It's not the 'Montessori' Method– It's the Child's
Originally published on The Parenting Handbook
When one hears the name ‘Montessori,’ it is almost invariably followed by the word ‘method.’ In fact, if a person vaguely knows something about Maria Montessori, it is that she has a particular, and quite radical, method of education. Yet, Montessori, herself, vehemently denied that she was the creator of any method.
Her first book, titled “The Method of Scientific Pedagogy Applied to Infant Education in Children’s Homes” was, admittedly, quite a mouthful, and her American publishers chose the title “The Montessori Method” instead. This was the christening of the tenacious view that she had single-handedly crafted a new method of education. To the last, however, Montessori asserted that what could be called a ‘method’ was no a priori idea of hers.
The features of her schools either grew organically in response to her observations of the children’s manifestations or were adopted out of necessity and found to be unexpectedly fitting for the children’s needs. She emphasized that, in reality, this ‘method’ was the discovery of the children themselves. What she contributed was an application of the scientific method to pedagogy: astute observations, logical interpretations, and methodical experimentation.
While Montessori created curricular materials for and spent time working with children of all ages, the focus here will be on the unique features of her Casa dei Bambini or Children’s House. The children that attend these schools are between the ages of three and six. While not the typical school age of children even today and much less so over 100 years ago, this was where her work began, where she made discoveries about the child’s natural state and how his mind works, and where she first articulated her singular philosophy of education.
A Children’s House
The Builder of Man
When Montessori closely observed children, she noticed that they were intensely interested in doing effortful work to become independent. They wanted to be in the arena cooking, cleaning, taking care of themselves; not on the sidelines watching, and especially not the passive object being acted on by others.
Through extensive observation, Montessori concluded that the child was the builder of man. Not simply the trivial recognition that the child would grow up to be a man, but that he must actively strive to sculpt the character of man in himself. He must strive to attain order in the contents of his mind, exercise his willpower so that he can act intelligently and decisively, and mold his behaviors to construct the virtues of his character.
No person can do this work for the child. Just as one doesn’t become an accomplished pianist by watching others play, by hearing explanations of how to move one’s hands, or by having others practice in one’s place, but must do the work for oneself, so the child must work independently to become an accomplished man. She remarks:
"Between "understanding" because another person seeks to impress upon us the explanation of a thing by speech, and "understanding" the thing of ourselves, there is an immeasurable distance; the two are comparable to the impression made in soft wax, which will subsequently be effaced and replaced by other impressions, and the form chiseled in the marble by an artist, as his creation."(1)
To this end, then, it is the job of the adult, and education more generally, to prepare an environment where the child can act independently and successfully. It is not sufficient to release the child in the adult-sized, adult-paced world and wish him well on his journey. It is essential to make the tasks of life accessible to the child so that he can be successful given his current capacities.
The Foundation, The Tools
What the child needs, therefore, is his own house, a specially prepared environment proportioned to him and provided with the necessities of his life. A place where he is the master, just as the adult is the master in his home.
In Montessori’s Children’s Houses there is small furniture proportioned to the size of the children. There are small tables and chairs, little armchairs, and shelves low to the ground. The furniture is solid, yet light so that the child can move them with ease. Sinks and mirrors are accessible to the children so that they can wash their hands and faces on their own.
Everything, that you, as an adult, can imagine using in daily life, is provided to the children so they too can take part in life. Short mops and brooms so that they can clean their spills. Dust cloths and water buckets so that they can keep things clean. Stations where the children can blow their nose, brush their teeth, and put on their coats and shoes. The children prepare their own snacks, set and clear the table, and wash the dishes. They water plants, tend to the garden, and care for animals. In each sphere of life, the environment is prepared so that the child has access.
It is not enough, however, for the child to act in the environment without feedback. Acting without any knowledge of one’s success or failure will not lead to increased competence, but to mistakes that solidify over time into stubborn habits. If the child has no awareness of the effects of his rash movements or unsteady hands, he will be forever trapped in his clumsiness.
In the Children’s House, therefore, the child’s errors are not hidden from him. His mistakes are not brought to his attention by the teacher, though, but are presented to him perceptually. He learns over time to use his own intelligence to catch and fix mistakes, not to rely on others to find and fix them for him.
To accomplish this, the Children’s House is prepared so as to make mistakes perceivable to the child. He uses real glass cups and real ceramic plates. If he drops them, they will break with all the shock and clangor that typically accompanies such an experience. The furniture is light so that if he moves hastily or clumsily, it will make a discordant noise and perhaps even overturn. The materials and furniture are painted so that marks and scuffs are easily seen, as if begging to be noticed and scrubbed away.
In short, the child is learning to be disciplined in his mind and his movements. He’s learning to have a steady hand, a graceful walk, a light touch. He’s learning to observe his environment and take action to correct disorder. He’s not learning it theoretically. He’s not learning it as a sermon, a remonstrance, or a moral fable. He’s learning the deep reason for it through his action in the world so that what he acquires is not abstract, but concretely real. Commenting on the difference between the traditional model of discipline and her own, Montessori says:
"In the old method, the proof of discipline attained lay in a fact entirely contrary to this; that is, in the immobility and silence of the child himself. Immobility and silence which hindered the child from learning to move with grace and with discernment, and left him so untrained, that, when he found himself in an environment where the benches and chairs where not nailed to the floor, he was not able to move about without overturning the lighter pieces of furniture.
In the "Children's Houses" the child will not only learn to move gracefully and properly, but will come to understand the reason for such deportment. The ability to move which he acquires here will be of use to him all his life. While he is still a child, he becomes capable of conducting himself correctly, and yet, with perfect freedom."(2)
Structure + Liberty
A False Choice
Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, there has been a debate among educators about the proper role of structured curriculum and a child’s freedom in education. Most thinkers have viewed these options as mutually exclusive, either education is highly rigid and structured, ensuring that children learn needed skills and acquire a plethora of knowledge, or education is agency-focused, ensuring that children are engaged in the process and motivated to learn.
Critics of highly structured education lamented the squashing of the child’s soul, the arbitrary or elitist nature of the knowledge to be imparted, and the inevitable cookie-cutter, cog-in-the-machine outcome. Critics of agency-centered education bemoaned the elevation of a child’s whims over reality, the subordination of careful thought to mindless activity, and the hodge-podge, Swiss-cheese state of the child’s knowledge.
Montessori, by contrast, integrates a highly structured curriculum with a child’s perfect freedom. To be clear, this is not a compromise between the two; it’s not a tug-of-war between some activities and some days that are structured and others that are agency-driven. It is a re-thinking of each concept and a melding of the two together into one system. It is systematic and structured, ensuring a deep grasp of knowledge, while also being agency-centered and interest-led, ensuring a deep level of engagement and commitment.
Montessori believed that in order to be a true aid to the developing child, one must help him arrange all of his perceptions and ideas into a logical order within his mind. When knowledge is accumulated in a grab-bag way or when it is presented whole in all of its undiluted chaos, the result is a child with tremendous mental confusion. He cannot access the contents of his mind quickly, he cannot interrelate and connect new ideas to the old, he cannot easily apply what he has learned to new situations. Speaking of the child’s plight, she says:
"The little child of three years old carries within him a heavy chaos. He is like a man who has accumulated an immense quantity of books, piled up without any order, and who asks himself "What shall I do with them?" When will he be able to arrange them in such fashion as to enable him to say: "I possess a library"?"(3)
Because of the hierarchical and interconnected nature of knowledge, it is necessary to provide a structure to aid the child. The Montessori curriculum has a definite scope and sequence. There are materials you start with, those that follow, and those that come last. The child does not read full books before he has first read and understood phrases, and he does not read phrases before he has read and understood words, nor read words before he has understood the sounds that correspond to their graphical symbols.
The materials are designed to guide the child as he advances. Each material leads to the next in such a way that when the child progresses, he is challenged without being overwhelmed. An important aspect of this preparation is that the child is induced to expend effort, but not misplaced effort. The child spends his time solidifying and refining what he has learned rather than in tortuously trying to grasp what a teacher presents or in working on higher level skills before the foundational ones have been attained.
An apt example of this is the progression the child follows when first learning to write. Rather than being handed sheets of lined paper and asked to arduously copy down letter after letter, a child in a Montessori school is preparing the requisite skills for months or years before ever holding a pencil or writing a single letter. Most materials in the classroom, when picked up by their little knobs, force the child to emulate the pincer grip one uses when holding a pencil. He is unconsciously strengthening his hand, gaining muscle strength for writing, in nearly everything he does. What’s more, the child has had countless experience tracing shapes, objects, and letters with his index and middle finsger so that by the time he starts writing, the shape of letters and the muscle movements required to create them are familiar friends.
All of this indirect preparation leads to a child who, with joy and ease, can write for hours on end without fatigue. He enjoys it because he has been adequately prepared and he repeats the exercise in rapt wonder at his newfound skill. Because of the preparation he has received, he delights in the task; because he delights in the task, he practices it extensively, and because he practices it extensively, he attains a prodigious level of mastery.
A letter written in beautiful handwriting by a 5-year-old (!) Translation: "We would like to wish a joyous Easter to the civil engineer Edoardo Talamo and the Princess Maria. We will ask them to bring their pretty children here. Leave it to me: I will write for all. April 7, 1909."
Because of the importance of structure and the meticulous crafting of materials that confer specific skills, one of the limits on a child’s freedom is in the use of the materials. They cannot be used in any which way, but must be used in the way they were designed. If a child is using a material in an unintended way, this means that he is not getting the practice he needs in a foundational skill.
If the child is throwing triangles across the room instead of tracing them with his fingers, for example, he is not getting enough practice tracing with his fingers which will hamper his progress in writing. Without considerable practice, the child will not be prepared to advance and his weakness will limit his mastery, not only of the immediate skill, but of higher-level skills that depend on it.
While there is a rigid structure in Montessori classrooms and children are limited in how they can use the materials, they are still given unprecedented freedom. The child is free to work on whatever he wants, for as long as he wants. If he wants to trace octagons and rhombi and fill these outlines with colorful marks for an hour, he can. If he wants to spend days focusing on the same progression of materials, he can. If he wants to wash the windows or dust a table, he can.
He is allowed to get up out of his seat and move around the classroom at his leisure. He can choose who to talk to, who to work with, and who to sit near. The child is led by his interest and not impeded in attaining mastery by the arbitrary dictates of a schedule, the mastery (or lack) of other students, or the pet subject of a teacher. Through every choice he makes, he gains more competence, not only in the concrete skill he’s practicing, but in the lifelong virtues of decisiveness, concentration, and prolonged effort.
There are behavior limits on the children. They must use the materials as they’re intended, as mentioned earlier. Anything destructive or dangerous they do will be prevented also. Any disturbing or annoying of others engaged in work will be stopped. Yet, beyond these, the child is profoundly free, and as a result, profoundly engaged in his education.
There are strategies for ensuring that the child doesn’t neglect one area of study in preference for something else he likes better, especially as the child gets older and is in elementary or middle school. Yet these strategies are not used in a spirit of coercion because the “teacher knows best,” but in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that a child must be the one to construct himself– his mind, his will, and his character– and no action of another, especially to force a child, will substitute for this inner work.
Education of the Senses
Something conspicuously absent from Montessori classrooms is collective lessons. While occasionally there may be whole-group or small-group lessons and activities, the vast majority of instruction occurs one-on-one, especially at the younger ages.
Because the children are not sitting passively, listening to lectures, or collectively filling out worksheets under the teacher’s watchful eye, but instead are independently choosing work to do, the work available must be accessible to a young child. It can’t have lengthy, written directions or demand the constant supervision of an adult in order to be used. As a result, the materials in Montessori classrooms are hands-on, essentialized, and concrete.
The lessons that are given, especially at this age, are individual and brief. The child is shown how to use the material with as little explanation as possible, nothing to distract the child from perceptually grasping the idea of the exercise. Then the child uses the material to his heart’s content. He may take out and replace the graduated cylinders dozens of times. He may build, knock down, and build again the pink tower across many days.
Once he has had ample practice, the teacher guides him to higher levels of knowledge by giving him the vocabulary for what he has learned. Once the child can place the circle, triangle, and square in the correct slot with ease, for example, the teacher tells him “This is a circle” or “This is a triangle.” His concrete experience with the material, his implicit grasp of concepts, is now fixed in his mind through the words he learns. He has bridged the gap between the concrete and the abstract.
The knowledge the child gains in this way is concretely real to him. He is not merely executing algorithms, reciting incantations, or memorizing formulas. His knowledge is grounded, firm, and fully real. It’s an active force in his mind, rather than inert baggage he drags through life. When he looks out at the world around him, he finds that his knowledge is primed for use and he can readily apply it to new situations.
"When he discovers with so much emotion that the sky is blue, that his hand is smooth, that the window is rectangular, he does not in reality discover sky, nor hand, nor window, but he discovers their position in the order of his mind by arrangement of his ideas. And this determines a stable equilibrium in the internal personality, which produces calm, strength, and the possibility of fresh conquests…
This order conduces to an economy of time and strength; like a well-arranged museum, it saves the time and strength of inquirers. The child can therefore perform a greater quantity of work without fatigue, and can react to stimuli in a briefer space of time."(4)
On the Other Side
A defining piece of Montessori’s curriculum is her intention of educating the senses. This means developing and refining the child’s power of observation in all five senses, but especially in sight and touch. The child learns to identify things that are smooth and course, thick and thin, long and short. He learns to arrange the colors from darkest to lightest. He learns to stack things from largest to smallest.
Whichever sense the child is refining, he is following the same progression. He first learns to recognize the identities of objects, then he learns to contrast objects that are very different, and finally he learns to discriminate between objects that are very similar. The end goal is not that the child necessarily learns any concrete skill, knowledge, or vocabulary, though this is one result. Instead, the goal is that the child continually learns to observe, compare, and judge. He is, in effect, learning to reason.
This has far-reaching effects on the rest of the child’s life. The inner work that the child is doing prepares him for practical life in any field, but especially in the field of science. The child who learns to closely observe the world around him, to accurately and precisely name the phenomena he observes, and to use logic to draw connections between similar and dissimilar items, becomes the man who formulates the laws of motion, or the man who discovers penicillin, or the man who takes humanity to Mars. Montessori remarks:
"If we study the history of discoveries, we will find that they have come from real objective observation and from logical thought. These are simple things, but rarely found in one man."(5)
Contrary to what the length of this post and the three preceding suggest, there is really so much more that could be said about Montessori’s discoveries, philosophy, and curriculum.
Montessori believed that the child was the builder of man and he needed the adult’s help to provide an environment, his own house, that could meet both his physical and mental needs. She believed that a child needed both structure and liberty in order to learn, and that these two were not mutually exclusive, but could be integrated into a coherent system. She believed that a child learned about the world through his senses and that astute observation was the key to progress, both individually and for the whole of civilization.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 146-147). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method (Illustrated) (pp. 71-72). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 138-139). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 140-141). Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method (Illustrated) (p. 184). Kindle Edition.
Samantha Blaisdell earned a B.A. in Secondary Education with a focus on Spanish and ESL from Spring Arbor University and a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Idaho. After working as both a brick-and-mortar and online teacher and as an engineer, she discovered and fell head over heels for the ideas and method of Montessori. Samantha lives in Idaho and, in her free time, enjoys reading, spending time outside, and playing with her cats.
- Core Philosophy
The Child's Self-Created Mind
Based on her astute observations of children, Montessori concluded that children had a mind and a mental life from birth. This meant that, to her, education was proper and necessary for infants and young children. Yet, it was clear that education for infants and toddlers could not function in the same way as education for older children and adults. Their unique minds demanded a rethinking of education.
- Core Philosophy
Montessori's Discovery of the Normalized Child
Montessori’s most important discovery, the one that enabled all the others, was her discovery of the “normalized” child. It informed her philosophy of education: her ideas on the role of the parent and the educator in the child’s life, the role of the child himself, the role of the environment in his development, and the very purpose of education.
- Core Philosophy
Montessori believed she uncovered the natural laws governing a child’s development and discovered that he had mental needs from birth. Based on these discoveries, it was clear to Montessori that the traditional ways of interacting with children, educating them, and rearing them were tragically inadequate. It was time to re-think childhood, education, and parenting. It was time to articulate a new philosophy.