The following article was originally published in Law & Liberty. View it here.
At a tumultuous time in history, with too many parallels to our own, an astonishing drama unfolded. Amidst a raging civil war in 1939 Spain, Maria Montessori anxiously waited with her grandchildren on the second floor of their house in Barcelona as Communist anarchists ripped through the town, slaughtering priests, nuns, and ordinary lay Catholics like her.
Then, something strange occurred: a group of these rough men, with their bandoliers of bullets, stopped in front of her house and began painting on her doorway. Soon, they left. She and the children raced downstairs to see, in black paint “Respect this house. It harbors a friend of the children.”
What had Montessori done to elicit such a tribute and protection?
Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, a scientific genius. Starting out with slum children in 1907, she had discovered and implemented a brilliant and complex method of education. It treated each child as a unique individual and nurtured his or her development and powers to thrive. Children became hard-working, curious, creative, self-possessed, and high-achieving individuals who knew how to live peaceably and respectfully with others.
These are just the kind of people we need to live well in a free society, countering the worst trends in today’s educational landscape. How does her method accomplish this?
First, the Montessori classroom is complex and well-thought-out, physically, intellectually, and socially. Its fundamental principle is freedom in a structured environment. This parallels the structure of a free society, encouraging peaceful interactions while allowing members as much freedom as possible.
Second, each child is treated with gentle respect for his individuality, with coercion reserved for dire circumstances. Children are encouraged to learn through materials perfectly suited to the child’s developmental needs, exciting and interesting to the child. Also, the teacher conveys an attitude of curiosity and questioning that captures the child’s mind: “Let’s see how big an apatosaurus is compared to a tyrannosaurus rex! Let’s take some chalk, measure out each in the parking lot, and compare!”
Third, the child’s reasoning powers and independent judgment are strongly cultivated through the learning materials.
Fourth, children love going to well-run Montessori schools: over my 27 years running Council Oak Montessori, I received many letters in which parents told me their children loved school so much they lied that they were not sick so as not to miss school!
Thus, the three essential values needed for a free society are developed: reason, individualism, and freedom.
Game-like, the distinctive materials used in Montessori classrooms teach mathematics, history, language, science, and the arts—all the classic subjects—as well as many practical skills. They are arrayed on low shelves around the room in subject order and difficulty level, enabling children to obtain them and work on them by themselves, and to know how far along they are in the curriculum. The materials and their order are designed to develop independence. Here are some YouTube videos showing the vast array of these ingenious materials and explaining how they are used.
For example, three-year-olds work on a three-dimensional puzzle of blocks embodying a trinomial equation called the Trinomial Cube. Each part represents one term of a trinomial equation, such as a cube with sides A or a rectangular solid with sides B-squared/C. They learn to assemble this puzzle and as the children grow older, they discover different patterns about its pieces and learn how to write the symbols for each piece. When they finally learn algebra, the puzzle is a well-known, real object that embodies the equation. With this material and hundreds of others in the classroom, their mathematical concepts are strongly grounded in reality, essential for good mathematical thinking.
Montessori’s aim was to create a better future on the principle that the child is father to the man.
Six-year-olds learn American history using a timeline organized by the terms of the presidents. They add figures, notes, maps, and other items alongside each term to flesh out what events occurred. By working with concrete objects representing the people, dates, events, and relationships, the knowledge is burned into their minds because, Maria said, “The hand is the instrument of the mind.”
As much as possible, classroom physical order enables the children to do things for themselves: after a small-group lesson on material, children have the choice to work on it then or later, just as adults usually have a choice about the order in which to work. The children can do math first, then geography, snack and clean-up, and finally read a book. Or they can use a different order, depending on their interests that day.
By allowing the child to follow his interests and inner guide, he learns faster and retains the knowledge better, just as you do when you work on something of your choice.
The teacher regularly devotes time to carefully observing each child, learning their exact developmental level, interests, and individual personality characteristics. She becomes highly equipped to guide children to what each needs to learn.
Moreover, when students work on material, they can choose to make up their own problems: two boys in one of our classrooms would spend hours creating more and more math problems for themselves so they wouldn’t have to ask the teacher for more. This kind of freedom cultivates independence, self-reliance, and creativity. They’re both highly self-motivated engineers today. And they’re part of what the Wall Street Journal called “The Montessori Mafia” of highly creative and world-impacting people such as Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, John McWhorter, Julia Child, and Anne Frank.
Children want to develop self-mastery, which is needed to live in freedom.
Other features of the classroom which develop this are:
- The classes mix children of different ages, with children from ages 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and 12-15 grouped together. This is similar to typical mixed-age adult work environment, and this grouping provides a wide variety of work that inspires younger children to do the next hardest work and older children to solidify their understanding by helping the younger.
- Students can work at a desk, a table, their own rug on the floor, or in a corner they like.
- They can work with others if they choose, but they are not forced to associate. Consequently, they freely associate just as adults do in a free society.
- They can work on the material as long as they need to, but then they must put the materials carefully back on the shelves for the next person the way each of us must take care of and replace commonly used objects at the park, or in a family, or on a team.
- Each child is responsible for the classroom environment; if she spills water on the floor, she must clean it up.
- Every week, each child is given a different job for maintaining the classroom, such as feeding the fish, sweeping the floor, or wiping the tables clean.
- As children get older, their responsibilities grow so that in the 9-12 classroom, a child answers the phone or acts as host and guide to visitors. In the 12-15 classroom, students create field trips out of their learning interests, determine a budget and timing, and make all the reservations and transportation arrangements.
- Children in the 9-12 and 12-15 classrooms create businesses to raise money for special trips, such as selling parents and visitors coffee and muffins they make every week, or learning calligraphy in order to have a business for inscribing wedding invitations.
- The materials and the classroom are set up to be self-correcting. That is, they are designed so the child can figure out for himself if he has gotten the right answer, or is behaving correctly. For example, the furniture and shelves are carefully arranged so that if a child tries to run through, he could knock into shelves and cause objects to fall. He thereby learns not to run through class. If a student puts the wrong knobbed cylinders into the holes, not all of them will fit.
- If they need to use the toilet, students check for and take the designated tag indicating the toilet is free, and go there themselves.
- Even the smallest come to school and hang up their own coats and dress themselves when it’s time to leave.
What are the results of this method? It creates young human beings that are remarkably self-disciplined, purposeful, and self-confident. Moreover, they have an independent, hardworking, and entrepreneurial mindset, and are socially adept and able to productively collaborate with others. This is so important for the business of a free society. They are superbly self-regulated, something desperately needed today among our young.
Montessori’s aim was to create a better future on the principle that the child is father to the man. If you have never seen a Montessori classroom, find a highly rated one and ask to observe. You will be astonished at how the little humans act so purposefully. They are self-controlled, respectful, and yet joyful in their classrooms. They love their work. This is the way human beings should learn if they are to become self-supporting individuals in a free society.