Montessori

· The Secret of Childhood, by Maria Montessori

· Maria Montessori, by Rita Kramer

  • Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, by Edwin Mortimer Standing

[1] Ursula Thrush (1930-2002), was born in Budapest, did her Montessori training in London and Bergamo, and settled in the USA in 1968. In 1971 she set up her school and training centre, the Maria Montessori School of the Golden Gate, in San Francisco. She lectured, wrote books and articles, gave conferences, and travelled extensively promoting peace. She also helped to establish The Science of Peace Task Force and the Montessori Peace Academy, among other programs. In 2001 she succeeded in creating The UNICEF / Montessori Global Children’s Fund, toward the relief of the plight of Afghani Refugee Children, and for the education of needy children worldwide. She was a passionate advocate of Montessori as Education for Peace. She often quoted Dr. Maria Montessori, when she addressed the League of Nations, in Geneva, in 1932, and said, "The Science of Peace, were it to become a special discipline, would be the most noble of all, for the very life of humanity depends on it. So, also, perhaps does the question of whether our entire civilization evolves or disappears."

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