Walking in Maria Montessori’s Footsteps

“To liberate the child we must reform the environment, and reform the world. This is a necessity if we are to have life at its highest development. A fine work of research and observation is required in order to give that which is necessary to the development of life.” —Dr. Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was an Italian educator and physician who developed a now- famous and widely-used method for teaching in the classroom: the Montessori Method.  In 1907, when she was observing children who were given freedom to do whatever they wanted in an uncontrolled environment, she discovered what she referred to as the “child’s true normal nature.” That is, the child engaged in self-directed learning through doing ordinary tasks for the sake of the experience rather than to accomplish a certain end. Dr. Montessori’s method thus aims to encourage learning and development through enhancing this natural ability to self-direct; her theory was that children learn best through experimentation and experience, rather than through merely being instructed.

A Montessori environment is optimally structured to give a young student freedom to choose what they learn within the bounds of material organized by subject and difficulty. For example, one day a student might have several subjects to choose from, and may pick mathematics. He will eventually get to all the lessons, but is enjoying the natural self-direction that will best allow him to absorb the lesson. The teacher, based on observations of the child, determines what intellectual challenges will be given as well as when they will be given; her role is to respond to the child’s learning and fit the curriculum to his development, not to impose upon him a cookie-cutter lesson. The Montessori Method is ultimately not only focused on learning, but on the growth of the child into a caring, independent, and self-disciplined individual.

Montessori methods can generally be grouped into four different categories: Practical Life, Language, Sensorial, and Mathematics. My classroom is unique because I add other categories to the process, such as Geography, Science, and Art. While these are recognized Montessori categories, not every teacher uses them, and implementing them makes me a bit different from the teacher down the hallway. However, I have found that these additional activities are areas that my students not only greatly enjoy, but areas that further their development in unique and effective ways.

It should be noted that many activities can and should be presented in a three-step process called the “three-period lesson.” This is a fundamental teaching tool in a Montessori education, and was developed by Eduoard Seguin, whose work with the mentally handicapped was very inspirational to Maria Montessori. The name of a new thing is frequently introduced through this method, and the child will use his memory to progress through the three steps of listening, recognizing, and articulating. In Period One, the directress will provide the child with the name of the object; for instance, “This is a C.” She may also have a child trace a letter repeatedly while she repeats what the letter is.

In Period Two, which is where most of the learning time is spent, the directress will ask the child to show her the item (or letter) just demonstrated. When the child can show the item, he or she may progress to Period Three, in which the directress will hold the object and ask, “What is this?” When the child answers correctly, then he understands the concept and is ready to move on. However, if he answers incorrectly, do not correct him!  Re-demonstrate at a later time and let him try again. Maria Montessori said, “Indeed why correct him? If the child has not succeeded in associating the name with the object, the only way in which to succeed would be to repeat the lesson. But when the child has failed, we should know that he was not at that instant ready for the psychic association which we wished to provoke in him, and we must therefore choose another moment.”  Children learn and absorb at different speeds, and some will take longer to reach the third period than others.

The end goal of the Montessori Method is “Normalization.” This refers to a psychological shift from disorder and inattention to an adherence to self-discipline and independence. This shift is fostered and nurtured through the child’s repetitive engagement in activities that the child himself chooses; as we’ve discussed earlier, children have a biological need to learn and experience, so the child will need no prompting to do this!

At this point, you may not have decided whether or not Montessori is right for you—and that’s okay! “At Home Montessori” will help you better understand the methods of Montessori education. My goal is to give my readers a better understanding of the Montessori Method and history as you begin implementing it in your child’s life!