The Montessori Approach

The Montessori philosophy embraces the whole child and his natural curiosity and love of learning. Children will reach their full potential both academically and socially when given the freedom to actively work with concrete, sequential materials within a carefully prepared environment and open-ended curriculum. Teachers/parents provide enough guidance to help children work toward independence and self-discipline. A multi-age classroom provides maximum opportunities for developing social and academic skills and modeling respectful behavior.

Who was Dr. Maria Montessori?
Dr. Maria Montessori, born in 1870, was the first female doctor in Rome. She devoted her energy to the process of normal child development and how human beings can reach their potential more fully. She observed children as they interacted with their environment. Dr. Montessori identified positive human behaviors that are universal tendencies and designed educational environments to encourage these traits. She developed educational materials and tested, retested and refined them until she was convinced they were the best ones for teaching a specific concept. Dr. Montessori also field-tested the materials across ages, socio-economic backgrounds and different cultures. Her idea that children learn through active exploration with their environment and her identification of developmental stages in childhood are in line with Piaget’s theories on cognitive development, which are very important in early childhood education today.1 Some of the most common aspects of current preschool classrooms, such as putting the materials on low shelves and using child-size furniture, came from Dr. Maria Montessori.

What is the Montessori Method?
Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods – The child has a mind to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
Young children unconsciously absorb information as they explore their environment. Dr. Montessori believed there are sensitive periods in which certain environmental stimuli are especially interesting to children. Therefore, teachers and parents should capitalize on these periods by providing an abundance of high interest activities and appropriate lessons at the right time. One early sensitive period that Montessori described in detail in The Absorbent Mind is the period of learning language, which is a common topic among developmental theorists (and the media) today. Another important period, which begins in the first year, is the one that makes a child extremely sensitive to order. Dr. Montessori observed and identified eleven different sensitive periods occurring from birth through age six. Teachers can maximize cognitive development during sensitive periods by closely observing the child, noting her interests and developmental level in each area, and presenting lessons with the appropriate materials. In addition, the teacher encourages the children to pursue their interests, such as butterflies, while making connections to various areas of the curriculum. Observing developmental levels and integrating their interests across the curriculum is what we call “following the child.” The goal of the Montessori environment is to allow each child to fully develop his intellectual skills, not to push the child in order to meet some normative schedule of development.

Intrinsic Motivation - “We must support as much as possible the child’s desires for activity; not wait on him, but educate him to be independent.” -Dr. Maria Montessori

One of Montessori’s key discoveries is the idea that children are intrinsically motivated. They are driven by their desire to become independent and competent beings in the world. When provided developmentally appropriate materials in a carefully prepared environment, children are motivated to learn. Dr. Montessori saw that adult correction and praise disrupt the child’s concentration, which is necessary for cognitive development. The goal is that the child will develop a sense of satisfaction from the work itself, not be dependent on the approval of the teacher or others. That is the reason many of the Montessori materials are self-correcting. Additionally, people are motivated when given choices and when presented with work related to their interests. When children choose materials in the classroom, it is always referred to as their “work” to show the importance of their activities and that work can be fun.

Role of the Environment and Freedom –  “The child who has less opportunity for sensorial activity remains at a lower mental level.” – Dr. Maria Montessori
The children are free to move about the classroom choosing their work appropriate for their current stage of development. Feeling that one has control and can make choices fulfills a person’s need for autonomy and allows him a chance to thrive. Being able to move and socialize within this structured environment enhances cognitive and social development. Mental development is dependent upon movement. Dr. Montessori called the hand “the instrument of the intelligence.” Although there is considerable freedom and movement within the classroom, it is freedom within limits. The children are limited by the amount of material that has been presented and by the requirement to be constructive and responsible with materials and behavior. Learning to make good choices and becoming self-disciplined is a major goal of Montessori education and education for life. This freedom within the classroom only works with a carefully prepared and organized environment and a nurturing, observant teacher.

Learning With and From Peers -  “There are many things which no teacher can convey to a child of three, but a child of five can do it with the utmost of ease.” -Dr. Maria Montessori
Children learn easily from their peers and flourish in an environment similar to a family. The multi-age classroom, grouped according to specific planes of development (ages 3-6, 6-9, 9-12), allows children a chance to learn from their older peers and later a chance to be a model and teach their newly mastered academic and social skills. A stable and strong community develops as the children continue with the same group for three years. The teachers make a deep connection with each student (and the students with each other) and they already know their strengths and needs for each new school year. Parental concerns regarding multi-age groupings are quickly washed away as they watch how their children work and grow together in this special environment.

Educating the Whole Child and Normalization – “The child is both hope and a promise for mankind.” -Dr. Maria Montessori
The child’s development of personality and social behavior is an essential aspect of Montessori education. Grace and courtesy lessons are a daily part of the Montessori curriculum. Children learn manners, respect for the environment and for others. They also develop a sense of community and an eagerness to learn. When a child’s desire for concentrated work is satisfied, he appears more calm, content and responsible. This is what Maria Montessori referred to as “normalization.” Academic achievement alone does not prepare one for life. Montessori’s unique focus on the development of each person as a complete human being provides a strong foundation for success in all areas of life. The most common attributes associated with students of Montessori are an interest in learning, the ability to get along well with others, the capacity to think creatively, and being able to express thoughts clearly and logically when writing and speaking.

Meaningful Contexts for Learning – “The senses, being explorers of the world, open the way to knowledge.” -Dr. Maria Montessori 
Learning is more meaningful when it is connected to real life. Embedding knowledge in a meaningful context is associated with improved learning, increased interest and a willingness to try new challenges. Montessori education follows the child’s interests and connects learning with real life experiences, naturally making for more meaningful contexts. Learning is also improved when the materials and concepts are seen in other situations. Since subject matters are integrated in the Montessori classroom with the same teacher, children are easily able to assimilate new information. This differs from most traditional schools where even young children change classes and teachers for different subject areas. When Montessori children use each material at the age- appropriate time and use it over and over in spontaneous repetition, they gradually build an in-depth understanding of the concepts and they are ready for the next level of work.

Role of the Teacher – “The teacher must believe that this child before her will show his true nature when he finds a piece of work that attracts him.” -Dr. Maria Montessori
Montessori teachers have high expectations of the children’s academic and social achievement. The teacher’s aim is to assist the children in moving toward independence, while providing whatever guidance is necessary to ensure that the children make good decisions and engage in productive behaviors. Teachers give the children more of a sense of control as they choose their own work. The teacher’s role is to actively observe the children, maintain an inspiring learning environment, give new lessons at the appropriate time and intervene when children need guidance or structure. In traditional classrooms, the teacher’s main role is to impart knowledge; whereas, in Montessori education the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator, guiding the child within the environment. The children learn more by initiating active involvement with the materials made available by the teacher than passively waiting to be given information. Montessori teachers use observation instead of testing for a more authentic assessment of a child’s specific skills. They repeat lessons when necessary and give new lessons when children appear to have mastered the material and are ready for the next sequence. Teachers watch for moments of concentration, and when they occur, the teacher’s role is to step back and not interrupt. High expectations and giving children a sense of control, as seen in the Montessori classroom, are consistent with the literature on optimal classroom practices.