Dr Maria Montessori & the Montessori principles

Maria Montessori was a person of great depth and insight. She was Italy’s first female doctor, before stepping into the field for which she is so well known: early childhood education. She was an ambassador for world peace, and the UNICEF Charter of Human Rights and Convention on the Rights of the Child were adopted directly from her. Her deep commitment to children led her to become a champion in the research and development of their education. Dr Montessori concluded that children have a natural love of life and learning which needed to be nurtured, not taken for granted. This philosophy was put into practice in her first Montessori school in Rome, 1907, and has become her legacy to the children today in thousands of Montessori schools worldwide.

Maria Montessori was born in Italy, at Chiaravalle in the province of Ancona, on 31st August, 1870. Unusual in her day, Maria enrolled as a medical student, the first woman in Italy to do so and continued on to become a doctor, taking her degree in 1894. Sometime after graduation, and as assistant doctor in the psychiatric clinic at the University of Rome, she became interested in the so called ‘idiot children’ of her day, and later in the work of Itard and Séguin, two pioneers in the education of children. A series of lectures by Dr Montessori on moral education drew the attention of the then Italian minister of education, and resulted ultimately in Dr Montessori becoming the director of the school for hopelessly deficient children. Some of these hopelessly deficient children later went on to compete successfully in public examinations! It was perhaps because of the accolades Dr Montessori received for her work that she began to wonder what was happening to normal children that her pupils equalled them – thoughts that must surely have been the turning point in her life and the foundation upon which her incredible dedication came to be built.

In 1907 Dr Montessori opened the first Casa dei Bambini (“Children’s House”) in a slum area of Rome. It was attended by sixty normal slum children, children who were to be dubbed ‘the New Children’ by international media representatives that deluged the school. From that time, literally until her death at the age of eighty one, Dr Montessori continued to develop her philosophy, techniques and materials, she lectured worldwide, published many books, trained teachers and established the standards and oversaw the spread of what is now known as the “Montessori Method”. Maria Montessori died in Holland on 6th May, 1952.

“…it is not true that I “invented” what is called the Montessori method. I have studied the child, I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori method.”

When you enter the Montessori ‘prepared’ environment the first thing that strikes you as a parent is the secure and harmonious environment. It is this environment that is key to developing the children’s sense of wellbeing. Montessori learning and developmental settings have no ethnic or religious boundaries. They are multi denominational, recognising that the education of our children is fundamental and should be accessible to all.

“…I did not invent a method of Education, I simply gave some little children a chance to live.”

Dr Montessori believed that no human being is educated by another person. They must do it themselves or it will never be done. She felt, therefore, that the goal of early childhood education should not be to fill the child with facts from pre-selected course studies, but rather to cultivate his own natural desire to learn.

The Montessori approach to education encompasses some unique ideas relating to the child. Children do not learn the way adults do. Unconscious growth and absorption comes first, followed by conscious knowledge, creativity and imagination and then the knowledge of the universe. One of the unique and important aspects of Dr Montessori’s philosophy explains the concept of “sensitive periods”. Children pass through definite periods in which they reveal psychic aptitudes and possibilities, which afterwards disappear. That is why, at particular epochs of their lives, they reveal an intense and extraordinary interest in certain objects and exercises, which one may look for in vain at a later age. During such a period, the child is endowed with a special sensibility which urges them to focus attention on certain aspects of the environment, to the exclusion of others. Such attention is not the result of mere curiosity, it is more like a burning passion. The Montessori classroom takes advantage of this fact by allowing the child freedom to select individual activities which correspond to his own periods of interest.

The use of materials is based on the child’s unique aptitude for learning, that Dr Montessori identified as the “absorbent mind”. In her writings, she frequently compared the young mind to a sponge. It literally absorbs information from the environment. Acquiring information in this way is a natural and delightful activity for the young, who employs all their senses to investigate interesting surroundings. Dr Montessori also emphasised that the hand is the chief teacher of the child. In order to learn there must be concentration. All the equipment in the Montessori classroom allows the child to reinforce their casual impressions by inviting them to use their hands for learning.

Dr Montessori never equated goodness with silence and immobility. Learning is seen as a part of life itself, beginning from the beginning of life itself. The child is encouraged to ask “Why?”, and “To what end?”, and by viewing learning as a whole, this adds a sense of meaning and purpose. Dr Montessori’s theory of cosmic task,s and her vision of the ecology of the universe as a framework of knowledge, provide an approach that stimulates the child to appreciate the concept that the world is so full of information, that it is no longer possible to master all the knowledge, so it is necessary to explore that information intelligently.

There is a need to learn how to ask questions so information can be grouped together. A sense of the future is essential as it now moves towards us more quickly than ever before. Provision needs to be made for constant values in a world of change. A sense of responsibility to our earth is essential at a time when it is endangered. Learning revolves around these aspects of the cosmic approach.

The Montessori approach is an attitude to learning, not merely an acquisition of knowledge. Academic excellence is not the prime objective, but rather an attitude to learning as a part of life itself. The child’s extraordinary imagination and intense curiosity are enhanced. Imaginative vision is different to perception as the child’s imagination has no limits.

“The secret of good teaching is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim is not only to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorise, but so to touch his imagination as to enthuse him to his innermost core. We do not want complacent pupils, but eager ones. We seek to sow life in the child rather than theories, to help him in his growth, mental and emotional as well as physical, and for that we must offer grand and lofty ideas to the human mind.”

To help the child’s mental, emotional and physical growth, a diverse magnitude of ideas should be offered as a stimulation to the mind. What is necessary is that even from the earliest years the child is placed in touch with humanity. Education should give an appreciation for all that has been done by human cooperation, and a readiness to shed prejudices in the interests of common work for the cosmic approach. Knowledge is not seen as individual subject areas, but a totality, relating to the whole of existence. All subjects are considered as interconnected intricately.

Montessori is about understanding, caring about and respecting each other. It helps develop happy, confident, independent human beings who have an appreciation and interest in their environment and a love for the world they live in and the people sharing it. It is an educational approach for peace.

“The teacher’s task is no small or easy one! They have to prepare a huge amount of knowledge to satisfy the child’s mental hunger, and they are not, like the ordinary teacher, limited by a syllabus. The needs of the child are clearly more difficult to answer.”

The teacher is a guide, allowing experimentation, discovery and analysis without adult intervention. A Montessori teacher is passive and provides the child with assistance and guidance. The teacher has faith in the child’s inner powers of construction and provides the child with opportunities that are vital to them, while at the same time watching the spontaneous interests and allowing the child to pursue them.

Free choice is a major principle, where the child is allowed to select the task they wish to accomplish, and therefore will be totally involved and amazingly in a state of concentration. As the children learn what is of interest to them at a particular stage, they are willing and thus there is little need for discipline. If a child learns what the teacher expects them to learn, there is not the same inner motivation. The teacher prepares an appropriate environment and watches for signs from the children and reacts accordingly.

Dr Montessori observed the characteristics of the primary child, just as she observed the characteristics of the younger child. Her method is based upon the characteristics of the child at particular stages. Particular needs are met at particular stages in the child’s life, according to the characteristics at these times.

0 – 6 years – Language acquisition and the development of independence, concentration and movement.

6 – 12 years – Acquisition of culture, group instinct, moral and social consciousness.

12 – 18 years – The individual’s place in society.

18 – 24 years – The world as a society, its future and its problems.

To cater for the needs of the 6 – 12 year old who has become physically strong and has developed their powers of imagination to a point where the walls of a classroom are too confining to fully allow for their development, an important aspect of Montessori education is taking the 6 – 12 year old out into the environment, for the firsthand experience wherever possible. Therefore, excursions are considered an important and integral part of the child’s education.

“When the child goes out, it is the world itself that offers itself to him. Let us take the child out to show him real things instead of making objects which represent ideas and closing them in cupboards.”

Dr Montessori believed that as far as was practicable, excursions should be made in public transport. In this way, the students are taking part in real life:

  • Choosing suitable clothes
  • Packing a bag
  • Reading a train timetable
  • Using pedestrian crossings
  • Reading street signs
  • Following instructions
  • Following a map
  • Learning to cope with crowds moving as a group

All classes have an age range of three years. The reason for this is that the older children act as role models for the younger children – they instruct the younger children, reviewing concepts themselves in the process. Patience and confidence are reinforced and practised. The older children are able to work at their own level, if lower than their peers, without this becoming obvious to their peers. Younger children can also work at a level above their peers without it becoming obvious. Younger children seek help and assistance of those more experienced than themselves. They begin to learn to seek the help to help themselves.

“One would like to know in a few clear words what this Montessori method really is …If we were to eliminate not only the word “method”, but also its common conception, things would become much clearer. For the word “method”, we should substitute something like this: means offered to deliver the human personality from the oppression of age-old prejudices regarding education.”

The Montessori classroom doesn’t look like any other kindergarten pre-school nor any other primary classroom. Structured to encourage the child’s participation, the activities are part of a carefully planned purpose-filled curriculum that starts the first day the child enters the school through to the day they move to Secondary school. Unlike the way a lot of us have been educated, in same age or in year related classes, Montessori schools have a three-year age range within each class: 0 to 3, 3 to 6, 6 to 9, and 9 to 12 year old children. These are called ‘cycles’ and mean that the Montessori directors and directresses remain with the same group for the entire three-year cycle, allowing them to truly get to know each child.

The Montessori method also fosters social awareness and responsibility in children, allowing the child to interact with children of different ages forming mentor style relationships. It’s important to note that for a child to truly benefit from a Montessori education, it requires a commitment for a full three year cycle, and ideally the full nine year education from age 3. The Montessori environment supports spontaneous learning and discovery. It centres on the individual needs of children and within this environment new information is presented when the child is ready.

“When the child has been allowed a little room in the world, in time he proclaims as the first sign of his eager defence: ‘Me want to do it! Me do It!’ In the special environment prepared for him in our schools, the children themselves found a sentence that expressed their inner need: ‘Help me to do it by myself!’ His work will no longer weigh him down.”

A simple summary of the differences between a Montessori education and a traditional education are as follows:

Montessori Education

Traditional Education

Based on helping the natural development of the human being

Based on the transfer of a national curriculum

Children learn at their own pace and follow their own individual interest

Children learn from a set curriculum according to a time frame that is the same for everyone

Children teach themselves using materials specially prepared for the purpose

Children are taught by the teacher

Child is an active participant in learning

Child is a passive participant in learning

Understanding comes through the child’s own experiences via the materials and the promotion of children’s ability to find things out for themselves

Learning is based on subjects and is limited to what is given

Learning is based on the fact that physical exploration and cognition are linked

Children sit at desks and learn from a whiteboard and worksheets

Child can work where he/she is comfortable, move around and talk at will while not disturbing others

Child is usually assigned own chair and encouraged to sit still and listen during group sessions

The teacher works in collaboration with the children

The class is teacher led

The child’s individual development brings its own reward and therefore motivation

Motivation is achieved by a system of reward and punishment

Environment and method encourage internal self- discipline

Teacher acts as primary enforcer of external discipline

Child works as long as he/she wishes on chosen project

Child generally given specific time limit for work

Uninterrupted work cycles

Block time, period lessons

Mixed age groups

Same age groups

Working and learning matched to the social development of the child

Working and learning without emphasis on the social development of the child

Shared emphasis on intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual development

Main emphasis on intellectual development

Shared focus on the acquisition of academic, social, practical and life skills

Main focus on academics

In the Montessori environment, there are five distinct areas which make up our prepared environment:

  • Practical Life – enhances the development of gross and fine motor control and helps the child develop independence by care of self, care of the environment and development of positive social interaction.
  • Sensorial and Order – enables the child to order and classify sensorial impressions received by working with scientifically designed materials.
  • Language development (oral and symbolic) – is ongoing and taught through the use of all the classroom materials, gesture, body language and sign language such as Makaton.
  • Cultural – materials expose the child, music and art

In the Montessori pre-school, there are five distinct areas which make up our prepared environment:

  • Practical Life – enhances the development of gross and fine motor control and helps the child develop independence by care of self, care of the environment and development of positive social interaction.
  • Sensorial – enables the child to order and classify sensorial impressions received by working with scientifically designed materials.
  • Mathematical – materials enable the child to internalise concepts of number, symbol and sequence.
  • Language – is mostly phonic based and various presentations are made that link sounds and letter symbols. Oral language development is ongoing and taught through the use of all the classroom materials.
  • Cultural – materials expose the child to geography, history, earth sciences, music and art.

Dr Montessori chose the name director, or directress, to differentiate traditional teachers from Montessori teachers who facilitate and guide.

The basic principle of Montessori education is respect for the child in the learning process. It is as much an acute understanding of how children acquire knowledge, as it is helping them to discover the knowledge that sets the Montessori educator/teacher apart. Montessori educators/teachers regard themselves as facilitators who present knowledge at the right stage in a child’s development. They are patient and encouraging people who place great importance in preserving the child’s self-esteem in a non-competitive classroom environment.They prefer to work with the children individually, are sympathetic to their learning needs, and each child can see his or her progress.

To become a Montessori practitioner requires extensive specialised Montessori studies, in addition to any tertiary qualification they may have. Above all they have a respect for children as individuals and their potential to learn.

“While the young child seeks comforts, the older child is now eager to encounter challenges. But it is necessary to prepare oneself to go out. In teaching the child the necessity of preparation, we oblige him to think and plan. The child comes to understand that to “go out” is an activity that requires the acquisition of skills, information, and materials.”

Dr Montessori discovered that the needs and characteristics of children at various stages of their development are the keys to establishing the environment within which the child can best learn at his or her own pace. Children change dramatically at about 5 ½ to 6 years, and the Montessori environment changes to meet their needs. They become intellectual in nature and begin to move slowly from concrete to abstract reasoning. They develop morality and imagination based on the reality they know. They acquire knowledge and information effortlessly because of a newly discovered passion for learning. They learn through discovery, recreating every theory and making it their own. It is through a child’s own exploration, imagination and creativity that knowledge and concepts are understood.

Children must be allowed to develop themselves. The Montessori director or directress, and the Montessori materials facilitate their learning. Montessori’s holistic approach allows the child to develop naturally. Children build their own pattern of learning during their early childhood and pre-primary school years, and if built on a strong foundation it will last them a lifetime.


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