The Montessori Method

Science or Philosophy?

Although we sometimes hear the word “philosophy” applied to Montessori education, it is not a set of beliefs, but rather a scientific method, an approach to the child which has as its core a fundamental respect for the abilities with which each child is endowed.

Dr. Montessori was a scientist and a physician. When she opened her first Children’s House in 1907 very little work had been done in the field of early child development. Because of her background, Montessori used scientific techniques to watch children as they worked and played. She drew conclusions, made adjustments depending upon what she had seen, and observed again. Every piece of equipment and every activity she developed was a result of watching children’s natural development. Moreover, her conclusions were drawn from observations taken from numerous schools, in more than one country, over a long period of time.

Main Observations

Central to Montessori is the observation that children build themselves using what is available in their environment. Young children learn in a multi-sensory fashion, not by just watching or listening. Between the ages of birth and six they also have an enormous capacity to learn with an apparent lack of effort. Montessori called this the period “The Absorbent Mind.” Montessori also noted times in children’s development where they could learn certain skills easier, so-called “sensitive periods.” Once these periods were over, learning came with more struggle, and sometimes not at all. She concluded that any effective form of education should incorporate and take advantage of these natural cycles of learning. Some sensitive periods lasted for years, others she speculated only for a period of days. Those she clearly identified included sensitive periods for movement, learning by touch, language, order, imagination and socialization.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic observations Montessori made concerned the ability of young children to concentrate. Up to that time young children were considered to have very brief attention spans. She noticed, however, that when deeply interested in a carefully designed material a child could focus in such a way that he or she seemed to shut out every distraction – what we would call today being in the “zone” or “flow.” Moreover she noticed that children who repeatedly experienced this kind of concentration were not only joyous learners, but exhibited an inner calm and self reliance she became convinced was the natural state of childhood. She called this “normalization.”

Montessori observed and believed in the ability of each child. However, she also knew that children didn’t develop their full potential in a void. They required a carefully prepared developmental environment upon which they could act. It was this environment in combination with the adult and Montessori’s educational materials which formed the foundation for her method. And it is the interaction of the child, the adult, and the environment which make her approach so eminently successful, not just as an alternate form of schooling, but as an authentic education for life.