Approaches to Learning: Maria Montessori
By Carolyn Ross Tomlin

Maria Montessori was an extraordinary woman who made and continues to make a difference in the lives of children. Before the turn of the century, education was strict and regimented; few materials existed to assist in the teaching of young children. The teacher typically stood at the front of the class, repeated lessons, and the children repeated the information, "parrot-style." This was before Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor-turned-educator, changed the field.

Historical Background
Born in Italy on August 31, 1870, Maria Montessori grew into a self-confident, intelligent, and often headstrong girl. Her desire to enter medicine led her to the University of Rome. However, the school did not admit women into the medical program. Instead, she pursued the study of physics, mathematics and natural sciences. She mastered the material and was finally accepted into the medical school. An outstanding presentation of her thesis impressed the ruling board, and she was granted the doctor of medicine degree. Maria's remarkable academic performance made her the first woman to graduate from medical school in Italy.

Part of her work included visiting asylums for the mentally handicapped. She encountered children who were termed "feebleminded" and unable to function in schools or with their family and she was moved to help. She returned to the University in 1901; her studies shifted from the body to the mind and how it functioned. She took on the job of working with sixty young children living in poverty and while attempting to develop educational methods and materials with which to reach these children, she found even the children with learning disabilities began to pass examinations and score as high on tests as more mainstreamed functioning children. “Children’s House,” her school in San Lorenzo, Rome became the first of its kind. Here, each child was given the opportunity to develop through activities within his own environment. In 1907, she opened the Casa dei Bambini to teach her methods to children of mainstream intelligence. During the later part of her life she wrote, lectured and taught others her methods. Maria Montessori died in 1952.

The Montessori Method
The Montessori Method emphasizes that children learn best by interacting with concrete material and by being respected as individuals. The teacher’s role is primarily in organizing material and establishing a general classroom culture. While most activities are geared toward the individual, the children also interact in group activities (www.womenhistory.about.com).

Montessori believed that learning for one’s own sake, and to meet one’s own criterion of success, were the two components that made learning satisfying to the young child. “Help me do it myself” was the message she had received from the countless children whom she had seen in the Roman slums (Montessori, 1965). According to Montessori, the technique of the method follows the guidance of the natural physiological and psychical development of the child and may be divided into three parts:

(1) Motor Education

 
Montessori believed the education of movements is very complex, as it must correspond to all the coordinated movements that the child has to establish in his physiological organism. Muscular education refers to:

 

• The primary movements of everyday life (walking, rising, sitting, handling objects)
• The care of the person
• Management of the household
• Gardening
• Manual work
• Gymnastic exercises
• Rhythmic movements

An example of motor education curriculum includes dressing and undressing, the first step taught in the care of the person. A collection of frames with attached clothing that must be buttoned, hooked and tied together are used to practice dressing and undressing. First, the teacher demonstrates the different actions necessary to complete the task through each separate stage. Then, she carefully guides the child to complete the task. Many children will not need this lesson as they have learned from others (Montessori, 1965).
In the same way for the teaching of larger movements, the teacher directs at the beginning—perhaps without words—but with precise actions.
In larger groups, the children learn to take turns. Their work is spontaneous. Even children as young as two and a half years old imitate older children within the group. Learning to walk on a line, then marching with musical instruments is taught by the teacher first demonstrating, then withdrawing from the group and allowing the children to proceed on their own.

(2) Sensory Education
The Montessori classroom plays a key role in sensory education, particularly, building a solid foundation for abstract learning.
Montessori's observation that the act of a Montessori child touching an object is a building block for writing, just as looking will be essential to reading development, is at the core of sensory education. Movement is the key to growth and development - to sensory and motor outputs, to sensing, knowing and learning. With number rods, the child can teach himself abstract concepts through practice with concrete manipulative Montessori materials (Orem, 1969).
By using cylinders that decrease and increase in diameter and height, the child watches other children and places them back in the right place. Or, the teacher may remove them from the holder, mix them up, and ask the child to put them in the correct order.
Wooden cubes, prisms and rods help the child train his eye to the recognition of difference in size between similar objects. Smooth and rough textures and a variety of fabrics teach tactile sensations. Examining wooden tablets of differing weight and arranging colored tablets according to shade, helps to develop a “color memory.” Geometrical wooden insets allow the child to arrange shapes of varying size.

(3) Intellectual (language, etc.) Education
Developing the sense of hearing is essential to developing language and speech. Training a child to follow sounds and noises in the environment as well as to recognize and discriminate between them is preparing him to follow more accurately the sounds of articulate language. This means a teacher must pronounce clearly and communicate the sounds of the word when she speaks to a child.
The teacher helps a child recognize differences in dimension by:
Period 1: Naming “This is thick. This is thin.”
Period 2: Recognition: “Give me the thick one. Give me the thin.”
Period 3: The Pronunciation of the Word. “What is this?”

Through lessons such as these, the child comes to know the meaning of many words—large, small; thick, thin; long, short; dark, light; rough, smooth; heavy, light; hot, cold; and the names of many colors and geometrical forms (Montessori, 1965).

The Montessori Classroom
Montessori believed that when children are given freedom in an activity-rich environment, they learned to read on their own. They also chose to work rather than play most of the time, loved order and silence, and developed a real social life in which they worked instead of competed against one another (Standing, 1952). She described a typical room found in the Montessori system: (Montessori, 1965). There is usually a central room for intellectual work with some small rooms off to the side. The area needed a lot of outside space and the choice to work in the fresh air. The furniture in the room should be lightweight so that children can arrange it how they are comfortable. Cabinets containing items the children could use were set low so the children could reach them. When it was time for their meals, they were to help prepare their place at a table, wash their hands, and also clean up after the meal. (Montessori, 1965).

Conclusion
Maria Montessori revolutionized education for young children. This woman of intelligence and grit transformed classrooms into places where children were thought of as people who wanted to learn—and had the ability to do so at their own pace, in classrooms built for their comfort (Pollard, 1990).

Sidebar: Quotes by Maria Montessori
Much of her Montessori's later years was spent writing, lecturing and teaching others about her methods. The following quotes are from her numerous writings:
• "Free the child’s potential and you will transform him into the world."
• "The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, 'The children are now working as if I didn’t exist.' "
• "The world of education is like an island where people cut off from the world are prepared for life by exclusion from it."
• "One test of the correctness of educational procedure is the happiness of the child."
• "Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed."

References:
Elkind, D. (1981). The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon.
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company: Reading, MA.

Kramer, R. (1976). Maria Montessori. G.P. Putman’s Sons: New York.

Montessori, M. (1965). Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook.
Schocken Books: New York.

Orem, R.C. (1969). Montessori and the Special Child. G.P. Putnam’s Sons:
New York.

Pollard, M. (1990). Maria Montessori. Gareth Stevens Children’s Books:
Milwaukee.

Ramsey, M.E. & Bayless, K.M. (1980). Kindergarten Programs and
Practices
: The C.V. Mosby Co.: St. Louis.

Web sites
www.womenhistory.about.com (January 15, 2007)

Carolyn Ross Tomlin has taught kindergarten and early childhood education at Union University, Jackson, TN. She contributes to numerous education publications.