Maria Montessori Had a Good Idea

by Pat Goltz

Maria Montessori was a physician who devised a unique method of education. She lived in Italy. Her first schools were actually day care centers known as Casi dei Bambini (homes of the children). In these day care centers, she used intense observation of the children and how they reacted as the source for the design of her system. She subsequently moved to India, where she changed her religion from Catholicism to Theosophy. She wrote a number of books which have been published.

The Montessori school is characterized by the prepared environment. While nearly all other schools structure time, the Montessori method structures the environment, space, and learning materials. Children begin formal Montessori education at about the age of three, which is considered the age of the absorbent mind. Children of this age soak up everything happening around them, and learn from it, for good or ill. The child of this age likes to keep order in his or her environment, and this can be capitalized upon to produce learning, even in academic subjects.

The Montessori environment contains learning materials, particularly materials that can be manipulated. The materials are in the nature of apparatus that is designed to teach a specific thing. For example, there are rods that teach children to perceive and measure length, volume, and so forth. There are several broad classifications for these materials. For example, exercises in caring for the environment are classified as practical life. The students are taught to wash tables, for example. The technique demonstrated for washing tables begins in the upper left corner of the table from the child's perspective. The child uses a damp cloth and makes a circular motion which is a precursor to writing. This is typical of the Montessori exercise. Each exercise is designed precisely so that the child learns something specific and correct from it. The circular motion used is similar to the circles elementary schoolchildren used to make on lined paper to teach handwriting. Another division is sensorial. In this division, children are taught to distinguish different colors, sounds, etc. For example, there is a set of six small opaque cylinders. Each contains something that makes noise when the cylinder is shaken. There are three green lidded or blue lidded ones, and three red lidded ones. The child is supposed to find the green and red one that make the same sound. The contents will be things like sand, rice, and other such things that make different sounds. Color is taught by means of little color strips, a pair in each color, for matching. This apparatus is fairly comprehensive; it contains somewhere around 64 different colors. The color strips are kept in boxes with slots, where they are lined up like microscope slides. Children are also encouraged to listen to recordings of classical music, and there is an art corner, where various art materials are made available. This is the most creative part of the classroom. Creativity with other apparatus is not encouraged, especially in schools patterned after the International Montessori philosophy. (The international organization is more faithful to Montessori's original design than the American, which incorporates a lot of educational ideas from other sources, most of them invalid, in my opinion.) An earlier color exercise involves one inch blocks in the primary and secondary colors, which can be matched, and can also be used for the Three Period Lesson (see below).

Reading and writing is taught by means of sandpaper letters to begin with. Large letters surfaced in sandpaper come in red and blue, one color for consonants, and the other for the five vowels. In this way, the child is taught instinctively to distinguish between consonants and vowels. The very young child is taught to use the index and third fingers (piano fingering, not violin) together to trace the letter in the proper stroke order. Red and blue felt letters are used to teach phonics and word construction. These are smaller. By the time the child has used the materials to his or her satisfaction, she or he will almost magically demonstrate the ability to read.

Mathematics is taught to begin with by means of apparatus that teaches length, volume, and other concepts. There are ten rods in length from a tenth of a meter, two tenths, etc. all the way up to a full meter. The child is encouraged to line these up stairstep fashion. Another is a set of ten cubes that can be stacked into a tower. Still another is a set of four cylinder blocks each containing ten cylinders. One set is graduated by length, another by width, another by both characteristics, length and width becoming larger together, and the final one with length becoming longer as width becomes narrower. These are the first exercises of the child in math. More exercises involve things like an apparatus that teaches the Pythagorean Theorem to preschoolers. This apparatus has a 3/4/5 right triangle with a square on each side containing little single unit squares that can be placed into the square area, to show that one side is equivalent to nine squares, one to sixteen, and one to twenty-five. Using this type of apparatus, a Montessori student is doing algebra-level exercises in concrete form by first grade. In general, Montessori students tend to be quite academically advanced. The environment is excellent for children with learning disabilities. I observed a child with Down Syndrome functioning normally in the Montessori classroom.

Montessori schools have the advantage of solving what J. McVicker Hunt called "the problem of the match". According to this idea, a person learns poorly when the level of difficulty of an exercise is not matched to his current level of achievement. If the exercise is too simple, the student will turn from it out of boredom. If it is too difficult, the student will turn from it out of frustration. Only when the exercise matches his current achievement will he experience optimum learning. The reason why Montessori schools do this so excellently is that generally speaking, the students work on their own. A student is allowed to use a piece of apparatus once the teacher (called a directress) has demonstrated how it is used. Students may use a piece of apparatus as long as they want, deciding when to stop and put it back on the shelf. As long as the student is using it, no other student may touch it without that student's permission. Montessori classrooms tend to train students at a high level of social functioning by using social ostracism as punishment. They also tend to teach conformity for the same reason, unfortunately. Montessori schools teach children to learn independently, but unfortunately, this may make it more difficult for a transition into a traditional classroom where the student is NOT allowed to decide when to study what the child is drawn to at that moment. Because of this feature of the traditional classroom plus the fact that children are taught in groups, the traditional classroom solves the problem of the match poorly. This is a major reason why Montessori students tend to be so advanced academically.

I have observed a directress interacting with an individual student, in a number of Montessori schools, and also teachers in schools patterned after other philosophies. I analyzed each interaction between student and teacher, and made a cumulative list of the interactions observed. This is what an observer does when she does instructional analysis. Because of the high level of discipline and other factors, in most classrooms and preschools, most of the interactions between directress and student are instructional in nature, with very few disciplinary interactions. Contrast this with nearly all other schools for very young children, where the teacher and student interact one-on-one. In those schools, most of the interactions are disciplinary in nature. Good teachers instinctively guide the students so that most of the interactions are instructional, whether it be the teacher conveying information, demonstrating something, or the student showing mastery. Montessori TEACHES people how to do this. All reasonably competent directresses do this very well.

I mentioned the Three Period Lesson before. This is a method of teaching a concept. The first aspect of this method is called isolation of difficulty. This means that the particular concept being taught is the ONLY concept being taught. Nothing distracting is shown to the student. In a traditional teaching method, a teacher may give the child a red car, and say, "This is red." Unfortunately, this also teaches the concept "car". Montessori, by contrast, isolates redness by giving the child different colored one inch blocks. These blocks are exactly like each other except for the color. Showing by example how the Three Period Lesson works, the directress first shows the child the red block and says, "This is red". As a second step, the directress will show the child the blue block and say, "This is blue". The second period of the lesson comes when the directress gives both blocks to the child and says, "Point to the red block. Point to the blue block." The final period of the lesson is when the directress says, "Point to a block and tell me what color it is." I was able to use this Three Period Lesson in teaching reading. First I would point to a letter in the book and say, "This says 't'" (making a sound without voice to avoid adding any extra sounds). Then I would point to each "t" in the book, and say "t". Then I would have the child point to the "t" and say the sound himself. Then I'd point to another letter and say, "This says 'e'" (where the sound I use is the short sound because it is the most commonly used). As soon as I had gone through the Three Period Lesson with two letters, I would then ask the child to go through the book, pointing to each "e" and "t" and saying its sound. The child is required to do this in order from left to right, top to bottom.

Ideally in the Montessori classroom, children are taught to respect each other and each other's work. This means they learn to verbalize when something is bothering them instead of hitting or screaming. In a well disciplined classroom, the children SEEM to behave spontaneously. Most people don't realize how much inherent discipline there is in a Montessori classrom that is properly run. By isolating the misbehaving child (essentially making the child sit in the corner), the directress encourages social constraints on behavior.

This is a far from complete description of the method. I will make some observations concerning how this works out in practice. In America, if a person wants a pure form of Montessori, then she should look for an internationally trained instructor. I personally think the international version of Montessori is much more effective. I don't recommend the American approach. I have had some rather disastrous experiences with it. At the same time, the international approach is not nearly as good at teaching creativity. While there are usually art supplies available, I believe this area greatly needs expansion. In some Montessori classrooms, music is taught with the Carl Orff apparatus and method. This is a good addition, because the philosophy is very compatible.

Montessori students are taught to appreciate their culture. There is also a set of Montessori exercises intended to teach the church year and other liturgical issues to students. This grew out of Montessori getting its start in Catholic Italy and the fact that originally Montessori was a Catholic. In my opinion, becoming a theosophist is not an improvement. Theosophy is a cult. For my final assignment under Madame van Thiel, I wrote a rather lengthy essay in which I defended the thesis that the Montessori philosophy is more consonant with Christianity than Theosophy. (Madame van Thiel is a theosophist, but she accepts whatever someone produces, and does not grade it. By writing this essay, I completed the requirements for her training course and earned her certificate. Other students designed a piece of apparatus.)

The major weaknesses I see in the Montessori method center around learning conformity to society. The student learns to respond to criticism and condemnation from his peers. This is because of the method of discipline used. Montessori lends itself to communist indoctrination while simultaneously teaching students to respect each other's property. The respect for the property of others is taught more clearly in Montessori. This is because children are NOT required or encouraged to all! But because of the conformity to social norms that is taught, children can easily be indoctrinated into communism as well. The fact that work is so individualized also discourages the students from developing the capacity to work in group situations. That could bring about a major change in the way industry operates, if enough people were Montessori educated. In the aggregate, I recommend Montessori over all other methods of education I have observed (with a traditional classroom with intensive phonics instruction as second best), in spite of its problems. Half the reason we have such a poorly educated populace is because we do not teach with sound methodology, we do not discipline (because it is not allowed), we teach children that the person is the measure of his own morality, and we do not solve the problem of the match. Montessori solves these problems by using sound methodology in pedagogy, provides excellent discipline, and solves the problem of the match. Like the homeschooled student, expect the Montessori student to show a much higher level of maturity in all areas, including social development.

Pat Goltz had experience with the Montessori classroom as a volunteer, and observed widely both in Montessori schools and schools not using the Montessori philosophy. She studied instructional analysis, and Montessori methodology with Madame Maake van Thiel, who studied under Mario Montessori, the son of Maria Montessori. She maintained a homeschool environment patterned after the Montessori philosophy and homeschooled the seven children in the Goltz family all the way through high school.