Changes in education tend to reflect their time. They often emerge out of a unique social context. For instance, when Maria Montessori was growing up, school was harsh. Classrooms, sadly, were like factories. Students were force-fed knowledge, treated the exact same way, and were doled out cruel punishments.
Montessori introduced an appealing alternative to the oppressive education of her time. She took the factory model and turned it on its head.
Montessori insisted we should support rather than punish, encourage curiosity rather than memorization, and ask for ideas rather than provide answers. She also emphasized problem solving over rote learning, effort over outcomes, independence over authority, concrete learning over abstract learning, and choosing rewarding tasks over trying to please others.
On the Montessori philosophy, children aren’t just little adults. They are children, and deserve to be respected in their own way and for who they are. This means, among other things, that they should be given an opportunity to learn in developmentally appropriate ways, and build confidence in doing so.
Maria Montessori did tonnes of research on children. This sparked several insights about the way they learn. And in time, it led her to the conclusion that children should be placed at the centre of education.
“We discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. … It is true that we cannot make a genius. We can only give each child the chance to fulfill his potential possibilities. … We must offer the child the help he needs, and be at service so that he does not have to walk alone. … The child is truly a miraculous being, and this should be felt deeply by the educator.” (The Absorbent Mind, 1967)
Montessori didn’t just pay lip service to the child-centred philosophy. She had specific ideas—for instance, about freedom, structure, and work—which she used to implement it in her original Casa dei Bambini (children’s home) in Rome.
“Freedom without organization of work would be useless. The child left free without means of work would go to waste. … The organization of the work, therefore is the cornerstone of this new structure of goodness; but even that organization would be in vain without the liberty to make use of it, and without freedom for the expansion of all those energies which spring from the satisfaction of the child’s highest activities. (Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, 1923) [Emphasis in the original]
Now, not all of these ideas were new. Steiner (the founder of Waldorf education) and Froebel, like Montessori, also raised concerns with the factory model of education, and offered new models.
Montessori built on these models and offered her own substantial contribution. She offered nothing short of a blueprint for a child-centred approach to education. This approach is currently offered in thousands of schools worldwide. This includes preschools, elementary, middle, and high schools.
Still, it’s hard for us to appreciate just how influential Montessori’s method was. The education we enjoy today is far more nurturing than what Montessori, Steiner, and company were used to. What distinguishes her method is that she designed a caring learning environment in which children were placed at the centre (in this respect it's similar to Waldorf and Reggio Emilia education). This method was in complete opposition to the dominant thinking, and the stark reality, of her times.