As a part of my continuing series on different approaches to homeschooling, I am now going to look at Montessori education. This method is named for its founder, Maria Montessori, who worked during the first half of the twentieth century. Maria called her approach “scientific pedagogy.” Her work was done initially with disabled children, but she later expanded her method to apply it to normal children as well. Over time, she developed a system of four periods of development which she believed children went through. Her emphasis was on providing children with real experiences, for example allowing them to cook instead of playing with toy food. While children in a Montessori classroom are given a lot of freedom to pursue their own interests without interruption, the environment is also a controlled one in which the teacher plays a large role as a guide.
The four questions I am asking of each of these methods are:
1. What do they assume about how learning works?
2. How do they view children?
3. How do they view human nature?
4. What do they believe is the goal of education?
The first question is the easiest to get at with Montessori education because this method is, first and foremost, a theory about how education works. Maria Montessori believed that children would naturally develop in appropriate ways if they were given the right environments and stimuli. I see this as a somewhat middle of the road approach. It is not as hands-off as unschooling. On the other hand, it is not as structured as classical education.
It is easy to see initial similarities with Charlotte Mason’s method. Charlotte and Maria (we are all on a first name basis, you know) were near contemporaries and so perhaps we should not be surprised to find some similarities. Both put some burden on the teacher but also say that the student has a natural tendency to develop which is merely being aided. Both also speak of exposing children to real things and of the value of purposeful activities. In truth, I think the similarities between these two is often at the level of language but that deep down they really diverged quite a bit. I could do another whole post on this, and perhaps I will at some point.
We begin to see some of the differences when we turn to the second question, the view of the child. The Montessori approach, like classical education, sees a development as the child ages. The stages are different, but the idea of progression through various stages is present in both.
In the Montessori system, there are four stages. In the first six years of life, the child is very responsive to their environment and is absorbing much. Between ages six and twelve, they are very social and are also developing morally and intellectually. In the third stage, till age 18, there is some psychological instability but also creative development and a sense of self. The last stage, from ages 18 through 24, is when a person begins to influence the world around them and to lead others. This emphasis on leadership reminds me a little more of the Thomas Jefferson model of education than of the usual classical model.
But I have some of the same issues with these stages that I have had with all the other models that speak of developmental stages. Yes, of course, there are some changes as children grow. But personally, I do not like the divisions into distinct stages. I think more often there is a lot of overlap and while some abilities are more easily seen as a child grows, they are still there in the early years as well. Furthermore, I think when we approach education with these stages (whatever they may be depending on the approach) in mind, we unconsciously limit children. If, for example, we do not expect reasoning and logic skills at age 7, we are likely not to find these things or to overlook them when they are present. Children respond to our expectations. We serve them best by remembering that they are first and foremost complete human beings.
I also wonder what the prepared environments of the Montessori approach say about children and about education in general. If children develop naturally and along appropriate lines when in a Montessori environment, how did they develop before Maria Montessori came along? This is one of the areas in which Charlotte Mason and Maria Montessori sound similar on the surface. Charlotte speaks of atmosphere and Maria of environment. The wording seems similar, but the ideas are different. Miss Mason specifically rejects environments ” especially adapted and prepared” for children [“Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles,” principle #6]. The difference to me is that Charlotte spoke of setting children’s feet in a large room, that is of giving them many relationships with and interests in things from the vast world available to us. Maria, in contrast, takes the world and selects parts, scales them down to child-size, and then presents them to children in a controlled environment. The first approach is expansive; the second is limiting.
What does this say about the view of children in Montessori education? I do think this approach respects the child to a certain extent. It lets them pursue their interests within the environment. It honors their personalities in that it does not forced them into a set curriculum or a certain schedule. But it also confines them. It does not open the whole world to them but only a subset selected by the experts.
The third question deals with human nature as a whole (you didn’t know your educational philosophy was so profound did you? but that is exactly why we must ask what is behind each of these). I don’t pick up large moral statements from the Montessori approach, no grand ideas about sinfulness or innate goodness. But I do think I am getting a hint of some sort of assumption hiding back there which says “we know better than you.” This approach requires a certain environment and also teachers specifically trained to apply this method. So what does that say about the rest of us? Those not trained as Montessori teachers and those not reared in a Montessori school? Do we not develop “naturally” as we should? I feel that the very scientificness of this approach tends to a sort of elitism that says “we, the experts, know best.” And while it pays some homage to the uniqueness of each child, it still does not allow the child the whole world. It says that we can pick for you what experiences and encounters you have. Which again smacks of elitism to me, the idea that some know better than others.
The final question I ask is what the goal of this method of education is. Montessori schools are much more common for younger children, and Maria herself did not get to write as much on the later stage of development. So to a certain extent it can be hard to say where this is all going. She speaks of leadership and influence in the last stage which again reminds me of the TJEd school the goal of which is to create leaders. But I do not get the feeling that that is the primary goal here. The development itself seems to be the major focus of the Montessori system. This makes sense if we remember that her system grew out of her work with developmentally challenged children. For them, the main concern probably would be primarily to just develop as much as possible and along normal lines.
And what is the end result of good development? Maria Montessori spoke in grand terms of world peace. She lived, you may remember, in a time of great conflict. No doubt many asked how things could come to such a pass and how we could prevent future wars. Maria’s answer seems to have been that if only we could raise children to develop along the right lines, they would produce a more peaceful world. So actually, I do think the Montessori school has something to say about human nature. It is that if only we were educated in the right ways, according to the appropriate scientific methodologies, we could avoid he evil that we saw in ourselves in the likes of WWI. It says that human evil is not necessary but that it can be cured with education.
You can probably tell I am not a big fan of the Montessori approach to education. But I will give her the prize for highest goal. World peace tops the list.
While I have not quoted many sources directly in this post, I have referred to many. Here are some:
“Charlotte Mason, Montessori, and Children with Disabilities,” from the Common Room
“Montessori Education,” from Wikipedia
“Montessori FAQ’s,” from michaelolaf.net
“Maria Montessori,” from Wikipedia
03/21/2017 — I just ran across this article by Miss Mason herself in which she discusses the Montessori approach at more length than I have seen elsewhere: “Three Educational Idylls“