Beyond the Basics

What Children Really Get Out of Montessori

by Tim Seldin
President of the Montessori Foundation

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When we try to define what our children really “get” from Montessori, we need to expand our vision to include more than just the basics. Of course they learn to read, do four-digit mathematics, recognize geometric shapes, and identify the parts of a plant and a mollusk. They also learn how to be a contributing member of a community. A Montessori school is more than a classroom. It is society in a microcosm, and the skills and lessons they learn in this environment extend well beyond the definition of academic success. They are life lessons that were very much needed at the time when Dr. Montessori developed her teaching methodology, and they are life lessons that are still very much needed by our children today.

“The basic nature of our society and the family itself have changed radically, and only an equally radical change in education will suffice”.  John Dewey, School and Society, 1899.

In her recent book, The Schoolhome (Harvard University Press, 1992), Dr. Judith Rowland Martin (sic) writes that she was not very impressed when she first encountered Montessori education. She understood that Montessori schools placed children in multi-age classrooms and used manipulative learning materials, which may have been very unusual during Montessori’s lifetime, but has since been incorporated into most early childhood and many elementary classrooms thanks to the Open Classroom movement of the 1960s.

However, Dr. Martin’s understanding of the value of the Montessori approach became clearer when she came across a statement in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s book, A Montessori Mother, in which Fisher disagrees with the universal interpretation given to Montessori’s “Casa dei Bambini” or “Children’s House.”

In A Montessori Mother, one of the first books about Dr. Montessori’s work, first published in 1912, Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote, “The phrase, `Casa dei Bambini,’ is being translated everywhere nowadays by English-speaking people as “The Children’s House,” whereas its real meaning, both linguistic and spiritual is “The Children’s Home (or Children’s Community, ed.).” Fisher insisted upon this rendering, which she felt offered a much more accurate and complete insight into the character of the Montessori classroom.

Dr. Martin recognized that “This misreading of the Italian word `Casa’ as `house’ has effectively cut off two generations of American educators from a new and intriguing vision of what school can and should be. Read `casa’ as `house’ and your attention is drawn to the child-sized furniture, the Montessori materials, the exercises in practical life, the principal of self-education.

But if you read `casa’ as `home’ and you begin to perceive a moral and social dimension that transforms your understanding of Montessori’s idea of a school. Once I realized that she thought of school on the model of a home, the elements of her system took on a different configuration. Where before I had seen small children manipulating concrete learning materials, I now recognized a domestic scene with its own special form of social life and education.”

Reynolds realized that what Montessori had established was not simply a classroom in which children would be taught to read and write. The Casa dei Bambini represented a social and emotional environment where children would be respected and empowered as individual human beings. It was an extended family, a community in which children truly belonged and really took care of one another.

“Children are the living messages
we send to a time we will not see.”
– John W. Whitehead

Montessori described this sense of belonging as “valorization of the personality,” a strong sense of self-respect and personal identity. Within this safe and empowering community, the young child learned at the deepest possible level to believe in herself. In an atmosphere of independence within community and personal empowerment, she never lost her sense of curiosity and innate ability to learn and discover. Confident in herself, she opened up to the world around her and found that mistakes were not something to be feared, but rather the endless opportunity to learn from experience.

This special relationship that is so common between Montessori children and their teachers and schools is very different from and much more dramatic than the experience most children have in school.

Many Montessori students describe their experience in words quite similar to these written by Frances Merenda, a 1990 graduate of the Barrie School in Silver Spring, Maryland.

“I started in Montessori at age 2. I’m a product of the entire system. I did well in the lower grades and upper school. But still, many people wondered if I had been prepared for college, whether I could `make it’ in a `real school.’ The skepticism of so many acquaintances was so disconcerting that I never bothered to step back and see what 15 years of trust, respect, teaching, and learning had done for me. When I went off to college at Northwestern University, I left my support system and community behind and entered a world that was much colder and uncaring. At first, I deeply missed that sense of belonging. I didn’t realize that Barrie had not only given me a second family, but had also taught me how to build new friendships, support systems, and community wherever I go. Now, at Northwestern, I have used my years of experience in community building to cultivate secure relationships with people I have come to know. Barrie did more for me than just prepare me academically for college, it prepared me for anything to which I chose to apply myself. I feel prepared for life and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

To understand how this evolved, it’s helpful to understand the world in which Montessori lived at the time she developed her educational approach. Montessori was a professor of medicine, specializing in psychiatry. At that time, there was no such thing as Freud’s `talking cure.’ There were basically two approaches to the treatment of disturbed individuals. The most common and familiar to modern readers was to confine people who acted strangely to insane asylums. The second, and almost forgotten, approach was the “Moral Education” movement that spread across Europe and North America during the 1700 and 1800s. These therapeutic communities were villages set off in the country where chronically despondent or non-violently dysfunctional individuals lives in group settings with caring individuals.

“We teachers can only help the work going on,
as servants wait upon a master.”
– Maria Montessori

The fundamental principal of the Moral Education movement was respect and kindness. Instead of treating their patients as prisoners, the staff acted on the belief that within each human being there is a core of goodness and a “sound mind.” The community lived and worked together as an extended family, and developed a sense of belonging that is clearly reminiscent of what we see in our children’s classrooms today.

These communities were much like an Israeli Kibbutz, self-sufficient farming communities in which each individual was encouraged to become more independent while contributing to the overall operation of the village. Patients lived in small homes with a couple who served as their mentors. Surviving reports suggest that a tremendous bond developed among those who lived and worked together. The movement recorded success rates that were far more effective than traditional approaches; returning their clients to their home communities as productive, happy citizens after an average stay of eleven months. A sense of close personal community and positive human relationships was proven successful as a means to help bring these disturbed people back to reality.

Montessori was well aware of this movement through her medical research into innovative strategies for treating the retarded, autistic, and emotionally disturbed. She used this same model with tremendous success in her own work with retarded and autistic children in Rome, and later hypothesized that even more dramatic results might be achieved with “normal” children. Her first “Children’s Community” was made up of 50 inner-city children from dysfunctional families.

In her book The Montessori Method, Montessori describes the transformation that took place during the first few months of operation, as the children evolved into a “family.” The children had a sense of becoming the owners of their school. They were encouraged to rearrange the furniture, prepare and serve the daily meals, wash the pots and dishes, help the younger children bathe and change their clothes, sweep, clean, and work in the class garden. Through their day-to-day involvement in their classroom community, Montessori saw these children develop a sense of maturity and connectedness that helped them realize a much higher level of their potential as human beings.

“A child can ask questions that a wise man cannot answer.”
– Unknown

While times have changed, the need to feel connected is still as strong as ever. In fact, for today’s children it is probably even more important. Whether it’s an inner-city child or a child from an affluent suburb, the sense of community has all but disappeared from our children’s lives. Families regularly move from house to house and from town to town. Grandparents usually live in other cities or other states. Both parents work out of necessity, and when they are at home, they are very, very busy.

The “Latch-key” child has become the norm for this generation. Many children have the sense that they do not belong to anything or anybody, which is why gangs, which give a sense of belonging, have always had a certain appeal for some children. According to one study after another, astounding numbers of preteens and teenagers engage in sexual activity in their homes after school before their parents come home from work. What is most disturbing is that for most of these children sex doesn’t represent either love or lust, but a simple need for human contact, to be hugged and touched, a need to not be so incredibly alone in the world.

Along with whatever else Montessori gives our children, it definitely gives them the message that they belong – that their school is like a second family. Studies on the moral and emotional development of children strongly suggests that while there are probably a few children in every thousand who are truly little “gangsters” at heart, a child’s sense of moral reasoning and sense of self are directly related. Children will normally grow up to be productive, happy, positive individuals if given the right emotional environment.

It seems clear that our attitudes about people, the ability to overcome our tendency to be ego-centric, our willingness to share, to compromise, to resolve conflicts non-violently, and our ability to discover a basic sense of self-worth are not qualities that human beings develop spontaneously, but rather through years of experience with caring people who convince us that we belong and give us the opportunity to practice and master these skills of everyday living. As in all things, we “learn by doing.”

One of the greatest strengths in the approach that Montessori developed is the three-year age grouping that you will find in every Montessori school. By consciously bringing children together in a group that is large enough that it will allow for two-thirds of the children to return every year, the school environment promotes continuity and the development of a very different level of relationship between children and their peers, as well as between children and their teachers.

For teachers this relationship presents itself as a commitment that they make to stay with the children in their class for a prolonged period of time, rather than just jumping from job to job or from classroom to administration. Montessori teachers do more than present curriculum. The secret of any great teacher is helping the learner get to the point that their minds and hearts are open and they are ready to learn, where the motivation is not focused on getting good grades, but involves a basic love of learning. As parents know their own children’s learning styles and temperaments, teachers too develop this sense of each child’s uniqueness by developing a relationship over a period of years with the child and her parents.

Montessori schools give our children not only the sense of belonging to a family, but also of how to live with other human beings. By creating a bond of parents, teachers, and children Montessori sought to create a community where individuals could learn to be empowered, where children could learn to be a part of families, where they could learn to care of younger children, learn from older people, trust one another, and find ways to be properly assertive rather than aggressive. To reduce these principles to the most simplistic form, Montessori proposed that we could make peace by healing the wounds of the human heart and by producing a child that is more secure. She envisioned her movement as essentially leading to a reconstruction of society.

Montessori schools are different, but it isn’t just because of the materials that are used in the classrooms. Look beyond the pink towers and golden beads, and you’ll discover that the classroom is a place where children really want to be – because it feels a lot like home.