Montessori education has been praised by technological geniuses, country builders, and famous artists, but does it stand up to scientific scrutiny? David Robson and Alessia Franco look into it.
While analyzing the lives of the rich and famous, it’s always tempting to look for the secrets to their success. So now here’s a thought experiment: what do Julia Child, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Taylor Swift, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin all have in common?
The answer is that they all attended Montessori schools when they were younger. The school’s importance in the art and technology has long been recognized in the United States. But, the educational method’s reach extends far beyond that. Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, developed a network of Montessori schools to encourage children’s creative self-expression. Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian freedom leader, was a devotee, stating how children educated with it “had no weight of learning as they learned everything as they played.”
But does the Montessori method work?
It has been more than a century since the famed concepts of Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori encouraged children to develop autonomy from a young age. Her life is an inspiring example of an early feminist who risked to oppose the Fascist dictatorship to attain her goal. According to some estimates, the Montessori approach is now used in at least 60,000 schools worldwide.
Surprisingly, the benefits of a Montessori education are still being debated. This is due in part to the inherent difficulties of conducting scientific research in the classroom, which means that skeptics have heavily challenged prior studies. But, experts have just recently been able to address some of these concerns, and their findings make for fascinating reading for teachers, parents, students, and anyone else fascinated by the infant mind’s malleability.
Having fun with breadcrumbs,
Montessori was born in the small Italian town of Chiaravalle in 1870 to progressive parents who routinely interacted with the country’s top thinkers and scholars. This progressive parental environment provided Montessori with various advantages over other young girls of the time.
Montessori began working as a volunteer assistant in a mental clinic at the University of Rome shortly after graduating in 1896, where she cared for children with learning difficulties. The rooms were sparsely furnished, with only a few items of furniture. Catherine L’Ecuyer, a psychology and education researcher at the University of Navarra in Spain and author of The Wonder Approach, noticed the children gleefully playing with breadcrumbs that had fallen on the floor one day. Montessori believed that this and other young minds could be nurtured with the right learning resources.
The observation motivated Montessori to develop a new educational technique to provide optimal stimulation during sensitive childhood periods.
The primary assumption was that all learning materials should be child-sized and tailored to appeal to all senses.
Furthermore, each child should be allowed to move and act and use their creativity and problem-solving abilities. Teachers served as guides, guiding the children without exerting pressure or control.
Montessori’s first “Casa dei Bambini” – “Children’s Home” – opened in 1907 and was shortly followed by many others. She also made friends with visionaries all across the world, including Gandhi. Interestingly, when the Fascists won power in Italy in 1922, they first supported her effort. However, they instantly attacked the emphasis on children’s freedom of expression. Montessori’s ideals had always been about human dignity and “the rights of children and women,” according to Taviani, “but the Fascists intended to exploit her work and her celebrity.”
When the Fascist regime attempted to influence the school curriculum, Montessori and her son decided to leave Italy in 1934. She only returned to her birthplace in 1947, and she continued to write about and perfect her method until her death in 1952 at the age of 81.
Children in command
There are many different types of Montessori schools presently; just a few are recognized by Opera Montessori, but many key concepts still need to alter. One idea is that instructors should be gentle mentors, encouraging children to complete activities with as little adult interference as possible.
Arithmetic and music are two areas taught at Ecoscuola that are similar to those taught in other pre-schools and schools. Yet, a part titled “practical life” returns to Montessori’s original concept of children’s autonomy. It incorporates real-world practical duties such as serving drinks to their classmates. Teachers would be in charge of boiling the water for safety reasons, but the children would take active roles in cleaning the work surface and serving the drinks to others.
The strategy encourages both uniqueness and teamwork. Children of various ages are taught together in the same classroom, so six-year-olds, for example, can assist three-year-olds. There are no tests or grades in order to eliminate student competition. Each session lasts three hours to allow the children to thoroughly immerse themselves in their work. The learning tools are designed to be handled and explored with all senses, such as sandpaper letters and numerals the child may trace with their finger.
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As tempting and sensible as this strategy appears to be, can it give benefits beyond those found in a traditional classroom?
It may appear to be a simple question, but it is not. The study may benefit many aspects of a Montessori education, but the conclusions are susceptible to important cautions. The traditional scientific procedure for establishing if something works takes time to implement in the classroom.