A method in the madness, or what is Montessori?

Maria Montessori in Casa dei Bambini

Maria Montessori with a child at work with sensory material via MontessoriCentenary.org

When I am asked what I do, I often hear: ‘I know, Montessori! It’s this innovation at preschools. But what is it about?’ A question fit for an exam and we are just having a cup of coffee. Let me here prepare myself for the following inevitable coffee exam.

You can easily find online that Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870 (true), she became a doctor (also true) and it all began with intellectually disabled children (right). But that was only the point of departure. To sum up Maria Montessori’s lifetime of work with: ‘a psychiatrist treated the sane as the ill’ seems to me like calling Leonardo da Vinci a pencil drawer and a maker of sketches. Of course, it is true, but it misses the point of the person’s phenomenon in its entirety.

Maria Montessori conducted a science experiment which lets us see what the children really mean. People were coming to her school and were amazed, asking: ‘How do you make those children so calm and content? Why do they walk carefully and unroll their rugs fondly, and then pick up pieces of a puzzle one by one? We also have children of our own, we have nurseries, kindergartens and schools of our own and we know full well that this cannot be normal!’

That is why she told the story of how it happened in her first book in 1909, which was translated into English as The Montessori Method (you can click on the link to download the free ebook from Gutenberg.org). It was already known that her experiment in Casa dei Bambini was absolutely replicable and the same outcome was happening in other countries.

To ‘this cannot be normal’ argument she replied: ‘On the contrary, this is in fact normal. The children by themselves, out of their own initiative take from the shelf what interests them. They repeat the same action not out of obsession, but out of scientific curiosity. Each repetition leads to greater precision of movement and increases the sense of ‘I can do it’. For children, it is the most normal thing in the world. Nobody made them do it. It was not because of outside pressure, but because of the internal process of normalization.’

However, the outcry of ‘this cannot be normal’ contains a grain of truth. The person who says it is a keen observer, ready to accept a reality check. This person already knows there are no pleas, threats and social engineering practices capable of making a child pick pieces of a puzzle one by one if he or she does not enjoy it.

It would be great if Montessori parents and educators always were so observing and open-minded. Sometimes we see that it does not work, but we still repeat all the ineffective pedagogical methods: we correct, we tell off, we chastise. It works temporarily at best and then we plea to the conscience, we promise rewards, we threaten with punishments, we emotionally blackmail. And then we are surprised there are no calm, content children in sight.

The effective method is the Montessori method. By the way, it is not a method of helping adults mold ‘perfect children’, but a method of helping children develop their potential. That is why it is called by some wise people ‘the Montessori anthropology’ (from the Greek word for human: anthropos), because it says more about what happens with the human being than about how to raise children. Or it is called ‘the Montessori system’, because those who are certain that the Earth is in the centre (or the pedagogue knows best) are in for a Copernican Revolution.

Normalization is one of the indicators that the Montessori method works – an effect, not a cause. About the real cause, an absolute foundation, Maria Montessori wrote more in 1916 in her book Spontaneous Activity in Education.

Since the very beginning, spontaneous activity has been a key condition in the Casa dei Bambini experiment. How does it happen that between all the rugs, puzzles, dressing frames, sandpaper letters and golden beads we forget about a child’s freedom?

Spontaneity is no different to a child’s initiative: ‘I wish’, ‘I am interested’, ‘it speaks to me and brings me joy’. I meet many parents with wisdom and sensitivity to carefully observe their child, wishing to give space to this spontaneity. I meet many welcoming teachers, who say with a smile: ‘Good morning! How was your weekend? What are you going to work with today?’

There is fundamental optimism in the Montessori method; there is trust that it is really possible to be together with children in such a way. Maria Montessori asked for a maximum amount of freedom and the conditions allowing each child to benefit from it. It requires deeply ingrained optimism to ask a child, almost three years old, ‘What are you going to work on today?’ and then respect his or her choice. But what seems even harder is to ask the same question to a ten-year-old, when there are state requirements, all sorts of tests and exams in the picture.

If questions come up, like: ‘Is this really free choice? Spontaneous? What if…’  – then great. I encourage you to treat your own questions seriously. I encourage you to come and see a Montessori school. Talk to the teachers. Read Maria Montessori’s works. Learn from others at workshops, courses and conferences.

That is what professional Montessorians do. We come across problems and search for solutions, continue educating ourselves and meet to share our experiences. We invite our colleagues, asking them to observe our practice and tell us where we could act differently.

There are two basic questions then. The first one, for the child: ‘What are you going to work with today?’. The second one, for the adults: ‘How to work in order to respect a child’s spontaneous activity?’ For the second question, the Montessori method is the answer. 

  An earlier version of this article has been published before on Metoda Montessori.

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