Montessori's Discovery of the Normalized Child
Originally published on The Parenting Handbook
Maria Montessori started her pioneering educational work in, what we would call today, special education and early childhood education. She first worked with children who were cognitively impaired or otherwise considered “ineducable” by society. Through her efforts, these children took the same academic tests as other children and, to the surprise of all, did as well as or better than them. Most people thought this was nothing short of miraculous. Montessori, however, was disturbed.
If these children, with all their disadvantages, could do as well as the “normal” children, then weren’t the normal children being held down to an artificially low level? What was happening in mainstream education to stifle children’s potential?
These questions spurred Montessori to dream of working with all children. In 1906, she got her chance when the owners of a tenement building in the slums of Rome approached her and asked if she would oversee the care and education of the children living there. These children lived in conditions of horrifying poverty—but they weren’t institutionalized. They were normal children at the very lowest echelons of society in Rome.
Thus, Montessori’s first school, known as the Casa dei Bambini or Children’s House, opened on January 6, 1907. It was here that she made incredible discoveries, later repeated with children all over the world. It was here that she developed her signature materials and method. It was here that she came to the startling conclusion that the true nature of childhood had been hidden by inadequate care, deficient environments, and centuries of prejudicial thinking about children.
The First School
Montessori believed that the unique environment of the first Casa was what made it possible to discover the true nature of the child. The physical space, the teacher, and the children were the opposite of what most educators and caretakers would have chosen as the ideal. It was not a place where anyone would have expected educational miracles or psychological breakthroughs. Yet, if any place existed where the raw abilities of children could be seen, this was it. Any success the children had here couldn’t be attributed to their parents, their school, or their teacher—it could only belong to them.
The school was in a tenement building in one of the worst slums of Rome: San Lorenzo. The tenement housed the poorest of the poor, the lowest strata of society. Depravity, despair, and routine violence were the chief hallmarks of these slums. The parents were uneducated and illiterate.
Montessori had little money with which to furnish her school and in this room, there were around 50 children, all between the ages of 2 and 7 years old. They were traumatized, malnourished, shy, and practically abandoned. Montessori hired the porter’s daughter to be the “teacher” and she provided toys and the same educational materials she had used in her prior work. She showed the teacher how to present these materials in a specific way but gave little direction otherwise.
Despite all the apparent drawbacks—the lack of a trained teacher, the poor and malnourished state of the children, the lack of culture and support the children received at home, the meager supplies—what Montessori did have was the mind of a scientist. She was a keen observer who noticed things about a child’s motivation that others would miss or misattribute. She had an active mind that looked beneath superficial behaviors to discover their causes. She was not satisfied with easy answers or the status quo. She was willing to admit when she was wrong and followed the empirical evidence over any prior ideas she might have had. She asked the children “Who are you?” and followed the evidence of her eyes to uncover the answer.
To reach her ultimate conclusion about the nature of children, Montessori collected observations that served as signposts directing her path. By tracing these observations, we can understand the evidence that she accrued and why she concluded what she did.
Exhibit A: Concentration
First, and contrary to her expectations, she observed that the children were capable of intense concentration.
Montessori writes of a 3-year-old who became interested in one of the materials, the knobbed cylinders. These are a series of cylinders that increase in diameter and fit into a specific hole in a block designed for the purpose. The goal of the activity is to place each of the cylinders into the appropriately-sized hole. Montessori observed this little child calmly working, finding the correct slot for each cylinder and placing it inside. When finished, she would remove them all and begin again. The child was in a state of intense focus, akin to that of an artist working maniacally, and Montessori was amazed.
Wanting to test the limits of the child’s focus, Montessori gathered the other children together to sing and play games loudly. Still, the child worked without stopping or even noticing the commotion around her. Then, Montessori decided to move the child. She picked her up, chair and all. The child clung to the cylinders as if her life depended on it, continuing her task even while carried through the air. In the end, Montessori observed her repeat the activity 42 times, despite the noise and distractions in the environment around her. When finished, the child emerged, not fatigued, but with a sense of new energy and serenity.
At first Montessori believed this was an isolated phenomenon. Perhaps this child was simply special. The evidence of intense focus and repetition, however, amassed. She observed the children take a deep interest in hygiene activities like washing their hands. They remembered the steps in detail and would repeat the process over and over again with apparent delight. She observed the children taking a special joy in meticulously completing practical activities like dusting. They would dust a table carefully, attending to all the details: the top, the bottom, the sides, the decorative grooves. After finishing, they would often begin again. Each time the child finished with his engaging activity, he emerged with new energy and a profound sense of satisfaction.
Exhibit B: The Child’s Response to Freedom
She noted, though, that these periods of intense concentration only occurred under certain circumstances. The child’s ability to concentrate for long periods of time hinged on his freedom. Namely, the freedom to choose for himself a material that interested him and to work with it uninterrupted for as long as desired.
Originally, the learning materials were locked away in a cupboard. They would be brought out by the teacher when making presentations or when the children asked for them. One day, however, the teacher happened to be late, and the cupboard had been left unlocked. The children, already loathing idleness, helped themselves to the materials and set to work.
Upon arriving, the teacher was angry with the children, and told Montessori that the incident showed that they had a thieving instinct. Montessori, however, was not so hasty in her judgment. She hypothesized that the children were now familiar enough with the materials that they could choose work independently. She tested this theory by making all the materials available on low shelves, easily accessible for the children. As she suspected, the children were capable. They independently chose the materials that interested them and concentrated happily. This exercise of their freedom to choose work was repeated over and over again and the children eventually concentrated without issue even when the teacher was not in the room.
Because the children had freedom to choose the materials, Montessori learned that materials were not chosen equally. Some were used time and time again, while others gathered dust. Surprisingly, she observed that the children did not choose to play with the toys. She sought to remedy this by introducing the toys to the children. She would act very animated and try to inspire them to play. The children would show initial interest, but it was superficial. They would never spontaneously choose to play with the toys on their own and would not play for long when enticed.
This sparked a campaign to rid the environment of anything that bored the children and to fill it instead with objects that inspired them to concentrate. This was the beginning of Montessori’s work in what she called scientific pedagogy. Scientific pedagogy, for Montessori, is the intentional and iterative design of educational materials based on careful observation. The materials are educational both in that they captivated children and encouraged them to concentrate, which she regarded as a profound developmental need, and in the sense that they are structured to systematically impart core knowledge and skills, moving carefully from the concrete to the abstract.
Exhibit C: Spontaneous Self-Discipline
With freedom to choose work and concentrate uninterrupted, Montessori observed that children were capable of and even delighted in creating silence. The children were not only able to concentrate quietly, but they could also be completely silent as a matter of choice and maintain it for long periods of time.
Montessori discovered this one day when she brought a baby with her to the classroom. She wanted to joke with the children about how quiet and still the baby was. She laughed and called their attention to how quiet the baby was, saying that she didn’t think they could be so quiet. The children didn’t take this as a joke, but instead suddenly became very still. She then remarked how quietly the baby was breathing, saying that the children couldn’t possibly breathe that quietly. The children then focused on their breathing and became even quieter.
This exercise in silence was astounding to Montessori and it was repeated many times without the baby, until finally, the exercise became a treasured classroom activity. The teacher would stand at the far end of the room and whisper the name of each student in succession. They would then tiptoe to her, keenly aware of every noise they made, treasuring and preserving the silence they all worked together to create.
Alongside these individual discoveries, a more general trend among the children was becoming apparent. Montessori observed that the children were spontaneously forming a character of self-discipline.
The children had the freedom to choose materials and concentrate for as long as they liked, and the materials available had been tweaked and refined to inspire such concentration. With only these conditions, the children eventually worked quietly and focused on their tasks for hours each day. They neatly returned their work to the shelves once they finished, as if delighting in order. They quietly and happily selected new work. They listened to the teacher’s instructions and obeyed her commands almost instantly. The teacher even remarked to Dr. Montessori that she had to be careful of how she phrased requests because of how quickly the children would begin to obey their literal meaning.
This, again, was a revelation. Weren’t children supposed to be stubborn and defiant? Weren’t they supposed to be loath to obey the authority of parents and teachers? Weren’t they supposed to delight in disorder and making messes?
Again and again, Montessori was given evidence of the reverse. Without threats or bribes, the children were spontaneously orderly, obedient, and disciplined. Eventually, they developed these skills to the point that it didn’t matter whether the teacher herself was present.
A poignant example occurred when the ambassador from Argentina decided to visit. He had heard of Montessori’s school and the revelations about the children’s behavior. He wanted to make a surprise visit, not giving the teacher time to prepare any “trick,” to see what these children were really like. Unfortunately, the day he came to visit was a holiday and the school was closed. A child in the tenement, however, saw him and told him that it didn’t matter if the school was closed because the porter could unlock it and all the children were at home anyway. With that, the porter was sent for, the school was unlocked, and the children all gathered to work contentedly without the teacher, much to the ambassador’s amazement.
Exhibit D: Preschool Literacy
The final observation put Montessori over the edge and made her name and schools a worldwide sensation: the “explosion” into writing.
Usually, children didn’t start attending school and learning to read and write until they were around 6 years old. Intellectuals at the time were pushing the idea that this was still too young, and that literacy should wait until children were much older and could be practically interested in learning. The idea that 3 or 4-year-olds could learn to read was preposterous.
At the insistence of the tenement mothers, Montessori provided the children with two of her (now-famous) literacy materials: the sandpaper letters which children could use to trace the shape of the letters with their fingers, and the moveable alphabet which the children could use to create words out of cardboard letters. They were instructed in how to use the materials and then given freedom to practice.
One day, a 4-year-old was playing with chalk and suddenly began to write words. He was so surprised that he exclaimed, “I’ve written! I’ve written!” The other children crowded around to see and were so enthusiastic about his discovery that they wanted to try it as well. With this discovery, the children soon began to write all the time. They would write with chalk and with pencils. They would even form letters using breadcrumbs when at home.
This discovery was the ultimate revelation that convinced Montessori of the idea that children had been misunderstood and artificially held down for millennia. These children clearly had apt minds. They were obviously interested in doing real work. They clearly had a drive to perfection and a will for obedience that was not and could not be forced. These children were like nothing that anyone had ever seen before. Yet, as she gained more experience, trained teachers, and opened schools all over the world, the same facts presented themselves repeatedly. Regardless of the child’s culture or situation in life, a new character emerged.
The New Normal
Montessori asserts that, in all the children she worked with, nearly all the characteristics that were thought to characterize childhood disappeared, the bad and the good. What emerged instead was one type of child. This conversion, as she called it, happened suddenly like the appearance of baby teeth or a child’s first steps.
The conversions only happened when the environment was prepared in a specific way. It had to be prepared with engaging materials that the children could freely choose to work with. The children needed to be given the opportunity to concentrate on their chosen work and the work needed to be appropriate for their stage of cognitive development. Given this freedom in a properly prepared environment, the real, normal character of the child would appear. Montessori called these children “normalized” because they had been converted from a deviated state of behavior to the normal state—"normal” as in healthy—the state proper for a child.
Montessori describes many examples of these conversions: a child lost in a fantasy world, pretending all the materials were airplanes or that he was an airplane, flitting around the room haphazardly, talking loudly and bothering the other children, unable to concentrate on any task. One day, however, he became interested in the geometrical insets . His fantasies disappeared and he instead became interested in the world around him. Instead of seeing everything as airplanes, he would see the real things around him and their relation to what he was learning. He recognized triangles and trapeziums everywhere! He, who used to be careless and drop things, suddenly became calm and careful in his movements. He, who used to be boisterous and bothersome, became quiet and focused on his work.
Countless conversions like this ensued wherever Montessori’s environment was reproduced: in Rome, New Zealand, India, in America. This new, “normalized” child appeared everywhere, and everywhere had the same characteristics.
The new child was calm, serene, and focused. He was unafraid and self-confident. He was indefatigable in work and took pleasure in using his maximum effort. He was orderly and meticulous. He was patient and happily obedient. He did not grab toys or materials from other children. He did not quarrel or fight. He lost his phobias: his fear of the dark, the water, or a certain animal. The more he learned about reality and the freer he was to exercise his faculties with materials adapted to the purpose, the better his character became.
These phenomena raised many questions for Montessori. Why was this child never seen before? Where do all the allegedly normal traits of childhood come from? The rowdy child who delights in making a mess, the anxious child who clings to his parent’s leg, the child who has a temper tantrum and cries over seemingly nothing, the child who lives in a fantasy world, uninterested in the world around him? Why are they regarded as typical instead of this serious, calm, joyful worker discovered by Montessori? She believed that the typical characteristics were actually deviations, regardless of whether they were usually considered good or bad by adults. These deviations, she believed, were developed as a result of the adult’s blindness and the environment’s impoverishment.
Montessori believed that the child, like the adult, has a mind. She believed that his cognitive needs were as pressing as, and perhaps even more important than, his physical needs for food and water. She believed that most children were suffering from mental starvation and their first faltering attempts to meet their needs, instead of being aided and encouraged, were met with misunderstanding and suppression.
A strong child might act in self-defense and try to defy the blundering of his parents and teachers to assert his rights. A weaker child might recede into a fantasy world made up of toys and dreams since this is the only place where he is left free and in control. The weakest child will become submissive and passively resigned to his fate, obeying the adult out of fear. Whatever the form of the child’s reaction, according to Montessori, it is a tragic deviation from the true normal child and therefore prevents him from fulfilling his potential.
A Call to Action
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. She believed this discovery should not sit idle in people’s minds, but revolutionize every aspect of how adults interact with and educate children, from their basic attitudes and beliefs to the tiniest detail involved in planning a classroom.
Montessori presents two different visions, one positive and the other negative, for the child and for the future, as illuminations of the stakes involved.
She says, in The Absorbent Mind,
“The child, not properly cared for, will take revenge on society through the individual that it forms. The treatment does not foment rebels as it would amongst adults, it forms individuals who are weaker, inferior to what they ought to be; it forms characters that will be an obstacle to the life of the individual, and individuals who will be an obstacle to the progress of civilization.”(1)
She believed, as we all do, that children are the future. The decisions they make in forming their characters, influenced by the care they receive, have a resounding impact on the future. Written shortly after World War II and while seeing Europe split in half by the Iron Curtain, the idea of how to create a better future was heavy on her mind.
Yet, she also presents a positive vision, a vision of the normal development of the child and all that would follow as a result.
“It is as though an arrow had been sent flying from the bow and it goes straight, sure and strong. So does the child proceed along the path of independence. This is normal development: an ever growing and more powerful activity shown along the path that leads to independence.”(2)
This strong, self-confident, independent individual is possible in all children, according to Montessori, if the adults in the child’s life observe his true nature closely and prepare the environment accordingly. Only if they recognize that the child has a mind, that he must freely work in the world with his hands, can they avoid hindering the child and provide him with the support he needs. With this support, the character that the child forms in himself will make him a boon to civilization, yes. But even more importantly, the character he forms will enable him to pursue the best within himself and the best life has to offer.
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 121). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.
- Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind (Unabridged Start Publishing LLC) (p. 122). Start Publishing LLC. 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.
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