What is Montessori?
When one attempts to explain my method in concrete terms, it is necessary to discuss child psychology, for it is the psychology of the child, the life of his soul, that has gradually dictated what might be called a pedagogy and a method of education. My method of education is based on the psychic development of the normal child.
All other methods of education have taken the work of certain adults as their point of departure and have sought to educate or teach the child according to programmes dictated by adults. For my part, I believe that the child himself must be the pivot of his own education - not the child as people ordinarily think of him, but rather his innermost soul, seen from a perspective that was unprecedented before the advent of what has been called the Montessori Method.
Two factors must be present if the child is to develop. It is necessary to create surroundings for the child that answers his needs not only from the point of view of his physical health but also from the point of view of his spiritual life.
The child must be able to act freely in such an environment. There he must find motives for constructive activity that corresponds to his developmental needs. He must have contact with an adult who is familiar with the laws governing his life and who does not get in his way by overprotecting him, by dictating his activities, or by forcing him to act without taking his needs into account.
In such an environment, the child proves to be something quite different from a creature who enjoys wasting time and wants to do nothing but play. He becomes an individual who works very hard, who is very observant, who is not destructive. He is incredibly meticulous (much more so than we adults are); he performs tasks scrupulously; he is capable of great concentration; he is able to control the movements of his body; and he is a great lover of silence. He is punctual in obedience; he obeys promptly, and he delights in obeying. He works very well by himself and feels no need to compete with other children. All this is the result of an interchange between the child and his surroundings, between the child and his work.
The child is possessed of marvellous directives that come to him from within and from this social environment created for him. Thirty or forty children work together in beautiful, attractive surroundings created especially for them. If the teacher must leave the room, the children continue working. Their normal activities go on as before, and all of them pursue their work by themselves.
This development takes place because the child has been able to work and to be in direct contact with reality. It does not come from anything we teach the child; it is a definite, constructive process, a natural phenomenon that results when the child is given the chance to make his own efforts and do his own work without intermediaries.
We think the child is happiest when he is playing; but the truth is that the child is happiest when he is working.
When they have reached the age of about three, we provide them with an environment containing useful household articles: child-size brooms, crockery, tables, and so on. The greatest delight of these children is doing tasks perfectly, and they busy themselves doing something all the time. What is more, these children's attitudes at home also change a great deal. The characters of all children change in this environment where they can work without being disturbed, and they become calm and able to concentrate. The adult does have a role to play. He must show the child how to use objects correctly. The child watches the adult working methodically and carefully and repeats his actions methodically and carefully. But once he has done a perfect job, he begins all over again a second, third, and even fourth time. What motivates the child is thus not the goal set for him by the adult, but his own drive for self-perfection. The child perfects himself through contact with reality, through activity that absorbs all his attention. The child has his own way of working, a way different from ours that we must understand and respect. This repetition permits an inner development that will manifest itself later in surprising ways. The child can repeat a particular activity a great many times. This concentration is undoubtedly a means of development.
The child must always be given work to do with his hands as he works with his mind, for the child's personality has a functional unity. Our principle of functional unity has enabled us to fulfil an extremely important goal of education — offering the child the possibility of coming into direct contact with reality. The fact that a three-year-old child is able to concentrate on objects for long periods of time has proved to us that the child has much greater powers than was commonly believed. In traditional schools children are assigned tasks that do not interest them because they are too easy. We must investigate and discover the limits of the difficulties the child can handle and discover the level that keeps him most interested.
We have learned another intriguing fact. Children find it very hard to concentrate on spoken words, but they have no difficulty concentrating on objects. This immediately suggests the reason for two great difficulties the teacher in the traditional classroom faces. The first is the difficulty of imparting knowledge orally, which is generally recognized; the second is the difficulty of keeping the child's attention.
The human being needs to know things, and he is much more capable of learning spontaneously than we have supposed. It is also true, however, that if a child's intelligence is not stimulated he withdraws and his interest flags. The majority of children are thus condemned to waste their childhood and never realize their potential.
There is another very important factor determining a child's interest. Children's interests do not remain the same as they pass through the various stages of childhood. Moreover, children do not have a linear pattern of development. What interests a child today will not interest him at all when he is older. If we attempt to teach the same thing to a child of five and one of eight, the latter will not learn so quickly.
One of the problems of teaching is thus to discover the subjects best suited to children of different ages — or rather, those best suited to their different interests. Our experience has demonstrated, for instance, that children are much more interested in learning the alphabet at age four than at any other age. Children at this age delight so much in writing that we have called this phenomenon the ‘explosion into writing’, but if they are taught to write as late as the age of six this ‘explosion’ does not take place. The troubles that children ordinarily encounter learning mathematics or grammar are easily overcome if difficult problems in these areas are presented at exactly the right moment. But these difficulties are easily overcome if we use material that concretely illustrates mathematical abstractions. Such material enables the child to learn according to the laws of mental development. As we have observed children, we have seen that they practise a great deal in order to learn something. They will repeat an exercise a hundred or even two hundred times without becoming bored. As a matter of fact, they find such repetition restful and reassuring. It is clear that the psychic process of learning that takes place within the child is of such a nature that it is impossible for us to view his mind merely as a mirror that passively reflects images.
Learning means working long and hard. There are children who go through long arithmetical operations because they find them really fascinating. Such operations are so tiresomely complicated that we adults would find them tedious, but the child does them for the sake of doing them, spontaneously. Both the younger and the older child feel a need to do exercises over and over, and to follow their own path of development by their own means.
From another point of view, school would seem to be the place where man develops through acquiring culture. But culture is a means, not an end. Properly understood, this fact makes the work of teachers, professors, and parents much easier and completely changes our ideas about education.
Doubtless the fact that the child learns by himself, that he can overcome so many difficulties by himself, gives him an inner satisfaction that enhances his sense of personal dignity. The possibility of choosing his own activities also helps foster traits that we do not ordinarily think of as characteristic of the child a sense of independence and a sense of initiative, for example.
Culture cannot be all of man's life. Man is not just a creature with an intellect, and instruction cannot satisfy all his needs. I believe that we must do much more to educate children and young people. Just as we have built an environment that answers the needs of small children, so we must prepare an environment in the outside world that will foster social education for older children. The traditional classroom is no longer enough. A child may learn much more than his fellows there and still know nothing about the world and have no real character.