Thursday, July 2, 2009

Maria Montessori

We have a long association with the Montessori Method of education—and when I say we, I mean Brigitte particularly and myself as a humble servant of her endeavors but a close and enthusiastic student of Maria Montessori’s thought, writing, and practices. Our association began in the mid-1960s. In due course Brigitte became a certified Montessori teacher and taught in a school affiliated with Avila University until we left the Kansas City area in the early 1970s.

My thoughts returned to this period doubly triggered, in part by organizing books for a move to another place; my stock taking showed me, again, our rather extensive collection of literature on the method, not least all of Montessori’s books. Another and seemingly unrelated preoccupation also played a role: thinking about the need for a national economic policy. Relating how that idea evoked Montessori I’ll save to the end.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a woman of genius in the progressive, nineteenth century mold, but firmly anchored in tradition nonetheless. She was the first female physician in modern Italy, a graduate of the University of Rome’s La Sapienza Medical School—good name, that. (Alas, humanity forgets so easily. Female doctors were the norm, not the stellar exceptions, in medieval times.) As a member of the university’s Psychiatric Clinic, she was drawn by the problem of educating retarded children. Her interest and leadership rapidly earned her appointment as the director of a school for the retarded. The methods she had devised soon led to success. Some of the children in her charge soon passed state examinations for reading and writing and did so with higher-than-average scores. In the next step she organized a school in a housing project, by invitation. This became the Casa dei Bambini, the Children’s House, the first ever Montessori school.

With some trepidation I’ll attempt to give a very brief summary of the Method. Montessori’s observations led her to the conviction that children learn spontaneously by interaction with their environment. They teach themselves. She optimized this process by offering bambini a specially prepared environment in general and specially designed teaching materials as tools. She combined this by training teachers carefully disciplined to maintain order as unobtrusively as possible, thus to protect the environment and nip conflict in the bud—and to facilitate the children’s learning not by teaching but by gentle guidance (and only when necessary) of the child’s own process of discovery.

When it is properly done—and when the surrounding society does not destroy by night what the school provides by day—this method has wonderful results. But it does require that it be implemented as designed and teachers suited by intellect, character, and temperament to stay out of the way but yet to be there to the extent necessary. The Montessori method continues to gain ground in early childhood education, but it isn’t sweeping the field and perhaps, given the human condition, shall never do so. Lucky the children who benefit. They, and others because of them, will experience the grace that came by way of Montessori into the world.

The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) has seventeen member countries, predominantly western, but the method is present in the Islamic world in Pakistan and in the Hindu world in India. The method is more widespread in some other countries than our own, but here are some statistics about the Montessori movement in the United States. In the 1993-94 period, using data from the AMI, 732 Montessori schools were active in the country. This is a much lower number than schools that use the Montessori name; it’s a free country, the method has a stellar reputation, and people can and do use it without appropriate certification. In any case these 732 schools were educating 42,800 students. In the 2000-01 period, school numbers had increased to 1,377; these schools were now educating 84,525 students. Now let’s see these numbers in context. The Montessori Method reaches from toddler up to, maximally, 12-year olds. Montessori also wrote extensively about the education of children older than twelve, but she did not form institutions for older ages; and her ideas have never been tried. Why? Several aspects of society would have to be reorganized to do justice to the good doctor’s ideas. So what is the K-through-7 population in toto? According to the Digest of Education Statistics, in a table available here, 2001 enrollment in pre-kindergarten to Grade 8 was 39 million. The category is slightly larger than applies: Grade 8 includes 13-year-olds. But taking this number, it is obvious that Montessori training is almost invisible, accounting for 0.2 percent of students.

This tells Brigitte and me just how influential people of our views generally are over against a vast culture—but that doesn’t mean that we must keep our mouths shut.

Now let me relate why thoughts about a national economic policy made me think of Montessori. It occurred to me that the guiding, optimizing effect of a “prepared environment” and of appropriately trained teachers can bring out the best in children acting spontaneously and following their innate tendencies. The thought was that much as Montessori guided children, respecting them, letting them do things that came naturally—but in a certain environment, an environment the teacher also protected from wanton damage—so also a national policy could optimize the performance of a free economic sector by guiding its actions by proper regulation and minimal but crucial guidance by government. Other nations have done better implementing concepts analogous to Montessori’s method in the larger economic sphere. Is that, perhaps, because a national consensus is more sharply focused at the top? Imagine a Montessori teacher unpredictable from day to day: one day she is authoritarian, one day aggressively laissez faire; one day she favors children whose parents are best dressed and drive the most expensive cars, another she exudes a warm-caring personality toward the most neglected of her unfortunate bambini. Indeed, from day to day, you can't really predict, and sometimes she is entirely distracted because her boyfriend is acting up. Not good, folks. But that’s how policy manifests in the U.S. of A.


  1. Montessori also wrote extensively about the education of children older than twelve, but she did not form institutions for older ages; and her ideas have never been tried. Why? Several aspects of society would have to be reorganized to do justice to the good doctor’s ideas.

    I hadn't realized this. What sort of thing did she suggest?

  2. Good point, Brandon. I'll soon have something up on that.