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
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
Homework: There are two main Montessori
organizations, located at www.montessori.edu