While working with developmentally delayed children in Rome in the late 1890s, Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, observed that children learn best in settings that prepare them to do things for themselves. Always child-centered, Montessori’s method promotes freedom for children to explore learning with materials that they choose within an environment of order and harmony.
Children learn within four planes of development, each representing a window of opportunity to develop skills they’ll need for the next plane.
First plane: Children ages 0-6 are sensorial learners, navigating their environment through their five senses. Although the play process sometimes starts out with messiness, children are taught to eventually bring things to order. Montessori named this process “normalization,” conversion from clumsiness and chaos to steady and joyful work.
Second plane: Children ages 6-12 tend to develop herd instincts, typically preferring to work in group versus individual settings. Actively seeking out new knowledge, children embark on their path towards intellectual independence, adopting new and more abstract problem-solving capabilities.
Third plane: Pre-teens and teens ages 12-18, involved in the metamorphosis that is puberty, tend to have difficulty concentrating. In the initial stages of constructing their adult self, teens crave external validation and recognition for their work in the form of praise, good grades, and tangible rewards.
Fourth plane: Young adults ages 18-24 must take critical thinking and problem-solving to the next level, now forced to rely on adaptability and resilience to cope with ambiguity. Economic independence is a critical feature of this phase; adults must support themselves financially.
While traditional education focuses primarily on academics, the environment-centered Montessori method promotes the simultaneous development of student’s physical, emotional, social, AND intellectual health, as prioritized by the needs of each individual student.
Within the “internal work cycle,” children work individually, given the freedom to engage in any activity they desire for as long as they’d like, provided they set up the materials for themselves and put them away afterward. When completed, they can move to another activity. Within the “external work cycle,” children work in groups, with the freedom to choose what, where, with whom, and the duration of each activity.
In both cycles, a teacher acts only as a guide, limited to helping children get started and keep pace with the flow of class. With this classroom structure, there is very little competition between students, no extrinsic rewards such as tests and grades to mark achievement, and thus very little or no pressure from “fear of failure” or “living up to expectations.”
The Montessori classroom incorporates multiple age groups who all learn together, encouraging healthy social skills while reinforcing the importance of community. Older students develop leadership skills by learning to serve as mentors, helping younger students in peer-to-peer learning situations.
Preschool and Kindergarten
Children 3 to 6 years old attend a Children’s House, commonly comprised of 20 to 30 students of mixed ages, a lead teacher, and his or her team of assistants. Small tables are clustered to encourage both independent learning and social interaction. Learning materials are placed on shelves throughout the classroom; children decide which activities to do and for how long. Both playtime and academic activities for math, language, music, art, and culture are very hands-on, requiring children to engage their five senses as they navigate from one task to another.
Elementary-level classrooms are usually comprised of groups of 6 to 9-year-olds and 9 to 12-year-olds. At the beginning of the school year, teachers commonly deliver “Great Lessons,” introducing concepts for children to explore with their imaginations such as “The Coming of the Universe and Earth,” “The Coming of Life,” “The Coming of Humans,” “The Story of Writing,” and “The Story of Numbers.” These lessons and others are shared with students, who are encouraged to freely explore the world to further their learning. The interdisciplinary nature of Montessori learning promotes investigation and discovery outside of the classroom, encouraging both independence and self-directed personal development. The emphasis is not on grades, but on preparing themselves for their “mission in this world.”
High School & Secondary Education
During adolescence, students mature as they transition towards total independence. Young adults begin to explore who they are spiritually and emotionally, forming a more cognitive awareness of their identity. Reflections of “Who am I?” lead to focusing on “What will I do?” Building upon leadership lessons instilled during earlier years, students are encouraged to embrace life-long learning.
At the time of her death in 1952, 82-year-old Dr. Montessori had not yet completed her life’s work, unable to substantially further her educational theories as they pertain to teens and young adults. Today, there are only about 150 Montessori high schools in the United States, a small number compared to the 5,000+ Montessori elementary and middle schools.
Although there are many benefits to the Montessori method, there are some downsides to this type of education, including lack of structure and cost. Unlike “result-based” academics, the focus on the “whole” child, offers a more “well-rounded” learning experience relative to traditional education.
There are tens of thousands of Montessori programs all over the world; the benefits of this style of education, for the right student, can be immeasurable. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates all attended Montessori programs in their youth. Would these titans of industry have enjoyed more successful careers or more importantly, would they have made such substantial contributions to society had it not been for the “well-rounded” education of their youth, as inspired by Dr. Maria Montessori?
By placing the child at the center, Maria Montessori revolutionized elementary education, where children are given freedom to develop their own skills at their own pace, an experience that is very different than the education children receive in public schools.
The Absorbent Mind is the phrase that Montessori coined to characterize the child’s most crucial developmental stage: the first six years.
Maria Montessori’s mission to improve children’s education began in the slums of Rome in 1907, and continued throughout her lifetime. Her insights into the minds of children led her to develop the specialized environments and resources of Montessori education.
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