MARIA MONTESSORI, MD
Scientific observation has established that 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 by experiences upon the environment. The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference. . – Maria Montessori, Education for a New World
Maria Montessori was a woman who began an educational revolution that changed the way we think about children more than anyone before or since. Born in 1870, the same year that Italy became a unified free nation, this Italian woman was a little ahead of her time. Her father, Alessandro Montessori, worked as a government official and was a member of the bourgeois civil service. Her mother, Renide Stoppani, was well-educated and a wealthy woman devoted to the liberation and unity of Italy.
At age thirteen, against the wishes of her father but with the support of her mother, Maria began to attend a boys’ technical school. After seven years of engineering she began premed and, in 1896 became the first female physician inItaly. In her work at the University of Rome psychiatric clinic, Dr. Montessori developed an interest in the treatment of special needs children and, for several years, she worked, wrote, and spoke on their behalf.
She worked in the fields of psychiatry, education and anthropology. She believed that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed, rather than as a “blank slate” waiting to be written upon. Her main contributions to the work of those of us raising and educating children are in these areas:
- Preparing the most natural and life-supporting environments for the child
- Observing the child living freely in this environment
- Continually adapting the environment in order that the child may fulfill his or her greatest potential, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
In 1907 she was given the opportunity to study “normal” children, taking charge of fifty poor children of the dirty, desolate streets of the San Lorenzo slum on the outskirts of Rome. The news of the unprecedented success of her work in this Casa dei Bambini “House of Children” soon spread around the world, people coming from far and wide to see the children for themselves. Dr. Montessori was as astonished as anyone at the realized potential of these children as the physically and intellectually challenged children began to surpass testing scores of children in standard education.
The Montessori Method developed by Maria Montessori changed the approach to education of children. It:
- Divided instruction in 3-year age groups, corresponding to sensitive periods of development (example: Birth-3, 3–6, 6–9, 9–12, 12–15 year olds)
- Saw children as competent beings, encouraged to make maximal decisions
- Focused on observation of the child in the prepared environment as the basis for ongoing curriculum development
- Created small, child-sized furniture in a child-sized environment to produce overall a self-running small children’s world
- Utilized a scale of sensitive periods of development for learning for class work that is appropriate and uniquely stimulating
- Recognized the importance of the “absorbent mind,” the limitless motivation of the young child to achieve competence and perfect skills
- Initiated self-correcting “auto-didactic” materials
Her message to those who emulated her was always to turn one’s attention to the child, to “follow the child”.
Another way the Montessori Method differed from traditional education was the child’s age at the starting point. Maria said that ages five and six (at a time when kindergarten was not required) was much too late to begin educating the child. She insisted that the child was like a sponge soaking up education from and even before the moment of birth.
Once Montessori Schools for 3-5 year olds began appearing in the United States, the general population tended to think of them as “play schools” until the progress of the pre-school students in reading, math, geography, and yearly maturity was clear evidence that the Montessori Method was surely educational.
Many people, hearing of the high academic level reached by students in this system of education, miss the point and think that Montessori math is manipulative and is all there is to the Montessori method. It is easy to acquire materials and to take short courses to learn to use them, but the real value of Montessori takes long and thorough training for the adult.
The full potential of the child is not just mental, but is revealed only when the complete “Montessori Method” is understood and followed.
The core values in the Montessori Method of Education – the child’s choice, practical work, care of others and the environment, plus and above all the high levels of concentration reached when work is respected and not interrupted – cannot be missed in the Montessori classroom.
These two values of respect and non-interruption of others are, in my opinion, two of the hardest values we human beings seem to be able to learn. That is why there are no short cuts to this method of education, merely by buying the materials and taking short courses.
The real value of Montessori takes long and thorough training for the adult – the adult who prepares the environment, observes the child, and guides the learning process of each individual.
Any one of us can learn a multitude of lessons just by personally observing the Montessori teachers and their class room aids with our children.
A Montessori teacher or instructor observes each child like a scientist, providing every child with an individual program for learning. Montessori encouraged each guide to be like a light to the children, helping to open their eyes to wonders around them rather than amusing them like a clown.
The teacher is present as an individual guide, not a leader of the classroom and helps the child navigate his or her own learning process as the child receives knowledge, information and experience from the prepared environment.
It is because of this basic tenet, FOLLOW THE CHILD and the observation guidelines left by her that Dr. Montessori’s ideas will never become obsolete.
The Montessori Method builds children’s sense of themselves becoming mature not only academically, but emotionally and spiritually. They become a child who cares deeply about other people and the world, and who works to discover a unique and individual way to contribute. I have two daughters who attended Montessori school and this is a perfect description of who they became as adults.
I have a four year old granddaughter attending now and discovering daily the pure joy of learning. And please, do not interrupt her. She is about important work.
This is the essence of real Montessori work today. It opens a beautiful tomorrow. The guidance and light is provided by the Montessori teacher and her classroom aids.