If you’ve read the other posts in this series, Part 1 and Part 2, and I hope you have, you might have felt a little uncomfortable from time to time, especially if you haven’t ever read The Montessori Method before. It’s not quite as timeless a book as one might hope; some of Dr. Montessori’s ideas were shaped by her culture and today seemed outdated. It was written almost 100 years ago (1912), and in that hundred years the world has changed more than in the past thousand years put together.
Most of her writings are still relevant today. There are a few ideas here or there that can be left behind. For example, Dr. Montessori warns in this book that children must never eat fresh vegetables. When one realizes that this advice is given at a time when people didn’t even bother to wash much of the produce they ate, her edicts make good sense. But today, we understand that properly prepared, well-washed vegetables are essential to health. Modern Montessorians will have to take this kind of advice with a grain of salt (literally). See picture: Dr. Montessori during a radio interview in London, 1950.
The First Children’s House
Life was not easy in the late 20th century in Italy. Maria Montessori herself faced prejudice and hardship all through her school years as she became the first woman doctor in Italy. The children she worked with in the Children’s House were dirty and neglected. Not much was yet known about the spread of disease. The world was small for the average person: they probably would not have traveled much, and certainly didn’t have the kind of global awareness that most of us do today. All of these circumstances contributed to the shaping of the first Children’s House.
This last part of the book focuses quite a bit on the specific materials and lessons that comprised the Children’s House. It’s wonderful to read about how the color tablets came to be, or to see the sandpaper letters used for the first time. Even now, when I use those materials that are some of the first ones she made, I get chills when I picture the little ones in the first Children’s House, using the very same materials. In this final section, Dr. Montessori talks about the different curricular areas of the Children’s House and describes the materials and concepts that are covered in each area. The following areas may be of interest to the modern teacher or parent:
Chapters 6-14 focus primarily on the important concept of the training of the senses. Dr. Montessori begins by emphasizing the importance of offering children learning materials with built-in controls that tell them whether they have mastered a skill or not (control of error). The Montessori instructor must never shame or depress a child by drawing attention to his efforts of trial and error as mistakes. Rather, the process of exploration is seen as the good work of the child, to be controlled by his own interest and internal schedule – not by a traditional concept of curriculum.
All of the senses – sight, smell, sound, taste and touch – are addressed by Montessori methodology. The stimuli of real objects found in the didactic materials of the Montessori classroom enable a child not merely to memorize facts, but to experience concepts that are crucial to development. An example given in the book involves a child’s introduction to the visual perception of colors. For this purpose, Montessori developed a set of 64 tablets wound with beautiful, colored silk threads. The child begins by working with only two sets of the three primary colors – red, yellow and blue.
The child sorts the tablets into matching pairs. When this is mastered, more tablets are presented until the child can sort all 64. Dr. Montessori joyfully notes that by the time the exercise was fully mastered, the Children’s House youngsters were able to take a mixed-up set of 64 different colors and perfectly organize them by fine degrees of gradation. It is easy to imagine how a ‘game’ like this would be tremendous fun for any child, and how keenly the sense of sight would be honed by the activity of manual labor. The following quote makes sense of this activity:
“It is exactly in the repetition of the exercises that the education of the senses consists; their aim is not that the child shall know colors, forms and the different qualities of objects, but that he refine his senses through an exercise of attention, of comparison, of judgment.”
There is an interesting chapter in the The Montessori Method devoted to diet. The modern reader will get the most out of reading this portion of the book by recalling what daily life in 20th century Europe would have been like for common people. It’s an interesting coincidence that The Montessori Method was published in the same year that vitamins were first discovered. People had very minimal concepts of nutrition or sanitation, and Dr. Montessori advocates that tremendous care be taken in providing children with sanitary, cautiously-prepared foods.
The Natural World
One of the most inspiring subjects dealt with by The Montessori Method is Maria Montessori’s belief in the importance of a child’s relationship to the natural world. By caring for plants and animals around the Children’s Houses, children developed the following skills and perceptions:
1) The power of observation – they watch their subjects’ progress with interest and wonder.
2) The power of foresight – they know they must water or feed the subjects for their health.
3) The virtue of patience – they confidently expect that blooms and fruit will reward their efforts over time.
4) A love of natural life – they discover a part of the chain of life and union with the universe.
5) A sense of the place of humankind – they walk the historic path of agriculture which eventually leads to civilization.
These big, harmonious concepts are all absorbed and assimilated by Montessori children through the simple act of caring for living things, and in today’s world, Montessori educators strive to promote care for the larger planet and its problems by beginning with the care of a single plant or animal and moving on to larger projects (like gardening) when the child is ready for more responsibility.
Maria Montessori’s original plans for her Children’s Houses were modest. Her goal was to provide children with a place to develop their own abilities and senses of identity unhindered. It was only when the mothers of the houses began to plead with her to teach their children reading and mathematics that she turned her attention to such subjects. This effort resulted in the development of many of the didactic language and math materials you will find in Montessori classrooms today.
There’s the thrilling story of the children, who were using the sandpaper letters on a daily basis, spontaneously beginning to read without being taught to read. The movable alphabet is another early material that made writing easy and fun for young children. Putting out the pre-printed letters enabled them to write stories phonetically without having to actually know how to form letters.
In reading Dr. Montessori’s thoughts on the concept of spoken language, the modern reader must recall that The Montessori Method was published at a time when most people viewed dialectical differences as defective. In America, there are unfortunately still prejudices against differences in dialect. One example would be Mountain Speech of the inhabitants of the Appalachian Mountains. People who talk this way are portrayed in popular culture as being ignorant and backward. However, modern philologists have brought to light the fact that Mountain Speech is actually a rather wondrous surviving example of proper Elizabethan English, preserved into modern times because of the relative isolation of the speakers.
When an Appalachian highlander says he is going a-hunting, he is speaking the language of William Shakespeare, and to call his patterns of speech ‘incorrect’ is to misunderstand how living languages alter and grow over time. Dr. Montessori’s attitude toward dialectical deficiencies will strike the modern reader as antiquated. Today’s children need to understand that our world is a global one with many wonderful languages and dialects.
The Triumphant Results
The Montessori Method is rounded off with some of Dr. Montessori’s final observations on her experiences with the Children’s Houses. She had the pleasure of seeing her children triumph when cared for with her revolutionary method. She watched them develop grace, courtesy, self-reliance and a love of knowledge that would serve them well throughout life. She found herself beloved by the families amongst whom she worked so tirelessly, and she has left a legacy to the world of lasting importance.
In conclusion, it’s very important to draw attention to the fact that Dr. Montessori did not consider this book, nor even her whole life’s work, as a fait accompli. Her belief and earnest hope was that others would pick up where she had left off, using the discipline of scientific pedagogy to continue to observe children and refine upon the methods she had developed. Because of this, it is vital that we Montessori parents and instructors avoid viewing The Montessori Method as an infallible rule book for the classroom and home. If we are committed to the guidance and nurturing of children, we will carry on the work and methods of Dr. Maria Montessori, sharing what new things we learn with others and with the generations to come.