Revised August 1997
Formerly a psychotherapist, Marsha Enright, co-founded the Council Oak Montessori School (elementary level) in 1990, of which she is the president and administrator. Another cofounder of the school and its corporate secretary, Doris Cox, currently teaches middle school children at Council Oak.
The education of the human child is of profound importance to anyone dedicated to achieving “the best within us,” but especially to those who have, or wish to have, children of their own, and to those who are or wish to become teachers. What are the child’s nature and needs? How are they different from those of an adult? How can we best foster the child’s development so as to help him maximize his potential for productivity and happiness in life? Current research validates Montessori’s ideas. We believe that, on the whole, the philosophy of the child developed by Italian physician and teacher Maria Montessori, is most consistent with the Objectivist view of human nature, needs, and values.
Maria Montessori, the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome Medical School, became a doctor in 1896. Her first post was in the university’s Psychiatric Clinic.
In that age, retarded children were considered a medical problem, rather than an educational one, and were often kept in hospitals for the insane. Montessori’s visits with children in Roman insane asylums prompted her to study the works of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard (1775-1838) and Edouard Seguin (1812-1880), two French-born pioneers in education for the mentally deficient. She went on to read all the major works on educational theory of the previous two centuries.
In 1899, Montessori became director of the State Orthophrenic School, where her work with the retarded was so successful that the majority of her students were able to pass the state education exams. While other people exclaimed over this phenomenal success, Montessori pondered its implication for normal children. If the mentally deficient could do as well on the exams as normal children, in what poor state must those normal children be! This reflection led her to devote her life to education.
Montessori opened her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) in 1907, applying to children of normal intelligence the methods and materials she had developed for deficient children. She also spent a great deal of time observing and meditating on what children did with her materials—what brought out their best learning and their greatest enthusiasm.
As a result of Montessori’s achievements at the Casa dei Bambini, her method spread rapidly. By 1915, over 100 Montessori schools had opened in America, and many more had opened in the rest of the world. In Switzerland, one of the most important 20th-century theorists in child development—Jean Piaget (1896-1980)—was heavily influenced by Montessori and her method. Piaget was director of the modified Montessori school in Geneva, where he did some of the observations for his first book, Language and Thought of the Child, and served as head of the Swiss Montessori society.
Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work, by E.M. Standing, is an interesting historical account told from the viewpoint of a devoted follower. A more recent and objective biography is Rita Kramer’s Maria Montessori.
The Montessori Method
Maria Montessori’s own works constitute the best source of information concerning her theories and methods. The Montessori Method, the first overview of her educational techniques, remains the best in many respects. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook goes into the details of her philosophy, materials, and methods. The Discovery of the Child is a later detailed summarization of Montessori’s philosophy and method of teaching, with much discussion of the child’s nature and the best means of approaching the child with work. The Secret of Childhood is a history of what—and how—Montessori learned about the unique nature of children, the problems that can arise when the child’s nature is not properly nurtured, and the repercussions that proper and improper nurturing of the child have on society. This work is especially recommended for parents.
According to Maria Montessori, “A child’s work is to create the person she will become.” To carry out this self-construction, children have innate mental powers, but they must be free to use these powers. For this reason, a Montessori classroom provides freedom while maintaining an environment that encourages a sense of order and self-discipline. “Freedom in a structured environment” is the Montessori dictum that names this arrangement.
Like all thinkers in the Aristotelian tradition, Montessori recognized that the senses must be educated first in the development of the intellect. Consequently, she created a vast array of special learning materials from which concepts could be abstracted and through which they could be concretized. In recognition of the independent nature of the developing intellect, these materials are self-correcting—that is, from their use, the child discovers for himself whether he has the right answer. This feature of her materials encourages the child to be concerned with facts and truth, rather than with what adults say is right or wrong.
Also basic to Montessori’s philosophy is her belief in the “sensitive periods” of a child’s development: periods when the child seeks certain stimuli with immense intensity, and, consequently, can most easily master a particular learning skill. The teacher’s role is to recognize the sensitive periods in individual children and put the children in touch with the appropriate materials.
Montessori also identified stages of growth—which she called “Planes of Development”—that occur in approximately six-year intervals and that are further subdivided into two three-year segments. These planes of development are the basis for the three-year age groupings found in Montessori schools: ages 3 to 6, 6 to 9, 9 to 12, and 12 to 18.
From birth to age six, children are sensorial explorers, studying every aspect of their environment, language, and culture. Montessori’s The Absorbent Mind provides a detailed discussion of how the child’s mind and needs develop during this period.
From age six to twelve, children become reasoning explorers. They develop new powers of abstraction and imagination, using and applying their knowledge to further discover and expand their world. During this time, it is still essential that the child carry out activities in order to integrate acting and thinking. It is his own effort that gives him independence, and his own experience that brings him answers as to how and why things function as they do. Montessori’s The Montessori Elementary Materials discusses the materials and curriculum to be used for children during this period.
From Childhood to Adolescence, also by Montessori, outlines the changes children undergo in mentality and outlook as they grow from childhood to adolescence, and the nature and needs of the adolescent child. She also proposes a radical concept of schooling for the adolescent.
Valuable secondary works on the Montessori method include Elizabeth Hainstock’s Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years, and Teaching Montessori in the Home: The School Years. Both give an abbreviated view of the philosophy and the method, as well as detailed instructions on how to make and use the materials. Paula Lilliard’s 1972 work, Montessori: A Modern Approach, reviews the history and nature of the Montessori philosophy, discussing how “current” it is in addressing modern educational concerns and what it has to offer the contemporary family.
Throughout her writing, Montessori combines keen observations and insights with a heroic view of the importance of the child’s work in self- development—work by which each man creates the best within him. Many writers and critics dislike Montessori’s romantic rhetoric, and admittedly her phraseology tends to the mystical. Nevertheless, we find her language refreshing and inspiring. As the following sentence illustrates, she always keeps in mind the glory and grandeur of human development:
“Humanity shows itself in all its intellectual splendor during this tender age as the sun shows itself at the dawn, and the flower in the first unfolding of the petals; and we must respect religiously, reverently, these first indications of individuality.”
The Montessori method always places its principles and activities in the broad context of the importance of human life and development, intelligence and free will. Indeed, one of the cornerstones of the Montessori method is the presentation of knowledge as an integrated whole, emphasizing conceptual relationships between different branches of learning, and the placement of knowledge in its historical context.
Dewey Versus Montessori
In American academic circles, Montessori is little known, except as a name from the past, and textbooks on educational theory therefore tend to discuss her method only in an historical context. Much of this learned ignorance can be traced to The Montessori System Examined, a small but highly influential book published in 1914 by Professor William Heard Kilpatrick. In his time, Kilpatrick was one of the most popular professors at Columbia University’s Teachers College, an institution with far-ranging influence among educational theorists and one of the main redoubts for John Dewey’s Progressive method of education.
Dewey and Montessori approached education from philosophically and psychologically different perspectives. Dewey’s concern was with fostering the imagination and the development of social relationships. He believed in developing the intellect late in childhood, for fear that it might stifle other aspects of development. By contrast, Montessori believed that development of the intellect was the only means by which the imagination and proper social relationships could arise. Her method focused on the early stimulation and sharpening of the senses, the development of independence in motor tasks and the care of the self, and the child’s naturally high motivation to learn about the world as a means of gaining mastery over himself and his environment.
Thus, behind Kilpatrick’s criticism of Montessori’s educational method lay a great deal of antagonism towards Montessori’s philosophy and psychology. Kilpatrick dismissed Montessori’s sensorial materials because they were based on what he considered to be an outdated theory of the faculties of the mind (Dewey was greatly influenced by early Behaviorism) and a too-early development of the intellect. Kilpatrick also criticized Montessori’s materials as too restrictive: because they have a definite outcome, he felt, they restrict the child’s imagination. Following Dewey’s collectivist view of man, and his central focus on the social development of the child, Kilpatrick also disliked Montessori’s decidedly individualistic view of the child.
In the United States, the views of Dewey and Kilpatrick prevailed, and the name of Montessori was largely forgotten for several decades. Fortunately for recent generations of American children, a dissatisfied American mother, Nancy Rambusch, rediscovered Montessori in Europe during the 1950s. Rambusch began the “second-wave” Montessori schools in the United States, lectured widely on the Montessori method, and helped found the American Montessori Society. Over the past forty years, grass-roots interest has spurred a phenomenal growth of Montessori schools in America, but the movement is not generally recognized or promoted in university education departments.
The Montessori Controversy and Montessori Schools in America, both by John Chattin-McNichols, discuss research on the relationship of the method to historical and current educational theories; and controversies that have arisen between the Montessori movement and academic theorists, and also within the Montessori movement.
Interestingly, Montessori Schools in America includes Beatrice Hessen’s article on the Montessori method, originally published in The Objectivist. As this Study Guide indicates, a link between Objectivism and the Montessori method of education is a promising connection for both movements. Montessori’s methods encourage children to be at home in a free society, such as Objectivists would like to establish. Respect for the person, property, and ideas of others are primary values in the Montessori classroom, as are respectful cooperation and personal responsibility. Children are required to care for the materials they use and the environment of the classroom; they are encouraged to work on projects cooperatively, but only when they wish to do so. At a deeper level, Objectivism’s epistemological and ethical ideas offer a rich theoretical soil in which Montessori’s methods can thrive and perhaps even develop further.
In the United States at present, training for teachers is offered through the Association Montessori Internationale/USA, an arm of Maria Montessori’s original training organization; and through the American Montessori Society, founded by Nancy Rambusch. Many independent organizations also offer training. The North American Montessori Teachers Association is a center of research and information. Further information can be obtained from these organizations at the following addresses:
Rochester, NY 14607
American Montessori Society
281 Park Ave. South, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010-6102
11424 Bellflower Rd. NE
Cleveland, OH 44106
Many of the titles in this listing are available at Amazon.com. If you use this link, or the search box below, then IOS will earn a commission from Amazon.com on each book purchased.
John Chattin-McNichols. The Montessori Controversy. Albany, N.Y.: Delmar Publishers, 1992.
John P. Chattin-McNichols, ed. Montessori Schools in America: Historical, Philosophical and Empirical Research Perspectives. Lexington, Mass.: Ginn Custom Publishing, 1981, 1983.
Elizabeth G. Hainstock. Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years. New York: New American Library, 1968.
Elizabeth G. Hainstock. Teaching Montessori in the Home: The School Years. New York: Random House, 1971.
William Heard Kilpatrick. The Montessori System Examined. American Education Series, No. 2. Salem, N.H.: Ayer Company Pubs., 1972. Reprint of 1914 Houghton Mifflin ed.
Rita Kramer. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York: Capricorn Books, 1976.
Paula Lilliard. Montessori: A Modern Approach. New York: Schocken Books, 1972.
Maria Montessori. The Montessori Method, rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.
Maria Montessori. Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook. Edited by E.C. Orem. New York: Schocken, 1965.
Maria Montessori. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1967.
Maria Montessori. The Child in the Family. New York: Avon Books, 1956.
Maria Montessori. The Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.
Maria Montessori. The Secret of Childhood. Bombay: Orient Longmans Ltd., 1936.
Maria Montessori. The Montessori Elementary Material. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
Maria Montessori. From Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.
Jean Piaget. Language and Thought of The Child. New York: New American Library, 1955.
E.M. Standing. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Mentor Books, 1962.
Copyright © 1992 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.