Education for a New World: Montessori’s Tenets, a Century Later
Montessori Life, Summer 2018
by PHYLLIS POVELL
TENET: The use of specially designed sensory materials to “refine… senses through an exercise of attention, of comparison, [and] of judgment."
TENET: Hands-on experiences and child centered learning: “The child takes not only with the mind but with his hands and with his activity.”
TENET: A teacher should be “the guide on the side as opposed to the sage on the stage.”
TENET: An emphasis on intense and uninterrupted concentration
A little more than 100 years ago, the Oakland Enquirer reported favorably on a lecture Montessori delivered to 6,000 National Education Association attendees: “Her speech was pregnant with the possibilities for future education…” (America’s First Impressions, p.113).
In her lecture, Montessori credited her method of education for offering “easy and spontaneous solutions of pedagogical problems considered impossible to solve” (America’s First Impressions, p. 118). Perhaps this assertion was an overstatement. However, the prescience of her words and the Enquirer’s becomes evident when one looks at current education trends.
Numerous Montessori materials have been adopted by and adapted to non-Montessori early childhood classrooms, as have ideas that Montessori espoused (like child-size furniture). However, in the process, some of the essence of Montessori’s principles has been overlooked. This article explores some of the ideals and views that Montessori advanced over a century ago that still have not been adopted in great measure— and which require more advocacy from early childhood organizations and individuals.
In 1896, Montessori was an invited speaker at the first International Women’s Congress, in Berlin, entitled “Women’s Achievement and Women’s Endeavors.” She appealed for equal pay for equal work, pleading for childcare workers—and all other 19th-century women— to be paid a fair wage. She proclaimed, “I demand the liberation of these oppressed women! With all my strength I insist that the principle of justice be universally supported for equal work, equal wages.” She concluded this talk with a motion for equal pay for women as for male workers, which was unanimously In 1896, Montessori was an invited speaker at the first International Women’s Congress, in Berlin, entitled “Women’s Achievement and Women’s Endeavors.” She appealed for equal pay for equal work, pleading for childcare workers—and all other 19th-century women— to be paid a fair wage. She proclaimed, “I demand the liberation of these oppressed women! With all my strength I insist that the principle of justice be universally supported for equal work, equal wages.” She concluded this talk with a motion for equal pay for women as for male workers, which was unanimously accepted (Povell, 2010, p. 56). Yet, still today, child-care workers— nannies, day-care providers, preschool teachers, etc.— often receive the same wages as fast-food workers (or, in some cases, less) (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). And women make up the bulk of the child-care workforce.
Paying them a higher wage would not only affirm their value but would also show society’s commitment to the worth of our children from birth to age 6. Montessori’s entreaty even now can be heard by underpaid women around the world.
Montessori’s Casa dei Bambini, opened, in Rome, in January 1907, was the first full-day child-care center (Povell, 2010, p. 65). Today, this model is found in the United States and many countries worldwide. Montessori deliberately named it “house of children,” yet many today—laypeople and some educators—still call it “day care” rather than child care. Shifting the terminology— after all, early educators work with children and not days—would also help to promote the importance of the first 6 years of life, when it comes to the adult’s role. Montessori understood that children’s growth did not occur in a linear fashion but rather in stages, which she termed “planes of development,” with the first plane encompassing birth to age 6. Montessori considered ages 0–6 “the real pivot of our work.…In the child under six years of age there exists a ‘mental form’ different from that which is developed after six or seven years of age…” (Maria Montessori, 1976, p. 392). An adult’s awareness of each plane would allow for more individualized attention to each child’s needs and differences.
Montessori recommended two nutritious meals a day be fed to the child in the Casa dei Bambini. An entire chapter in The Montessori Method reviews what were then thought to be healthy foods: “a hearty [meal] about noon, and a light one about four in the afternoon. At the hearty meal, there should be soup, a meat dish, and bread” (Montessori, 2002, p. 134). At the time of this writing, proposed federal government budget cuts would eliminate many of the programs funding healthy meals for very young children in underserved populations— at an age when good nutrition is most needed. Early childhood educators must be proactive to counteract these budgetary exclusions.
Montessori made two further recommendations that should be applied to today’s child-care centers: First, “a place where sick children could be housed so that women may go to work when their children need to be isolated,” and, second,
The distribution of a healthy meal to be given to the working mother at the end of the day so she does not need to prepare dinner after a hard day’s work. Both of these suggestions would be advantageous to single parent homes and those with two working parents or guardians. (Povell, 2017, p. 27).
The implementation of these recommendations is long overdue. The first—providing an extra room in a child-care setting, or a partitioned-off area in a classroom, where a sick child can stay—is fairly easy to achieve, though not an adequate solution for serious illnesses. The second faces potential budget cuts and requires continued vigilance by the early childhood community. Montessori’s “science behind the genius” (Lillard, 2005)—the focus on motor skills, large and small; the manipulation of the writing instrument; the Sandpaper Letters; and the repetition of the sounds necessary for writing and reading—plays little to no part in today’s Early Childhood environments. Montessori’s view that mind and movement are inseparable should be incorporated into all Early Childhood classrooms, to mitigate the ever-growing movement of first grade curriculum down into the kindergarten classroom. Piaget, Vygotsky, and other constructivists understood the stages of development so carefully laid out by Montessori. If children are to accomplish reading, writing, and arithmetic at so young an age, they should at least be utilizing materials specifically made for these purposes; the pink cubes, the brown prisms, and the green rods can be manipulated as is or substituted for similar materials that can be touched and moved by the children. Sandpaper Letters, Metal Insets, and movable letters, or teacher-made likenesses, would prepare the young child’s mind and body for writing and reading (Montessori, 1965, pp. 138–158). Montessori educators should continue to present these ideas at national and local conferences, like NAEYC and ACEI.
At the end of the 19th century, Montessori worked, in Rome, with children with unspecified disabilities, in a self-contained special education setting, utilizing sensory materials based on those developed by Itard and Séguin. This work enabled the children to progress to a level at which they could pass Italian national exams. These materials, or teacher-made renderings, could be just as useful today. Rather than the stickers or M&Ms used as rewards today in special education classrooms, they would “refine…senses through an exercise of attention, of comparison, [and] of judgment,” rather than a piecemeal approach to learning (Montessori, 1964, pp. 360–361).
Montessori’s view of the teacher’s role in the classroom can be compared to the contemporary adage that a teacher should be “the guide on the side as opposed to the sage on the stage.” More teachers need to understand and provide hands-on experiences for children to assimilate and accommodate new knowledge—as opposed to whole-class teaching without differentiation of instruction—and child-centered learning, an insight fundamental to the principles of the Montessori Method. Montessori explained it this way:
It is important to understand that the child takes not only with the mind but with his hands and his activity. This is because the child grows up with…a whole personality made up of character, sentiment, mind, knowledge, activity, all bound up together. (Buckenmeyer, 1970, p. 7)
The Silence Lesson, another practice that Montessori developed by observing children, can be found in the current educational literature: the concept of mindfulness practices that focus on mental attention with a sense of nonjudgment and self-awareness. Montessori’s emphasis on intense and uninterrupted concentration and her lesson of silence where the child “might be said to be wrapped in meditation” supports this theory. (Montessori, 1965, p. 119) Some schools have introduced meditation to achieve these same goals, but more need to do so.
The projected outcomes of mindfulness training, which Montessori foresaw more than 100 years ago, are persistence, less impulsivity, flexible thinking coupled with metacognition, knowledge through the senses, independent thought, and learning from experience—all as relevant today as they were then. The non–education community has also begun to implement these exercises: For example, Weight Watchers recently mentioned the “power of mindfulness” in its newsletter (Weight Watchers Weekly, 2017).
The latest catchphrase in educational circles is executive functioning, which includes planning, organization, memory, time management, and flexible thinking. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child asserts, “Providing the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities” (Povell, 2017, p. 29). Though Montessori did not coin the term, executive function is at the heart of her method, and Montessori schools should spread the word about this.
Montessori’s “possibilities for the future” have become staples of good early childhood education. Her passionate devotion to young children as individuals in their own right, rather than miniature adults who were to be seen and not heard, was the mainspring of her work. She wrote:
Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done.…They will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be the victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society. (Montessori, 1963, p. 3)
This cadre of new citizens is essential today more than ever.
It is clear that Montessori’s theories and ideals are as valuable today—if not more so—for early childhood education as they were more than 100 years ago. Montessori educators and organizations as well as other prominent early childhood institutions need to apply these ideas in their classrooms and promote these early Montessori principles to their local, state, and federal policy makers.
About the Author
PHYLLIS POVELL, PhD, is professor emerita and former director of the Early Childhood Program at Long Island University, in New York. She is the author of Montessori Comes to America: The Leadership of Maria Montessori and Nancy McCormick Rambusch (2010).
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Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational employment and wages, 2017. Retrieved from www.bls.gov/news.release/ocwage.t01.htm.
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Weight Watchers. (2017, July 16). Tap the power of mindfulness, Weight Watchers weekly.