Montessori Philosophy and Education
Montessori is an educational philosophy based on the scientific research and observations of Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952). Montessori is dedicated to facilitating the development of the whole child in an empowering, collaborative, and integrative learning environment that fosters independence, social and environmental responsibility, and a life-long love of learning.
Dr. Maria Montessori
Dr. Montessori was an influential Italian physician, scientist, developmental psychologist, and theorist that changed the way the modern world viewed both child development and formal education. Dr. Montessori’s method and philosophy evolved from her groundbreaking work with special needs and at-risk populations in the University of Rome’s Psychiatric Clinic and the slums of San Lorenzo, respectively (Standing, 1957). The unrecognized potential of these special populations and the speed and ease with which Dr. Montessori observed them progress using her materials and philosophy propelled her forward and inspired her to further refine her scientific pedagogy and emphasis on the development of the whole child. A treatise by Lillard (2005), on the science behind the fundamental underpinnings of a Montessori education, referenced over 600 studies and books to support the following eight principles:
1. movement and cognition are closely interwoven and movement enhances cognitive function and learning
2. learning and overall well-being are improved when one has the freedom to make choices
3. people learn better when they are interested in what they are learning
4. associating extrinsic rewards (e.g., stickers, candy, grades, etc.) with a given activity decreases motivation to engage in said activity when the extrinsic reward is removed
5. collaboration amongst peers is conducive to learning
6. learning that takes place in purposeful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts
7. more optimal developmental outcomes result when teachers do not take an authoritarian position; when the learning experience is child-centered as opposed to teacher-centered
8. children respond very well, cognitively and developmentally, to order in their environment.
Classroom Design: When Dr. Montessori called her first classroom, in the slums of San Lorenzo, Casa de Bambini, she did not mean “Children’s House” as much as she meant “Children’s Home”. Classes are comfortable, calm, and filled with light. Order, an inherent aspect of the Montessori classroom environment, is known to have a positive effect on learning and cognitive development (see Lillard, 2005 for review). In a Montessori classroom, there is physical organization in the way that materials are arranged in specific areas as well as predictability in the way students progress through the materials. The order of the classroom encourages and invites exploration. Side-by-side comparisons of the Casa de Bambini with a modern day Montessori classrooms reveal that very little, if anything, has changed in over 100 years. There are no desks, but size-appropriate tables and a large, open, carpeted floor space for children to work on small rugs. There is no specific area for the teacher to preside over the class. Students are allowed to freely move about and choose resources as they pursue their work plan individually or in small groups, capitalizing both on the known benefits of coupling movement and cognition as well as freedom of choice.
Multiage Groupings: Montessori classrooms and curriculum materials are grouped according to the principles of Dr. Maria Montessori’s “Planes of Development” which groups children according to observable developmental characteristics and needs. Primary classes are comprised of ages 3-6, lower elementary of ages 6-9, and upper elementary of ages 9-12. This classroom arrangement also acknowledges that children of the same age are not merely empty vessels waiting to be filled with the same information, but rather that they are all individuals with diverse interests and needs. These principles are also supported by developmental theorists Jean Piaget and Lee Vygotsky, who both recognized the importance of collaborating with peers in the learning process (Crain, 2010; Lillard, 2005). Multiage grouping maximizes the curriculum options available to students, encourages cooperation, peer mentorship, and fosters self-confidence in all students as they serve as role models to others.
Interdisciplinary Approach: All subjects in the Montessori curriculum form an interconnected web of learning (figure 1). Dr. Montessori’s philosophy of “Cosmic Education” emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things, moving systematically from a “big picture” perspective to increasing detail while simultaneously moving from the concrete into abstraction. Subjects are approached thematically in order to strengthen the relationship to all disciplines. Students are taught to use reading, writing and math as tools for the pursuit of knowledge and skills in all subjects.
Materials: Montessori materials are an integral part of the Montessori educational paradigm. Dr. Montessori developed these hands-on materials to both entice the children to engage independently in didactic exercises and to meet developmental needs. The materials are based on developmental principles such as the Absorbent Mind, the Planes of Development, and Sensitive Periods. Materials in all areas of the curriculum are research-based, concrete, self-correcting, and have remain virtually unchanged since their inception. Many materials serve multiple didactic functions that grow with the student as they master skills. Dr. Montessori observed that providing a concrete foundation upon which to build was very beneficial to the passage to abstraction as children progressed into the elementary years and beyond (Montessori, 1967).
Longer Class Periods – Much like the materials, a long, uninterrupted work cycle is an essential aspect of Montessori. Art, music, dance, physical education, foreign language, and other activities where children are typically scheduled to leave the classroom are taught by the classroom teacher and integrated into the rest of the curriculum. Dr. Montessori observed in her classroom that knowledge of a pending interruption in the work cycle resulted in decreased concentration and a diminished learning experience (Montessori, 1912). A long, interrupted work cycle allows children to freely choose work and to become completely absorbed in it. Children choose a given activity because they are interested in learning it, not because a period for learning that subject has begun, thereby improving the leaning experience (Lillard, 2005). Whole class instruction time is minimal, usually limited to the beginning and end of the day.
Self-Paced Mastery and Freedom: Like many developmental psychologists, Dr. Montessori was a stage theorist. She believed that children pass through predictable stages of development, based on developmental traits, which can be attributed to a range of ages. As children pass through the Planes of Development, they enter into what Dr. Montessori (after Hugo DeVries) called “Sensitive Periods” of increased interest in and ability to learn certain concepts (e.g., language, mathematics, spatial relationships, money and economics, etc.) (Montessori, 1967). During these Sensitive Periods, children are motivated by an intense inner drive and gravitate to materials that satisfy their developmental needs. Most importantly, Dr. Montessori recognized that the onset and duration of each Sensitive Period is variable for each individual child. Students are allowed to progress at their own rate, either moving ahead or taking extra time needed to internalize the material.
Primary Classroom and Curriculum Design: The primary classroom provides a prepared environment deigned to meet the needs of children in the second half of the first Plane of Development (ages 3-6). Dr. Montessori described students in the first Plane of Development as having an Absorbent Mind, seeming to effortlessly absorb information from their environment, spontaneously developing complex skills that would take great effort to master later in life (Montessori, 1967). At this stage, children are still very concrete learners, laying the foundation for abstraction in the second Plane of Development and beyond. The curriculum materials are developmentally appropriate, self-correcting, and have multiple didactic purposes. One salient aspect of this age is the child’s quest for independence (Montessori, 1967). The primary classroom is designed to facilitate this quest. The five main areas of the primary curriculum, suited to the developmental attributes and Sensitive Periods of this age group, are Practical Life, Mathematics, Language, Sensorial, and Cultural Studies.
Elementary Classrooms and Curriculum Design: The elementary curriculum is designed to meet the developing needs of “childhood”; Dr. Montessori’s second Plane of Development from ages 6 to 12. The Montessori elementary curriculum is based on the Five Great Lessons of Dr. Montessori’s vision for “Cosmic Education”. Knowledge is presented on a large-scale, becoming more focused and specific as the narrative progresses, all the while emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things. This approach allows students to fully grasp the depth and richness of the universe and the context of themselves within it. In addition, the curriculum follows the principles of the “Spiral of Learning” (figure 2), where major themes in the curriculum are revisited every 3 years in increasing complexity and abstraction. As an example, the First Great Lesson introduces students to the creation of the universe, the solar system, the emergence of matter, and the formation of the Earth. Within this structure, the physical, earth, and space sciences are covered but students also comprehend the information in a larger and broader context than they would if subjects were artificially divided and isolated. Also integrated into the Five Great Lessons, the elementary curriculum strongly emphasizes math and language, and then uses them thematically to study other subjects.
Figure 1. The interconnected web of learning (used with permission from the Montessori Foundation).
Figure 2. The Montessori spiral of learning (used with permission from the Montessori Foundation).
Crain, W. C. (2010). Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications (6th ed.). Prentice Hall.
Lillard, A. S. (2005). Montessori: the science behind the genius. Oxford University Press US.
Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori method (AE George, Trans.). New York: Frederick Stokes.
Montessori, M. (1967). The absorbent mind (CA Claremont, trans.). New York: Henry Holt.
Standing, E. M. (1957). Maria Montessori: Her life and work. London: Hollis & Carter.