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Definition: Montessori method from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

A system of educating young children evolved by the Italian educationalist, Dr Maria Montessori (1870-1952) . Based on ‘free discipline’ and the use of specially devised ‘educational apparatus’ and ‘didactic material’, it has exercised considerable influence on work with young children. See also FROEBEL SYSTEM.

Summary Article: Montessori Education
From Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy

The Montessori education method is named after Maria Montessori (1870–1952), the first licensed female Italian physician who became known for her contributions to early childhood and special education. Having fought hard to be taken seriously in a male-dominated world that positioned her as only an attractive, graceful female educator, Montessori became one of the best-known women to contribute to contemporary educational theory. After opening her first school in 1907, Montessori devoted her life to promoting her education method and setting up Montessori schools in Europe, India, and the United States. Currently, there are more than 3,000 Montessori schools in more than 80 countries. This entry focuses on the foundational ideas and criticisms of Montessori education and considers Montessori's legacy.

Montessori's Educational Ideas

Montessori's training in science taught her to be a good observer and to seek empirical evidence to support or refute hypotheses. This training served her well, helping her discover that children placed in her medical care in an asylum were seeking to learn. She turned to other medical doctors to help her develop methods for educating children with special needs and found that help in France with two doctors seeking to educate deaf children, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775–1838) and his student Édouard Séguin (1812–1880). She used their ideas to develop a method based on teaching children abstract concepts, broken down into sequential steps, with concrete materials they can manipulate, and using their multiple senses to help them understand. She added that the child's learning should be self-directed, with the teacher's role to be an observer who helps direct the children to material based on their interests. Montessori's genius was in understanding that children of all ages and abilities have a strong desire to learn and that the method she developed for educating children with special needs is applicable to all children.

One of Montessori's biographers, Rita Kramer (1976), offers a

list of ideas, techniques, and objects familiar to everyone in the field of childhood education today, all of which go back to Montessori's work at the start of the [20th] century, all of which she either invented or used in a new way. (p. Perfectibility)

In parentheses are current examples of her ideas. These ideas, techniques, and objects—which are the basis of the Montessori education method and are employed in Montessori schools—include the following:

  • The concept that children learn through play, and the development of “educational” toys

  • Child-size furniture and equipment (brooms, mops, etc.), cubbies and shelves the children can reach, hooks they can reach to hang up their coats and sweaters

  • The “open classroom” and the “ungraded classroom” (multiage classrooms where children remain in the same classroom for three years)

  • The idea that children should be free to choose their own work and follow their interests and work at their own pace (mastery learning)

  • The idea that children should be allowed to work together (peer tutoring) or alone as they desire

  • The idea that the child is not just a smaller version of the adult

  • The observation that children are learning from birth on

  • The significance of early stimulation for later learning and the implications of this for children who are impoverished (Head Start Program, an early-childhood program started in the United States by former president Lyndon Johnson for low-income children)

  • The importance of the environment for learning

  • The idea that children take real pleasure in learning and that real learning involves the ability to do things for oneself

  • The idea that children will establish their own order and quiet if given interesting work to do and that imposing immobility and silence on children hampers their learning

  • The idea that what a child does is work and is significant and should not be interrupted unless absolutely necessary, so that the child is able to finish the work to completion

  • The idea that the child's learning material should be interesting, attractive, and self-correcting

  • The concept of “sensitive periods” for learning and “reading readiness”

  • The idea that the school must be part of the community and parents should be involved for their child's education to be effective (parent education)

  • The concept that every child has the right to develop to full potential and that schools exist to implement that right. (Adapted from Kramer, 1976, pp. 373–374)

Montessori helped us understand in important, new ways that children are able to concentrate for extended periods of time and learn a great deal if given the opportunity to do so. She showed that we could create schools that are structured so that children learn to be self-directed, self-disciplined, and self-controlled, and that foster their love of learning.

Criticisms of the Montessori Method

William Kilpatrick, a former student of John Dewey (1859–1952), wrote The Montessori System Examined in 1914, based on an examination of the English translation of Montessori's The Montessori Method and one observation of a Montessori classroom in Rome. His critique of Montessori's ideas, positioned as an impartial analysis despite his loyal support of Dewey, has been pointed to as a key reason why Montessori schools essentially disappeared from the United States after an initial warm reception and did not return until reintroduced by the educator Nancy Rambusch in the 1950s.

One aspect of the Montessori method that Kilpatrick praises is her application of science to education. In Montessori's view, teachers should have a scientific attitude and keep records of their students as they move throughout the classroom and choose their work. Kilpatrick agrees with her that children need to be studied in order to develop a scientific pedagogy, but he reproaches Montessori for overgeneralizing her observations, which were limited to Italian schools.

Kilpatrick criticizes Montessori for not being up-to-date on educational theory. In fact, Kilpatrick suggests that her ideas are not novel ideas but, instead, can be traced to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), and Dewey. For instance, Kilpatrick asserts that Montessori's idea that “education is a development from within” is an idea that harkens back to Rousseau, Pestaozzi, and Froebel and that Rousseau, Froebel, and especially Dewey should be credited with the notion of child liberty. Kilpatrick does not recognize that Montessori's training was as a medical doctor and that she approached education through medicine, not educational theory. Despite such criticism, Montessori's work on the psychology of the infant and the young child proved to be ahead of its time, influencing psychologists such as Jean Piaget (1896–1980), Anna Freud (1895–1982), and Jerome Bruner (1915–).

Kilpatrick also criticizes Montessori's “didactic apparatus,” the concrete materials she designed to teach basic concepts, as too formal and as offering little variety. Montessori tested these materials to see what children were drawn to and at what age they were drawn to them, and recommended discarding items that were shown to be not attractive to children. Kilpatrick's criticism notwithstanding, Montessori's approach to teaching concepts continues to be incorporated into 21st-century education: For instance, “educational toys” that are found in preschool classrooms, and in many homes, reflect her philosophy, and her development of concrete materials to teach abstract concepts is an idea used in many elementary math classes today.

Montessori has also been criticized for attaching her family name to a method of education and for seeking to maintain the right to train teachers in her method of education. Others have argued that Montessori's emphasis on method and on teacher training has been key to the continued existence and quality of Montessori schools today. Contemporary Montessori schools can further ensure quality by hiring teachers who are licensed by the AMS (American Montessori Society) or who have graduated from the AMI (Association of Montessori International) certified teacher-training programs and by purchasing materials designed by Montessori.


Although Montessori strived to be politically neutral, her schools became associated with several of the political movements of her time. For example, because she moved to Barcelona, Spain, and established schools there in the early 20th century, her schools became associated with the Catalonia uprising and the Spanish Civil War. In the 1920s, Montessori accepted an invitation from Benito Mussolini, Italy's Fascist prime minister, to have her schools become Italy's state-sponsored schools. As a result, her schools became associated with the Fascist Party. And in the 1930s, when Mussolini joined forces with the German leader Adolf Hitler, the reputation of her schools fell even further, even though Mussolini and Hitler closed them down long before World War II erupted.

Montessori's actual legacy presents a different picture, as noted by Thayer-Bacon (2013) in her book Democracies Always in the Making: Historical and Current Philosophical Issues for Education:

Montessori regularly offered training programs throughout Europe, America, and India, and was planning a trip to parts of Africa the year she died; people from all over the world enrolled in her teacher training programs wherever they were offered; she spoke more and more in her senior years about how her educational method connected to the possibility of world peace. This legacy earned her three nominations for a Nobel Peace Prize (1949, 1950, 1951), prior to her death in 1952. (p. Aptitude–Treatment Interactions: Evolution of Research)

See also Century of the Child, The: Ellen Key; Childhood, Concept of; Dewey, John; Education, Concept of; Froebel, Friedrich; Martin, Jane Roland; Peace Education; Piaget, Jean; Progressive Education and Its Critics; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

Further Readings
  • Kilpatrick, W. H. (1914). The Montessori system examined. Houghton Mifflin New York NY.
  • Kramer, R. (1976). Maria Montessori: A biography. Putman New York NY.
  • Martin, J. R. (1992). The schoolhome. Harvard University Press Cambridge MA.
  • Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori method. Random House New York NY.
  • Standing, E. M. (1998). Maria Montessori: Her life and work. Plume, Penguin Books New York NY. (Original work published 1957).
  • Thayer-Bacon, B. (2011). Maria Montessori: Education for peace. In Factis Pax, 5(3), 307-319.
  • Thayer-Bacon, B. (2012). Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and William H. Kilpatrick. Education and Culture, 28(1), 3-20.
  • Thayer-Bacon, B. (2013). Democracies always in the making: Historical and current philosophical issues for education. Rowman & Littlefield Lanham MD.
  • Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon
    © 2014 SAGE Publications, Inc

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