The Montessori Method: Understanding the Mind of Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori’s groundbreaking book,The Montessori Method, was first published in 1912, and has since been translated into 20 different languages. Maybe you have read this book already, or you’ve always heard about it but haven’t had a chance to pick it up yet. Either way, I think you’ll enjoy this, the first in a three-part series outlining the basic contents of The Montessori Method.

One of Maria Montessori’s best known beliefs revolves around the absorbent human mind. Taking my cues from this, I believe it is vital to understand the environment in which this famous educator grew up and lived in order to completely comprehend the fundamental teachings of The Montessori Method.

The World of Maria Montessori

The very first chapter of The Montessori Method, entitled ‘A Critical Consideration of the New Pedagogy in its Relation to Modern Science’ introduces us not only to the spirit of Montessori thought, but also to a remarkable woman. Maria Montessori was ahead of her time in so many ways, and yet also a product of what she had absorbed in her environment. As we read the first chapter of this book, a number of important themes give us a very clear picture of how the Montessori method came into being. In reading this book, you will encounter the following influences and strongly held beliefs:

Christianity

Born in 1870 in Italy, Maria Montessori’s Catholic upbringing had a profound effect on her outlook on life. At the heart of Christianity is a deep belief in the dignity of humankind; the Bible teaches that we were all created in the image of God. The Judeo-Christian ethic of ‘love for the poor’ certainly informed Dr. Montessori’s efforts to create a Children’s House in the slums of Italy. Moreover, Montessori believed, “the first idea the child must acquire is that of the difference between good and evil.” The Christian principle of discernment between good and evil is everywhere present in her work.

Respect for Science

As Italy’s first female physician, Dr. Montessori faced down extreme societal odds in order to take her place among the gifted ‘men’ of science. The early 20th century saw enormous industrial and scientific strides, and Dr. Montessori approached her work with children from the scientific method. Rather than viewing herself as a teacher, she saw herself as a careful observer of her subjects. Montessori instructors to this day are trained in the arts of observing and respecting the mind of the child. However, Dr. Montessori brought a special quality to her observation that is not typical of scientific observation and can be explained by the biblical quote about children:

Whosoever shall become as one of these little ones, he shall be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

To observe the mind of the child was, to Maria Montessori, to witness God’s perfect intentions. Because of this belief, Montessori advocated minimal adult interference in a child’s natural development.

Love of Nature and Natural Man

Within the first chapter of The Montessori Method, there are no less than 5 reverent references to the wonder and power of the natural world. Here are some examples:

We must instead make of them (children), worshipers and interpreters of the spirit of nature.

The scientist is not the clever manipulator of instruments, he is the worshiper of nature.

While Dr. Montessori was enough of a realist to understand that the trade off for settled civilization is the renunciation of the simpler joys of natural man, she firmly believed that the study of nature would lead children not only a vital understanding of themselves, but also to a devout love of God.

Socialism and Individualism

We see in Montessori thought an interesting combination of the principles of Socialism and Individualism. In traditional schools, teachers strive to produce homogeneous human beings who are dependent upon the expertise of others. In the Montessori school, the individual child is encouraged to discover and perfect his own expertise. Individualism is celebrated, and Maria Montessori had a very evident and hopeful belief in the brilliance of free-thinking individuals.

Yet, Socialist thought was also on the rise during her formative years, and when the first Children’s Houses were instituted in Italy, they functioned on a Socialist or Communist model. The equal contributions of all members of these beautiful homes for the poor were what enabled the homes to exist. Dedication to the maintenance of communal life and well-being was what, according to Montessori’s work, made possible the environment in which the individual could thrive.

Classism

Many modern readers of The Montessori Method will be somewhat taken aback by references to society that come from a caste-based mentality. During Montessori’s early life, Italy was a constitutional monarchy with extreme divisions between rich and poor. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to view both The Montessori Method and its author within the context of the times. Until recently, it was commonly thought that intelligence and moral refinement were the special properties of the wealthy, and that the poor were somehow lesser beings.

When reading The Montessori Method, you will encounter references that clearly play into this idea, and it is necessary to view them from a historical perspective. It is important to add that poor Italian men were not allowed to vote until 1913, and Italian women didn’t receive the right to vote until the 1940’s. In contrast to this, Dr. Montessori was a lifelong proponent of human rights.

Love of Peace

The Montessori Method was published in the year that Italy engaged in the Italo-Turkish War, a precursor to World War I. Soon afterward, Italy fell under the evil of Fascism, and Dr. Montessori was exiled by Benito Mussolini for refusing to train children to be soldiers. The first and second World Wars devastated Europe with their airplane combat and bombings. The atrocious violence can only have strengthened Maria Montessori’s urgent need to instill children with the ability to be peaceful within themselves and non-violent towards others.

Modern surveys continue to show that the Montessori methodology of courtesy and respect for others, grounded in a strong sense of self-respect, produces children with a heightened concept of social responsibility. In the words of Dr. Montessori, ‘establishing lasting peace is the work of education’.

The first chapter of The Montessori Method presents us with a wealth of concepts and ideals, and being able to identify and reflect on these prepares the reader for the subsequent chapters which show Montessori thought in action. I’ll continue this series after the first of the year with a post that will cover chapters 2-5 of this amazing and revolutionary book.