Visitors to schools authentically following the Montessori method are invariably struck by the advanced level of the children’s work, concentration and focus, joy and spontaneity, freedom of movement and care with each other. Because the teacher is apparently engaged with only one or a small portion of the children at a time, with the rest exhibiting complete independence in their activities, a visitor’s first question is invariably, “But how do the children know what to do?”
Dr. Maria Montessori was able to solve this dilemma of motivation and spontaneous interest of children in their education by searching for the powers within them, present from birth, for their own self-formation into mature adults. She did so by creating the Montessori method, bringing her medical training in scientific observation and discovery to bear over a lifetime of working with children all over the world, from every background and culture. Eventually, she devised very specific environments to aid the children in their natural development in each stage of their childhood and young adulthood. She continually revised these environments throughout her life, guided by the children’s response to them, until she found the optimal guidelines for their composition.
Guidelines of the Montessori Method
These guidelines comprise The Montessori Method and are based on four revolutionary discoveries:
- A different specific educational environment is required for each of the four stages of human development: infancy 0-6 years, childhood 6-12 years, adolescence 12-18 years, maturity 18-24 years. Montessori referred to these four stages as “The Four Planes of Development.”
- The child possesses a special way of thinking in the first six years of life: specifically a power to absorb the immediate environment and culture, seemingly effortlessly and indiscriminately, simply by being immersed within it. Montessori named this power of the young child “The Absorbent Mind.”
- Children experience specific limited time periods and special psychological characteristics when they are driven to seek certain activities that enable them to realize their human potential for: the acquisition of language; the use of the hand to express their thoughts; the ability to reason and imagine; an intense interest in morality and justice; and a social drive to engage in joint collaborative work with their peers (to name a few). Montessori called these special opportunities for learning “The Sensitive Periods” for children under age 6 and a half, and “The Psychological Characteristics” for children over this age.
- Human beings possess certain natural adaptive behaviors that help them throughout their lives. Among these are the ability to explore and orientate themselves to their world: to abstract meaning from what they observe and experience; to be independent and communicate with others; to manipulate objects around them in order to understand them; and to concentrate and repeat certain actions in order to perfect them. Montessori referred to these natural adaptive behaviors as “The Human Tendencies.”
The success of the Montessori method is reliant upon supporting the human tendencies and sensitivities of individual children at each stage of their development. This means that the child at each plane must have an environment that is specifically prepared in every detail to serve the child’s needs. As it became institutionalized in the twentieth century regular education started to recognize these stages of human development by organizing schools into pre-school and kindergarten, elementary school, middle school or junior high school, high school, college and graduate school. It does not, however, recognize the necessity of changing educational methods and approach to suit the growing child in each of these separate stages. Rather, it proceeds in a linear fashion as if these natural stages existed for the sole purpose of organizational, rather than educational, needs.
In addition to a specifically prepared environment that supports their optimal formation at each stage, children need a teacher who understands their unique needs as individuals. Only intimate knowledge of each child enables the teacher using the Montessori method to guide children in finding their own natural response to the classroom environment with its many Montessori materials and activities. The teacher is constantly observing all the children and keeps very careful daily records of each child’s activities and behavior. In this way, the teacher knows when it is the appropriate time to introduce a new material to a child and how long the interval should be before a new presentation is given. It is in this interim period of independent practice with any given activity, and not when the teacher is actually present, that real in-depth learning takes place for the child.
For older children in the Elementary Level the teacher asks that they demonstrate their understanding of the concepts embedded within a given material before going on to a new one. Hence, there is constant “testing” in the Montessori method, but it is accomplished in this informal and non-competitive way. In fact, the children are always encouraged to teach and help each other collaboratively throughout their Montessori years, rather than to think of their learning as a competition with others.
The final principle in establishing a successful Montessori classroom is the children’s freedom to respond to the environment according to their own interests. This is a difficult concept to grasp, and to follow, for most adults. We have, after all, been taught ourselves as children by methods that involved the teacher giving the information for learning and asking for its memorization in order to reproduce it for testing at a later time. Such forced-learning, which over time typically leads to forced-forgetting, represents a superficial level of knowledge for the student of regular schooling. The in-depth, creative thought of the Montessori child who has worked independently for mastery of a concept for many hours and in some cases years, leads to a much deeper knowledge. For example, to grasp the concept of the Trinomial theory of cubing, children begin to work on a concrete level with the Trinomial Cube at age four so that they can discover independently the abstract level of the algebraic formula around age nine.
Trusting the child to be interested in every area of human knowledge and culture is not a principle that Montessori devised from some ideal of human nature and childhood. Rather, she observed the children themselves from their birth onward and discovered that they do indeed have a propensity to explore their whole world. The challenge became to give them an environment appropriate to their skills and level of development in order for them to do so. That she successfully met this challenge is verified daily in genuine Montessori classrooms all over the world. In fact, Montessori teachers routinely report that their children work the hardest and longest in those academic areas that are not as natural to them as others. Thus, it is not uncommon for the early fluent reader and writer in a Montessori school to grow up to become an engineer, or for the child who readily understands mathematical concepts from the earliest age to end up with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature.