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The Montessori Method


Q. What is it like at a Montessori school, and how do those students do on down the road, compared to students in more traditional school settings?


Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman doctor in Italy, started her "casa dei bambini" in an impoverished neighborhood in Rome in 1907. After medical school, she fell victim to sexism and couldn't practice medicine anywhere, so she literally invented her own practice.


She had noticed the acute and sustained health and education problems of poor children, and so began her career attempting to improve their intellectual development and literacy with a special school that would serve the whole child.


Her philosophy still stands in Montessori schools today, of which there are 4,000 in the United States and 7,000 worldwide: "follow the child." She believed that discovery and exploration were the best teachers for a young child, particularly for disadvantaged children, who didn't have a lot of materials with which to learn and enrich their vocabularies in their homes.


She believed that if a young child is given a "prepared environment" of tools for learning, the child is better off with self-directed learning, rather than sitting in a group of children listening to an adult teacher. Many people are familiar with the math "manipulatives," such as blocks, that are used in Montessori schools as the children literally teach themselves math. But there are many more examples of self-direction, problem-solving and creativity that represent the learning philosophy.


Montessori programs are most popular for ages 3-6, although there are programs for infants, and for those up to age 18. Generally, children are grouped in three-year age groups, often teach each other, and work at their own pace with no particular curriculum in mind, no grades and no corrections. The "directors" are not called "teachers," they work indirectly and not directly with the children as fellow experimenters, and their job is to observe and record each child's learning progress to come up with suggestions and materials for the next learning session.

The philosophy is often criticized as being too offbeat, and the children are sometimes said to be selfish and rude, since their learning is "self-directed" and they don't have to comply with group rules or more intensive social interaction such as in a large conventional classroom. Despite the criticism, Montessori has shown remarkable results with both the gifted and talented student, as well as the developmentally disabled, and has enjoyed success with adaptations by homeschoolers. There are now about 200 Montessori programs within public schools in the U.S., so acceptance of this nontraditional method is spreading.


Montessori was closely identified with the Swiss philosopher and child development analyst, Jean Piaget (189601980), considered an early founder of educational psychology, and a proponent of "constructivism," which is the theory that children learn better if they are active, not passive, in their learning.


Piaget was president of the Swiss Montessori Society for many years.


Another big influence on Montessori was another Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). He believed that sensory experience was the basis of all knowledge, and emphasized the process of learning, rather than what is learned. He hated structure: he thought it would be best to remove the artificial restraints of the classroom to let the child encounter things with his own senses, rather than having knowledge imposed by a teacher.


Unfortunately, one more influence on Montessori was Fascist Party dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1920s and '30s, who aligned with Hitler against the U.S. and Great Britain in World War II. Mussolini was once the President of the Montessori Society of Italy. Her method also found favor with Adolph Hitler's education leadership in Nazi Germany. She was into Theosophy, or "cosmic education," including "conversations" with what could be considered occultic spirit guides, and there are tinges of nature worship and occultic spirituality in some Montessori schools, although certainly not all or even most.



Homework: There are two main Montessori organizations, located at and


By Susan Darst Williams Private Schools 03 2008

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