Montessori is a system of education developed by Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) in the early twentieth century. Dr. Montessori became Italy’s first female doctor, soon her interests turned to the education of children and she began her lifelong pursuit of studying child development. In her medical practice, her clinical observations led her to conclude that the environment plays a vital part in a child’s development. Dr. Montessori made scientific observations of children’s effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as their tireless interest in manipulating the materials she provided. Every piece of equipment, exercise and method Montessori developed was based on what she observed children do naturally by themselves, unassisted by adults. She began putting her ideas into practice, retaining and developing those that worked most effectively and thus creating the ‘prepared environment’ which is a fundamental part of Montessori teaching today. Her phenomenal success led her to travel the world, establishing schools and lecturing about her discoveries, while writing numerous books and articles. Dr. Maria Montessori was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to education and children’s rights. She believed that a truly educated individual continues learning long after years spent in the classroom. The Montessori philosophy is to provide a learning environment that enhances the development of intellectually reflective individuals who are caring and ethical members of the community; a legacy that continues to benefit children today. A pioneer and a visionary in her field of science and medicine, Montessori used her powers of observation to study how children learn best and to create a philosophy about the true meaning of education. Dr. Montessori’s ideas revolutionized early childhood education and, today, schools throughout the world embrace her method. Montessori schools are recognized for their ability to create learning environments that are child-centered, holistic, and developmentally appropriate. Children learn to be self-directed, responsible and respectful of themselves and others, and to feel confident about themselves as learners and their capacity to learn. In this way, children prepare themselves for a life of learning and personal fulfillment, and for roles as caring and compassionate members of their communities.
Central to Montessori philosophy is the belief that children learn through their senses and are sensitive to both the direct and indirect aims of a carefully prepared classroom environment. This capacity for children to absorb, as well as to act upon, their environment is important to the classroom design and how materials are selected and presented. Beauty, function, and relevance are three elements that teachers consider when preparing their classroom environments with teaching materials and objects of interest. The classroom environment is purposeful, deliberate and meaningful.
Within each class, there are many different activities happening at once and a lot of movement. You may see students working independently, conferring with one another, working in small groups, smiling and laughing, reading, receiving a lesson from a teacher, constructing something, or thinking and reflecting. Our classrooms are specifically designed to meet the needs of the students. They are prepared environments, meaning that the furniture is scaled to the size of the child. Materials are displayed on open shelves that are easily accessible and inviting to the students. The materials are arranged in such a way as to capture a child’s interest and entice her to work with them. We design our rooms this way to foster independence. Students learn to do for and help themselves in our classrooms. They select their work from the shelves, work on it alone or with others, and then return it to its place. They put away their own belongings. Independence is nurtured and fostered by the design of the classroom, the guidance of the teachers, and the mentoring of other students. It is an ongoing learning process.
Freedom is very important to the nurturing of independence. However freedom is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of Montessori. Many people assume that when we describe freedom, we mean that students can do whatever they wish. This is not true. Freedom means choice within limits. Freedom has a counterpart – responsibility. They are inseparable; they go hand-in-hand and work together with one another. Freedom to choose one’s own work is a hallmark of Montessori education. Children in our classes are accorded more freedom of choice as they demonstrate higher degrees of responsibility. Responsible behavior includes respect for classroom materials and using them for their intended purpose, the ability to concentrate and be engaged in work, and to work within reasonable time frames on an activity or follow-up from a lesson. A student has freedom of movement within our classes, as long as he is able to move responsibly. In fact, there is a lot of movement within our classrooms. Students move around when they are ready to choose new work, when they are finished with some work, when they want to talk with someone, or when they go to the bathroom or get a drink. In our environment, these are choices that the students make, not choices that the teachers make.
In a Montessori environment the adults are not the focus of the classroom, the children are. Montessori teachers give students lessons with the materials, but the child actually learns through his/her own work. The child teaches himself/herself. The adult’s role is to observe each child’s needs and then link the student with the appropriate materials of the prepared environment. The teacher is a trained observer who notices developmental milestones and when a student is ready for another presentation and is always ready to guide a student in a new direction.