The Neurology of Montessori

Those of us in Montessori education see the positive effects of Montessori on a daily basis. We watch as children’s fine motor skills are strengthened, their reasoning skills sharpened, and their independence encouraged through daily interaction with the prepared Montessori environment.

But we can watch all of that and not actually know how the Montessori method achieves the results that it does. Is it just a happy stroke of luck that Montessori materials seem to promote brain development?

It’s more than just a coincidence. Pediatric neuropsychologist and Montessori parent Steve Hughes believes that Montessori curriculum triggers specific brain functions that greatly aid cognitive development. In fact, he refers to Montessori as “the original brain-based method of learning.”

Dr. Hughes completed his Ph.D in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota and his post-doctoral fellowship in pediatric neuropsychology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, where he joined the faculty of the Division of Pediatric Clinical Neurosciences in 2001.

In his clinical work, he has studied the neurodevelopmental benefits of classical Montessori education. He gives presentations at Montessori and educational conferences on the connection between Montessori and brain development. At his website, Good at Doing Things, he shares information from his lectures. He has a lot to say about Montessori and the brain.

The Hand-to-Brain Connection

In this article from Public School Montessorian, Hughes gives an example the task of learning to read, a basic building block of education for all children regardless of schooling method. Reading requires three separate brain functions: capturing visual symbols, decoding each symbol’s sound, and assigning each symbol meaning. While each of these brain functions can be taught separately, Montessori materials such as the Sandpaper Letters and Moveable Alphabet encourage simultaneous use of each function, resulting in neurological networks that coordinate reading.

Hughes also focuses on the tactile methods of Montessori as they relate to brain development, asserting that the hands are a child’s strongest link to the brain. When motor movements are repeated they become templates in the brain that serve as a starting point for new experiences.

Because Montessori emphasizes hands-on learning, children are able to master information more quickly and easily than when conventional educational methods are used. The repetition of activities, multisensory materials, and self-guided learning common to the Montessori classroom create the perfect “recipe” for human brain development.

It is interesting to note that much of Maria Montessori’s early work in education lay in the treatment of special needs children. Today, intervention methods for special needs students closely resemble Montessori methods, suggesting perhaps that what Montessori has been doing for over 100 years is extremely effective in creating and strengthening neural pathways.

Mirror Neurons

Physical movements are not the only method of brain development supported by Montessori education. Maria Montessori spoke of the “absorbent mind” of a child being like a sponge literally soaking up what they see and do. Although at the time she had little actual neurological research to back up her claim, a new discovery in the area of neurology, called mirror neurons, goes hand in hand with her hypotheses.

Mirror neurons are found in the frontal lobe of humans and other species, including primates and birds, and fire when an animal or human performs an action or when that animal or human observes another animal of the same species performing the same action.

While research in the area of mirror neurons is ongoing, scientists believe that they show the importance of learning by example or imitation. The Montessori classroom, with its presentations, its multi-age groupings, and repetition of work is the perfect place for children to observe as well as act.

A child who watches another child move the Pink Tower blocks is having neural pathways strengthened even though they are not moving the blocks themselves. There is also evidence that mirror neurons come into play in a social context, teaching response to emotions and appropriate ways to solve social problems.

Where does that leave us?

I’m extremely excited about Dr. Hughes’ work. In my conversations with people who are skeptical of the Montessori method, one of the first things they mention is a desire to see scientific proof that Montessori is beneficial. I am now going to point them towards Dr. Hughes’ research. According to his website, he is in the process of authoring a book on Montessori and the brain and I am eager to read it.

girl_cylindersIt is amazing to me that Dr. Montessori was able to develop her materials without the benefits of today’s technology. She could not view a child’s brain to see which areas lit up when they were using the Cylinder Blocks, and yet through observation she knew that a child’s fine motor skills, shape and size discrimination, and hand/eye coordination were being strengthened through this work.

Dr. Hughes’ work is a reminder that Maria Montessori was herself a scientist before she was an educator. She didn’t guess at the materials she created; she observed, made changes based on her observations, and observed some more. She let the children teach her rather than pushing her own ideas on them.

The fundamental touchstones of educating through Montessori – preparing a natural and supporting environment, and adapting that environment for a child to fulfill his or her greatest potential – have proven to be more than helpful educational theory. The Montessori method holds a proven place in creating neural pathways that facilitate cognitive development.

Picture courtesy of Montessori Greeting Cards.

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11 Responses to “The Neurology of Montessori”

  • Brigitte said at July 13th, 2009 at 2:52 pm :

    THIS IS awesome! I am going to refer to this article when speaking about Montessori. I loved meeting you today. It is about time that our universes aligned :O)

  • Lori Bourne said at July 13th, 2009 at 3:30 pm :

    Hi, Brigitte! Glad you liked it. I was so excited when I first heard about Dr. Hughes’ work. It seems to validate everything we know from experience. Good to meet you too!

  • Suzanne said at July 13th, 2009 at 7:23 pm :

    My grandson, who will turn six in mid October, has been in a Montessori school since he was 21 months old. He is now reading on a second grade level, is proficient in math and language, and is writing letters and stories. I truly believe, that although we have read to him and talked to him since he was born, a great deal of his success comes from being in a Montessori setting. He is curious about what makes things “work”, and is always exploring new words- his interest lies not so much in “video games” or television, but he is always exploring and using his imagination in his “play”. I know first hand that the Montessori way works, from my grandson and from being a guide in a three to six year classroom. It is an awesome way for a child to get his/her start in life- I wish that every child had this advantage!!!!!

  • Michelle Irinyi said at July 14th, 2009 at 10:26 am :

    Lori, this is exciting news! I’ve always referred to brain-based research when discussing the science behind the genius of Montessori. This is a great reference to support that discussion.

  • Ines said at July 16th, 2009 at 2:08 pm :

    Lori, this is great! The longer I teach in the classroom, the more fascinating the science of the brain becomes. I’m interested in his book. Maybe a personal interview, eh??? It is easy to see that when children observe other children, they are getting more from that lesson than me explaining it at group, for example. I, too, will refer to this article when talking about Montessori. Thanks again.

  • Lori Bourne said at July 16th, 2009 at 2:15 pm :

    So glad to get positive responses to this article! I am also excited to read Dr. Hughes’ book and I’m sure I’ll post about this topic again when his book comes out. So stay tuned :)

  • Elaine said at July 15th, 2013 at 2:06 am :

    I have a son turning 1year old in the end of July, 2013. I’m looking for a kindergarden with Montessori Method as I do believe Dr. Montessori’s idea and the materials are beneficial to the childen’s both mental and motor skill development. I sincerely hope to find such a school in Beijing, China. Please let me know if you happen to know it. Thank you very much.

  • Lori Bourne said at July 15th, 2013 at 5:22 am :

    Hi! I have no knowledge of Montessori schools in China, but you can Google “montessori school Beijing” and see if anything comes up. It would be a great option for your son.

  • Elaine said at July 15th, 2013 at 11:20 pm :

    thank you Lori. I found some, but I doubted their fufilment of Montessori’s ideas… Ok. I will try another way.

  • Lori Bourne said at July 16th, 2013 at 7:13 am :

    If it’s at all an option, I would recommend looking into homeschooling with Montessori. It might be the only way to insure that your child gets the true implementation of Montessori’s ideas.

  • Elaine said at July 22nd, 2013 at 11:47 pm :

    Thank you Lori. I’ll consider your recommendation.