Is Montessori a “method” or “pedagogy”?
The “Montessori Method” is just one of many means of referencing a sort of pedagogy – although some would say philosophy – one which was first articulated and then developed into a comprehensive approach to the education of young children by Maria Montessori. This approach has much in common with and is sometimes considered to be an example of constructivist pedagogy or a cognitivist pedagogy, but it is not relevant whether or not it should be considered its own pedagogy or not, what is important is what it can offer to help kids learn and grow.
The term is a reference to Maria Montessori, the woman who worked to develop a teaching approach which based its methods on scientific observations of children – largely her own, direct observations. Not only the means but also the goal by which she established her “method” was through the scientific observation of children.
History Of Montessori
Italian educator, physician, and scientist, Dr Maria Montessori was invited to create a childcare centre in the impoverished Roman district of San Lorenzo in response to her work in scientific pedagogy and experimental psychology.
Despite early difficulty due to the children’s unruly habits and utter ignorance of etiquette and proper behaviour, the children began to show their capacity to learn quite quickly. Before long the children were becoming more manageable, peaceful and capable of great concentration and interest. During this period, she realised that the children were, in fact, learning almost constantly, whether from instruction, their environment or each other.
As she continued her scientific observation, she also began to develop her approach to facilitate their growth and learning, along with unique learning materials and a classroom environment designed to encourage a child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn.
In a few short years, Dr Montessori became internationally recognised for her ideas on education, pedagogy, the student-teacher interaction and the success those ideas were having on the underprivileged children in her home country of Italy.
Dr Montessori published books on her observations, method, results and insights. Her two books (translated from Italian), “The Montessori Method” and “The Advanced Montessori Method” (which focuses on children aged 7-11) both provide insight into her thinking, approach, interaction with students, and her motivations and inspiration. Although certainly not necessary to understand the underlying concepts to a Montessori learning environment, they provide a valuable reference and source of ideas or inspiration for anyone looking to constructivism or the Montessori method as a means to educate.
Oversight and Associations of the Montessori Method
The Montessori method has been in practice in some capacity for the past 100 years, but the term has become so heavily used and by such a broad range of educators and facilities that distinguishing the pedagogy as defined and practised by Maria Montessori is important.
There are a large number of educators, carers, and schools which claim to implement the Montessori method, and each will have their own techniques, but the AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) serves as a means of both promoting and informing on the Montessori method and of overseeing and accrediting places of learning using that method. The Association Montessori Internationale was founded by Maria Montessori herself, the only entity which can claim so, and the pinnacle authority on this method of teaching.
The AMI is the international entity overseeing Montessori institutions and practice, however, there are many more local Montessori associations and organisations aligned with the AMI and with the same goals. For anyone serious about taking the Montessori concept into practice, contacting a local Montessori association or even the AMI is a good place to start. The AMI-UK site has links to plenty of resources, literature, training and more.
Another source of information, guidance and support of the education of children, especially the utilisation of the Montessori method, is the Montessori.org.uk site.
Philosophy Of The Montessori Method
A Montessori learning environment is recognizable and easily distinguished from a more traditional, direct-instruction or teacher-centred pedagogical approach. In a Montessori environment, some children will be seen working independently while others will be working in groups. Learning materials designed for a specific application or lesson will be seen being used by children that often become highly engaged in their learning in a well-functioning setting.
The Montessori Philosophy believes the children are both internally motivated and capable of courteous decorum when their curiosity and desire to learn are satisfied with their preference, age, and individuality in mind.
Montessori instructors are encouraged to allow their students’ space and freedom while also offering support and instruction. The Montessori Method puts a premium on hands-on learning and physical interaction, integrating all sorts of props, tools, toys, and devices to achieve the goal of child interaction and growth.
With the Montessori method, children are generally considered eager to understand and capable of engaging in and initiating learning, especially when given a supportive, well-designed and implemented learning environment. The Montessori method also seeks to encourage child development physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively.
Features common to the “Montessori Method” in practice
- Mixed age classrooms (usually no more than 3 year age difference between children)
- Advocates that children learn best by doing
- Sensory learning is highly valued; activities which engage more senses than just hearing/sound are often incorporated
- Fosters strong relationship between student, family, and school/teacher
- Children choose their lesson/activity based on options offered to them
- Uninterrupted periods of work, typically around 3 hours.
- Furniture and utilities in the learning space should be size-appropriate and accessible by the children
- Constructivist discovery model (students learn often by working hands-on)
- A sense of freedom within reasonable limits is fostered
- Teaching is considered to be the process of connecting the child with suitable material to accommodate their personal learning.
- Student preference has a high degree of latitude in determining what, when and how subjects and materials are explored – often on an individual basis.
- Incorporation of physical and other ‘fun’ activities into the curriculum is encouraged.
- The learning environment should be home-like to allow lessons on real-life issues such as hygiene
- Aesthetics are important to the Montessori philosophy, so the space should be visually pleasing
Each child should be provided a space to store their personal belongings. A trained Montessori educator ought to be highly engaged in observing the child’s progress, as well as their unique characteristics, tendencies, talents, and abilities. A Montessori preschool is summarised into three general phases; exercises for practical life, sensory education, and language activities.
Maria Montessori and the teachers and carers that use her method make use of learning materials out of aesthetic and typically natural materials such as wood. The learning environment is also organised by subject area, with materials within reach of the child and of a size which is appropriate for that child.
Some examples of common “learning materials” used by Montessori early years educators:
Children begin to learn to read and write very early, and the more comfortable they are with letters and the alphabet the more quickly they will become confident readers. The idea is that hands-on interactive play makes learning easier, including literally playing with words (and letters) and developing familiarity with all of the letters of the alphabet (and accommodating all sorts of possible games, especially phonics, as the children continue to learn and grow).
Children often have difficulty manipulating buttons, zippers, shoe-laces, and other garment-fastening devices. “Dressing Frames” offer a means to teach children to tie shoelaces, button their shirts, zip their coats and so on – essentially, the dressing frames offer some type of garment device which can be manipulated by the child until they have mastered it.
Puzzle maps are a means for children to have fun and begin to be exposed to and learn about geography. A puzzle map allows children to arrange the map in a variety of different ways until they have solved the puzzle to reveal the actual geography of the region displayed by the map. Whether unsolved or solved, the puzzle map can inspire imagination.
Classification cards are used to help children learn and recall the names of different objects in the world. As the child advances in their understanding, the classification cards become progressively more advanced as well. To use classification cards, the child must match an image with the correct name or word, expanding their vocabulary, recognition, and general awareness. Classification cards can even be used for complicated concepts and more unusual or unseen objects, such as those which are very small, very large, or entirely unfamiliar.
Beads are often used to illustrate mathematical concepts. One such example is that of the decimal system and the related powers of ten. The beads can be fit into a device at specific, relevant numbers, most often 10.
Likely the most interesting of the learning materials commonly experienced in places utilising a Montessori approach is the binomial cube. The binomial cube is a simple wooden box containing 8 small wooden blocks which fit together to form a binomial pattern. That binomial pattern is represented both in the basic equations printed on the blocks themselves together with the physical size of the blocks. This toy has application in understanding size, scale, exponents, and even binomials in algebra.
Learning dexterity is important and can be achieved while also learning some relatively simple tasks. Often, Montessori instructors working with young children will make tools available to them to allow them to perform tasks such as:
- Watering plants
- Washing clothes
- Gluing Papers
- Window washing
- Pouring liquids
Although quite simple, these tasks can help motor skills develop. These activities help the child to also explore their environment while learning how to help out around the house.
Materials such as these have become a staple of the Montessori approach in a modern classroom, nursery or childminder’s living room, study, basement, local park, playroom, etc. A fact which is important to remember and one which Maria Montessori echoed in statement and deed is that the setting and methods used to inspire and teach children need not be formal, rigidly applied, defined or restricted – the best setting for a child to learn is the setting where he or she is. Learning should never cease, especially not in young children.
Efficacy Of Montessori
The Montessori method has some significant strengths, especially for younger children, whose learning and memory has been shown to be benefitted immensely by interaction and physical manipulation. The “learning materials” the Montessori Method uses create experiences a young child is more likely to accurately and easily recall than a similar lesson given without a physical device to manipulate, touch and feel, hear, and see.
Having a physical representation of the lesson or subject creates a more immersive experience for a young child, an experience which features many or all of the senses. Such an experience will demand more dedicated attention and create memories which are more rich and profound in detail. Those memories rich in sensory information will be more easily remembered for a multitude of reasons – for one, the memory of each sensation, sound, sight, smell, and taste are recorded separately by your brain, but are associated with the other sensations and experiences that together make up the memory in its entirety.
Memories which stimulate more of the senses have been shown to have higher rates of recall. Remember any loud, multi-sensory experiences? A concert perhaps? Modern concerts heavily manipulate our memory, and for this reason, they remain one of our culture’s most oft-recalled life experiences.
This is exploited, albeit in a different way, by the Montessori approach. Rather than using loud noises and bright lights, the Montessori approach uses touch, spatial manipulation, interaction, and visual stimulation. This combined with the freedom and degree of choice the child has upon his or her lesson at a given moment makes a child more likely to learn and recall. The freedom and choice make it more likely that a child will be attentive and engage.
The impact of the sensory perception on memory is even more profound in young children than in any other group. Between the ages of 4 and 7, the right hemisphere of a child’s brain is developing. The right hemisphere has been shown to respond to visual and tactile stimuli.
“Kids learn through all their senses,” according to Ben Mardell, PhD, with Project Zero at Harvard University, “and they like to touch and manipulate things.” Learning in this way has more significance than simply keeping the children busy, learning with hands-on lessons will improve retention of the material, especially in younger children. When children are between 3 and 8, the right side of the brain is doing a lot of growth and development, making visual and spatial activities highly effective for this age group. Not until later in life, after age 10, does the growth and learning in the more analytical left hemisphere take place.
Activities which incorporate movement, listening, talking and tactile sensations, activate many areas of the brain. “The more parts of your brain you use, the more likely you are to retain information,” according to Judy Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom. “If you’re only listening, you’re only activating one part of the brain”, Dodge says. This illuminates the core strengths of the Montessori Method, which seeks to activate numerous parts of the brain, and creating more robust neural connections between those parts, which together develop a more lasting, significant memory. In children under the age of 8 or even 10, whose brains and thinking are very much ‘right-brain’ dominant, these visual, tactile and spatial elements are great at establishing lasting, accurate recall of lessons and the information they contain.
Learn more about the different teaching pedagogies commonly practised here.