The Montessori Method
The Montessori philosophy in education is based on the understanding that a child’s natural development is motivated from within, through powerful energies, and that this development passes through well-recognised and clearly observable phases from birth to adulthood.
It is an approach which carefully follows the development of the individual child and aims to meet their changing needs.
When a child’s interests are met and they are free to follow these according to the inner motivation, they can develop to their fullest potential at that stage. Through such activity the child is educating themself.
The role of the adult, therefore, is not to prescribe and limit but to
- be prepared, providing equipment and materials to interest the child and give them opportunities for constructive activity
- provide sensitive guidance and support where required and
- be a natural role model for the child to observe and absorb.
In summary, the Montessori environment at all levels should be a dynamic and interactive source of experiences for the child, to nourish the developing intellect and emotions and provide opportunities for social and emotional wellbeing.
“And so we discover that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.”
– Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. A natural aptitude for mathematics led her to consider becoming an engineer but her studies turned to a decision to study medicine, a goal she achieved by single-minded persistence in the face of both the disapproval of her family and the prejudices towards women of the society of the time. Her first historical milestone was to qualify (as top graduate, with double honours) as the first woman Doctor of Medicine in Italy.
She held several positions simultaneously for the next ten years, as a medical practitioner and consultant, as lecturer at the medical school and in due course as Professor of Pedagogic Anthropology at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome.
Working with mentally retarded children brought her to consider that education might be more constructive than medical treatment in helping these children and she conducted extensive research to gain ideas from others and try out different methods.
In 1906 Montessori took up the Directorship of a new project, part of a slum clearance programme on the outskirts of Rome, which was a house for street children too young for formal schooling.
It was named ‘La Casa dei Bambini’ (‘The Children’s House’). It was here that Montessori could apply her approach, and the methods she had developed over the past few years, to children who were not mentally delayed or damaged. The children – of assorted ages, unkempt, from uneducated backgrounds – responded with joy and energy and began to learn at an astonishing pace. A second Children’s House followed, and Montessori’s name travelled swiftly through the press, attracting visitors from all over the world.
By 1908 a third Children’s House had opened, this time for more middle-class children, but with the same results: children working and learning spontaneously, resulting in independence, literacy, numeracy, dignity and self-motivation.
In 1909 Montessori published ‘The Method of Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Infant Education’ and shortly afterwards ran the first international training course. Visitors to the schools, and those who read her book and attended her courses, took their experiences and her ideas back to their countries, and schools and courses sprang up in many parts of the world.
For the next 30 years Montessori spent her time travelling, lecturing, training teachers and visiting schools in numerous countries, accompanied by her son, Mario, who interpreted for her.
During these years, Europe saw the rise of tyrranies in the guises of Fascism and Communism, as well as the appalling effects of the first World War: unprecedented slaughter, oppression and misery staining the European political picture. Montessori had to flee first Italy under Mussolini, then Spain under Franco, and finally settled in Holland, where in 1930, she founded the Association Montessori Internationale, the international association which flourishes to this day representing her ideas and embodying the highest levels of her philosophy.
1939 saw Montessori in India on a lecture tour when the second World War was declared. She was able to continue her work, travelling and lecturing, and meeting many great teachers and spiritual visionaries, such as Ghandi. It was as a result of these years in India that her vision of Cosmic Education, and the spiritual significance of the human potential, evolved and gave final shape to her view.
On her return in 1945, she continued to give numerous courses of inspirational lectures and in 1946 published the book which contains the essence of her philosophy, ‘The Absorbent Mind’.
She was awarded numerous honorary degrees and civic awards in recognition of the extraordinary value of her work worldwide, and was three times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 1952.
Quoting from John Chattin-McNichols, President of the American Montessori Society, from his foreword to ‘The Absorbent Mind’, Holt Paperbacks edition, NY 1995:
‘… Montessori’s thought outpaced that of her contemporaries in the fields of education and psychology, for example –
“And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)
… [this] could be a quote from any of the current constructivist educators … whose works are having such a profound effect on education. Like Montessori’s influence, constructivist education has had the strongest effect in the preschool classroom, and only now has begun to make an impact on primary grades in a significant way. Whether or not the intermediate grades and secondary education will ever give up their content-centred focus and their exclusive use of direct, whole-group instruction remains to be seen.
If anything is more central to Montessori’s ideas than the focus on the child and his activities (rather than on the teacher’s talk) it is Montessori’s idea that education must march to the tune of development….’
“Resting no longer on a curriculum or a timetable, education must conform to the facts of human life.”
Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)