Who was Maria Montessori?
Maria Montessori was born on 31st August 1870 in Chiavalle, Italy. She started her public schooling with average reports but soon began to excel in math and science. She broke away from the norm by attending the Regio Instituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci, unusual for women, with aspirations of becoming an engineer.
Determined to become a doctor, she was initially refused entry to medical school but apparently ended the interview by stating that she knew she would become a doctor. Pope Leo XIII is believed to have intervened on her behalf.
Although medical school was a difficult time for Maria, she was the first woman in Italy to graduate as a licensed medical doctor, from the University of Rome, in 1896.
She worked at the Children’s Hospital while employed at the San Giovanni Hospital, and had a private practice. Many of Montessori’s patients were children from poor families and she concerned herself with their nutrition and comfort as well as their medical ailments.
Montessori’s only child, a son named Mario, was born 31st March 1898. He travelled with her, became her greatest advocate and continued her work after her death.
As part of her job she travelled around the city selecting participants for research from asylums for the insane. She began to make conclusions that many of these children were suffering from sickness, not due to medical reasons but due to their environment and lack of stimulation, pedagogy rather than illness.
She studied the work of two early 19th century Frenchmen, Jean-Mark Itard and Edouard Séguin, his student. Her interest in their work with the ‘wild boy of Aveyron’ led her to translate much of their work. Itard’s sensory work and teaching tools are believed to have inspired Montessori’s teaching.
In 1901 Montessori returned to school to study the mind and took a job in 1904, to the surprise of her colleagues, supervising the education of young children in a housing project for low income families in San Lorenzo slum district.
The first school, La Casa dei Bambini opened January 6th, 1907. By 1908 there were five Casa dei Bambini.The following year Montessori began to train teachers and published her first book, The Montessori Method. It was published in English in 1912 and the 5000 copies published sold out in four days.
By 1915 there were over 100 Montessori schools in the USA and more were opened across the world. In 1947 Maria Montessori spoke to UNESCO on Education and Peace. She was nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize but died in 1952 with her son Mario in attendance.
The early years.
Montessori (1967) believed that a child has an inert need to become independent. From birth babies choose to face the world and absorb what they find, thus developing their personality. She stated the senses developing first is an example of how children need to absorb their surroundings, the senses are what allows us to take in our environment.
Montessori sees each step in a child’s life as another step towards independence. She uses terms like “prison” (for child’s inability to walk) and “freedom” for a child learning a skill (such as walking) indicating her strength of feeling towards the need for children to develop life skills towards becoming independent.
Montessori challenged child rearing theories of her time. She believed babies and young children should be with their mothers instead of brought up in a nursery, by a nurse. The need for babies to be with their mothers is emphasized more strongly when Montessori discusses mothers from various continents and how they meet their children’s needs by keeping them close. Carrying a baby around by different methods including slings, bags, and baskets seems to be of great interest to Montessori and she advocates the closeness of the mother and child resulting in happier babies. This is long before Dr William Sears coined the term “Baby-wearing” in a more aggressive manner. Montessori did not suggest mothers carry their babies constantly as she understood the closeness of mother and child meant the child’s needs could be met, consequently children would feel included and join in a social life.
In The Absorbent Mind Montessori (1967) discusses the “Child’s Conquest of Independence” by including and explaining scientific development of the body along with the development of educational training.
She stresses the need to follow nature and as ability develops, so should experiences. As an organ becomes mature it is used (environmental experience) and likewise, as a child’s ability becomes mature, it is used. Montessori based her educational theory on medical knowledge.
Hugo De Vrie’s (as cited in Montessori,1966) study of insects passing through different activities to reach maturation, Watson’s theory of Behaviourism and Coghill’s findings of cycles of behaviour influenced by environment all support Montessori’s importance of the surrounding environment of a developing child.
This influence of the surroundings on maturation is of great importance in language development. Montessori expresses a clear need for the child to be helped with language development. She recommends mothers speak to babies in whole sentences instead of repeating a baby’s babble and credits the baby’s inner teacher with helping him to learn language.
“Helpers in the Home” -as nannies were called, could be trained by The Montessori Society in Rome and were given scientific knowledge of language acquisition.
This illustration taken from Montessori (1967) p. 124, demonstrates the attention to detail Montessori had when studying young children. She respected the young child’s development more fervently than her predecessors.
The order of language acquisition is made clear, the child understanding conversations long before he can make himself understood. The importance of exposing a child to good examples is made clear by Montessori again, reinforcing the need for a child to be present in adult conversation, if not included.
Montessori (1976) expressed the importance of movement to children:
“The greatest of philosophers must use speech or writing to convey his ideas, and this involves muscular movement. What would be the value of his thoughts if he gave them no expression? And this he can only do by making use of his muscles.” (p. 137)
Children do not yet have the speech to express themselves. Movement serves as their chief means of getting information to us and allows the personality to be expressed. Montessori also deemed movement necessary to mental development. She believed, as we now understand, that movement encourages the brain to develop normally.
Restrictions on this movement can damage the growing brain, hence the need for exercise as a child and physical education to be part of our schools. Montessori even goes as far as to say if parts of the body are over exercised to the detriment of others; the brain may also stay at a low level. She believed movement was necessary to help develop the whole person and allow him to relate well to the outside world.
A child’s ability to move with more control is examined in figure 9, Montessori (1967) p. 149, below:
The development of all four limbs during the first two and a half years is described, two at a time. Montessori wonders (1967) what mankind will do with their developing hands in the future, just as we wonder what our growing children will be doing with their hands in the future. Would Montessori have advocated for continuation of the teaching of handwriting in the curriculum, rather than the common held thought that it should be phased out?
While the feet and legs develop as the child grows and begins to walk, jump and run the hand development is more determined by the activity it is exposed to.
Montessori (1967) p. 151, quotes St Francis of Assisi “Look at these great hills! They are the walls of our temples and the aspiration of our hearts!” Yet she explains Man’s need to keep his hands busy and express himself through handiwork as St. Francis did when he helped rebuild a church. Through time man has built and created; the Pyramids, the Parthenon, the Colosseum, the manuscripts of the middle ages, artwork of the renaissance. As man's intellect developed so has his creations. We have a need to express ourselves through our actions and movements, whether they are large movements or the smallest and most intricate.
As children develop the use of their lower limbs they obtain greater freedom and have greater choice over their activities. Allowing a child to walk by themselves instead of being carried gives them the opportunity to explore, gain independence and practice skills. Our idea of walking is different from a child’s as we tend to walk to get somewhere and when we walk with a child we ask them to walk at our pace. A child is often more interested in what he sees as he walks. It is a sensory experience. He wants to stop and touch a flower, jump in a puddle and sit on grass watching a dog run. We need to pace our walk with the child and try to see the world through their eyes. Just as the ancient Greeks would walk, think and talk, using philosophy to put our world to rights, our children do so in their own method.
The need for continuous learning is made clear by Montessori’s use of the term “unremitting toil” and “work” is the term used for learning. This is in contradiction to the lives of the upper classes of Montessori’s past. The life of a child is constantly active, and not allowing children to be active can again be termed as holding them in a ‘prison’, restricting their ‘freedom’. She believed holding a child back from being active was setting them up to be degenerate adults, unable to give their most due to learned habits from childhood.
Montessori urges children have to complete a task “cycles of activity” and explains the need for children to complete a cycle. What we see as strange; carrying an overly heavy object or climbing the stairs again and again is described as a cycle of activity that a child needs to do, to develop normally. Not being able to complete these cycles of activity are what leads children to have, what Montessori terms as “deviations” and we today would probably label with ADD, ADHD, Autism or a Special Need. Children will often choose cycles of activity which require great exertion but this energy expelled is believed to prepare mind, body and spirit for an adult life of social interaction.
Montessori took Hugo de Vries’ discovery of sensitive periods in animals and applied his theories with children discovering they also have period of intense growth when a particular trait needed to be perfected. Montessori (1966) noticed that a child works in a dedicated manner during a sensitive period and only becomes tired once a goal is attained. She reasons, that many childish tantrums are due to the needs of a child not being met during a sensitive period and urges us to analyse each tantrum to better understand the child’s soul and need for peace.
Periods of Growth
Age 0-3: Psychoembryonic Period; Full of changes, sensory based, functions are created, memories are forgotten.
Age 3-6: Constructive Perfectionment Period: Sensory and hands are busy, “the blessed age of play” functions are developed, conscious
Age 6-12: Growth is visible: Children are calm, happy and stable, milk teeth are lost and adult teeth grow.
Age 12-18: Growth is less visible; children are less calm and stable, a sign of indiscipline and rebellion, physical health is less stable and yet children are made to sit for longer periods of inactivity.
Montessori believed that the period of growth between the years of 0-6 which was often overlooked by past theory was the most important. It is when intellect and psychic powers are formed. The thought that a baby started life with nothing and developed powers to talk, walk and a sense of will and knowledge were created, fascinated Montessori. This led to a lifetime of study and work with this age group.
It is made clear that we, as mere parents, are not expected to have the knowledge Montessori (1966) has as a doctor and scientist. “One must simply have the desire to help the child and a fund of common sense.” (p.48). Instead of hanging a mobile over the crib, leading to an awkward position for the baby, she suggests placing the baby on an incline so they can see more of the room and be entertained. A garden with flowers and birds is even more preferable. Rather than moving the baby every day, the same spot allows the child to recognize objects and experiences, learning about their environment.
Children like a sense of order and so their surroundings should be ordered with everything in its place. A story of a young child of six months becoming upset by an umbrella out of place in The Secret of Childhood, (p. 50) serves as a reminder of how much children crave order. Piaget’s experiment with his son and a hidden object is mentioned (p. 51) as another example of how children like order. His son was not interested in where Piaget had moved the object but only that it was not in its home and that it should be there.
The senses are of great importance in Montessori (1966) teaching. The ancient saying “there is nothing in the intellect which was not first in some way applied to the senses,” (p. 60) applies in all of Montessori teaching. The need for babies to explore and use their senses is immense and interrupting a child’s reflection hinders what Montessori refers to as the inner toil which develops greater awareness and inner harmony. A child stopping to watch an ant carry its load is an example of something an adult may overlook but which will keep a child fascinated for hours.
As mentioned, tantrums were believed to be detrimental to the child’s development. Montessori’s (1966) theory was that a tantrum was sign of an internal struggle and the inner psyche trying to reveal itself. “A tantrum is like a storm that prevents the soul of the child from coming out of its hidden retreat and showing itself to the world. “ (p. 109). She entrusts educators with the job of knowing the child and freeing it from any entanglements. Our job is to open the door and allow the child to pass through into self realization. We can do this by providing an environment conducive to a child’s growth, means to exercise activities and limited obstacles.
Characteristics of Casa dei Bambini (Children's Home) Montessori (1966)
- Main aim is to discover and free the child.
- Inspired with the thoughts of John the Baptist “He must increase, I must decrease” (p.111) the teacher’s role is to be passive, removing his authority as an obstacle.
- Respect for the child’s personality is highly emphasized
Montessori observed how the children flourished in their new surroundings. They seemed to love learning a new task and repeated it again and again. Montessori (1966) once counted the number of times a young child of three completed an activity of putting cylinders into correct holes. After forty-three times the child “stopped as if coming out of a dream and smiled happily.” (p. 119) Montessori wondered why she had finished after forty-three times and what was finished.
As confidence grew in the school, the children went from learning set activities to having free choice. This led to cupboards being at child height so a child could access their own materials. They showed individual preference and liked to return to the same activity repeatedly.
Rewards and Punishments were initially used by the teacher at La Case dei Bambini but when it became clear the children were neither interested in the rewards nor shamed by the punishments, both were observed for some time, and eventually dropped completely.
The ‘exercise of silence’ began with a visit from a content four month old baby but quickly became part of the daily routine. Allowing the children to have quiet time and only making this time within the capabilities of the children resulted in children walking and running to the teacher with great accuracy and gross motor control.
The dignity and respect Montessori had for her students affected them greatly. They learned to respect their peers and adults and visitors to the school were amazed at the composure of the children. “Their self-possession could be attributed to their immediate and perfect adaptation to their environment” (p. 128)
At the prompting of some illiterate parents, Montessori began to teach letters and sounds using cardboard letters for forming words and sandpaper letters for tracing. The enthusiasm from the children led to writing and reading. Sandpaper letters and numbers and the use of kinaesthetic materials for teaching number and letter formation are popular today, as teachers recognize the value in having children feel the movement of a letter.
In this picture taken from The Montessori Method (1912) children can be seen working independently on activities.
Some are at a table and other on the floor, a common sight in Montessori school. The sense of calm and eager learning can be felt from the picture as children happily complete their work.
Montessori’s method now exists in most preschool and early elementary classrooms in varying degrees. We take it for granted that children will be working at small tables and chairs, some will work on the floor and a certain level of independence will be endowed.
In Montessori’s time this was not the norm. She pioneered a great change in early child learning and development and is not often given credit for this. Student motivation was not talked about directly by Montessori but her explanation of the intrinsic need to ‘work’ without reward is detailed.
Her method, only touched on briefly in this essay, is detailed and her learning materials, used all over the world, are still very relevant today.
Her advice to teachers in The Secret of Childhood (1966) is a mantra to us all, as teachers;
“We must be humble and root out the prejudices lurking in our heart. We must not suppress those traits which can help us in our teaching, but we must check those inner attitudes characteristic of adults that can hinder our misunderstanding of a child.” (p.153).
We must be aware of our shortcomings and strive to ensure they do not interfere with our ability to encourage every child, to meet their full potential.
Anon, A Biography of Dr Maria Montessori, Montessori Australia. Retrieved from http://montessori.org.au/montessori/biography.htm
Montessori, M. (1912) The Montessori Method Translated by Anne Everett George New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Company Retrieved from http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/montessori/method/method.html
Montessori, M. (1966) The Secret of Childhood. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Grp
Montessori, M. (1967) The Absorbent Mind. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Murray, A. K. (2011) Montessori Elementary Philosophy Reflects Current Motivation Theories, Montessori Life, Vol. 23, No. 1, 22-33
Thayer-Bacon,B. (2011) Maria Montessori: Education for Peace, In Factis Pax, Vol. 5, No. 3, 307-319 Retrieved from www.infactispax.org/journal/
Thayer-Bacon,B. (2012) Maria Montessori, John Dewey, and William H. Kilpatrick, Education and Culture, Vol. 28, No. 1, 3-20 Retrieved from www.muse.jhu.edu/journals/eac/summary/v028/28.1thayer-bacon.html
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Maria Montessori. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Montessori
Wood, D. (1988) How Children Think and Learn. Oxford, Blackwell Pub. Ltd.
Have a look at Quality Classrooms’ selection of resources suitable for Montessori here.