Montessori’s theory and philosophy of education were initially heavily influenced by the work of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, Édouard Séguin, Friedrich Fröbel, and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, all of whom emphasized sensory exploration and manipulatives. Montessori’s first work with children with learning difficulties, at the Orthophrenic School in 1900–1901, used the methods of Itard and Séguin, training children in physical activities such as walking and the use of a spoon, training their senses by exposure to sights, smells, and tactile experiences, and introducing letters in tactile form. These activities developed into the Montessori “Sensorial” materials.
Montessori considered her work in the Orthophrenic School and her subsequent psychological studies and research work in elementary schools as “scientific pedagogy”, a concept current in the study of education at the time. She called for not just observation and measurement of students, but for the development of new methods which would transform them. “Scientific education, therefore, was that which, while based on science, modified and improved the individual.” Further, education itself should be transformed by science: “The new methods if they were run on scientific lines, ought to change completely both the school and its methods, ought to give rise to a new form of education.”
Casa dei Bambini
Working with non-disabled children in the Casa dei Bambini in 1907, Montessori began to develop her own pedagogy. The essential elements of her educational theory emerged from this work, described in The Montessori Method in 1912 and in The Discovery of the Child in 1948. Her method was founded on the observation of children at liberty to act freely in an environment prepared to meet their needs. Montessori came to the conclusion that the children’s spontaneous activity in this environment revealed an internal program of development, and that the appropriate role of the educator was to remove obstacles to this natural development and provide opportunities for it to proceed and flourish.
Accordingly, the schoolroom was equipped with child-sized furnishings, “practical life” activities such as sweeping and washing tables, and teaching material that Montessori had developed herself. Children were given the freedom to choose and carry out their own activities, at their own pace and following their own inclinations. In these conditions, Montessori made a number of observations which became the foundation of her work. First, she observed great concentration in the children and spontaneous repetition of chosen activities. She also observed a strong tendency in the children to order their own environment, straightening tables and shelves, and ordering materials. As children chose some activities over others, Montessori refined the materials she offered to them. Over time, the children began to exhibit what she called “spontaneous discipline”.
Further development and Montessori education today
Montessori continued to develop her pedagogy and her model of human development as she expanded her work and extended it to older children. She saw human behavior as guided by universal, innate characteristics in human psychology which her son and collaborator Mario M. Montessori Sr. identified as “human tendencies” in 1957. In addition, she observed four distinct periods, or “planes”, in human development, extending from birth to six years, from six to twelve, from twelve to eighteen, and from eighteen to twenty-four. She saw different characteristics, learning modes, and developmental imperatives active in each of these planes, and called for educational approaches specific to each period. Over the course of her lifetime, Montessori developed pedagogical methods and materials for the first two planes, from birth to age twelve, and wrote and lectured about the third and fourth planes. Maria created over 4,000 Montessori classrooms across the world and her books were translated into many different languages for the training of new educators. Her methods are installed in hundreds of public and private schools across the United States.
One of Montessori’s many accomplishments was the Montessori method. This is a method of education for young children that stresses the development of a child’s own initiative and natural abilities, especially through practical play. This method allowed children to develop at their own pace and provided educators with a new understanding of child development. Montessori’s book, The Montessori Method, presents the method in detail. Educators who followed this model set up special environments to meet the needs of students in three developmentally-meaningful age groups: 2–2.5 years, 2.5–6 years, and 6–12 years. The students learn through activities that involve exploration, manipulations, order, repetition, abstraction, and communication. Teachers encourage children in the first two age groups to use their senses to explore and manipulate materials in their immediate environment. Children in the last age group deal with abstract concepts based on their newly developed powers of reasoning, imagination, and creativity.