When I was in grammar school in the late ‘50’s, I loved school. I eagerly looked forward to learning every day. But by the time I was eight I noticed this wasn’t true for everyone. No. In fact, many, many of the other children were confused or defiant or scared or just plain bored. I could understand the confusion of children who were having trouble keeping up with what was being taught – although I didn’t understand why they were having trouble. And I was simply outraged at the kids who got their jollies from picking on other children. But what really puzzled me were the smart kids who just hated to come to school and who caused all kinds of trouble. Why didn’t they find learning fun? Why did they misbehave constantly, rather than focus on their school work? Why were they so bad?! Why was school such a miserable experience for so many of my schoolmates? What was wrong?
I vowed that I would not let this happen to my own future children, and that they would go to a school that they loved. That vow sent me on a decades-long mission to discover a better way of education.
In 1971 I had the good fortune to read an article on the deepest problems of modernist education, in which the author recommended the Montessori Method as a brilliant alternative1. This led me to read Beatrice Hessen’s article “The Montessori Method,”2 and I was hooked!
The deepest insight Dr. Montessori taught me was: don’t blame the children, question your assumptions. In other words, when you see unhappy children, misbehaving in school and having difficulty learning the material, ask yourself: “what should I do differently? What is frustrating that child?” It’s a simple question that any gardener asks when her plants don’t thrive. This is exactly what Maria asked herself in the first years of the 20th century – and answered by careful, scientific observation of children. And this is the essence of the Montessori Method.
But we don’t seem to have learned that lesson well enough. After twenty plus years of crisis, education pundits are still dithering over what’s wrong. Activists want to throw ever more money into a failing system. And politicians demand we revert to old methods of rote learning and testing. But scientific research shows these very methods are merely mediocre in judging learning, achievement and potential! Ironically, it was the failures of traditional systems that led to the early 20th century explorations in education of John Dewey, Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori almost 100 years ago.
What most parents and even most educators don’t know is that the traditional method of education is based on the factory model. Centuries ago, mainly the rich were educated, because their families could hire private tutors for one-on-one lessons. With the advent of the U.S. as a democratic republic, a need arose for mass education to ensure that citizens had enough knowledge and understanding to effectively participate in a free society. Most people couldn’t afford to hire their own teachers, so factories for learning were set up all around the country. Large numbers of children were taught to learn the same thing at the same time in the same way: letters, numbers, reading and history lessons ‘by the book’. To facilitate mass production in education, children were ranked by the same system as shoes: in grades.3
This helped many to acquire basic skills in reading and arithmetic, history and geography, mathematics and maybe a little science. Bright but poor children were at least exposed to the realms of knowledge through these schools, and many bootstrapped themselves to later success. The well-to-do were able to get a richer education in private schools. However, wherever traditional methods were used, the emphasis was – and is – on acquiring as much information as possible. The systematic growth and development of the individual was usually left to chance.
A century ago, most jobs required rote learning and rote work – in factories and farms. Today is a far, far different story. More than ever, working individuals need to be highly motivated and capable learners, able to find out what they need to know and figure out what to do with that information. They need to be able to think well and to judge complex situations using the latest technology. And they need to interact with people all over the world in the vast global markets.
Most jobs today require knowledge workers, not just arms or legs to put parts on an assembly line. Our factory workers use some of the most complicated, computerized equipment the world has ever seen. The phenomenal productivity of the American worker is made possible by his or her ability to run the complex machines that now do the physical labor. Even artists need to learn technology – for animation, sculpture, film – a whole host of media. How can people of widely varying abilities and intellects get a solid educational foundation of knowledge and still be able to develop their individual gifts to the fullest? How can we expect to consistently nurture capable, knowledgeable, highly motivated individuals in a factory system? What education today needs is a truly innovative approach to individual education.
What’s really needed is right in our backyard, thriving since the early ‘60’s through a grassroots movement but largely ignored by educational theorists. It requires an entirely new way of thinking about education, a way that recognizes and respects the needs of the individual child. And that is the Montessori Way. It is a remarkably dynamic modern approach that’s almost 100 years old!
These are the reasons many more parents and teachers need to understand the Montessori Way. Fortunately, The Montessori Way by Tim Seldin and Paul Epstein has recently been published to help them. This book does a brilliant job of translating Dr. Montessori’s deep insights into 21st century terms for parents, teachers and educators of all kinds. It relays the Method’s exciting history and successes as well as recent research that supports her findings and the century of experience at Montessori schools around the world.
It shows how Montessori practices enable each individual child to develop his or her own unique powers while respecting others. It illustrates why a good Montessori school is one of the best environments for children to learn the responsibilities that come with freedom and the respect of others that is necessary for true independence.
This book is written in very clear, accessible language, with beautiful illustrations and photos. And it is comprehensive in its scope. Anyone unfamiliar with Montessori should be able to come away from reading this book with a clear picture of what the Montessori Way is about and how it works.
With all its advantages, why hasn’t the Montessori Method swept the country as a model of educational reform? There are several concrete answers to that question which the authors, Tim Seldin and Paul Epstein explore. But one of the deepest reasons is a matter of outlook: To understand the Montessori Method requires a change in thinking as revolutionary as the United States War for Independence.
That war was fought for a new idea of Man: the idea that life was best lived when each human being had the right to determine his own choices and actions, and follow his own path. It was a war for the freedom of the individual over the tyranny of other men.
The Montessori Way requires a similar revolution in thinking about the individual with equally revolutionary consequences. It requires parents and teachers to understand that each child has a principle of self-growth and self-determination within him. This principle will lead him to shrivel or to flower, depending on his educational environment. Just like a garden, if we make the physical and psychological environment serve the needs of the individual child, he will thrive.
It is truly an “Education for a New World.”4 Parents and teachers here in the New World and everywhere around the world need it more than ever to help children become productive, effective individuals, capable of working happily at the highest levels of creativity and success. This book should go a long way to showing why the Montessori Way can make that happen.
This book is only available directly from the publisher, the Montessori Foundation in the bookstore of its website,
- Rand, Ayn. 1971. The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: New American Library.
- Chattin-McNichols, John P., ed. 1983. Montessori Schools In America. Lexington: Ginn Custom Printing. Seems to be out of print, but may be available from Dr. Chattin-McNichols. orThe Objectivist 1966-1971 by Ayn Rand.
- William Farish: The World’s Most Famous Lazy Teacher
- Montessori, Maria. 1946, 1989. Education for a New World. Clio Press: Oxford.
Copyright © 2003 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.