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Montessori Education Transcends Time - The Integrity of Montessori Education in the 21st Century

June, 2008
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Over 100 years ago, an Italian physician inspired the birth of a worldwide educational movement. One hundred and one years later, Dr. Maria Montessori’s pedagogical principles are still flourishing. In fact, Montessori is believed to be the single largest pedagogy in the world, with over 8,000 schools on six continents.

Early in the 20th century, Dr. Montessori developed a radically different approach to education which incorporated optimal ways of educating children. Having studied the educational philosophies of many great educators, she felt that education should no longer consist of imparting knowledge, but must instead seek the realisation of each child’s potentialities. She sensed a danger if the sole purpose of education was to train and mould children to a set course of state education. Dr. Montessori claimed, “The basis of the reform of education and society, which is a necessity of our times, must be built upon scientific study.”IMG_8350

Dr. Montessori began by studying the works of Jean-Marc Itard, and Eduard Seguin, who had researched the effects of sensory stimulation on mentally handicapped children. Her research formally began in January 1907 when she opened “Casa de Bambini”, or Children’s House, in San Lorenzo, Italy to study the needs of young children. Through her observations, she developed a unique understanding of the child and showed that, if conditions are right, children have a natural desire to investigate and learn.

Her research work took her from Italy to Holland, India and North America, discovering along the way many formerly unrecognised insights into child development, the brain and the conditions under which children learn best.

She concluded that there were several “universal” characteristics of childhood. Regardless of nationality or cultural background, every child was uniquely similar in his/her development. Her conclusions resulted in a system of education which could be standardised for all children regardless of economic background or cultural heritage.

This is a profound finding for those of us raising children internationally: an educational system which can be consistently delivered worldwide. In fact, Dr. Montessori’s philosophy, originally designed learning materials and practices have been implemented in a diverse range of cultural and educational settings around the world.

IMG_8360In one of her first books, “Discovery of the Child”, she states, “Education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but through experiences in the environment.” In a Montessori environment, the child is actively engaged in his/her studies, using attractive, concrete manipulative learning materials, which Dr. Montessori designed to teach a specific concept or skill. Dr. Montessori claimed, “The skill of the hand is bound up with the development of the mind, and in the light of history we see it connected with the development of civilisation… all the changes in our environment are brought about by hands.”

Montessori’s multi-sensory approach supports neuro- psychologists’ findings of the last decade concerning the optimum approach in developing the potential of the child’s brain. Theories of early constructivists John Dewey and Jean Piaget inform us that children learn best by first-hand experience and that the growth of neurons in the brain is stimulated when children act upon their environments using all five senses. Environment and active experience shape intelligence. Prior to this, it was widely believed that the architecture of the brain was set at birth by the genetic characteristics inherited from the parents. Now we know that, just as Dr. Montessori told us, a young child’s brain develops through stimulation of the sensing pathways, which include touch, vision, sound, pain, taste, smell, and temperature. Over 100 years ago, she designed the Montessori Sensorial apparatus, which is still an integral component of the learning environment today. In fact, many of these materials are now used to enhance the skills of children with learning differences.

Dr. Montessori discovered that learning is also accomplished through movement. The impact of movement on learning and cognition is scientifically proven, and they are closely intertwined. Montessori has movement at the core; no rows of desks, but rather an environment where children are actively engaged in their studies, and learning is not focused on rote drill and memorisation, but on a child’s exploration of a concept until it is mastered; the process of learning being integral.

Learning the right answer may get children through tests and from grade to grade, but learning how to learn will allow them to succeed in life.

In Montessori education, concepts are learned through manipulation of specially designed materials, so language is not as critical in the delivery. Montessori is not about lectures, but rather about investigating with one’s hands and senses. This highlights one of the many benefits of Montessori in an international community—the language of the materials is universal. No matter where a school is located or what language the child and teacher speak, the materials are effective learning tools. Montessori education has not only stood the test of time but also transcends national boundaries and the barrier of language.IMG_8370

Dr. Montessori observed that children are especially sensitive to sensory stimuli at different periods in his/her development, and she designed specific materials enabling the child to learn in accordance with his/her neurological development rather than artificially devised schedules.

Dr. Montessori recognised that the early years are the most critical years of a child’s learning and development of intellectual potential. Recent psychological studies confirm her theories that from birth to age four, the child develops 50% of his/her mature intelligence – from age four to eight, he/she develops another 30%.

This rapid growth of intelligence in the early years suggests that a child’s early environment greatly influences his/her development. Since the child retains the ability to learn by absorbing until almost age eight, Dr. Montessori created specifically equipped and aesthetically stimulating early years’ classrooms to build a very important foundation for all future learning.

Modern scientific research continually re-confirms that the foundations and principles of Montessori teaching methods are scientifically sound and insightful. The over 8,000 schools on six continents further validate Montessori teaching methods and attest to its universality. Montessori’s over one-hundred-year history makes it a proven, time-tested educational methodology.

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A true Montessori school is faithful to the methodology’s focus on the child, continually incorporates new research in child development into its program and continually strives to make the school environments even more conducive to exploration and learning. By creating these exceptional educational environments for the children, we will maintain the integrity of Montessori in the 21st century.

By Sharon Keenan

Consulting Academic Director and Trainer for The International Montessori School of Beijing

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