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Understanding the Montessori Philosophy

December, 2009
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It has become apparent to educators that the needs of children are both universal and timeless. The educational ideas that Montessori had 110 years ago seem fresh and relevant today for China and for the rest of the world.

A wise educator and Founder of the American Montessori Society once said, “In the future, the poor children will have computers and the rich children will have teachers.” Nancy McCormich Rambush was the Founder of the American Montessori Society and responsible for bringing Montessori education back to America in 1958. She was also a visionary, like Dr. Montessori.mss-kid-2s

Montessori education arrived in China less than 17 years ago and is already getting the attention of parents who want superb education for their preschool children. China and Montessori education have proven to be a good match.

But what exactly is Montessori education?

Well for one thing, it is certainly not about the materials in the room. Of course, the materials in any classroom are important and in a Montessori classroom they are both unique and beautiful. But any teaching material is only as good as the teacher who utilizes it.

For example, we all have computers. While a computer has become an important teaching tool, it was not so long ago that many of us hardly knew how to use computers or did not feel they were necessary. We had a good teacher show us how to use the computer. It was the teacher who made the difference, not the computer. 

This is also true for Montessori education. It is not the materials that make a Montessori classroom such a calm yet stimulating place. It is the teacher. And Montessori teachers who are trained, certified, and experienced are the most valuable kind.

Unless you are the parents of twins, most of us start off with only one child. In China, that is the only child most parents have. There is no learning curve; every moment, every day, every event is new. Parents begin to learn about their child, but the child keeps getting older and changing. Just as parents think they know something about the child, the child changes: babies become toddlers, toddlers become preschoolers. Parents spend a lot of time trying to figure out their child or reacting to the child, or asking their own parent for advice. The sources of good information available to parents are limited.

But teachers, especially Montessori teachers, really know about young children. Many of them have worked for years with children the age of your child. Montessori teachers take specialized training in the age of child that interests them and that they love. They learn the theories of Child Development for that age of child. They learn various Educational Philosophies, not just that of Montessori. They have an experienced mentor who helps them put into practice in the classroom the training and behaviors that they have studied that can enhance a child’s development and guide children in learning.mss-kid-3s

Montessori’s first school was a one-room school with young children of different ages. These were the children who were too young to go out to work. This was in 1907, in Rome, Italy. There were no Child Labor Laws anywhere in the world. Children were considered miniature adults and were expected to work long hours. Any child who could sell a pencil or an orange on the street, or who could stand up and work in a factory or mill, was out of the house trying to make money for necessities like food. It was the youngest of the children, from the poorest families, who were left alone all day. The “older” 4 or 5 year- old child was left in charge of the younger child. These were Montessori’s first students.

Dr. Montessori quickly saw the advantage of having older and younger children together in her classroom. The older children grew to be admired by the younger children and the younger children were helped and loved by the older children. As the first year went by, Maria Montessori saw the dynamics of a family develop within her classroom. The classroom had become like a family, with children and adults all working and playing together. The teacher was the mother figure, directing and encouraging the children, helping them all to learn and to respect each other and the world around them. With love and guidance, these children relaxed and flourished as they became truly interested in learning and excelled at each task, whether it was in peeling a carrot to help make soup for lunch or learning how to do four–digit addition.

The concept of a multi-aged classroom setting is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the Montessori educational philosophy. A true Montessori classroom must have children of various ages; otherwise, the whole idea of family is negated. Young children in other kindergartens often squabble simply because there are no older children in the room to help set an example of good behavior and courtesy.

Anyone who has observed an authentic Montessori classroom sees immediately the concept of “freedom within limits”. Children are “free”, within some limits, to choose the activity they would like to do. If a child selects something that may be too advanced, for example, a three year old wanting to do subtraction, the teacher gently says something like, “I will show that to you another day”, and redirects the child to more age-appropriate work, based on the prior lessons the child has had.

And where does this idea of “redirection” come from? One of the most fundamental beliefs in Montessori education is Respect. The teachers respect who the child is by speaking clearly, slowly, and with affection, looking at the child, and often bending over to have eye-level conversations so the child can hear and see the teacher more clearly. This is a so that the child can have a physical demonstration of the teacher’s respect toward them.mss-kid-1s

The children learn to give respect; initially through simple lessons in manners (which Maria Montessori called “grace and courtesy”). This begins with the children shaking hands each morning with their teacher and the exchange of a “Good Morning” greeting.

The children learn respect as they model the older children who are so careful with each piece of material. They learn to carry each object carefully, use it carefully, and return it carefully to its proper place, all without the help of a teacher. The children are not casual with the materials, nor do they throw the materials around. The children intrinsically know that this room, their classroom, is very special and designed for them. Every adult who has ever walked into a Montessori classroom knows and sees this, too. The children develop respect and they also grow in independence and confidence.

This respect includes caring for living thing and valuing things that depend on us. While kittens and puppies are soft and loving, in a Montessori preschool setting, children have the opportunity to care for things that don’t obviously love the child back! It is wonderful to see a little child spray the leaves on a classroom plant and then tenderly wipe the dust and moisture away. This, too, is respect and learning to care for the environment. From the youngest of Montessori preschool-aged children, activities that develop responsible citizens about the world and planet are given in child-size lessons.

As parents in China become more interested in Montessori education, the Montessori philosophy of education shows them a good style of parenting. It is important to know that anyone can use the name Montessori as it is not a registered trademark or a franchise. An authentic Montessori classroom provides “only-children” with younger and older children to play and work with, taking the place fo the missing siblings at home. Respect and “freedom within limits” are the hallmarks of Montessori education and are part of effective, happy parenting.

By Judy Townsend,

Head of School, Montessori School of Shanghai

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