The fundamental questions that have been central to educational philosophy and reform since ancient times appear to boil down to the debate regarding teaching being either an art or a science and the philosophic dilemma regarding the role of the teacher in the classroom. The pendulum in these debates usually swung from the teacher-centered standards or curricula based philosophies to child-centered progressive classrooms. Maria Montessori developed a philosophic method that combines the scientific approach of developmental milestones, emphasis on teacher training and classroom organization, and child-centered exploration of the environment.
Background and Cultural Context
The beginning of the 20th century was marked with Global devastation caused by several wars, economic upheaval, natural disasters, and political turmoil. The early 1900s were also a period of monumental scientific, cultural, and educational advancement. Education reform was influenced by the work of such diverse intellectual movements as Constructivism, Darwinism, Marxism, Nationalism, and the Progressive Movement. This new reality was the world of Maria Montessori, a world of constant change and upheaval.
A contemporary of Jane Addams, Montessori also challenged gender, social and educational barriers (Gutek, p.388). Education in Italy was primarily a privilege of the upper socio-economic and aristocratic classes, and even then, was focused more on rote learning than critical thinking. Additionally, women during this period had certain well-defined vocational expectations and were discouraged from attending more advanced education opportunities.
As a physician, Montessori began to study child development and “developed ideas on the education of mentally retarded children” (p.393). From this research, she developed the ideas that would guide her first school, which was located in one of Rome’s poorest sections. She believed that since “more women of all socio-economic classes would join the workforce” (p.394)., early childhood programs would become increasingly important.
The society upheaval caused by two world wars resulted in the philosophic and educational communities to begin to think about global, rather than local, consequences. Education was “no longer to be thought of merely as a way of providing the most basic of skills or as reinforcing social roles and expectation” (Howlett, 2016). Philosophers, Theorists and Education Reformers began to collaborate and cooperate through international conferences and correspondence, allowing ideas to spread and evolve at an alarming rate. Due to this collaboration and incorporation of ideas into education practice, many eclectic schools of thought began to emerge.
Philosophy of Education
Combining approaches from her experience as a physician, research on child development, and educational theory, Maria Montessori based her philosophy of education on a combination of previous believed that education is the “study of the construction of the human being through the child who constructs the man-to-be through experience” ((lecture 1). Montessori believed that the function of education was “not as a means to deliver information, but as a way to help humanity” through the development of the whole person” (Lillard, 2018).
Due to her medical training, Montessori believed in using objective data to guide teaching. Montessori stated repeatedly that “the problem is to develop the science of education. Measuring ears, noses, chests, etc., measuring mental development, etc., will not help us educate. There is something essential lacking in all these attempts: pedagogy” (Montessori, 1946). She wrote that the purpose of her method was that the philosophy of education would transition from people “taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university” to a mindset “of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher” (Montessori, 1948). Her education philosophy is profoundly predicated on “Teacher preparation, parent involvement, and classroom preparation,” combined with an understanding of child developmental milestones, which allows children to explore and learn from their environment. In this sense, the Montessori teacher or parent is more of a facilitator and mentor than expert lecturing on a subject. The teacher’s primary responsibility is setting up the environment for the child’ learning and sensory experiences, not direct instruction. According to Montessori, the only two critical elements needed for education to occur were the child and the child’s environment (Gutek, p. 401).
Dr. Montessori was also heavily influenced by the educational theories of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, Edouard Séguin, Fredrick Froebel, Pesstazi, and to a lesser extent Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Each of these philosophers advocated a child-directed philosophy of education. Itard and Séguin both viewed a combination of “nature and nurture” in child development. They also were instrumental in the formation of Montessori’s method utilizing observation to develop students’ senses and incorporating a sensory rich learning environment for children (O’Donnell, 2007). Similarly, Montessori adopted the beliefs that empirical observation, specialized education techniques and the use of self-correct education materials and equipment were the solutions in the education of all students (Gutek, p. 303). From the work of Pestalozzi and Froebel, Dr. Montessori assimilated the concepts of included “movement, field trips, and differentiated instruction into her methodology (Massey, 2006).
Montessori theorized that children go through three distinct developmental periods and that “most effective learning takes place in a structured and orderly environment” (p. 394). She believed that this construction of the individual occurs in stages. Montessori identified the age ranges of child development as between 0-6, 6-12, and 12-18 years (lecture 4); however, she then divided each of these periods in half again. She called these “sensitive periods-periods in psychological development during which the child has powerful capabilities” (Lecture 3). She ascribes attributes and characteristics specific to each stage. She also states that individual skills and information can be taught at each step, and fatigue signifies that we are teaching the “wrong knowledge at the wrong time” (Lecture ). She strongly asserted that in her experience, children are intrinsically motivated to learn.
To facilitate an environment that is conducive for learning, Montessori developed “four operational principles to guide learning.” Her overarching principles allowed children to explore their environment and to respect other children’s rights to work with the material of their own choice. She postulated that by following these principles, attention skills would develop naturally by accomplishing tasks, and learning would occur by repeating skills until they are mastered (Gutek, 2010).
Dr. Montessori described her method as not based on ideological theories, but “based on our ability to interpret our observations of those phenomena which originate in the child himself” (Montessori, 1946). She repeatedly wrote and trained others to follow the child’s lead, rather than expect the child to conform to a rigid curricula developed by adults. She was adamant that her methods originated through her own experiences and observations.
On January 26, 1907, Montessori opened the aforementioned “Casa dei Bambini” and the success of this school lead to opening more schools. Within three years, Montessori had opened schools throughout Europe and written a book detailing her method of teaching. By 1911, the first Montessori school opened in the United States and she began speaking at international conferences (American Montessori Method).
The Montessori Method was designed to “develop competencies in three broad areas: Practical life skills, motor and sensory training, and more formal literary and computational skills and subjects” (Gutek, p. 395). She incorporated materials used to stimulate sensory experiences, and formulated an order in which they should be used. Rows of desks were replaced with movable tables and chairs, and children were placed in multi-age groups rather than traditional age base levels. Hands-on activity centers were also introduced rather than rote learning experiences based on memorization of lectures.
A key distinction of the Montessori Method from the traditional classroom of the day was in the role of the teacher. Montessori teachers were trained to be facilitators and mentors rather than transmitters of knowledge. Dr. Montessori labeled her teachers, “Directresses” due to they were to “direct, or guide, children’s learning without interfering in it” (Gutek, p. 402). These “Directresses” establish the learning environment and monitor children’s readiness for progression in their learning. Dr. Montessori also discouraged whole group instruction and encouraged differentiation of all lessons.
Montessori schools are divided into age based groupings, encourage discovery learning and emphasis children working in collaborative groups.
Perspectives on Diversity
Maria Montessori began her career in education with the belief that No matter to what race they belong, in which part of the world they are born, newborns are all alike” (Montessori, 1946). This ideology was central to her beliefs, her message and her method. In fact, Montessori implemented her first school in Rome’s San Lorenzo Quarter, which was among the poorest sections of the city (Gutek, p. 394). Additionally, Montessori remained a vocal advocate for “the improvement of women’s social and economic status” (Gutek, p. 392) over the course of her career. Montessori was also quite vocal on her belief that “In order to have empathy between the different classes of society and between the different cultures, we must mix the children of the different classes and countries” (Montessori, 1946).
In a study completed based on demographic information from the 2012-2013 school year found that national enrollment in public schools teaching a Montessori curriculum had a higher rate of minority enrollment than traditional public schools (Deb, 2016). Additionally, other researchers have found that “Communities such as Milwaukee and Chicago are now implementing Montessori education through public schools as part of school reform efforts making the educational approach more accessible to African American children” (Jor’dan, 2018).