In the early 1900's, Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori developed an innovative teaching methodology for children that left an indelible mark on education curricula throughout the world. Montessori education is a sensory-based pedagogy that is based on the belief that children learn at their own pace through manipulation of objects (Lopata, Wallace, & Finn, 2005). To fully understand the Montessori Method, also known as individual learning or progressive learning, it is necessary to trace the history and development of the philosophy, and review the various principles and uses of the teaching methodology in pre-K, K-12 and special education programs. Studies show that Montessori students tend to achieve at a greater rate than students in traditional programs; however, critics say that the method is insufficiently standardized, and its efficacy has not been deeply evaluated.
Keywords American Montessori Society (AMS); Association Montessori Internationale (AMI); Individual Learning; Kinesiology; Magnet Programs; Manipulators; Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE); Montessori Method; Montessori Schools; Progressive Approach; Sensory Learning; Traditional Learning; Whole-Class Learning
Dr. Maria Montessori initially devised her teaching philosophy in 1896 while working with special needs children in the Psychiatric Department at the University of Rome. Although her patients were diagnosed as mentally deficient and unable to learn, within two years of Montessori's instruction, the children were able to successfully complete Italy's standardized public school exams (International Montessori Index, 2006).
Through her research and study in the field, Montessori observed that effective teaching styles required the establishment of a "sensory rich" environment that offered interactive yet independent learning opportunities. In this "educational playground" children could choose from a variety of developmental activities that promoted learning by doing. Montessori believed that it was necessary to train the senses before training the mind (Lopata, Wallace & Finn, 2005).
By using this "self-directed" individual learning approach, Montessori's students were able to teach themselves through critical interaction in a 'prepared environment' containing interconnected tasks which gradually required higher levels of cognitive thought. This method was designed to create a task-oriented student who is "intrinsically motivated to master challenging tasks" (Rathunde & Csikszentmihalya, 2005, p. 345).
The Montessori Method was a radical philosophy at the time which contradicted and challenged many of the existing beliefs about 'whole-class learning' the acquisition of knowledge and the development of early human cognition. Montessori believed that children were not a blank slate and that the traditional learning methods such as recitation, memorization and conditioning failed to develop necessary life skills and individual abilities. She described traditional students as, "butterflies mounted on pins, each fastened to their place spreading the useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge which they have acquired" (Shute, 2002, p. 71).
According to Montessori, from ages 2-6 children experience a "sensitive period" in which vital skills such as language acquisition, socialization and, kinesiology need to be identified and strategically applied and advanced. Any deficiency in intellect, ethics or socialization later in life can be attributed to a lack of cognitive development during the "sensitive period" (Ruenzel, 1997, p. 31).
In 1907, Montessori left her practice and chair at the University and opened a school for impoverished children in the San Lorenzo section of Rome and named it "Case Dei Bambini" or "House of Children." It was here that she began to formally implement her ideology based on the principle that every human being is created with a unique potential that needs to be discovered, developed and applied at an early age.
The success of Montessori's school inspired others to develop similar programs in Switzerland, England, India, China, Mexico, Syria, New Zealand and America. The first official Montessori school in the United States was created in 1912 in Tarrytown, NY, and one year later Alexander Graham Bell established the Montessori Educational Association in Washington D.C. In 1928 Montessori formed the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) in order to preserve and promote her vision in schools and developmental facilities throughout the world.
The Montessori Method did not gain widespread acceptance in the U.S. until 1960 when Dr. Nancy Rambusch formed the American Montessori Society (AMS). The organization, consisting largely of concerned middle-class mothers, was a grassroots effort established to "adapt the educational principles of Montessori to the American Experience" in city school systems throughout the United States (Schapiro, 1993). As a result of the movement, hundreds of Montessori schools, sometimes referred to as magnet programs, were established for pre-school, elementary and secondary students (Edwards 2002).
Currently, there are more than 5,000 schools in the U.S. using some type of Montessori-based curriculum to teach children from infancy to eighth grade (Bower, 2006). These public and private institutions cater to the educational needs of inner-city children, wealthy neighborhoods, rural and urban magnet programs, at-risk children, learning disabled populations, early childhood schools and child care facilities (Lopata, Wallace & Finn, 2005).
One underlying premise of the Montessori Method is that each child possesses an inner power that motivates them to seek out specific activities and interactions (Crain, 2004). The purpose of the classroom was to create a "prepared environment" where the student was free to discover and advance his or her unique power while disciplined enough to stay focused on a specific series of tasks. With this progressive approach, learning becomes "a complex process of making sense of new information through reflection and interaction" (Weissglass, 1999, p. 46).
Rather than sitting through a traditional collective lesson, students achieve what Montessori referred to as "auto-education" by working independently under the direction of a "pedagogic apparatus" of their choice (Brehony, 2000). Common manipulators, or manipulative materials, used by Montessori included wooden letters and numbers, cylinders, blocks, beads, rods, puzzles, gymnastic equipment, metal objects, and household items. Buy using a sensory learning method, the child gains knowledge by playing the inquisitive role of the naïve scientist.
According to Montessori, the goal of education is "to be able to find activities that are so intrinsically meaningful that we want to throw ourselves into them" (Montessori, 1967, p.14). Crain (2004) confirmed this assertion by noting that "when children find tasks that enable them to develop their naturally emerging capacities, they become interested in them and concentrate deeply on them. They possess a serenity that seems to come from the knowledge that they have been able to develop something vital from within." (Crain, 2004, p. 4) Using this approach, Montessori created a paradigm in which the school fit the needs of the student rather than the student having to fit the needs of the school (Weissglass, 1999).
Students are assigned their own personal workstations designed with educational items that correspond to the daily lesson plans and activities. Students are responsible for setting up the work area, choosing the learning activity, applying the physical materials, and returning the materials back to the shelves (Pickering, 2004).
Children are always free to move around the room and are not given deadlines for the various learning tasks. Desks are arranged into open networks that encourage meaningful group discourse, as well as independent learning. Students work together with the teachers to organize time strategically in order to complete the necessary learning tasks of the day. The amount of teachers in the classroom varies based on class size, but usually two teachers are used for sections with thirty or more students.
The Montessori Teacher
The primary role of a Montessori educator is to carefully observe while creating a cooperative and supportive setting that is well organized and aesthetically pleasing to the learners. The teacher performs the "overseer role" by directing the "spontaneous" actions of the students (Ruenzel, 1997). According to Montessori, "education is not something which the teacher does, but...
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