Montessori education is rooted in the work of Dr. Maria Montessori, who lived from 1870 to 1952. She was one of the first women in Italy to become a physician, graduating from the University of Rome in 1896. Interested in many things, she read and studied widely, including classes in educational philosophy and anthropology. In 1900 she directed an institute of special education, where, with careful observation and experimentation, she developed materials and teaching methods that led to surprising progress for many of the students.
Developers in the poor San Lorenzo district of Rome asked Montessori to direct a child care center to provide supervision for the children who were otherwise left to their own devices while their parents worked. Here she expanded and improved on her methods and materials, again based on scientific observation of how children naturally learn and develop and how adults can best support this natural growth. Her work drew the attention of many people interested in education and the public good; she began teacher training courses and new schools sprang up around the world.
Montessori devoted her life to education, from infants to adolescents, publishing books, giving lectures, and teacher training, including in America. She lived out the war years in India, training teachers there and further developing the cosmic and peace aspects of her educational approach. After the war she lived, and died, in Amsterdam.
For further reading, see the American Montessori Society (AMS) biography
Young children are not empty vessels that adults must fill with knowledge; they do not learn much from lectures and worksheets. They create themselves, absorbing information and ideas as they move, look and touch, and otherwise interact with the people and things in their environment. The Montessori approach is designed to support and enhance this natural learning — with over a hundred years of success. Some of the distinctive elements that characterize Montessori education are:
- Holistic approach: Especially in early childhood, the focus of education should be supporting the growth and development of the whole person: physical, social, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. Montessori education does not neglect academics, but preserves a healthy balance of life, in which young children have plentiful opportunities to practice getting along with others, caring for their own and others’ needs, and exploring both the universe at hand and the depths within themselves. This kind of education provides a strong and sturdy foundation for the whole of life, fostering good citizenship and peace.
- Hands-on experience: Montessori materials begin with concrete experience; children handle and manipulate physical things in all areas of the curriculum, while abstraction is introduced gradually. For example, letter sounds and number quantities are introduced first with small objects, and letter and numeral symbols are offered later. Materials are also designed to draw the attention to some particular quality or difficulty, as with the Pink Tower. This is a set of ten blocks, ranging in size from one cubic centimeter to ten, with no other differences to distract or confuse the attention; all ten of the blocks are simple pink cubes.
- Uninterrupted work cycle: Each child is free to direct her own learning — to choose what she will work with, when, where, and for how long. This freedom is bounded by responsibility; children learn to move and to handle things gracefully, to treat people and things with respect, and to interact with one another courteously.
- Mixed-age grouping: Classrooms with a three-year range of ages allow for a deeper sense of community, a richer relationship between child and teacher, greater flexibility to accommodate individual differences, and a natural enhancement of learning as the younger observe and learn from the older and the older benefit from the leadership opportunity.
- Prepared environment: The teacher provides and arranges materials and furnishings to best support the particular needs and interests of the children. She connects the child to the environment by introducing materials, offering lessons and other guidance, and arranging things to be attractive and inviting. A Montessori room is peaceful and uncluttered, unobtrusively decorated, with low open shelving offering simple and beautiful materials, and plenty of space for working at small tables or floor rugs.
See more Montessori classrooms from around the world.
Photos in this post were obtained through Google Image search filtered for images licensed for reuse, except the pink tower photo, found on eBay.