Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence, Apr 06, 2001
Maria Montessori 's educational methods are based on individualized, self-directed study, with children choosing the activities they want to work on and proceeding at their own pace, either alone or in small groups, using specially devised instructional materials that allow them to monitor and correct their own errors. The cornerstone of the method is the enjoyment and satisfaction that are produced when children's natural love of learning is respected and allowed to flourish without the regimentation of traditional instructional systems.
Maria Montessori pursued a lifelong interest in human development, first as a physician and later as an educator. The first woman in Italy to be awarded a degree in medicine, she began developing her educational methods while working with retarded children in the Orthophrenic School from 1898 to 1900. After a number of these children made sufficient progress to pass examinations administered to children of normal ability, Montessori turned her attention to general education. In 1907 she took charge of a day care program for children of tenement dwellers in Rome, designed primarily to keep the unruly preschoolers out of trouble. Her Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) inaugurated two decades of developing educational methods by careful observation and a continual process of trial and error. In addition to the intellectual progress made by Montessori's pupils when they were free to engage in activities that interested them and to learn at their own pace, the children also showed impressive and unexpected gains in social development, becoming calmer, kinder, more disciplined, and more independent. As more schools were opened and Montessori's methods were used with children of middle-class and wealthy families, interest in her educational innovations grew throughout Italy and abroad.
By 1909 Montessori had published an account of her work at the Casa dei Bambini, and she later wrote numerous articles and books that drew on her classroom experiences for the formulation of educational theories and principles. The Association Montessori Internationale was founded in 1929, with Montessori serving as president until her death. After working as a government inspector of schools in the 1920s, Montessori left Italy for Spain in 1934, eventually moving to the Netherlands, where she died in 1952.
By 1912 Montessori's ideas had gained attention in the United States. In that year an English translation of her first book was published, and the first Montessori school in the U.S. was opened in Tarrytown, New York. However, after an initial burst of activity, interest in Montessori's methods fell into a decline that lasted for several decades, due largely to their divergence from the contemporary theories of American psychologists and educators, which downplayed the role of environmental factors in the development of intelligence. Montessori education has enjoyed a resurgence in the U.S. since the 1950s, and its methods are practiced and adapted today in public as well as private and parochial education.
The philosophy of linear development underlies traditional methods of education (i.e., children get a little smarter every year). Montessori believed that intellectual development takes place in four distinct periods called "planes" that correspond to the chronological stages of birth to age 6, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24. Moreover, development within each of these planes surges and then declines, with the developmental peaks occurring at the ages of 3, 9, 15, and 21.
Montessori's ideas resemble those of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in that she believed the nature of intelligence and learning is qualitatively different at each stage of development. For example, she contrasted the rapid, instinctive learning of children up to the age of six with the more deliberate learning styles of older children and adults. She labeled preschoolers' ability to "soak up" aspects of their environments the "Absorbent Mind." Also like Piaget, she theorized that accomplishments at each stage build on those of the previous ones, and that inadequate development at any stage will influence the ability to carry out the developmental tasks of later stages.
Another one of Montessori's basic concepts is that of "sensitive periods," distinct but overlapping age ranges that are most favorable for development in specific areas. According to Montessori, the ages of one to five constitute a sensitive period for development through the five senses. She thought it important for children of this age to have educational experiences that exercise the senses as fully as possible. The sensitive period for language, when children are acutely sensitive to sounds and able to discriminate between them, occurs between the ages of three months and five or five-and-one-half years. A sensitive period for order, when children want things to follow familiar and reassuring patterns that allow them to organize their experiences, lasts roughly from the first birthday to the age of three. According to Montessori, the upsets of the "terrible twos," which seem so disorderly, are often exaggerated reactions to small disruptions in order not perceived by adults. Next comes the sensitive period for "small details," around the age of two, when children tend to focus on a single aspect of an object or situation more readily than on the whole. According to Montessori, this period develops the powers of observation as well as the ability to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time. During the following sensitive period, occurring roughly between the ages of two-and-one-half and four, children develop their motor coordination through a tendency to perform and repeat a variety of everyday motions, an activity that may appear pointless to adults but is actually helping children learn to control the movements of their bodies. During the final sensitive period, children develop their social skills by attentiveness to the feelings and behavior of others. During this period, they progress from parallel to cooperative play and are introduced to standard social rules, such as those involved in table manners.
Education in a Montessori classroom is "self-activated": each child takes the initiative in choosing from a range of available materials and activities in a carefully prepared classroom environment. The teacher has a much less intrusive role than in a conventional classroom, basically acting as an observer who allows the children to learn on their own with the aid of the prepared materials and provides help only when it is needed. This educational framework fosters the development of self-discipline, confidence, competence, and problem-solving skills.
A Montessori classroom is readily distinguishable from a conventional one. Instead of rows of desks, children work individually, or in groups at several tables or on the floor. At the elementary level, three age levels mingle in a single classroom, allowing younger children to learn by observing older ones. Children ages 6 to 9 are in one classroom, and ages 9 through 12 in another. Activities center around a series of learning games, which progress in complexity, moving from the concrete to the abstract. These games utilize cardboard, wooden, cloth, and metal materials designed to teach children about such concepts as size, shape, weight, texture, color, and sound. They are designed to automatically provide children with feedback that allows them to correct their own errors. Although livelier than an ordinary classroom, the Montessori environment is an orderly and industrious one, with children totally absorbed in their tasks, at which they can work uninterrupted for hours at a time if they choose. Montessori believed that interruptions, even for such worthwhile activities as gym or music, do not allow children to achieve their full learning potential, so her teaching method calls for two uninterrupted three-hour periods every day in which the children pursue their educational activities, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In addition to the prepared educational materials, the typical Montessori classroom at the elementary level also includes items such as dishes, kitchen utensils, and plants, which aid in the development of gross and fine motor abilities by making everyday domestic activities part of the educational setting. Motor, sensory, and intellectual activities are integrated in the Montessori curriculum, so that, for example, reading begins on the sensory and motor levels with sandpaper letters and movable alphabets. Computers have been introduced into Montessori classrooms, although they are used primarily by older children because it is feared that heavy computer use by young children would use up valuable time needed for more basic pursuits, such as manipulating objects and writing, that are crucial to the types of learning they need to do.
The role of the teacher in a Montessori classroom is very different from that of conventional teachers, who lead an entire class in a single activity for which they issue directions and allot a specific amount of time. Allowing students to work at their own pace, either singly or in groups, Montessori teachers are both observers and facilitators. They do not force unwanted assistance on their students, instead giving them the opportunity to make discoveries on their own and being available to help them when they get stuck and need further guidance. They keep track of each student's progress through careful observation and detailed record-keeping to help advise them in ways that ensure the best possible use of the teaching materials provided. Due to the self-motivating nature of the Montessori curriculum , they do not need to rely on the system of reward and punishment that characterizes most formalized instruction. They also do not have to devote large amounts of energy to discipline, for the Montessori system fosters a spirit of cooperation and self-discipline. Children learn self-control at the primary level, ages three to six, and, at the elementary level, are able to apply it to group work as well. To qualify as Montessori teachers, instructors take a training course devised by Maria Montessori, usually administered as a nine-month graduate program following the acquisition of a degree in education. They must learn about all the different levels of development, not just the one pertaining to the level they want to teach. All major subject areas are covered, and trainees are familiarized with the classroom teaching materials. At the end of the program they must pass both oral and written examinations.
The past 30 years have seen the founding of over 3,000 Montessori schools affiliated with either a national or international Montessori association, as well as many others without such affiliations. Initially most Montessori schools were established at the primary level for children aged three to six, but many private schools have extended their programs to the elementary-school level, especially since the 1980s. The 1990s have seen many programs extend even further upward through the ages of 12-15 and also downward to include parent-child programs for children under the age of three. Public school programs are generally offered in one of two formats, as magnet school programs or as charter schools funded by the states and operated independently from local school districts. Like private schools, public programs, which typically began with kindergarten and first grade only, have also extended their range, expanding to cover more of the elementary grades and also offering classes at the preschool level by obtaining funding through Head Start programs grants. Children in Montessori programs, including children from low-income families, have consistently scored higher than their peers on standardized tests and have shown above-average development of the personal skills necessary to classroom success. Montessori magnet schools consistently have long waiting lists, often containing hundreds of names.
One of the challenges facing Montessori educators is working out the details of programs for adolescents and young adults ages 12-24, for which Maria Montessori was only able to formulate a theoretical framework but not develop specific programs based on day-to-day teaching experience. Another challenge is maintaining the quality of Montessori education as programs proliferate and expand. To help meet this goal, a number of different Montessori organizations have jointly formed the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE), which has the mission of maintaining a supply of qualified, dedicated professionals to staff Montessori programs throughout the country. The ultimate goal of Montessori educators is to make Montessori programs available to all children regardless of socioeconomic background, a goal that comes closer to reality as the success of these programs is repeatedly demonstrated to parents, educators, and government officials on the local, state, and federal levels.
- Gerhardt-Seele, Peter. The Computer and the Child, A Montessori Approach. Rockville, MD: Computer Science Press, 1985.
- Gettman, David. Basic Montessori: Learning Activities for Under-Fives. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.
- Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Adulthood. New York: Schocken Books, 1996.
- Montessori, Maria. From Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
- ------. The Child, Society, and the World. Oxford: Clio Press, 1989.
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Gale Encyclopedia of Childhood & Adolescence. Gale Research, 1998.