The founders of Google and Amazon, have Montessori schooling in common. Sergei Brin and Larry Page both attended Montessori schools. Both credit their Montessori education for much of their success. It was the Montessori experience, they claim, that made them self-directed, think for themselves and pursue their real interests. Jeff Bezos's mother tells of his single-mindedness at his Montessori school, being so absorbed in the tasks he chose, that they had to drag him off to give him a change, the same, self-directed, single-mindedness that was a feature of his Amazon adventure.
Casa dei Bambini
As the first woman to graduate as a Doctor in Italy, Maria Montessori, worked with children with special needs, but quickly drifted towards education, as she saw in her patients the results of a constricted approach to education and learning. She opened a school for the poor of Rome, the Casa dei Bambini, and developed her theory and practice from this real experience, first captured in the Montessori Method in 1909. It was a worldwide sensation but the Second World War came and Mussolini closed down all of her schools and the educational establishment in the US closed ranks and attacked her work. It is a testament to her theory that the movements, and Montessori schools, are still a feature of the educational landscape in many countries around the world.
As a modern heir to Rousseau, she sees the need to let children develop naturally with a strong emphasis on individualised learning. This is based on her belief that a child learns best when left to make their own choices within given constraints. Children have ‘tendencies’ to behave and learn and we must let them develop these tendencies to realise their potential. The method is perhaps best known as a system of auto-education where children are taught in mixed-age groups and not coerced into learning but given choices within a range of options. There is a great emphasis on discovery and learning by doing, making and manipulating things, rather than direct instruction, and the specific use of Montessori learning materials.
Classrooms are open environments and, as children do not have assigned seats, they work on floor mats or at low tables. These are in specific areas that contain selected and designed materials, carefully placed, in different subjects in a specific order and children are encouraged to work with their hands. Montessori materials are often made of wood but painted and made attractive to children. Low shelves are provided, as children are encouraged to tidy away materials after use.
Lessons are given but the structure is not rigid and teaching takes place with individuals or small groups, not to the whole class. Although assessment is largely through observation and not tests, the learning process is far from being unstructured. In fact it is highly organised. Children learn to write before they read and Montessori long encouraged the phonetic approach, as opposed to the whole word method, that became so disastrously popular elsewhere.
Home from home
Context matters and this means designing schools, not to be institutions separate from the world but part of the real world, like a real home with an extended family. Montessori schools are designed to be orderly, clean and aesthetically pleasing but also allow freedom of movement and exposure to relevant, learning materials. They are often deliberately remodelled to resemble a home, with small furniture and the feel of a family home.
This has become an issue in education, as schools, since the industrial revolution, have had to deal with absent working fathers, and increasingly, mothers. Montessori recognised this need with an emphasis on domestic activity. She did not want school to be cleaved off from the real world. It should, rather, be a home from home. With ideas similar to Rousseau and Dewey she was also keen on adolescents living in the country, running a farm or shop, and learning from making things and problem solving.
Stoll Lillard's claims that Montessori’s methods are confirmed by research in psychology and education, on eight points: 1. movement can enhance thinking and learning; 2. learning and well-being are improved when we have a sense of control; 3. we learn better when we are interested; 4. extrinsic rewards such as test scores, negatively impact motivation; 5. collaboration is conducive to learning; 6. learning is deeper and richer when situated in meaningful contexts; 7. adult interaction helps with learning and 8. order in the environment is beneﬁcial to children. It has not been easy to determine through research whether Montessori methods are inferior or superior, as the schools have been selected by parents. Further difficulties arise from the lack of clear classroom and pedagogic structures that can be compared with other mainstream forms of schooling.
Dewey thought the method too restrictive and this has been echoed by others, who see strict adherence to the Montessori materials a limit to creativity. They have been accused to being too attached to a method devised by one person on the basis of limited experience and research. Interestingly, others have seen Montessori schools as too unstructured. As one would expect with a movement with a controlled method, disputes also arise within the movement about the rights and wrongs of marking homework and so on.
Montessori certainly influenced Piaget with her belief in careful, structured child development but her main legacy endures through Montessori schools, with around 20,000 schools around the world (700 in UK). Many see virtue in its softer, more child-centred concept of education and school. They want their children to be free from the strictures of institutional schooling and let them develop at their own pace in a caring and personalised environment. In practice, modern schools have inadvertently absorbed many of these lessons into mainstream schooling. But ultimately, the movement has never moved beyond a niche position in the overall schools landscape.
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Stoll Lillard A. (2005) Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Oxford University Press