*This post was originally published as two separate posts in January of 2016. Because both posts address the origins and philosophy of Montessori practice, we wanted to republish them together.
Anyone connected to education today has heard the following espoused as best practices:
- Project-Based Learning
- Differentiated Instruction
- Social-Emotional Learning
- Use of Manipulatives and Hands-On Activities
- Real-World Experiences
- High Expectations
These are cutting-age, modern instructional practices, right?
Maria Montessori first began developing and implementing these techniques in the early 20th century.
She was a visionary, a pioneer, and a barrier breaker. It is only now, as much of her methodology is being embraced as research-proven practice in traditional, non-Montessori classrooms, that her brilliance is being fully revealed.
Maria Montessori defied convention from the very beginning. She was born in Italy in 1870 during a time when women’s roles were restricted. Despite the discouragement of her father, she dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Initially denied acceptance to medical school, she was eventually allowed to enroll; obtaining admission, however, was only the first of the challenges she would face. She endured hostility and harassment from some of her classmates and professors. Additionally, because it was considered untoward for women and men to be in the presence of a naked body together, in order to do the requisite cadaver dissections, she was required to work alone and at night. Despite this adversity, she graduated from medical school in 1896 and became one of Italy’s first female physicians.
Her early practice involved working with children with disabilities, and it was this work that ultimately drew her to education. She was a keen observer and data collector. She deduced that children are innately drawn to learning and discovery. From this, she began developing manipulatives to support student learning. Anyone who has had the privilege of witnessing division of fractions using the skittles, or multiplication of polynomials using the binomial or trinomial cube (a material that is first introduced to three year olds) understands the magic that transpires when the “what we do” of mathematic algorithms becomes supported by the “why we do it” that comes with concrete comprehension. I have seen many adults become wide-eyed when the “flip the second fraction and multiply” rule for fraction division becomes clear once demonstrated using Montessori materials, or the complex algebraic concepts built into the binomial cube and trinomial cube is revealed. One of the most quintessential Montessori materials is the moveable alphabet, which allows very young children to successfully tackle the complex tasks of reading and writing, and to find pride and joy in doing so.
In 1906, Montessori was invited to oversee a school for children from low-income families in Rome’s inner city. It was here that she determined that her educational methods were equally effective for children without disabilities. From this work, the Montessori Method was established. This, however, was only the beginning. As noted at the beginning of this article, many of the “newest” educational practices have roots in Montessori’s model. While Montessori education is far too complex of a subject to fully describe here, there are five fundamental components, which capture much of the philosophy. These were revolutionary ideas when Montessori first introduced them; today they are standard practice in most well run classrooms – traditional and Montessori, alike.
Beauty and Atmosphere
- Natural or soft lighting
- Conscientious use of color
- Well-organized/not cluttered
- Inclusion of plants and/or animals
- Well-maintained materials and furnishings
- Decorated spaces that do not create distractions
- Variety of work spaces: tables, individual desks, floor, counters, etc.
- Student supplies readily accessible
Structure and Order
- Checklists/Work Plans
- Clear expectations for academics and behavior
- Directly communicated and reinforced routines and procedures
- Structured assignments which provide models, rubrics, guidelines, and control for error
Freedom with Responsibility
- Choice in assignments related to level of difficulty and/or method of presentation
- Development of self-monitoring through use of controls,checklists,planners, etc.
- Student-led conferences
- Classroom jobs
- Morning meeting roles
Reality and Nature
- Real-world experiences
- Engagement with the natural world
- Development of life skills
- Use of tools appropriate to the task and developmental level
Grace and Courtesy
- Classroom jobs
- Responsibility for public space clean-up
- Classroom Meetings which include Greetings and Acknowledgments
- Character Strength Development (normalization and valorization)
Many of today’s best practice innovations aren’t innovations at all. The Montessori Method has been educating children this way for 100 years.
The secondary Montessori movement was essentially begun in the mid 1990s with the formation of Clark Montessori School (Cincinnati, OH) and The Hershey Farm School Adolescent Program. (Huntsburg, OH) Today there are an estimated 400 Montessori adolescent programs worldwide – this is miniscule in proportion to a total of more than 20,000 Montessori programs overall. Currently there are only three American Montessori Society affiliated secondary Montessori training programs for teachers – Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program, through which both Jack and I earned our credential, Houston Montessori Center, which is based in Houston, Texas, and Instituto Nueva Escuela in Puerto Rico.
It is exciting to be a part of something that remains in the process of self-creation. While secondary Montessori education was something that Maria Montessori envisioned, she did not develop a secondary program, herself, instead leaving it to future generations to do so.
Those of us working in Montessori secondary programs today are that future generation of whom Montessori spoke. Turning her philosophy into comprehensive practice is our “big work.”
Montessori identified four distinct planes of development: birth to age 6, ages 6 to 12, ages 12 to 18, and ages 18-24. Her work initially focused on the first two planes; however, during the 1920s, she began studying the needs of the adolescent. Her philosophy on the educational needs of children in this third plane of development can be found in her book, From Childhood to Adolescence, which was first published in 1948. In that text, she writes:
“The need that is so keenly felt for a reform of secondary schools concerns not only an educational, but also a human and social problem. Schools, as they are today, are adapted neither to the needs of adolescents nor to the times in which we live. Society has not only developed into a state of utmost complication and extreme contrasts, but it has now come to a crisis in which the peace of the world and civilization itself are threatened. More than to anything else it is due to the fact that the development of man himself has not kept pace with that of his external environment.”
It is almost eerie how resonant her words remain today.
Montessori had a vision for a more developmentally appropriate model of learning; she referred to adolescents as “Erdkinder,” or “Earth’s children” because she believed that they were best served by working outside the classroom in a farm-like natural environment. While this is unrealistic in light of the many requirements of modern education, the pioneers in the secondary Montessori movement have used this philosophy as a foundation, and have outlined curricula for effective Montessori programs that also align with state and district academic requirements. The fundamental elements are outlined below. Many of these overlap with what would be expected in any Montessori classroom, while others are specific to a secondary program.
Establishment of a peaceful community
- daily student-led community meetings
- fostering a sense of belonging through communal learning and collaborative work
- multi-age groupings in classrooms
- modeling and instruction in grace and courtesy
Emphasis on the Nobility of Work
- implementation of over-arching developmental themes
- cross-curricular integration
- differentiation and choice of work
- uninterrupted work periods
- seminar discussions which explore big themes, differences in perspectives, and complex issues of our time
- student-led conferences
- intentional fostering of executive functioning tasks: time management, organization, decision making, self-reflection, and goal setting
Connections to Cosmic Education
- incorporating opportunities to cultivate a sense of global citizenship and harmony with the universe
- nurturance of a spirit of generosity, abundance, awe, and wonder
- opportunities for service learning
- real-world experiences including engagement with the natural world
In this model, the teacher serves as a guide to the community of learners. She supports the valorization (growth of positive qualities) of the adolescent, demonstrates wisdom, caring, and thoughtfulness, fosters cooperation and collaboration, and is responsive to the many needs of her students.
Secondary Montessori education is a burgeoning practice. One that by many accounts was initiated a mere 25 years ago, but which is rapidly gaining momentum. It is the type of instruction that so many of us have been seeking – teachers, students, and families alike. Our forthcoming book will describe this in much further detail; perhaps you are waiting with bated breath for its publication!