The Montessori Mystery
by Kathleen Fedele
Teachers.net courageously started a mailring and chatboard (http://teachers.net/mentors/montessori) dedicated to the Montessori Method of teaching. There have been many posts to the board asking questions …what is it, who was Montessori, what kind of child is successful in a Montessori classroom, where do you get trained, just to name a few. It is my hope that this article will begin to answer some of those questions.
Born in Italy, Dr. Maria Montessori graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Rome in 1896. She was the first woman to practice medicine in Italy. She truly was a pioneer for women demonstrating that women were, in fact, just as capable as men. Despite earning a medical degree, she found it difficult to enter the world of medical practice as her male counterparts did. Because of a lack of acceptance, she found herself working with orphaned children in mental institutions. During her early years, she tended to their medical and "mental deficiencies." After some time, and because of her medical training, she observed that when these "defected" children were introduced to a new environment rich with sensory input, they would seek out and soak in as much new input as possible. These observations led her to hypothesize that given the appropriate environment all children could learn. Montessori began experimenting with different materials of the time -- Piagetian blocks, Vygotsky, etc. In addition to exposing the children to new materials, she took physical data including height, weight, length of limbs, circumference of the head, etc. Ironically, much of the data Montessori collected, as well as her conclusions (often ridiculed for) have subsequently been supported by recent medical research (i.e. The special Newsweek edition dedicated to the development of children birth to 3 years old.).
Montessori's main premise was given an appropriately prepared environment children will naturally be drawn to their intellectual and motoric needs. Today, we would call this philosophy a "child-centered classroom."
Many have the misconception that the Montessori Method is only for the affluent, very strict or not structured enough. As with any educational philosophy, there is a continuum. Many will take a philosophy to an extreme at either end. Each person will have his own interpretation of the philosophy. Each teacher will bring to the philosophy his own personality and life experiences. Given any philosophy, whether it is Whole Language, Phonics based instruction, traditional education or Montessori among others, you will always find teachers who apply it with their own style, which inevitably changes the philosopher's original objective. What we need to examine for ourselves it the original intent of the philosopher.
Montessori, like many philosophers, was protective of her method. The scientist in her desired that the method be applied as consistently as possible. Therefore she required teachers be certified by her in order to be fully aware of and informed on the Method's application. For Montessori, it was of utmost importance to keep the Method as pure as possible largely because of her need to keep the Method scientifically based. There are still two major organizations that provide such training who have slightly different interpretations of the Method -- the American Montessori Society and American Montessori International. Be forewarned that the training is intense and requires full dedication to its study. However, after training, you will have acquired a new depth of understanding than you previously had. You will find yourself questioning your teaching methods, materials, and delivery. It is valuable training for any teacher.
The Method itself is what many today would call "developmentally appropriate." It meets the child where he is and gradually builds from there -- methodically and slowly. The Method is careful to always connect meaning to its lessons paying close attention to making lessons as concrete as possible especially at the younger ages. The beauty of the Method is that it allows the child to progress at his own rate in any one particular domain -- gross motor, fine motor, math, language, etc.
Many of Montessori's methods can be see in the approach of occupational therapists, physical therapists, TEACCH work jobs as well as others in that they are agree on the same principles. Among the main ideas they concur is that it is necessary to build more meaningful, complex activities and thought processes based upon previous simpler ones. The concepts are always the same -- left to right/top to bottom movements, meaningful experiences, developing the senses, increasing organization and attention span, developing meaning of your environment by moving from concrete experiences to abstract understanding, and the not the least of these – increasing independence. These ideas are also supported by recent research in brain-based learning (Teaching With the Brain In Mind, Jensen).
Montessori is appropriate for all -- early childhood, early elementary, special education, ESOL, and homeschooling to name a few. This is not to say that all other philosophies are inappropriate, but to encourage you to take an objective look at the philosophy of Maria Montessori and take from it what you can. After exploring the philosophy, you will be able to see many ideas that are common, that many of the concepts are parallel and only solidify its validity more. The bottom line is that each teacher will need to explore the philosophy as they have phonics, whole language, Kanner, and Piaget, as well as others. As with each philosophy, we need to bear in mind the child's needs and take what truths we can to improve our students' learning.
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