THE VALUE OF A MONTESSORI EDUCATION
Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman physician to graduate from the University of Rome, created the Montessori Method of Education based on her scientific observations of the behavior of young children. She became involved in education as a doctor treating children who had been labeled as mentally handicapped. In 1907 she was invited to open a child care center for the children of desperately poor families in the San Lorenzo slums of Rome. It was here that she discovered what would become an enduring Montessori principle: children learn best in a home-like setting (thus “Children’s House”), with furniture and materials “just their size.” The developmentally appropriate materials provide experiences that contribute to the growth of self-motivated, independent learners.
Montessori’s research led to such dynamic theories as:
- Children are to be respected for who they are—they are different from adults and different from one another.
- Children grow and create themselves through purposeful activity, or “work.”
- The most important years for learning are from birth to age six.
- Children possess unusual sensitivity and mental powers for absorbing and learning from their environment, which includes people as well as materials.
Montessori education is unique. Its primary goal is to help each child reach her full potential in all areas of life. Activities are designed to promote cognitive preparation as well as the development of social skills, emotional growth, and physical coordination. A Montessori-trained teacher, utilizing a holistic curriculum, allows each child to experience the joy of learning, gives him time to enjoy the process, and ensures the development of his self-esteem. It is this experience in a prepared environment that allows children to create their knowledge, which leads to a joy of life-long learning.
The Montessori Classroom
The prepared environment—room, materials, and social climate—must be supportive of the learner. The teacher provides the resources necessary for self-directed learning. The resources include the materials (“works”), child-sized furniture and room layout, and a safe and positive setting. Soft colors paint the walls and flooring to ensure that the materials stand out and that the learner’s senses are not overstimulated. While peaceful music plays, children are never far from nature: plants and pets can be found in each room. As the teacher gains the children’s trust, they build their self-confidence from trying new activities.
Montessori materials are designed to “call” the child into the work, and include multisensory, sequential, and self-correcting materials that facilitate the learning of skills and abstract ideas. Each work, placed in baskets or on trays, is carefully prepared so that everything the child needs for that particular work is present.
The teacher (originally called the “Directress”) is the designer of the environment, role model, demonstrator, resource person, record-keeper, and meticulous observer of each child’s behavior and growth. The teacher acts as a facilitator of learning. To be fully credentialed, the teacher must engage in a full year of extensive training and a year of supervised student teaching beyond a bachelor’s degree. The teacher specializes in the age group with which she will work—infant and toddler, 2 1/2- to 6-year-olds, elementary, or secondary.
How does Montessori work?
In the Montessori classroom, students benefit from the principle of freedom within limits. Every program has its ground rules appropriate for the age level, but they are always based on core Montessori beliefs—respect for each other, the environment, and the materials.
Children are free to work at their own pace, either alone or in a pair, with the materials they have chosen. The teacher relies on her observations to determine what new activities and materials need to be introduced, either to an individual or to a group. The children progress through their sensitive periods of learning, honing their ability to concentrate for long periods of time on a particular interest. The goal is to encourage active, self-directed learning and to achieve individual mastery within small groups and the school community as a whole.
Multi-age classrooms offer family-like grouping where learning takes place naturally. More experienced children share what they have learned, which reinforces their own learning. Less experienced children look at what their older friends are doing and want to do it, too. This leads to intrinsic motivation—learning because they want to, not because it is required.
Creativity flourishes in an atmosphere of acceptance and trust. Montessorians recognize that all children learn and express themselves in a very individual way. The Montessori environment itself encourages creative development, with materials to stimulate interest and involvement, an emphasis on the sensory aspect of experience, and opportunities for both verbal and non-verbal modes of learning. In addition, music, art, storytelling, movement, and drama activities are integrated into the program.
Are all Montessori schools the same?
Because “Montessori” is a word in the public domain, any individual or institution can claim to observe Montessori principles. However, an authentic Montessori classroom has the following basic characteristics:
- Teachers who are credentialed in the Montessori philosophy and methodology for the age level that they teach, and who have the ability and dedication to put the key concepts into practice.
- A partnership established with the family. The family is considered an integral part of the individual’s total development.
- A multi-age, multi-grade, heterogeneous grouping of students.
- A diverse set of Montessori materials, activities, and experiences designed to foster physical, intellectual, creative, and social independence.
- A schedule that provides large blocks of time for children to problem-solve, see connections in knowledge, and create new ideas.
- A classroom atmosphere that encourages social interaction for cooperative learning, peer teaching, and emotional development.
Children whose learning has taken place in the Montessori culture are unusually adaptable. They have learned to work independently and in groups. Because they have been encouraged to make decisions early in life, these children are problem-solvers who can make choices and manage their time well. They have been encouraged to exchange ideas and to discuss their work freely with others. Good communication skills allow them to function well in new settings.
Research has shown that the best predictor of future success is a positive sense of self-esteem. Montessori programs, based on self-directed, non-competitive activities, help children develop good self-images and the confidence to face change and challenges with optimism.