Learning for Life - A Look at Education According to Montessori Principles (Part 1)

By Monika Wilson, 5 December, 2022
Girl with a pink tower
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Note: Parts of this article have been machine translated.

Montessori - for many parents it sounds like a sect or a religion, because it is also the name of the woman who brought this current to life. Others think of anti-authoritarian education. - None of this is true. Montessori is the world's best known and probably most widespread direction of alternative education, which was far ahead of its time and is more relevant today than ever, because it helps children to develop into independent and self-confident, capable, but also attentive and respectful personalities. It enables children to mature inwardly and grow into self-determined adults who are at peace with themselves and their environment. In this article we highlight the Montessori methods as well as the materials used and show the many positive effects they have on child development.

Maria Montessori's image of the child

What if Mozart had attended a daycare or school - and no one would have noticed? Because education is so thoroughly structured and standardized that the special talent would not have been noticed at all - or worse: suppressed? Karin Ann, founder of a Montessori institution in Hong Kong, asks herself this question and comes to the same conclusion that Maria Montessori came to more than 70 years ago: "One size doesn't fit it all. (In German: Eine eine Größe passt nicht allen.) Not only services should be tailor-made, but also education - or precisely that. Because it has been scientifically proven that a child's early learning experiences have an enormous and lasting impact on its development and on how it perceives learning.

If we look at schools in most civilized countries, teaching is not only standardized because everyone learns the same thing at the same time, but above all it is also compulsory. In other words, there is a compulsion for education in this country. Yet, as Maria Montessori discovered in the first half of the twentieth century, a child by nature has an inner drive to discover things, to learn something and even to perfect it. Even better, a child can manage this process all by itself, without us having to teach it anything. The best example: Even small children achieve the feat of learning a language, be it German, English, Mandarin or Kiswahili. An adult needs years for this, because the structure of languages is usually subject to complex structures. A child learns Mandarin "just like that", only because he was exposed to this language at the right time in his development, because his mother or other caregivers communicated with him in this language.[1]

This is exactly what Maria Montessori recognized as a medical doctor and applied to all other areas of learning: young children go through phases in their lives in which they are particularly receptive to certain learning content. If they are given the opportunity to pursue their interest during this time, they will absorb the knowledge like a sponge. Maria Montessori had called these periods "sensitive phases" (more on this below).

She referred to the child as a "builder of his or her self" who intuitively senses what is in his or her development at the moment. The adult's role is to closely observe the child to know what stage he or she is in and what he or she needs - and then allow him or her to take that developmental step. It's not just that we all learn best when that process is intrinsically motivated, that is, comes from within ourselves. In children, intrinsic learning is inherent from the very beginning - and at most can be lost to them if we do not accompany them in an appropriate form.

Child as a construction worker
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This idea of the little master builder that is in our daughter, or of the wise explorer that is our son, initially resists us adults. We take them to school by car so that nothing happens to them on the way to school, we make them sandwiches so that they have something to eat, we put a jacket on them because they can't do it themselves yet - and because that's what you do with children. They are still small, after all.

And now a surprise: children can do much more than we give them credit for. They even learn to walk all by themselves, even though this is a highly complex process that takes place in the brain - as discovered, for example, by stroke patients who have to relearn how to walk.

First and foremost, it's about not having confidence in our children's abilities and not giving them the chance to exercise their master builder skills on themselves. For fear of ... yes, of what, actually? That they will become independent and no longer need us? But isn't that the point of "he-parenting" - that children become confident, independent adults who can navigate the world well? Aren't we sabotaging this idea by taking everything away from them? Are we even perhaps patronizing them without meaning any harm?

In traditional pedagogy, developmental goals are defined, and children are then "educated" in this direction. Maria Montessori had as a doctor a different approach: at the beginning is the diagnosis, only then the appropriate educational content and methods are chosen. Because every child is different, has different talents and weaknesses, which must be accompanied differently. No two "blueprints" are the same. If each child is approached individually, he or she can develop his or her potential in the best possible way. But this approach needs resources in the form of educators[2] who respond to the children. Most public schools can't even afford that. In addition, personal development and individuality tend to be undesirable in most of these schools.

Girl with overturned flower pot
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How do we let our children develop freely? By letting them do whatever they want? Not at all. That Montessori education is anti-authoritarian is, as mentioned, a prejudice. Some critics, on the other hand, think that it is too rigid. We will show elsewhere that neither of these is true. This much should be anticipated: Maria Montessori spoke of a "prepared environment" in which children can have learning experiences and thus live out their need to learn. In this learning environment, everything should be designed in such a way that the learning impulses have an exclusively positive effect on them. Then a child can educate itself, out of an inner impulse, completely spontaneously, without being directed by us adults. The adult always offers assistance when the child cannot make progress on its own. Whereby the little ones do not educate themselves in an abstract way, but always in relation to reality - which they discover and conquer with all their senses. Therefore, Montessori children's houses prepare for real life.

To enable these discoveries, Maria Montessori developed a variety of learning materials, which we will present in detail in a later chapter. The child thus gradually achieves a higher degree of independence - with this development continuing into adulthood.

In addition to the prepared environment, it was important to Maria Montessori to perceive the child as a unity, a union of body, mind and spirit, and not as an empty vessel to be filled. She showed respect and attention to the children and did not see them as unfinished adults. And she got the same in return: the children also showed her respect in a very natural way. Because they felt taken seriously and were satisfied.

Who was Maria Montessori?

But who was this woman, who had a very modern view of children for the times and is the only educator to be counted among the classics (she was even so famous that her portrait adorned the Italian 1000 lira bill)?

1000 Lire note
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If it had been up to Maria Montessori's father, his daughter would have become a teacher - if she had taken up a profession at all as a woman. Only to her mother, an educated, politically open-minded and liberal woman, she had to thank that things turned out differently. She supported her daughter in breaking out of the traditional role of a woman and implementing her professional plans. And they were ambitious: Maria Montessori was the first woman in Italy to dare to study medicine, making her the only female student in the course. She made a living during her studies largely on her own - an aspect that would later play a role in Montessori education for older children.

Her exam lecture was received with enthusiasm - making her the first woman in Italy to hold a doctorate in medicine and surgery and to enter the profession of medicine, specializing in pediatrics. But Maria Montessori was not satisfied with that. She had a wide range of interests and additionally immersed herself in the fields of developmental psychology and psychiatry.

Normalization of the child

First she dealt with mentally handicapped children and found that many of them did just as well on exams in the first year of school as children without disabilities after receiving targeted support. She came to the conclusion that all children benefit from support in this way, and worked out a pedagogical concept that she was soon able to test - in 1907, that is - in a socially deprived area of Rome. Neglected children were living there, roaming around and causing damage to the buildings. The building society in the district decided to set up a room for these children and asked Maria Montessori if she would like to supervise them. She agreed.

She, who had not been satisfied with her own schooling, was now able to apply what she had observed in handicapped children and learned in scientific essays to non-handicapped children. With overwhelming success: the children she cared for initially had no interests, were moody, shy, introverted or wild. Maria Montessori not only managed to get them interested in the material she developed - the children stayed with their tasks until they had each solved them, and repeated them several more times. They chose their own tasks and managed to concentrate on one activity. They were not as interested in conventional toys as they were in learning materials. Thus, they also learned to read and write. The little ones changed in character: After some time, they enjoyed communicating, were happy, cheerful, self-confident, and liked company. At the same time, they were very considerate and kind to each other.

Happy girls
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What had happened here was what Maria Montessori called the normalization of the child. Today, the term sounds antiquated and inappropriate - because what is normal? What the educator meant by this were children who felt comfortable in their own skin, who were lively, good-humored, who actively went their own way, full of self-confidence. This was and is the result of calm and concentrated work in a Montessori-inspired children's house.

The concept that came into play in Maria Montessori's first institution was new at the time: the children themselves were responsible for managing the house. They kept it clean, had washstands their size where they could wash their own dishes, took care of small animals and plants. The furniture was adapted to their size: small tables and chairs that were light and easy to carry from one place to another.

Girl cleaning a window
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The children in this institution developed so well, that very soon several "children's houses"[3] were opened in Rome, including one for children from the higher social class.

Montessori abroad

The news of the Montessori children's homes spread. More and more visitors from Italy and from other countries came to Rome to see Maria Montessori's work. Montessori became a movement that interested more and more people; even Sigmund Freud was among its supporters.

Maria Montessori developed training courses for interested people from all over the world; even in Saint Petersburg a Montessori class came about in this way. Educators in England and in the Netherlands were enthusiastic. Especially in the Netherlands, basic schools were established, which housed a children's house and a six-year elementary school; in Amsterdam, even a Montessori Lyceum for children from the age of 12 was founded - it still exists today. Since then, Montessori education has been part of the Dutch education system as a variant; in no other country are there as many Montessori schools as there.

But the doctor's ideas and books also found favor in the United States, where numerous schools were also opened. But it was also the country where the first conflicts arose: Helen Pankhurst, who directed the Montessori institutions in America, expressed the desire to offer training courses herself, but Maria Montessori did not allow this. As a result, Helen Pankhurst developed her own concept, the Dalton Plan, with which she also had success.

It was important to Maria Montessori that all authorized Montessori institutions around the world work in the same way. She managed to do that, too. Thus, children's homes around the globe are still very similar today, whether they are located in Shanghai, in New York or in Munich. The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) ensures that the educational principles are implemented everywhere and that the Montessori learning materials are used.

During her lifetime, Maria Montessori protected her own system from softening and even turned against people from her own ranks. She criticized Dorothy Canfield-Fisher, who championed Montessori principles with her book "A Montessori Mother." There were also conflicts with Elise Herbatschek from Vienna, who had worked out a music didactics in the sense of Montessori in a joint project. Maria Montessori did not allow her followers to interpret the principles she had established in their own way and to develop them further within a certain framework, but it was precisely this freedom and independence that she advocated for the children.

A pedagogical direction also thrives on evolving and adapting to changing circumstances. Thus, the Montessori pedagogy fell into isolation and has not evolved to this day.

While Maria Montessori's ideas spread throughout the world, they lost importance in Italy, possibly because their founder cooperated with Mussolini. Nothing is known about the motives. They leave question marks, because the idea of educating children to become self-confident and independent individuals did not fit the ideology of the fascists. In 1934, the Montessori schools in Italy were finally closed.

In Germany, too, Montessori education was banned at the very beginning of the National Socialists' reign, and their books were burned - on the grounds that the individualization propagated in them stood in the way of the national community.

Maria Montessori visited India, where numerous institutions based on her model had already been opened in Italy - by Indian women who had been trained by her. The country hoped that her visit would help in the literacy of the population. Maria Montessori stayed for several years and completed her educational work there, adding religious-mystical aspects.

So critics accuse Montessori education of being partly spiritual. And indeed, terms like "earth child plan" and "cosmic education" sound like it, even if one has to keep in mind that these terminologies originate from ancient times.[4] Whereby the fact that Maria Montessori herself was a scientist and that her methods were based on research results cancels this accusation again. From her point of view, both aspects can coexist well. She herself was always guided by her intuition in her scientific work and career.

Happy children
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Her concept should benefit all children of this world, regardless of their religion, skin color or ethnic group. That is why Montessori is not a trademark; the method should be accessible to all. She saw all children and everything that surrounded them as one big organism. These considerations flowed into the "cosmic education," in which one could also recognize the influence of her mother's uncle, who was a renowned geologist.

In addition to the scientific-developmental-psychological and, to some extent, religious components in her education, Maria Montessori was also a visionary. She campaigned for a world without war and was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. For her, every child that comes into the world was a chance to make our world more peaceful. She saw the origin of warlike conflicts in the early years of childhood, when children fought against their parents, who did not allow them to be autonomous beings. In her view, children who had never learned to do anything on their own needed someone to guide them, someone to lead them, a leader, even in adulthood. It is clear from this thinking that Montessori's ideas also contained a socio-critical component.

She was a courageous woman and also described herself as such, admitting that it was not always easy to be courageous and to work for the emancipation of women and children.

Montessori facilities today

Even today, Montessori education has lost none of its relevance. Approximately 22,000 Montessori facilities exist worldwide. In addition, there are those that do not use the entire concept, but probably elements of it. This is because many ideas have become standard in education, for example, furniture in children's sizes or educational toys in general. The material developed by Maria Montessori has a quality that has not been achieved to this day.

Nowadays one can speak of a renaissance of Montessori methods; they are on everyone's lips and attract parents who are dissatisfied with the state education system and are looking for alternatives.

Montessori cylinder blocks
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A child's Montessori career can begin as early as the Montessori nursery, which accepts children up to age 3. In the Montessori Children's House, which accommodates children from 3 to 6 years, children learn together or alone, grow in their tasks and practice living together. A Montessori elementary school is attended by children ages 6 to 12 (that elementary school in Germany ends after only four years is a political decision that does not correspond to natural child development[5]). Adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 continue to develop in Montessori secondary education. There are actually a few Montessori high schools or Montessori secondary schools in Germany; however, the children's homes and elementary schools are the most common form. This may be due to the fact that the Montessori pedagogy reaches its limits at the higher school levels due to the increasingly abstract content.

Over half of the Montessori schools that exist today are private schools. The reason: the high-quality learning material is expensive in the acquisition and also the aesthetic and child-fairly arranged environment must be paid. Public funding is usually not sufficient to equip state schools with these materials. That is regrettable, the methods are nevertheless trend-setting, even if they would have to be adapted certainly to the today's conditions.

For example, Katy Wright, a Montessori educator at a public school, notes in her presentation that her three-year-old son not only learned to work with concentration at a Montessori facility, but already acquired leadership skills: he trained his working memory by having to retain and rearrange different pieces of information within a short time frame. He learned mental flexibility because he applied rules in different environments. Last but not least, he learned self-control, which is the ability to suppress impulsive actions, stick to a topic, and prioritize. She believes Montessori could solve most of the problems in the public school sector.

And that's just by observing the child well, following them as they develop, and guiding them. By educators creating a learning environment where children feel comfortable and motivated to discover new things. And thus giving them the opportunity to develop into independent and responsible participants in our society.

As we saw at the beginning, there are many preconceptions associated with Montessori education. Katy Wright quotes Merriam Webster, a well-known American dictionary, which describes the method as "... a system for training young children emphasizing free physical activity". The American Heritage Dictionary referred to it as "practical play." While movement and practical exercise are highly valued in this pedagogy, reducing it to these points alone distorts the picture.

Now we take a closer look at what Montessori really is.

The child's developmental phases

Children learn incredibly quickly, especially when the learning content is appropriate to their stage of development. Every child goes through the same phases in which it is particularly receptive to certain learning impulses, where it shows interest in certain things and effortlessly acquires the relevant knowledge. And it does so by occupying itself intensively with it. While we adults strive to complete things as efficiently and quickly as possible, a child takes pleasure in doing an activity over and over again. It cleans a window, even though it has been clean for a long time, for the pure joy of movement. Only when the child has savored the activity to the last does it stop.

These phases, which occur in every child at certain stages of life, continue until a child has acquired the knowledge in question. After that, the time window is over and the child turns to another learning content. Maria Montessori recognized this; she also noted that the phases take turns and sometimes overlap in time. And that this time of intrinsic motivation is irretrievably lost as soon as the time window has closed.

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While it is theoretically possible for a child to still learn an activity after the expiration of a so-called sensitive phase, this is significantly more strenuous and potentially leads to frustration. As mentioned above, it falls automatically to a young child to learn a complex language, the older child already needs a method of learning and a teacher.

Some things cannot be learned later, for example the formation of glottal stops, which some African tribes use. Or the ability to distinguish different shades of white, as the Inuit can. Even riding a bicycle is not easy to learn if you haven't used the appropriate window of time. You don't learn it on the side as an adult anymore. Again, the skills that one has acquired early usually remain for a lifetime.

Often it will also be the case that a child no longer sees the need to learn something as soon as the corresponding sensitive phase is over. Or it loses interest in it. Therefore, it is important that educators know these phases, observe the children just in view of it and accompany accordingly.

Even though Maria Montessori was able to crystallize the sensitive phases in children through close observation, her assumptions have now been widely confirmed by science, especially by psychologist Jean Piaget. All children go through the same phases; all learn to walk at about the age of one. Developmental psychology uses similar phase divisions.

While the famous pink tower, which we will discuss later, can be highly interesting to a three-year-old because it corresponds exactly to his developmental stage, we adults do not develop a fascination with it. We also find walking on a line, which is often practiced in Montessori children's homes, boring. For children of a certain age, however, it is exactly what they need. A two-year-old, on the other hand, can neither walk on the line nor is he interested in it, and he also leaves the pink tower to the left. His learning needs are simpler: Perhaps he hits two pot lids against each other and discovers that he is able to cause an effect: on the one hand the loud noise - and perhaps also an annoyance on the part of the parents.

The natural maturation processes of the child and his development are mutually dependent, and the learning process can be positively influenced. Namely by letting the child develop and educate itself in a natural way and by merely accompanying it. If one does not act in this way, the child's needs remain unsatisfied and defiant reactions or the development of fear occur. The child may also cry. Parents often interpret these reactions as whims, but according to Montessori they are rather alarm signals that the emotional needs of a child have not been satisfied. Therefore, parents should take such reactions seriously in any case. A happy smile, on the other hand, is an indication that a need of the child has been satisfied.

Children in autumn
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Many parents who are thinking about enrolling their child in a Montessori children's home are afraid that he or she will develop in a one-sided way if they pursue their interests. That if he is interested in math, he will only ever want to do math. Montessori educators report that this almost never happens. The sensitive phases ensure that the fields of activity remain balanced.

If a child is completely uninterested in a topic that would actually correspond to its stage of development, the task of parents and educators is to remain patient and to trust that the interest will sooner or later still be awakened - with some children it just takes a little longer. An educator can try to gently steer the child in this direction by directing the child's attention to just that object and the appropriate learning material. But at the latest, when a good friend of the child has a skill that the child still lacks, it develops the ambition to learn it as well.

Originally, Maria Montessori had developed her method for 3- to 6-year-olds, and that is where it is most effective. But the doctor noticed how well the children developed, and expanded the method to babies and older children. So she eventually distinguished three sensitive phases: 0 to 6 years (with further subdivisions from 0 to 3 and 3 to 6), 6 to 12 years and 12 to 18 years.

She spoke of four stages in a child's development into adulthood. She referred to the first stage of 0 to 6 years as well as 12 to 18 years as formative; this is where a lot happens in a child's development. In turn, she described the stages from 6 to 12 and 18 to 24 as stable.

Development occurs in spurts - whereas the requirements in our school system are increased linearly, which does not fit the child's natural development. In order for the child to be accompanied seamlessly in its development in an educational institution, Maria Montessori saw the need not to separate the institution of daycare and school.

Children aged 0 to 6

While many consider university studies to be the most important phase in a person's development, the first six years shape him or her even more decisively. It is the most important time in life. That's why parents should let their children take an active part in life, take them everywhere, shopping, to the market, maybe even to the company, so that they can gather impressions - and not leave them in the playpen or in the nursery.

First subphase: 0 to 3 years

From birth to age three, what Maria Montessori called the "absorbent mind" dominates. Although the child has developed from an embryo to a living being at birth, its mental status is still that of a fetus. It is exposed to many impressions from its environment, both positive and negative: It hears all kinds of sounds, absorbs its environment with its sense of smell and even subconsciously picks up on moods. It absorbs all this like a sponge and stores it in its unconscious memory. In this way, it learns behavior in an unconscious way and is particularly malleable during this time. Here - especially in the first year - the foundation is laid for later life. The child learns to adapt to its environment. Only then does it build up its personality step by step.

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Everything the child experiences at this time is reflected unfiltered, including negative experiences. With the possible consequence that it does not develop a basic trust in negative experiences and often has to struggle with it later throughout life.

In next part you will learn about the sensitive phases and can dive further into the fascinating world of Montessori.

All sources can be found at the end of Part 3.

  1. [↑] On the fascinating topic of children's language acquisition, we are currently preparing an article. You can already be excited!
  2. [↑] Even if we only use the female or male form in the article, of course all genders are always meant.
  3. [↑] A children's house is roughly the Montessori equivalent of a kindergarten.
  4. [↑] By the way, in German Montessori institutions the Erdkinderplan plays almost no role.
  5. [↑] Michael Klein-Landeck and Tanja Pütz. Montessori education. Introduction to theory and practice. Verlag Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 2011


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