Maria Montessori: An Enlightenment in Education

Submitted by:
Karin Schmidt
for partial fulfillment
of the requirements for
Dr. Sherman

Children sitting in parallel rows, their eyes locked in a gaze at the teacher standing before them, instructing the class on reading, writing, or arithmetic. This is exactly the picture that Maria Montessori refused to conform to when she created her revolutionary school. She called it a "House for Childhood".

Which is precisely what she created, not a place where children would be placed in rows to be lectured at about the knowledge of the adult world, but a home where children could examine and discover their own world. Montessori said of her schools, "Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated, without any need for direct instruction."(Seldin www). Instead of rows of desks, a Montessori classroom is filled with child-sized tables, and shelves filled with specially designed educational toys and activities. Although Montessori developed her method of teaching over one-hundred years ago, this classroom scene can still be found in todayís Montessori schools. Furthermore while her methods were controversial when they were first introduced, her techniques coordinate with much of what we have discovered about childhood development. What gave Maria Montessori the ability create such a innovative teaching technique that would transcend time? It was not necessarily her excellent teaching ability, but her awareness of the children whom she observed. In addition, her willingness to take dramatic steps away from the accepted teaching methods of the era, allowed for her breakthroughs in education.

As she found herself on the edge of society, Maria Montessori also developed a pedagogy which would reflect Howard Gardnerís Multiple Intelligence theory years before itís publication. Her unique teaching style allows children an amount of freedom to explore their own discovery of knowledge. To suport this, my own experience with Montessori schools reflects the usage of a variety of intelligences in the teaching methods of Maria Montessori.

Montessoriís Own Development

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 as the only child of Alessandro Montessori ,a military man, and Renilde Stoppani, niece of a famous geologist. Her parents were well educated, but not wealthy. While her life began in Anacona, Italy, her family moved to Rome when she was twelve and this is where she began to distinguish herself as a student. Perhaps, she always sensed her great potential, at the age of twelve, while desperately ill, she eased her mother saying," Donít worry, mother. I cannot die. I have too much to do in my life."(anthology,6) She became interested in mathematics and enrolled in an engineering technical school for boys. This type of education was not available for girls at the time. Eventually, her interests turned to biology and she began looking at medicine. Despite her fatherís disapproval, Montessori entered the Medical School at the University of Rome (Packard 11-15). Ironically, she had rejected choosing a profession that was the traditional refuge for women, teaching. However, this is where she would one day find fame.

 Montessori entered as the only woman student at the Medical School of Rome. For this bold decision, she was ridiculed by the male students and was forced to work alone and at night with the cadavers. It was considered inappropriate for a women to work with the men in dissecting class. She earned her way through the university with work as a tutor and scholarships. Montessori repeatedly demonstrated that she was willing to break the boundaries of what was expected in society. At the age of twenty-six, Maria Montessori graduated with honors from medical school as the first women medical doctor and surgeon in Italy.

She then entered into a stage which would lead her into what she referred to as her "unknown work". She had no idea at the time of the impact she as a doctor would make on education. Simultaneously, Montessori held four positions which would lead her to her great developments. She began practicing medicine in Rome. While at the same time, she served as the Chair of Hygiene at the Magistro Femminile. As a frequent public speaker she used this position to rally support for peace efforts, the rights of women, and child labor law reform around the world. Her support for these causes demonstrated her willingness to step outside the socially acceptable and to seek change. Through this work Montessori became well know and reagarded throughout Europe. In addition, she worked on the University of Romeís Faculty of Pedagogy. Finally, she held an appointment as an assistant doctor in the Psychiatric Clinic in the University of Rome (Packard, 11-21).

The Growth of an Idea

As a physician, she was a scientist, not a teacher. However, she specialized in pediatrics and psychiatry, and through this work she came into contact with children and began to acquire an awareness of their development (Seldin, www.). It is not necessarily through her great teaching abilities that Montessori made her great discoveries, but in her ability to acknowledge what she had observed in the children around her. Through her strides in her discoveries about childhood development, Montessori demonstrated her exceptional interpersonal as well as interpersonal intelligences.

While she developed an understanding for children in her work as a physician, it was in her work at the Psychiatric Clinic that she made some of her greatest discoveries. It was here that she realized the untapped human potential in many children. In 1901 She was appointed director of the orthophrenic school at the University of Rome. The school had been used as an asylum for "deficient and insane" children of the city(Seldin, www). Many of the children were probably retarded or autistic. She walked into an empty room with only children who lined the walls sitting on benches for hours at a time, Montessori was appalled. She was told that the children were "greedy and dirty" as they would scramble to pick crumbs up off the ground when they were left after a meal. Montessori was horrified by the scene and began developing a wave of reform in the school (Anthology, 9).

Using the scientific approach of observation and experimentation from Edouard Seguin and Jean Itard Montessori began studying the children. She became sensitive to the childrenís need for stimulation, purposeful activity, and self-esteem. Based on her observations, Montessori developed a revolutionary curriculum that would teach the young children how to care for themselves and their environment.

Montessori adopted a task that had never been attempted before, to recognize the potential of the mentally handicapped children. She argued that mentally deficient children needed education more than medical treatment. Furthermore, she believed that if provided with the right environment, these children would absorb knowledge presented to them through their own discoveries. Her first task was to create the environment. First, she insisted that the staff speak to the children with the utmost respect. She them began developing a series of educational toys intended to stimulate the children. Furthermore, much of her technique also focused on individual attention to the children (Pines 103-107). Her methods proved to be very successful and received much attention when her "deficient" students were able to pass the sixth grade proficiency exams for the Italian public schools. Montessori responded by suggesting that her results only proved that the public schools should be able to get much better results with "normal" children (Seldin, www).

Following her success, Montessori became eager to test her methods on "normal" children. However, Italian law prevented her from being able to open a private school for children over the age of six. Nevertheless, the Italian government was developing a daycare program for children under six in on of the cityís slums. (The major motivation for opening the daycare was that he children were disruptive and destructive, and the government wanted something to occupy them during the day.) They offered Montessori directorship of this program and thus began the first "House for Children"(Packard 15-19).

A Revolution in Education

When Montessori opened the first "Casi del Bambini" in 1907 she stated that "the task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confuse good with immobility and evil with activity, as often happens in the case of old-time discipline." (Anthology, 12). Her goal was then to provide an environment which would guide a childís progress, to make him or her truly independent, both physically and mentally.

 Instead of the rows of desks which were common, and still are, in classroom, she had child-sized tables, cabinets and shelves made for her classroom. These she filled with her "educational toys and activities". She used many from her previous work with the mentally handicapped children, but developed many more. Her array of toys included lacing frames, series of pegs to develop the concept of numbers, weights to be fitted into progressively deeper or wider holes, and sandpaper letters to study the movement of oneís hand when tracing letters. Interestingly, these same toys are still used in todayís Montessori classrooms. The equipment allows the child to work at his or her own pace, while urging the child to perfect himself (Pines 106). She felt that a child possesses an "absorbent mind" which should not be limited. The environment is essential because, "These impressions not only penetrate the mind of the child, but they form it; they become incarnated, for the child makes his own ëmental fleshí using the things that are in his environment." (Education, 17).

In addition, Montessori also encouraged the child to choose what task and concept he or she wanted to examine, and the length of time they wanted to spend on their task. The children were allowed to move about freely, choosing where to sit, whether it be on floor mats or at the tables. This type of freedom had never been allowed in classroom before Montessoriís schools. This was a revolution in a time when classrooms were ideally rows of pupils confined in upright posture for hours at a time. In fact physicians began to complain about the extensive curvature of the spine that the posture was giving the children, and rehabilitation classes had to be provided to correct the spinal deformations that the desks had caused childrenís backs. In contrast, Montessoriís classrooms allowed students the freedom of movement denied in public schools.

The new expectations for the students would also change the role of the teacher in Montessoriís classrooms. "She would no longer dominate the stage with her ëpatronizing, enfeebling protection.í" (Pines 106). The teacher would serve as a facilitator, who would guide the independent work of the children, while maintaining a keen sense of observation over their needs.

Perhaps the greatest, and most innovative aspect of the Montessori classroom is the independence and appreciation for discovery which it instills in itís students. The equipment, encourages children to be self motivated, to seek perfection, and to concentrate for long periods of time. Furthermore, the techniques also reinforce a sense of responsibility for oneís work and accomplishments, while still embracing the curiosity of children.

At a time when it was accepted that children should be seen but not heard, Maria Montessori was a revolutionary when she implied that children were complete human beings at the most important stage of their development. She even gave the credit of development to the child, instead of the teacher when she stated that, "This creation of the child is no mean achievement! He (the child) creates not only the language, but the organs that enable it to be spoken. Every physical movement he creates, every means of intelligent expression." (Education, 16).

Maria Montessori adapted an educational program unlike any other. However, this was not through pure invention. Dr. Montessori learned from the children how they would best learn. She commented, "I protest against myself being hailed as the great educator of this century, because what I have done is merely to study the child, to take and to express what he has given me, and that is called the Montessori Method." (Education,4.)

This great ability to be sensitive to the needs and characteristics of the children she studied is an essential aspect of her ability to create a form of pedagogy which would recognize the incredible human potential of children.

Montessori in Action

What does the Montessori Method look like in action? This is a question I sought to answer while studying Dr. Montessori. Consequently, I spent an afternoon in Discovery Montessori School in Akron, Ohio.

I walked into what looked like a chaotic room of two through five year olds, and was greeted by a very calm, warm woman, Mrs. Muhad. It was interesting that she was able to completely turn her back on the classroom and talk to me without the children noticing. This is probably because each child was busily concentrating on his or her task. I was given a chair off to one side of the room, from which to observe the class. It was as if the classroom had been created from one of Montessoriís books. What had first appeared to be chaotic, I realized was in complete order. While there were no parallel rows of desks, and not a single child was working on the same task, each student had chosen, and was focused on his or her task or lesson. There were children working on spelling and writing with textured letters. Some children were reading to themselves or to others. At the same time, students were examining numbers, counting, and adding using beads, pegs, cards, worksheets and a variety of equipment which looked like Maria Montessori had designed herself. There were children who were learning the countries on the globe by teaching each other a song. While the room was filled with the sound of chattering voices and children busily moving around, there was purpose and order in their activity.

The teacher, Mrs. Muhad walked around the room observing what the children were working on. She was able to spend some time talking to me and told me that Dr. Montessori felt that it was important for the children to establish their own independence. Therefore each student was responsible for choosing what they would work on. She also stated that it was very important that the child was encouraged to stop working on the task when they became disinterested because she wanted to "utilize that time when the childís mind was most absorbent" the time when they are doing the task for themselves. The moment that the task becomes a chore, the child is doing it for the teacher, and learning becomes a job. For example when a child who was spelling began to wander around, Mr Muhad asked her, "Do you want to do more words, or stop?" When given the choice, the child was free to study those lessons in which she was interested. Therefore, her learning would be more productive.

Furthermore it was very important that the children did their work independently and did not rely on Mrs. Muhad for the answer. She would explain to a child the purpose of their toy or lesson and then walk away. It was the childís responsibility to complete the activity, ask for more instructions or another word to spell.This demonstrated the incredible ability of children to teach themselves, to develop the skills of examination and concentration in themselves.

While they were all independently working, they were also made aware of each otherís needs. Mr Muhad also informed me that Dr. Montessori felt that there was a time when a childís mind was especially absorbent to social awareness. She made them aware of the necessity to clean up after oneself so that another child could use the toys. In addition, when a child began to cry, while consoling the boy she asked for the attention of another child and said, " some one is crying, will you get some kleenex for him." Instead of the teacher resolving the problem, she asked the child to take part in helping their peers. This encourages the children to become aware of their responsibility to eachother.

Perhaps the greatest genius in Montessoriís methods is that the children were completely comfortable in this environment. They were not forced or pressured into doing any of their lessons. They flourished in the classroom. Three and four year old children were able to read and write. In adition, very young children were able to read four digit numbers, add ,and subtract. This is a result of Maria Montessoriís incredible interpersonal skills. Her ability to create a educational style based on children, not on adult expectations of children, stems from her astute ability of observation and recognition.

Gardner Before His Time

Educational systems have been criticized for not incorporating enough of Howard Gardnerís theory of multiple intelligence into their curriculum. Perhaps one should look to a Montessori school. It is possible that Maria Montessori recognized this theory in her teaching methods long before Howard Gardner ever published it. A Montessori classroom displays a much broader curricula than many schools, and all of Howard Gardnerís seven intelligences are being utilized.

The first of these is spatial, as almost every lesson begins with a spatial examination of the concept. This could range from examining shapes to tracing letters to comparing weights with their sizes. All of these encourage a child to examine the space that an object occupies, and to relate this to a concept. Furthermore, the verbal linguistic and mathematical logical concepts are examined in foreign languages, spelling, reading and counting lessons. Montessori acknowledges that these lessons are essential in our society but can be taught through a variety of methods. In addition, the interpersonal intelligence is highlighted as students are encouraged to teach each other concepts an addition to being made aware of the needs of other children. Furthermore, the childís intrapersonal intelligence is developed as each child learns to concentrate, and to examine a concept independently. Moreover, the use of music and song to learn concepts is demonstrated in Montessori classrooms. Finally, most Montessori schools include lessons on creative movement, to teach the children how to use their bodies and movement to express themselves.

Moreover, the freedom to chose what activity to work on is possibly the strongest parallel between Gardner and Montessoriís methods. Montessori recognized the fact that there were several different forms of intelligence. This is why she felt it essential that children chose what they want to explore. She observed that if a child chooses to work with letters and spelling, the child is at a stage in when his or her verbal linguistic intelligence is being developed. For this reason, she felt it necessary to create an environment in which all of a childís intellectual developments could be satisfied as they occurred. Furthermore, she also recognized that a child might be stronger in one learning technique over another, and this is why the independent learning technique is so important. Although Montessoriís techniques are over ninety years old they recognize much of what we have recently discovered about development and intelligence. Montessoriís ability to take with her the lessons children taught her, and to create a pedagogy which would recognize the human potential of children, and challenge the prevailing educational system is what deems her to be a truly creative mind.


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