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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 Early Childhood Education: An International Encyclopedia

The Montessori Method, sometimes described as Montessori Education, is named after Maria Montessori and is based on her beliefs and practices first utilized in her Casa dei Bambini (Children’s Home) in 1907 in the slum tenements in Rome. This method is based partially upon educational experiments with children with mental disabilities that originated in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the adaptation of those methods to aid the development of normal young children. Montessori’s pedagogical approach was no doubt influenced by Montessori’s medical training, and the desire of the Association of Good Building in the Quarter of San Lorenzo (the Quarter of the Poor) in Rome to reduce vandalism in their tenement buildings and promote hygienic education.

Montessori had both great respect for children at her “Casa” and also high expectations of them. Children were expected to present themselves on time, groomed and with clean clothing and could be expelled if they appeared unwashed, in soiled clothing, were incorrigible, or had parents who, through bad conduct, were perceived as destroying the educational work of the institution (Montessori, 1912, 1964). Her goal was to create a prepared environment in which children have the freedom to explore and to pick and choose those things with which they wanted to work, thus fostering independence (Hainstock, 1997), without committing any rough or rude act. This was not initially to be a collective classroom with children seated in rows, but a place in which children were helped to become individually engaged, and focused on their individual lessons. She termed this approach to education discipline through liberty.

Montessori had a number of beliefs that guided her educational innovations, the most important of which assigned primacy to the period from birth to six years of age, when the development of character occurred. Montessori felt that many defects, including speech deficits, become permanent if not addressed during sensitive periods, a term borrowed from the Dutch biologist Hugo DeVries and referring to a special sensitivity for a particular developmental trait. The time between three and six years of age, at which time the child forms and establishes the principal functions, was such a sensitive period to Montessori. She observed that young children are capable of long periods of concentration and use learning materials repeatedly. She devised sets of sequenced learning materials that guide children toward reading, writing, understanding place value in mathematics, geometrical shapes and a geographical recognition of the continents and nations. While concentrating, children’s movements become refined and coordinated, leading to increased self-discipline.

Montessori lessons were to be brief, simple (stripped of all that is not absolute truth), and objective (presented in such a way that the personality of the teacher would disappear) and the job of the teacher was to prepare the lesson, to deliver it, and to observe carefully the child’s interaction with materials, adjusting her preparation and delivery based upon the child’s response to it, quietly offering limited guidance, and preparing children for the next activity. Among the recurring features of her approach to teaching was an emphasis on a prepared environment, the use of didactic materials, and what she referred to as the “Three Period Lesson.”

Montessori had specific ideas about the context in which children’s learning should take place. School was to be a prepared environment in which a child is able to develop freely at his/her own pace, unhindered in the spontaneous unfolding of his natural capacities, through the manipulation of a graded series of materials designed to stimulate the senses and eventually the thinking, leading from perception to intellectual skills (Kramer, 1976). The classroom was designed so that a child can access the Montessori materials easily, freely selecting and replacing them without the need of adult assistance, once they have been properly introduced to them.

The educational method the teacher(s) employed in this prepared environment was based upon the presentation of didactic materials that attracted the spontaneous attention of the child, and contained a gradual gradation of stimuli. Many of these materials are self-correcting. For example, if a child tries to place a Knobbed Cylinder in the wrong hole, the child gets immediate feedback from the cylinder that the hole selected is too small or too large. The child experiments until the correct hole is selected, a term Montessori referred to as auto-education. Materials in Montessori’s didactic system were originally manufactured by the House of Labour of the Humanitarian Society at Milan, and starting in the 1920s through collaboration with Albert Nienhius, by Nienhuis Montessori in Holland.

Materials were often presented initially in three stages, and Montessori adapted this Three Period Lesson technique from Edouard Seguin. In the first stage, for example, the child might be presented with two colors, red and blue, both of which appear face down on a mat. The teacher would turn over the first color tablet and say, “This is red” and repeat the same way for the blue tablet. The second stage is intended to help the child recognize the object that corresponds to its name. Here the teacher might say, “Give me the red one,” and then, “Give me the blue one.” The third stage focuses on recognition of the name that corresponds to the object. The teacher shows the child the red tablet and asks, “What is this?”

There are generally agreed to be four major pedagogic categories in her method. The Exercises of Practical Life include those that have to do with the care of the child’s own person and those that are concerned with the care of the environment. Exercises included washing, polishing, sweeping, ironing, pouring, and brushing. The original intent was to help children learn how to keep themselves and their environment clean, what Standing (1957) called the “domestic occupation for young children.” These have now come to mean activities related to real life that offer opportunities to develop coordinated fine movements, logical sequence, functional independence, and grace and courtesy.

The Sensorial Activities utilize concrete, mathematically precise materials that isolate each quality perceived by human senses. Activities with these materials offer opportunities to classify and refine sensory perceptions while developing abstractions, memory, and exactness. The aim is refinement of the differential perception of stimuli by means of repeated exercises. One well-known example is the pink tower, where young children place increasingly small cubes on top of bigger ones. Often Montessori would isolate one sense (e.g., sight, by use of a blindfold) to heighten other senses, and incorporated whispering and solemn silence in her approach.

Language Activities include materials centered on vocabulary enrichment, spoken-language skills, writing, and reading. The Sandpaper Letters, an alphabet composed on individual sandpaper capital letters pasted on pink, painted boards, were used to introduce individual letters to children.

Numeration Activities use concrete, sensorial-based materials that offer interactive experiences with numbers, numerical relationships, and the foundations of the decimal system. The Golden Beads (small beads made of plastic or ceramic, and arranged individually as a unit, as a bar of 10, as a square of 100, and as a cube of 1,000) are a classic example of such a numeration material.

Although many associate Montessori’s work with the period of early childhood, Montessori came to recognize the unique learning capabilities of elementary and middle-grade students. She created an integrated curriculum incorporating anthropology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, geometry, history, literature, mathematics, and zoology that is now used in early and some upper-elementary programs. The first Montessori public elementary school program was established in 1965 by Nancy Rambusch in Cincinnati. Others have adapted her methods to teaching children in the home (Hainstock, 1997).

Early criticisms of Montessori’s method were that she minimized the role of the adult in preparing what children would discover in the classroom as well as minimized the effect of the relationship between teacher and child. This was perhaps a natural reaction by outsiders to observers of a teacher who appears to have less control because her influence is less obvious than in traditional classrooms. Another, perhaps more justified, criticism was that in an attempt to keep the method “pure,” both Montessori and her early followers maintained a tight control on the model’s dissemination.

Continuing criticisms include a perceived lack of spontaneity and creativity in classrooms, insufficient time for social interactions, materials that are too restrictive, an overemphasis on “practical life” activities, an approach that is outdated, and concerns about transitions and adjustments by children moving from Montessori to public school classrooms using other approaches. Ironically, given that her programs were desired for children of poor families, contemporary critics point to the fact that the predominately private Montessori schools are only appropriate for or at least available to well-to-do families.

In spite of these controversies, and well over 100 years after the first Casa dei Bambini was opened, Montessori’s method endures and several teacher training programs and Montessori Children’s Houses continue to flourish. There are an estimated 3,000 private Montessori schools and several hundred primary and/or lower elementary programs, as well as several upper-elementary programs in public schools, in the United States. There are also nearly twenty Montessori education graduate programs in the United States and training programs in nineteen other countries. Many features of the approach that Montessori developed have become embedded in early childhood classrooms and incorporated by manufacturers of materials for programs for young children. She played a major role in influencing society’s image of children as different from adults. She put forth persuasive arguments that children learn through play, that early development has an impact on later development, that there is much to be learned from careful observation, and that it is often better not to intervene when a child begins to struggle with a material. She contributed to our understanding that scale is an important feature of materials and furniture for children, that educational materials may facilitate development, and that intrinsically interesting and self-correcting materials may sustain attention. And finally, Maria Montessori believed strongly that schools must be a part of communities and parents should be involved in their children’s education.

Further Readings:
  • Edwards, C. P. (2002). Three approaches from Europe: Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia. Early Childhood Research and Practice [Online], 4(1).
  • Edwards, C. P. (2006). Montessori’s education and its scientific basis. Book review of Montessori: The science behind the genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 27(2; March/April), 183-187.
  • Hainstock, E. (1971). Teaching Montessori in the home. New York: Random House.
  • Hainstock, E. (1997). The essential Montessori: An introduction to the woman, the writings, the method, and the movement. New York: Plume.
  • Kramer, R. (1976). Maria Montessori: A biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lillard, A. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Montessori, M. (1949). The absorbent mind. Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House.
  • Montessori, M. (1964a). The Montessori method. New York: Schocken. First published in English in 1912.
  • Montessori, M. (1964b). The secret of childhood. New York: Ballantine. First published in English in 1936.
  • Michael Kalinowski
    Copyright © 2007 by Rebecca S. New and Moncrieff Cochran

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