Maria Montessori: The Answer to the Education Problem 100 Years Later

“Our children are noticeably different from those others who have grown up within the grey walls of the common schools.  Our little pupils have the serene and happy aspect and the frank and open friendliness of the person who feels himself to be the master of his own actions.”    Maria Montessori

February 22-28, 2015 was National Engineer‘s week and I am happy to announce that Governor Nikki Haley also declared it  South Carolina Montessori Education Week.  This brings a smile to my face because Maria Montessori was truly an innovative pioneer in the field of education.  She initially studied engineering at the age of 13 at an all boys school before deciding to pursue a degree in medicine.  Montessori was among the  first female students in Italy to graduate from medical school in 1896.   She is a prime example of a passionate person following her vast array of interests in a time where women were not typically welcome.   In 1915, her Glass Classroom was on display at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.  An expo that included engineering marvels such as the Ford Model T assembly line and a brand new transcontinental telephone system also housed Maria Montessori’s school for the world to see.  Behind three walls of glass was a classroom full of her materials and beautiful recycled furniture for the students to use.  Maria even made sure the ceiling was covered with billowing fabric to give it a cozy feel.  For four months thirty students ranging from 2 1/2 to 6 years old attended this glass classroom while spectators watched daily.  Adults were amazed at the power of concentration these kids maintained through out the day and would often return to watch these “industrious miracle children”.

Maria Montessori’s methods were really beginning to take off in the United States until World War I severely hindered the progress of school development.  Language barriers, anti-immigrant sentiments and the dissapproval of a few highly influential educators also led to the rapid decline or halt of Montessori education in the United States.  Even in 1915,  the media played a significant role in societal perceptions of public figures.  One December, Maria gave a lecture at Carnegie Hall and mentioned how some children have a natural instinct to take apart and explore an object’s internal parts to see how it works. Genius? Yes!  But headlines the next day stating “Smash Your Toys if You Want to, Dr Montessori Gives Children Leeway to Wreck Christmas Presents ” did not go over well with parents.  Twisting of words and non-endorsement by key American educators led the general public to question her methods.

We are now experiencing the need for serious change in the education system and I often wonder what would Maria Montessori think?  She would probably shake her head because her research and work has been around for almost 100 years but still have not made mainstream education despite being validated by modern researchers like Howard Gardner, Stephen Hughes and Angeline Stoll Lillard.   Even worse, some of the recent “trends” in education are actually ideas Maria developed years ago but these ideas will not work in an isolated scene.  The work of Montessori focused on the whole development of the child .  She sought a system of education that worked for rather than against the child.

A child does not go to a Montessori school to only learn academics but goes to learn how to function as peaceful member in society.   They learn how to collaborate with one another and solve real-life problems.  A child knows he is able to do something because the adult trusts in him and recognizes that he is a human being full of potential, not just a submissive child waiting to listen to a teacher lecture.   As the child ages into adolescence the focus becomes on helping a child pursue their passions with real world experiences.

Here are a few “trends”  that I have noticed recently and what how I feel they are connected to Montessori:

Flipped Classroom

In the flipped classroom students watch online videos at home and do homework and discussions in the classroom.  The teacher functions more like a tutor or facilitator for students.  This type of learning attempts to bring more collaboration and hands on work to the classroom.  The teacher intervenes when the child needs assistance and students are also encourage to help one another.

Maria Montessori strongly believed that given a prepared environment children would be engaged learners and would also work collaboratively with one another.   She believed the role of the teacher was to act as a  guide/facilitator .  The guide does not impose her ideas on what she thinks the child should learn or when.  Instead, the Montessori teacher prepares the environment and steps back, allowing the children to learn from their own discoveries and make their own conclusions.  The role of the teacher is to guide them through the problem solving process through questions that enhance critical thinking skills.  

Problem-based Learning

In this type of learning children engage in solving a real-world problem that mimics real-life.  It is often used in places such as engineering and medical schools to help prepare these students for actual issues they will encounter as professionals.  Now public schools are adopting this type of learning in classrooms.  Teachers will often choose the real-world problem/project and the students investigate, research and develop a solution to share with the class.

Maria Montessori believed that experiences in the child’s environment were crucial to development.  She believed that children learned best in environments where they were able to test and problem solve rather listening to a teacher formally direct lessons all day.  Her vision for an adolescent school was a collaborative community where students could participate in real world activities to learn how society is organized and to develop the skills needed to meet the challenges of real life.  Montessori education is characterized by meaningful experiences with meaningful contexts.   In younger years this means using materials that are hands-on, interconnected and have clear meaning/application.  As children get older they may still use some materials but the focus shifts to more collaborative learning and actually going out in the world to learn. 

Interest-Led Learning

Interest -led learning is seen in many homeschool articles but it is making its way into schools (see Three Trends that Will Shape Future Curriculum) . This is when a child is allowed the freedom to pursue their own interests.   It is immersion based and subjects are often integrated.

Maria Montessori demonstrated long ago that children learn best in environment where they are able to explore their interests and learn at their own pace.  In her later years, Montessori began proposing her visions for adolescent programs.  She envisioned schools where adolescents were free to engage in real-world activities bases on their interests such as marketing their handmade goods. She believed that through human interdependence and a trusting community, adolescents  would be able to discover their interests and become a strong member of society.  A person who was free to pursue their passions would feel confident to participate in the community as an adult. 


STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts and Mathematics) is the latest buzzword indicating an emphasis on integrating the science and arts.

“The A stands for the broad spectrum of the arts going well beyond aesthetics; it includes the liberal arts, formally folding in Language Arts, Social Studies, Physical Arts, Fine Arts & Music that each shape developments in STEM fields. “— STEAM Education

Montessori classrooms operate with the idea of an integrated curriculum.  For example, a child learning about Eygpt may study the history of the country,  the writing system of hieroglyphics, math concepts in pyramids, and the art of Egyptian pottery.  Maria Montessori recognized that subjects were not compartmentalized and it was important to integrate multiple disciplines to give children a complete sense of how the world works.  

Mindfulness training/Yoga

Mindfulness training and yoga have been slowly making their way into preschool and elementary classes.   The idea of mindfulness is helping students focus on being in the present and living life with an openness to experience.  Some schools have implemented mindfulness programs to assist students with self-awareness and empathy.  There is preliminary and limited research out there suggesting the benefits of mindfulness training in children.

Concentration and awareness of self and others  is a huge component of Montessori education.  Starting at 2 1/2 or 3 years old, children in a Montessori classroom are exposed to the Silence game and other activities to enhance mindfulness.  Montessori materials and exercises prepare a child for executive function, proprioceptive sense and sense of self.    Yoga is also popular within a Montessori classroom and helps a child focus on his body and being present.  Grace and courtesy encompass the culture of the classroom through the proactive guidance of a teacher modeling empathy, conflict resolution,  table manners at lunch or snack, and in the language/tone of expressing one’s self.    Teachers sit with the children at lunch time, taking time to enjoy one’s food while quietly socializing with students.   The entire atmosphere of the room embraces mindfulness as children learn to move around the room purposefully, quietly and carefully working on self-correcting materials.  

Classroom Aesthetics 

Recently I have read articles on the importance of classroom design.  Some posts indicate that teachers should not have a room full of distracting items such as bright colored bulletin boards and posters.  Today I read this article on a teacher who got rid of desks in her classroom.   As a result she created an environment conducive to engaged  learning.

In contrast to traditional classrooms a Montessori room has a cozy yet purposeful feel. Instead of desks there may be tables but plenty of room is left for small couches and also for rugs for children to do work on floor.  Curtains are hung above windows and shelves are not overloaded with materials.  Natural light or lamps are preferred over fluorescent lighting.   Beautiful framed artwork hang on walls.  Calming colors are found on the walls and floor instead of a bright primary color palette.   Shelves are organized with beautiful wood materials, handmade materials and glassware.  Children demonstrate appreciation for the beautiful environment by handling all items with care.

Maria Montessori was a pioneer in the field of education.   She was a passionate individual who devoted her life to developing and promoting a system of education where children are free to learn by understanding their true nature of development.  Her medical background combined with training in education led her to approach learning in a scientific manner.  Initially,  she specialized in psychiatry and then branched out into education.  She continued her learning by immersing herself in courses on pedagogy and educational theory.  This led her to question the method of educating children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  As co-director of a special education school she used a scientific approach , making observations and experimenting with teaching methods to learn what worked best.  The students made huge gains and soon after Maria was asked to start Casa De Bambini in one of the poorest communities in Italy.  Her methods were a success with these children too , demonstrating that her ideas are not just for a specific population.  It is ironic to me that her method and materials began with the disabled, orphans and the poor , yet because of cost it is often only the middle to upper class that are able to attend her schools today.

Montessori’s materials and scientific findings are not “trends”.  Due to advances in technology,  neuroscience is coming out with research that continues to support Maria Montessori.   Developmental psychologist, Angeline Stoll Lillard, states “if schools were evidence based I think all schools would look a lot more like Montessori (Lillard, 2005).

It is positive to see that elements of her work are making into mainstream education , even if the ideas come with a different name.  But true change in schools will happen when all of these ideas merge together and are all available in the same classroom, at the same time.  A Montessori school in Florida recently transformed a downtown storefront into a Montessori classroom for three days to spread awareness and understanding of Maria’s child-centered approach to education.  A few other schools around the country are also doing the same this year to celebrate the centennial of the original glass classroom in San Fransisco.   It is inspiring to see Montessori schools educating the public about the methodology and culture of their classrooms.  My hope is that one day soon America can again be awed by the “miracle children” in the Glass Classroom.

Further Resources:

Dr. Stephen Hughes: Maria Montessori Got Everything Right: Fantastic short video about the neuroscience behind her methods


North American Montessori Teaching Center

American Montessori Society

The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori

Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard (2005)

About Jennifer Walker, MS

I currently blog about mindfulness, meaningful life-learning, Montessori and Childhood Apraxia of Speech.
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