Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was the first woman physician in Italy. She also had a degree in biological anthropology which honed her powers of meticulous observation and formed the basis of her system of education. She was not trained as a teacher, although she did take some education classes so that she could observe the schools of the time. This freed her up to study how children learn, in a detached and rational manner. Her talent was to see children as they really are, not as adults think they are or ought to be.
Her first job was the director of a residential institute for developmentally delayed children who, because of superstition and shame in those days, were ostracized from their families. Believing that these children might be capable of some learning, she developed diagnostic and teaching materials based on the work of Itard and Sequin (researchers and educators) and continued to observe and experiment. Many of these children were eventually able to pass the state exams. Montessori remarked, “If these children are able to do so well, then typical children must surely be capable of achieving so much more.”
In January 1907 Montessori was asked to supervise fifty 3 to 7-year-olds who were running wild in the slums of San Lorenzo, a district of Rome. She was given a room in a tenement building and one unqualified teacher. She provided the children with some toys and her diagnostic materials (the basic sensorial materials) to give them more to play with. In time the children discarded the toys and go the diagnostic materials out of the cupboard on their own. Over time more sensorial materials were added, using what was at hand (the color tablets are based on cards of colored embroidery thread). Montessori taught them life skills, even how to blow their own noses. They were excited to learn and progressed by leaps and bounds, even learning to read and write. Montessori introduced child-sized tables and chairs, which were unknown at that time. This whole phenomenon of children working at their own pace, using materials selected for their abilities and designed to stimulate independent exploration was new. To see children’s natural curiosity satisfied and begin to experience the joy of discovering the world about them sparked worldwide interest.
Montessori noted that many children were frustrated by a lack of proper stimulation and inadequate opportunities to achieve. She observed that children can have long attention spans when not interrupted. They become happier and more self-controlled after a period of time in the orderly environment she had created, working with their hands and making their own discoveries. Here they were introduced to challenging tasks that not only absorbed their energies but also resulted in a sense of achievement.
This led Montessori to develop the planned system of education that bears her name. Many Montessori schools were established during her lifetime and today there are thousands of private Montessori schools in the United States, hundreds of Montessori public school classrooms and countless Montessori schools operating throughout the world.
Principles of Montessori education:
- Movement and cognition are closely entwined; movement can enhance thinking and learning.
- Learning and well-being are improved when children have a sense of control over their lives.
- Children learn better when they are interested in what they are learning.
- Studies have shown that linking rewards to an activity (like gold stars or stickers) negatively impacts motivation to engage in that activity when the reward is withdrawn. (It shifts the focus from the activity to the reward.)
- Children have a great sense of order and are more secure when there are no surprises.
- Until children develop at their own speed, they are not put in group situations where they could be perceived as fast or slow.
- The environment is conducive to children being able to casually observe lessons being given to the older children; this piques their interest and desire to progress.
- Older children are able to help younger children and this consolidates the older children’s knowledge and fosters kindness and good social skills.
- Older children act as role models for younger children (how to sit, follow directions, stand in line, etc.)
- The work in the classroom is sequential; a child does not progress onto the next step until the first set is fully mastered; in this way a child never encounters work that is too difficult and is never left floundering.
- A child encounters many small successes along the way and these build a child’s self-confidence.
- School should be a happy and positive experience to which a child looks forward with happy anticipation.
- Children who acquire basic skills in a natural way have the advantage of beginning education without drudgery, boredom or discouragement. They gain enthusiasm for learning, which is the key to becoming a truly educated person.
Through keen observation, Montessori found that children have sensitive periods, a window when they are tuned in to certain stimuli. These intense periods, when a child can learn instinctively, happen in the early years when the brain is forming itself. The Montessori system is based on the unique cycle of learning that takes advantage of these sensitive periods.
About the Article’s Author: Joan Starling, Founder, Sammamish Montessori School serving preschool and kindergarten students in Redmond WA. Joan established The Sammamish Montessori School in 1977. She began her long career in Montessori education more than four decades ago training under two Montessori teachers who were themselves trained directly by Dr. Maria Montessori. One of them, a wise and practical woman, Margaret Homfray, when young in the late 1930s, accompanied Dr. Montessori on trips to translate her lectures on her speaking tours. Joan has been a pioneer of Montessori education in the greater Seattle area, establishing one of the oldest Montessori schools on Seattle’s Eastside and now one of the largest Montessori schools in the state. Joan’s two daughters (Janet Villella and Hilary Prentice) now share the running of the school, are active in the Montessori community and are supported by a wonderful group of exceptionally talented, well educated and experienced teachers, assistants and supporting staff from all over the world.