Montessori Education

Maria Montessori was a physician, anthropologist and pedagogue who studied children for much of her adult life. She developed the Montessori method of education that we know today and which bears her name. Her method is a culmination of her scientific studies and experiences observing children, and the learning materials she developed with her collaborators that are now used in many schools around the world.

The main characteristics of the Montessori approach are the 'Prepared Environment' and the role of the 'Montessori Teacher'.

Montessori education extends from birth to adulthood (0-18 years) and comprises of four environments; Assistants to Infancy (0 - 3 years), Casa dei Bambini - Children's House ( 3 - 6 years), Elementary - also called Primary (6 - 12 years) and Adolescence (12 - 18 years).

“Montessori’s view of human development is never atomistic but always holistic. It is holistic in two senses: firstly, Montessori considers all aspects of development (physical, intellectual, emotional etc.); secondly, Montessori considers all the phases of developing life. Thus Montessori is doubly holistic: for any single stage of development, Montessori considers the whole individual; the whole individual at a particular stage of development is considered within the whole continuum of development.” (p.24, Communications 2010 Special Issue)

Maria Montessori‘s view of this human developmental continuum is known as The Constructive Rhythm of Life, consisting of four separate parts, each lasting around six years. From birth to six years is infancy, 6-12 years childhood, 12-18 years adolescence, and 18-24 years maturity. Each of these planes requires its own prepared environment to allow natural development.

“If we take the measurements of the first period of growth, we will see that during the first year there is tremendous development, during the second year this development begins to wane, and during the third year it slows down even more. This rhythm repeats itself in each of the other periods. In each section of the three-year periods, a period of great effort is followed by a period of rest. So life develops according to a law. All life follows the same law and the periods are the same for every child.” (p.23, The 1946 London Lectures)

The first and third planes are divided into two sub-planes: infancy divided into 0-3 and 3-6 years; adolescent into 12-15 and 15-18 years. These are periods of dramatic growth, huge physical and psychological changes within children. Growth is more stable during the second and fourth planes. The child uses the development in each plane to build on during the next plane.

“The first and third periods are periods of huge transformations. They are times of great difficulty, times when character is formed. Curiously, during infancy and adolescence, i.e. during these periods of physical change, there is less resistance to illness. In fact, there are specific illnesses peculiar to both these periods…all this is an indication that we cannot treat children in the same way in the different periods. They do not need the same care, the same environment, the same purpose or the same materials. If education is to be based on life, it must be adapted to all these differences.” (p.24, The 1946 London Lectures)

The change in each human being from the beginning to the end of each plane is a kind of metamorphosis. One is completely different physically and psychologically at the beginning compared with the end. Like a caterpillar and butterfly, there is dramatic change and the person is almost unrecognisable.

Traditional Education

Traditional education relies upon causality: the adult feeds information to the child and that creates the child because the teacher has put all the effort in. Early years is not considered as important as secondary and university years.

“The underlying idea was that children grew ever stronger and more intelligent, that a child of twelve years was more intelligent than a child in the first period of life. There was this fixed idea of linear progress… nature is not like this. Progress is not linear. In nature each period is a special time unto itself. From birth to six is a time with special characteristics, which are very different from those belonging to the period from six to twelve – so different that we can say the child has two different lives: one finishes at six and another one begins. It is like a second birth.” (p.25, The 1946 London Lectures)

“The teacher is the cause and the educated child is the effect produced. What this means is that all abilities and qualities acquired by the individual during the course of development are the direct consequence of the knowledge and values transmitted by the adult or teacher. In other words, the child is only an ‘empty vessel’ which has to be filled, a ‘blank page’ or tablet to be written upon; the filling and the writing are done by the adult or teacher. Thus the adult is always the one who creates or moulds the new being.” (p.14, Communications 2010 Special Issue).

In Montessori education the child is his own teacher with all the powers to teach himself according to natural developmental laws. We know that the years from birth to 6 are the most important for creating a solid foundation for future learning and a well-rounded personality.

“Being active with one’s own hands, having a determined practical aim to reach, is what really gives inner discipline. When the hand perfects itself in a work chosen spontaneously and the will to succeed is born together with the will to overcome difficulties or obstacles; it is then that something which differs from intellectual learning arises. The realisation of one’s own value is born in the consciousness.” (p.87, From Childhood to Adolescence)

Montessori viewed education as an Aid to Life. Therefore, it is imperative that we have a deep understanding of how humans develop; how to cater for the differing needs of the child within each plane and offer different environments according to these needs.

“Montessori herself makes the strongest possible contrast between her approach to education and all other methods. She contrasts her approach not only with traditional education, but also with the other educational methods. She asserts that her approach is of universal validity since it applies to all the phases in the development of a human being…'We must consider the human personality and not a method of education.’ She suggests that we should, instead, speak of: ‘Help given in order that the human personality may achieve its independence’.” (p.20-21, Communications 2010 Special Issue)

Children are creating different characteristics and acquiring new skills in each plane. Our role is to help children equip themselves to move further during the subsequent plane. If optimum development is missed then certain things can be acquired but not as easily, or maybe not acquired at all.

The child from birth to 6 years has a special Absorbent Mind which takes in everything needed to construct oneself. The child learns easily without any conscious effort, adapting to his time, place and culture and becoming part of his cultural group.

“He enters upon life and begins his mysterious task; little by little to build up the wondrous powers of a person adapted to his country and its times. He constructs his mind step by step till it becomes possessed of memory, the power to understand, the ability to think. And here he is, at last, in his sixth year of life. Then, all of a sudden, it dawns on us educators that we have a being who understands, who has the patience to listen when we speak, while previously we had no way of reaching him. He lived on another plane, different from ours.” (p.25, The Absorbent Mind).

Montessori said that the first plane from birth to 6 years is split into 0-3 years for acquisition of important skills and 3-6 years for refining them. She called the child during this period the Psychic Embryo; someone with great potential but not yet completely developed. In utero the physical embryo develops all the necessary physical parts. After birth the psychic embryo is developing all aspects of the species, to adapt to the specific time, place and culture. Montessori believed that this occurs using the Tendencies, Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods. The first plane is a remarkable period of self construction during which the child explores his environment using all of his senses.

The infant unconsciously absorbs impressions through his experiences in the environment, including everything positive and negative. The two main acquisitions of this time are language and movement, particularly during the 0-3 years sub-plane and then consolidating on it from 3-6 years. During the first sub-plane, the child takes another step towards independence every day, starting right from birth. Later on he will walk, talk, feed and toilet himself. All these basic human skills are very significant for helping the child develop his self esteem. The 3-6 sub-plane is much calmer but still a period of growth, although somewhat less dramatic.

Once the child reaches 6 years of age he is co-ordinated, can communicate clearly with the language(s) of his culture and use refined movements to satisfy his needs. At this time he is truly an individual and his personality is well established. He has adapted to his family and culture.