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Dr. Maria Montessori founded the Montessori method in Italy in the early 1900s and her scientific approach to education was shaped around the individual needs of the child. Her goal was to develop the child and their whole personality through a system that is focused on spontaneous use of the human intellect.
Built on three primary principles – observation, individual liberty, and preparation of the environment – it designed an environment children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities.
The method is focused on the role of childhood in the formation of adults; she is a formidable progenitor of so much of today's thought concerning early childhood education. Her educational views have been very influential in the development of today's preschools, daycares, and philosophies of early learning.
For Montessori, education is integral to the growth of the child. At the same time, it's important to note that the philosophy is not restricted to education.
It isn't easy to spot the teacher in a classroom. There's no grown-up at the front spouting facts. But if you look closely, you'll notice someone moving among the students, gently making suggestions, helping children to teach themselves.
This is the heart of what Dr. Montessori believed - that another could teach no human being; that you must learn for yourself or it won't mean a thing. In the classroom, children get up and move around and let curiosity be their guide. What a novel approach!
And because she believed "the hand is the chief teacher of the brain," students most often learn by touch - by handling specially designed materials such as golden math beads, sandpaper letters, and wooden maps of the world. The teacher's job is to show children how to use these materials - then leave them to learn independently.
From watching how effortlessly a child learns to speak, or walk, Montessori concluded that a young child's mind is like a sponge - she called it "the absorbent mind." And because it is so absorbent, she called the first six years "the most important period of life; the time when intelligence, man's greatest tool, is being formed."
As a result, classrooms often expose children to challenging concepts earlier than the public-school system does. And they seem to grasp such concepts with the help of special materials. It is through such creative elements of the classroom that the gifted Italian educator continues to promote "the excitement of learning" in new generations of children.
Teaching focuses on the child's experience, characterized by self-directed activity, where the teacher's role is more observational than what might be considered traditional or typical.
The teacher is sometimes called a guide in the philosophy. The environment is adapted to the child and his or her development. Seatwork, like you’d find in your typical public school classroom, plays a less significant role in favour of physical activity and interaction. Emphasis on how students learn is placed on all five senses, not just listening, watching, or reading, like students in a traditional-style classroom may learn.
“We do not respect children,” Dr. Montessori wrote in the Dr. Montessori handbook in 1914. “We try to force them to follow us without regard to their special needs. Let us treat them, therefore, with all the kindness (that) we would wish to help to develop in them.”
Children, from preschool on up, learn at their own pace and how they wish to learn – teachers do not guide students to learn certain things but allow students to make the choices themselves with added support. Schools will separate children into three-year age groups (three to six, six to nine, nine to 12), to create a learning environment where the older children share their knowledge with the younger learners.
If you’re thinking of sending your child to a Montessori school, it’s important that you thoroughly research each school to make sure it is properly accredited. Since a failed lawsuit in 1967 by the American Montessori Society (AMS) for exclusive rights to the name – the U.S. Patent Office said the name was a descriptor for a type of schooling – any educational institution can use the name.
This has allowed schools to use the name even if it isn’t accredited by one of the bodies that oversee Montessori education standards and philosophies, like AMS or Association Montessori Internationale. The free use of the name can lead to slight or extreme variations of the teaching methods.
If you’re seeking an accredited school, the following concepts will play a role in how children learn and their interaction with teachers:
The philosophy is based on the idea children are markedly different from adults. Dr. Montessori advocated children's rights and believed that if children were treated with more respect they would help shape a world as adults that would be a better place to live for everyone.
Children should have much more say in what they learn. In fact, they are capable of self-directed learning.
The teacher as observer facilitates better ways for the child to direct his or her own learning by (for example) providing more material they are interested in. The development of the teacher-student dynamic might be described as moving from "help me to help myself" to "help me to do it myself" and eventually "help me to think for myself."
Children are susceptible to "sensitive periods." Properly understood and used, these periods can provide great benefit to children if these bursts are not left ignored or lost in adherence to a rigid classroom experience. Capitalizing on the heightened period of attention will help students better control their environment.
The International Montessori Index outlines specific details about the method that are worth nothing. There are two three-hour, uninterrupted, work periods each day for students six and under in most elementary schools. Older children schedule meetings or study groups when needed, either with the teacher or with other students. Adults and children respect concentration and do not interrupt someone who is busy at a task. Groups form spontaneously or are arranged ahead by special appointment and it is rare that this will take precedence over self-selected work.
Teachers teach students, not correct them. Work submitted by students is not marked up with corrections and red ink, but respected as it is submitted. Using observation of each student, teachers plan projects for each child in order to help them learn what they may need to improve on. Subjects are not taught in isolation, but woven together, and a child can work on whatever they wish at any time.
Except for infant/toddler groups, which are set by provincial regulations, the teaching ratio in some schools is one teacher and one aide to 30-plus children. The teacher is trained to teach one child at a time, and to oversee thirty or more children working on a broad array of tasks.
The teacher is a semi-expert in the basic lessons of math, language, the arts and sciences, and in guiding a child's research and exploration, capitalizing on his interest in and excitement about a subject. The teacher does not make assignments or dictate what to study or read, nor does she set a limit as to how far a child follows an interest.
There are no grades, forms of punishment, or reward. Through teacher observation and detailed record keeping of each child in the class, student success is ‘graded’ on the child’s behavior, happiness, maturity, and their level of work, among other things. Progress is tracked by portfolios and the teacher's observation and record keeping.
There are no academic requirements for children under the age of six. They are exposed to knowledge and often learn to read, write and calculate beyond what a child of this age is normally interested in.
This is similar to the Waldorf and Reggio Emilia preschool approach. For a comparison of preschool approaches, read our articles on Montessori vs. Waldorf, Montessori vs. Reggio Emilia, Waldorf vs. Reggio Emilia, academic vs. play-based, Montessori vs. play-based, and Montessori vs. academic preschools.
We also compare these schools at all levels. In separate articles, we compare Montessori to Waldorf, Waldorf to Reggio Emilia, and Montessori to Reggio Emilia schools. If you want to compare specific schools one-to-one, visit our compare hub.