Maria Montessori was an Italian physician, educator, innovator and activist who developed an educational method that builds on the way children naturally learn. Her medical practice originally focused on psychiatry, but she later developed an interest in education, attending classes in pedagogy and immersing herself in educational theory. Her studies led her to observe, and call into question, the prevailing methods of teaching children.
Dr. Montessori opened the first Montessori school — the Casa dei Bambini — in Rome on January 6, 1907. Using scientific observation and experience gained from her work with young children, Maria designed learning materials and a classroom environment that fostered the children’s natural desire to learn and provided freedom for them to choose their own materials. The children in Maria’s programs thrived, showing concentration, attention, and spontaneous self-discipline. The success of the “Montessori Method” attracted the attention of educators, journalists, and political leaders, and by 1910, Montessori schools had been established around the world.
Planes of Development
As a doctor with a background in scientific observation, Dr. Maria Montessori noticed that children go through specific stages as they develop and that each stage contains predictable strengths and vulnerabilities. Dr. Montessori felt it was the job of educators to understand these stages of development and to create environments and experiences that best meet children’s needs and tendencies during each one.
Dr. Montessori documented four planes of human development: Infancy from ages 0 to 6, Childhood from 6 to 12, Adolescence from 12 to 18 and Maturity from 18 to 24. The first three years of each plane (0-3, 6-9, 12-15, 18-21) are characterized by intense growth and development. The second three years of each plane (3-6, 9-12,15-18, 21-24) function as periods of integration and relative stability. Dr. Montessori believed that education could only be successful if the particular needs and tendencies of each plane were identified, understood and addressed. She set about to design methods that would accomplish this.
With an emphasis on respect and responsibility, Dr. Montessori stressed the importance of teaching children how to live cooperatively. She understood that peaceful classrooms create peaceful school communities, and that peaceful schools would help children to solve problems peacefully and with a sense of agency, making a difference in their communities.
The time during which Montessori organized her ideas and educational philosophy under the umbrella of Peace Education was the period between WWI and WWII. She came to the realization that peace was not the absence of war as it was then defined by politics, but was a positive movement for social reform. In her address before the European Congress for Peace in Brussels in 1936, Montessori stated, “preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.”
Creating peace through education was the highest aspiration of Dr. Montessori’s life and work. As she said, “it involves the spiritual development of man, the enhancement of his value as an individual, and the preparation of young people to understand the times in which they live.” Most of the signature elements of a Montessori classroom exist in service to this idea.
Dr. Montessori firmly believed that if children were allowed to choose their own meaningful work and engage in their own explorations they would be less inclined to follow dictatorial leadership later (she had seen how children had been co-opted by Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin)
Emphasizing different cultures and values from around the world, Montessori education widens the narrow concept of “nation” and extends it to embrace the whole of humanity. “No phenomenon can affect one human group without affecting others as a consequence.”
Following Interests and Passions
Prioritizing imagination can contribute to solving the common problems of humanity.
Students are involved with setting and enforcing community norms. Undesirable behavior is handled in a manner that honors the humanity of both the person exhibiting the behavior and those they exhibited it towards.
The Prepared Environment
Montessori classrooms are immediately recognizable — children working independently and in groups, often with specially designed learning materials; deeply engaged in their work; respectful of themselves and their surroundings. Montessori environments are carefully designed to meet the developmental needs of the children they serve. They include child-sized tables and chairs, materials children can access themselves, and meaningful experiences that appeal to the needs and tendencies of each particular age group.
At each level there are specific Montessori materials that allow children to learn by doing. Beautiful and precisely-crafted, Montessori’s learning materials each teach a single skill or concept. These materials follow a logical, developmentally-appropriate progression that allows children to develop abstract understanding. Montessori materials are designed so that the child receives instant feedback about the progress of work — allowing children to recognize, correct, and learn from an error without adult assistance. Putting control of the activity in the child’s hands strengthens self-esteem and self-motivation as well as learning.
In Montessori classrooms, students work together in groups specific to the developmental stages Montessori identified. Multi-age groupings enable younger children to learn from older children. Older children reinforce their learning by teaching concepts they have already mastered, and at the same time develop leadership skills and the ability to serve as role models. The cycle is repeated every three years, giving children the life experience of being a beginner, a learner and a leader again and again. Because each student’s work is individual, children progress at their own pace and there is cooperation rather than competition between the ages. This arrangement mirrors the real world, where we work and socialize with people of all ages and dispositions.
Uninterrupted Work Period
Montessori classrooms consistently offer children extended periods of uninterrupted work time. During a Montessori work period, students select and work through various tasks and responsibilities at their own pace and without interruption. A typical work cycle involves selecting an activity, performing the activity for as long as a child is interested in it, cleaning up the activity and returning it to the shelf. During the work period, teachers support and monitor their students’ work, providing individual and small-group lessons as needed. Uninterrupted work periods encourage the development of coordination, concentration, and independence. They also respect individual variations in the learning process.
The Role of the Teacher
Dr. Montessori stressed that the work of the teacher was to observe carefully in order to provide materials and experiences that matched the students they were working with. Dr. Montessori envisioned the teacher’s job as that of a guide, connecting children to their environment and keeping them on the path to learning. She believed that teachers needed to prepare themselves carefully for this work, and that an honest understanding of self was the first step. Montessori teachers are trained in the critical skills of observation. A credentialed Montessori teacher must demonstrate that he or she possesses the expertise necessary to create a high-quality Montessori program.