Exploring the Montessori Method
Posted by homeschoolmentormom on March 14, 2011
Warning: This is a long and complex post. I understand that many Montessori experts will not agree with my interpretations of the method, and am open to kind comments (see my previous post.) I did my best to use reputable sources, including Montessori’s own writing. NOTE: Please excuse the lousy ads on the You Tube videos.
The Montessori Method is based the writings and schools developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, one of the first female medical doctors in Italy. Montessori was Catholic, and many of her first schools served the developmentally disabled and the disadvantaged; many Montessori schools were Catholic schools. Montessori was greatly influenced by the time she spent in India…many writers label her philosophy as a mixture of Catholicism and Indian mysticism (see point six.) Quoting from The Essential Montessori, p. 15: “In later years, her combining of the mystical and the methodological makes the content (of her writings) even more difficult to understand.”
The Montessori Method is best known for its sequential “exercises” or “work” in several different subject areas:
–Sensory materials (or sensorial) help children learn concepts through hands-on, “sensory” manipulatives; these materials teach discernment of color, weight, size, temperature, sound, etc. (Watch Barrick Tablet lessons HERE.)
–Practical life materials include child-size, real tools that children use to practice various skills that help them grow in independence and coordination, such as hand-washing, wiping tables, arranging flowers, dusting, folding clothes, shining shoes, pouring water, spooning rice and/or beans, and using “frames” to practice tying, buttoning, fastening, etc (don’t all good moms do this sort of thing? Just doing day-to-day “life” with your children—like chores—and teaching your children how to dress themselves–takes care of this one.)
-Academic subject materials, or “materials for development”, including materials used to help children grasp mathematics (things like The Bank Math Game, counting & matching,) language arts (sandpaper letters, the “movable alphabet”, science, history, geography, etc.
-Other common Montessori activities include:
-“Gymnastics” (marching, exercises, walking a line, swinging, games with balls, gardening–what we’d call PE), as well as “respiratory gymnastics” (breathing exercises)
-Music (there is mention of singing, chanting etc; some do formal lessons; Montessori classrooms keep musical instruments available, such as “tonal bells”)
-“Manual work” (making vases from clay, making little bricks which are then used to make mini walls and houses, etc)
-Art: The purpose of art to Montessori was not to provide the child with an opportunity for free expression, but to train the child’s eye and hand for later such expressions. Art exercises often include exposure to the masters as well as activities such as methodically outlining/filling in geometric shapes. She felt that such an approach to art laid a foundation for later art experiences. To quote: “…the so-called “free drawing” has no place in my system. I avoid all those useless, immature, weary efforts and those frightful drawings that are so popular in “advanced” schools today…we do not give lessons in drawing or in modeling, and yet many of our children know how to draw flowers, birds, landscapes, and even imaginary scenes in a very admirable way…We do not teach a child to draw by having him draw, but by giving him the opportunity to prepare his means of expression…” (The Discovery of the Child, p. 318.) Again, I disagree. Any artist will tell you that to learn to draw, you draw. Besides that, any type of art, including “free drawing” is more about self-expression and the enjoyment of the process than the end product.
I have noticed that most modern Montessori blogs—especially homeschooling blogs—don’t seem to follow this part of Montessori’s methods…most homeschooling Montessori families do a lot of arts and crafts—some involving “free expression”, some including “lessons.”
Important Things Montessori Has Given us:
-Child-sized materials (tables and chairs, toys, tools, and manipulatives)
-The idea of “observing” children, which is now an important part of child development programs and studies
-The idea of a “prepared environment”: A home/classroom environment designed with carefully designed elements to promote self-teaching
-Self-correcting toys and learning materials
-An emphasis on learning through the senses (training the senses—touch, vision, smell, sound, etc)
-The idea of multi-age teaching (“open” classrooms—of course, all homeschools work this way.)
-The idea that there are “sensitive periods” in development, and that the years from 0-6 are “the formative years” (although there is some controversy about specified “sensitive” periods, since the timelines of normal child development vary so much, even in normal children.)
The Montessori Philosophy
Montessori believed that every child has an “inner force” that drives them to learn. “The fundamental principles of her method are observation, individual liberty, and the preparation of the environment.”* (The environment includes the materials, the room, the teacher, etc.) Her ultimate goal was to help each child “return to a state of its true normal way of being; i.e. the normalized child; with the qualities of spontaneous self-discipline, love of order and constructive activity, attachment to reality, and complete harmony with the entire environment”. * In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Montessori states that “normalization is the most important part of our work.” (p. 204.) Montessori further stated that, “Normalization causes the disappearance of many childhood traits….which are generally thought to be virtues….the so-called ‘creative imagination,’ delight in stories, attachments to individuals, play, submissiveness.” (From The Secret of Childhood, p. 204.) I don’t know about you, but I do think those things are virtues, and I wouldn’t want my child to be “normalized” if the result would be their loss—especially “attachments to individuals”, which would be a very great loss, indeed.
Montessori also believed that it was through “individual free choice that the child perfects himself and is enabled to work with the particular piece of apparatus most needed to fulfill something within him.”* (I’m sorry, but any mom will tell you that children are not always drawn to what they need.) In The Montessori Method, she stated that “it is necessary that the child perfect himself through his own efforts…a man is not what he is because of the teacher he has had, but because of what he has done.” (Luke 6: 40 says that “A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher.”) In The Montessori Method, p. 373, she states that “Each one of them (children) perfects himself through his own powers, and goes forward guided by that inner force which distinguishes him as an individual.” In The Essential Montessori, this concept is explained a little better: “The educational value of a movement depends on the finality of the movement; and it must be such that it helps the child to perfect something in himself; either it perfects the voluntary muscular system; or some mental capacity; or both. Educational movement must always be an activity which builds up and fortifies the personality, giving him a new power and not leaving him where he was…” (p. 104. emphasis added.) The idea of a child “perfecting himself” troubles me…especially in the areas of mental or personality development. In my opinion, children cannot perfect themselves…and even if we exchange the word “mature” for “perfect”, we must acknowledge that maturity, especially in the mental and spiritual sense, is a life-long work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. The maturation process must include more than just educational activities; discipling through teaching and example is necessary, and that is not something that a child can do through his own efforts alone. Children need guidance; children need parents– they cannot “raise” themselves! Even in regards to the later quote, referring to the perfection of the muscular system or some mental capacity—perfection is not a term I would use. Growth perhaps, but not perfection.
According to Montessori, the main job of the teacher is that of an observer; she “teaches little and observes much.” (Montessori Method, p. 173). The “directress”, as Montessori teachers are called, is not to force a child to do (or repeat) lessons, nor “make the child feel that he has made a mistake, or that he is not understood”. (Montessori Method, page 109.) (If the teacher cannot correct the child, how will the child learn the right answer from the wrong?) The directress observes the children at their work, records their progress, and then presents new challenges to them in a sequential order. I had assumed that the teacher did very little “direct teaching”, however, by reviewing the use of some of the materials, you can see that the teacher does “give lessons”—not only to introduce children to the materials (and often, how to use them), but also using the materials to give “lessons”; very often a “three period lesson”. Most lessons are individualized lessons, not group lessons.
Different Interpretations of “Montessori”
Since the name “Montessori” now belongs to public domain, there are now many types of “Montessori” preschools, schools and homeschools—each with their own interpretations of the method. For instance, it is my understanding that some Montessori schools allow children to choose ALL their own activities throughout the day (including when to go outside), with little-to-no guidance (in this case, my kids would choose to play outside and never use the academic subject materials), while in other schools, there is a daily routine—but the children are expected to use the Montessori materials (during a “work” period”) for a certain amount of time (they are given the “freedom” to choose the materials they want to use during this time.)
You can find lots of examples of Montessori materials and different types of lessons on You Tube, including lessons for the famous “pink tower”, which is probably the most widely recognized of all Montessori materials (I found it interesting that this teacher states that the children CAN use the Pink Tower in different ways…but I can’t help but wonder if the child would be allowed to make houses with the towers, or use them with toy cars? I rather doubt it.) A good overview of the classic Montessori materials can be found on these sites:
Montessori Cottage-scroll down for nice descriptions of the different types of materials
My Montessori House-materials—Montessori materials and ideas for their use
More of Montessori’s Ideas/Things I like about the Montessori approach:
-The idea of helping our children build their independence and self-confidence: To quote from The Montessori Method, pages 97-98, “We habitually serve children; and this is not only an act of servility toward them, but it is dangerous, since it tends to suffocate their useful, spontaneous activity. We are inclined to believe that children are like puppets, and we wash them and feed them as if they were dolls. We do not stop to think that the child who does not do, does not know how to do. He must, nevertheless, do these things, and nature has furnished him with the physical means for carrying on these various activities, and with the intellectual means for learning how to do them. And our duty toward him is, in every case, that of helping him to make a conquest of such useful acts as nature intended he should perform for himself. (It’s OK to serve our children from time to time, but chronically doing for them what they can do for themselves isn’t healthy.)
-The idea that ages 0-6 are the “formative” years—much of the child’s personality and basic knowledge about the world is built during these years
-The materials themselves, which can be wonderful learning experiences for children. I have used similar materials in preschool classrooms and at home.
-The idea that “Man is an intelligent being, and needs mental food almost more than physical food.” (The Absorbent Mind, p. 200)
Concepts I Disagree With:
-The idea that goodness and compassion are inborn, and don’t have to be taught, only protected. (I’ve seen this phrase over and over in writings about Montessori and her approach. Here’s an entire quote from Michael Olaf, of the Michael Olaf Montessori Company: “The most important discovery that Dr. Montessori has contributed to the field of child development and education is the fostering of the best in each child. She discovered that in an environment where children are allowed to choose their work and to concentrate for as long as needed on that task, that they come out of this period of concentration (or meditation or contemplation) refreshed and full of good will toward others. The teacher must know how to offer work, to link the child to the environment who is the real teacher, and to protect this process. We know now that this natural goodness and compassion are inborn, and do not need to be taught, but to be protected.” The Bible says that we are born with a sin-nature (Romans 5:12-5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:22-15:22, Psalms 51:5-51.) Children are not born with “goodness and compassion”—those things have to be taught. They are taught from the moment of birth, even as Mom is lovingly caring for her newborn. True, children are “innocent”—they don’t know or understand many of the ways of the world …and this innocence must be protected. But innocence is not the same as “goodness” or “compassion” (in fact, young children are notoriously selfish or “ego-centric”.) To emphasize: Goodness and compassion must be taught.
-The idea that using the Montessori materials will teach (self-teach or “auto-educate”) the child or “normalize” the child. Concentrating on manipulatives do not fundamentally change a child’s personality (normalize them). They can help children build skills, self-confidence, etc. I also disagree with her statement that “Growth comes from activity, not from intellectual understanding” (quote # 115.)
-These quotes: “The child becomes a person through work.” (What is he before work, a non-person?) and, “The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”
-Her belief that “Character formation cannot be taught. It comes from experience and not from explanation.” No way! Character can and must be taught. It is taught through example, through teaching, through conversation, and through reading aloud.
-The idea that “the children being free are not obliged to remain in their places quiet and ready to listen to the teacher, or to watch what she is doing.” (The Montessori Method, by Maria Montessori, p. 107-108.) I believe that children should be taught to sit and pay attention to their Mom (or any other authority) at story-time—in fact, whenever she is speaking, thus teaching obedience, respect, and self-control as well as developing the attention span. Additionally, I believe that there should be a balance of free choice/child-led and teacher/mom-led activities.
-The idea that it is important to “free the child from his role of dependency on adults if he was to develop into a truly free and independent person.” (The Essential Montessori, p. 58.) Young children do not need to be “freed” from their parents. Preschoolers are, and should be, still dependant on their parents for many years to come. Independence develops slowly, as children mature in their abilities and their decision making skills. Helping our children grow up and become more self-sufficient does not preclude the fact that they still are dependent on us.
-The idea that children naturally love to work and will almost always choose “work” (“working” with Montessori materials) over creative play or play with toys. In the book, The Essential Montessori, Hainstock says that “It is easier for the young child to relate to reality because it’s something tangible and concrete. Montessori observed that children, given a choice, preferred activities related to the environment around them: reality-oriented objects and actions” (p. 99.) I disagree. I have observed that young children are equally at home in “reality” and “make believe.” Furthermore, children’s play often allows them a chance to “act out” or practice reality-based activities of their future life—being a mommy, going to work, and doing other “grown-up” things. (See my article, Why Preschoolers Need to Play.) Besides, according to everything I’ve read, Montessori decided that children preferred “work” because the she observed that the children in her classroom chose her materials over toys. Well, the Montessori materials were displayed prominently and neatly on shelves, but the toys were crammed in a toy box. No wonder the children chose the Montessori materials! Besides that, the quality of the other toys must be questioned (remember, educational toys had not been invented yet.) Perhaps if the toys had been high-quality, open-ended toys that were displayed attractively on the shelves, they would have been played with more often.
I’ve noticed that my own children enjoy manipulative-type activities, and will often seek them out on their own. However, they always turn back to the toys that can be used creatively—especially those that can be used as props for dramatic play (cars, Legos, blocks and plastic animals, baby dolls, etc.)
-The idea that the Montessori Method is a “scientific” method: I may get some flack for this, but I don’t think that the field of education is a “science.” Educational methods (or theories, or philosophies) cannot be “scientific”. These fields are not based on scientific fact, but personal observation and opinion (which is colored by personal biases and perceptions), not based on scientific experimentation. Methods are not one-size-fits-all; they don’t always get the same results, since each child and each parent is different.
-The idea that children should learn what they love, since the “rest” would be hated/forgotten anyway (if so, who would ever choose to learn algebra or grammar?) I do agree that it is beneficial to encourage children’s interests, and help them explore them fully (this is often called “delight directed study.”) But we should not teach our children only the things they are interested in.
-The fact that in many Montessori schools (probably not all), the manipulatives are intended to be used one way, and only one way; creative use of the materials is discouraged or not allowed (some answer this argument by saying that other materials are available for creative use. This may be true in some classrooms/homes. But it is my understanding that during their “work periods”, children are only allowed to use the special “exercises” or Montessori materials, and only as directed. I realize that there are many interpretations of this, so this is not true in every case. Many homeschooling parents do allow their children to use the materials in creative ways.)
-Montessori “believers” insist that the children will do the exercises over and over. It’s true that repetition is a powerful force for children…we especially see it in reference to practicing new physical skills, music, and in reading aloud (children often want their favorite stories read to them over and over.) But in my experience, when it comes to manipulatives, any materials or toys that can be used in only one way are quickly set aside in favor of materials that can be used in more than one way (i.e. used creatively.) And once most children master their new skills (be it mastering a physical skill such as walking up stairs, or mastering a self-correcting toy), they are usually anxious to move on to new things.
-I don’t agree with Montessori’s belief that punishments and rewards are “the bench of the soul, the instrument of slavery for the spirit.” (Montessori Method, p. 21.) In my experience, rewards are highly motivating for children, and punishments (or preferably “discipline”) is necessary. The Bible speaks at great length about the importance of child-training, and the principles of sowing and reaping. Besides, everything in modern society is based on rewards and punishments; go to work, do a good job and your reward is a nice paycheck. Refuse to do the things the boss wants you to do, and you get fired (sowing and reaping.) This is not slavery, by any measure of the word.
-Montessori’s belief that “obedience appears in the child as a latent instinct as soon as his personality begins to take form (The Montessori Method, page 367.) She also believed that children under the age of three cannot obey unless what the child is told to do “corresponds to one of his vital urges” (The Absorbent Mind p. 258.) In The Secret of Childhood, she states that “we should remember that a child loves us and wants to obey” (p. 127.) Once again, I disagree. Children don’t always want to obey…usually they want their own way. Obedience is not an instinct; it is taught. Additionally, young children can be taught to obey, even if their “vital urges” make them want to do otherwise.
-The very humanistic idea that “All human victories, all human progress, stand upon the inner force.” (The Montessori Method, p. 24.) The truth is, as human beings, we have very little in the way of natural self-discipline or drive…we need to learn self-discipline…and many people are not “driven” to do anything against their own selfish natures (especially children.) Most of all, if we are to accomplish anything important…if we are to mature and learn self-discipline, we must remember that as Christians, we can ONLY do it with the help of the Holy Spirit.
-The idea that “the first thing to be done, therefore, is to discover the true nature of a child and then assist him in his normal development” (The Secret of Childhood, p. 166-182). As I said, the true nature of a child is a sin nature! This “nature” is what we were put in this world to overcome, with the help of the Holy Spirit. We do not “unconsciously suppress the development of the child’s own personality” by correcting our children; (The Secret of Childhood, p.20). Even if the “true nature of the child” refers to personality, we must admit that children need guidance in this area as well. What if our child’s natural personality is rebellious and grumpy, or painfully shy? Shouldn’t we try to help our children overcome these personality traits through training, teaching, and self-control? I think so.
-The idea of “normalization”; that children can/will spontaneously become self-disciplined, lovers of order, etc (again, see above. I think this is not only undesirable, but un-Biblical, too.)
Other Possible Problems with the Approach (Common Objections to it):
-The idea that writing should precede reading (I don’t think there’s any “correct” method here. But traditionally, writing follows reading, since many children’s writing skills lag behind their ability to read, often due to a lack of small muscle strength and control…especially in children who learn to read early.)
-The cost of the materials (though many materials can be adapted or home-made), and the space needed to store it all
-Too much freedom (when children choose all their own activities), or alternately, too little (when children are expected to spend too long on the exercises)
-Starting children on the exercises at age 15-18 months, as many moms and schools do (see my archives and tabs on readiness.)
-Lack of creativity and free-play, AND/OR the very idea that creative/dramatic/fantasy play should not be encouraged, but seen as something that the children should overcome (almost all experts agree that creative play is one of the cornerstones of normal development.)
Montessori has given the world a lot of good ideas and a lot of good manipulative materials that we can use to help our children learn. However, mixed in with her good ideas are ideas that, in my opinion, are not Biblical—many of her ideas come across as very humanistic to me. I would have to say that I do not/could not personally agree with or use the Montessori philosophy, but I could (and have) use(d) the Montessori materials. But when using them, my goals would be different than Montessori’s. My goal is not normalization. My goals would be to help the child develop specific skills, such as eye-hand coordination, small muscle strength and control, etc. Additionally, once my children were interested and ready for a gentle introduction to “academics”, the materials can be used to teach through play (what I call “playful learning”; I have a whole chapter on this in my book, including specific ideas and recommended resources.) The Montessori materials are also great for reinforcing concepts that are not quite mastered.
I recommend Montessori and Montessori-like activities as long as they are used in balance with other methods. They should be used as a part of your day, not your entire day. They can be used for their intended purposes (yes, even used for “lessons” IF they are developmentally appropriate lessons), but they should also be available for children to use creatively. (Remember, “developmentally appropriate” has different meaning for each child. We don’t want to push our children, but we don’t want to hold them back, either…especially if they are gifted or truly ready for the next step. We are seeking balance!)
It’s OK to let your child choose which materials to use for himself, but it’s also OK to simply pull out some materials (or trays, the trays are nice) and say, “Now we’re going to do some tweezing” (although I would never force the issue with a preschooler…as I said, there are so many other ways to learn, simple conversation and reading aloud being some of the best.)
However nice the materials are, though, remember that they are not “magic”. Also remember that home-made substitutes or just plain old TOYS can teach many of the same skills, and more cheaply, too–especially when pared with conversation/playing with Mom.
If you would like more information about the Montessori Method, ;please investigate on your own and decide for yourself how to interpret her method. Here are more links to help you get started (some of these blogs have some really neat activity ideas that would be usable by anyone, no matter their preferred “method”:
Montessori Mom (free printables and downloads)
Montessori for Everyone (free printables and downloads)
Affordable Montessori (online store)
Ways to use the materials:
See another way to use the movable alphabet at Amongst Lovely Things
You Tube example of using the movable alphabet
More about fantasy versus reality:
*The Essential Montessori: An Introduction to the Woman, the Writings, the Method, and the Movement by Elizabeth G. Hainstock
Montessori’s own writings, as reference above
Various websites, as referenced above
© 2011 Susan Lemons all rights reserved. Copyrighted materials may not be re-distributed or re-posted without express permission from the author.