The Montessori Method was conceived in the early 1900’s by Dr Maria Montessori, and was developed as an alternative method of early childhood learning. (Stevens, (n.d.) Montessori centres became established and recognised internationally including within Aotearoa NZ. Basic to Montessori is the premise that children are deemed individuals and need to be understood and given the freedom to be guided or directed through the system as opposed to being instructed. Learning should be determined by, and adapt to the needs, as they change through childhood. (Chattin-McNichols, 1992) Emphasis is placed on the use of specific equipment and other designated resources. The whole environment of a Montessori centre is designed to capture interest and lead to self learning, self discipline and fulfilment of a child’s potential. (Montessori, 1912) As with other countries, a sociocultural aspect has been introduced here, and along with the introduction of Te WhÄriki, brings modifications to the original dogma. Although long controversial, the method is in demand as a valid means of alternative education and a wide variety of literature presents a valuable source of theoretical and practical knowledge. (Shuker, 2004)
Maria Montessori (1870 – 1953). She graduated as a doctor of medicine with honours in 1896 from the University of Rome. Her CV in the following few years included research work at a psychiatric clinic where her interest in children was sparked. She studied the works of academics and practitioners such as Seguin, Rousseau, and Froebel and undertook courses in anthropology, philosophy and psychology. Tests and experiments in the 1900’s at a school for the retarded children successfully helped develop her theories. This was followed in 1907 with the successful application of her methods at a new school in the slums of Rome. With success came global fame and acclaim for her and her system, followed by the establishment of centres globally. (Hainstock, 1997)
Montessori in NZ
A few examples of Montessori terminology integral to the system are as follows: didactic materials, discovery of the child, liberty, normalised child, order, prepared environment and sensorial exercises. (Hainstock, 1997)
The essence and essential purpose of Montessori is well encapsulated in the following statement. “If young people are to meet the challenge of survival that faces them today, it is imperative that their education develop to the fullest extent possible for their potential for creativity, initiative, independence, inner discipline and self confidence.” (Lillard, (1972) p. 138) Written in the 1970’s, the statement is timeless in concept, being just as applicable today as it was then.
Montessori believed that the most important factors in achieving her ideal concept were the environment and the teachers. Apart from being organised and free from clutter, the environment had to be supporting, encouraging and foster a self belief in the child that would reveal his personal attributes and interests. The indoor and outdoor environments provided activities that were meaningful learning experiences. This environment contained only resources and materials that were specifically made to Montessori’s standards; chairs, tables, equipment, all made in regard to the child’s size and strength. (Lillard, 1972) Two very important pieces of furniture that could not be done without were a long low cupboard for the resources, and a set of colourful drawers for the child to put their belongings in. (Montessori (1912) as cited in Shuker, 2004)
The role of the teacher is to be able to understand from observation, the child’s individual learning needs and the changes in those needs as they occur. This leads to directing or facilitating, the child’s interest in and use of the didactic materials, exercises and games. The teacher is simply a link and therefore needs to be Montessori trained so as to be knowledgeable in the use of all the materials, techniques and processes to be used. (Montessori, 1988)
Curriculum delivery and content
The delivery of the curriculum is fed through observations to five essential stages: practical life, sensorial education, language education, mathematics and the cultural area. The materials used in these areas all helped the child’s “perception using size, shape, volume, colour, pattern, odour, sound and texture. Later materials help the children in discoveries relating to mathematics, language and literacy, art, music, science, and social studies” (Chisnall, 2008, web-based) The practical life experiences cover all the everyday routines and how to cope with them; tying shoelaces and opening and closing drawers. Sensorial education covers the use of the five senses: smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing. Language development encompasses reading and writing and learning how to use good speech. This area is closely attuned to the sensory training, for without knowing how to feel and hold a pencil; a child cannot learn how to write. The mathematics stage teaches the child the fundamental decimal system of counting up to and in groups of 10. The cultural aspect is shown through pictorial material, along with a globe of the world, puzzles and similar resources. (Hainstock, E.G. (1968)
There are few similarities between a Montessori Method and a traditional mainstream approach while the differences are many. Some examples of both are as follows:
Montessori believed that each child is unique with a potential that needs releasing. (Montessori, 1912) The Te WhÄriki Curriculum takes this approach and states that children learn through “individual exploration and reflecting.” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 9)
Montessori encouraged parents and caregivers to visit the classroom at any time; however, they were not allowed to distract the children or the teacher. (Montessori, 1912) Parents and caregivers are encouraged to visit the mainstream classroom and take an interest in their children. “Parental involvement and understanding are necessary ingredients to realising the full potential of a Montessori education.” (Hainstock, 1997, preface)
Montessori believed that every child had a right to an education regardless of class, culture, race and ability. (Montessori, 1912) Te WhÄriki states the curriculum assumes that their care and education will be encompassed within the principles, strands and goals set out for all children in early childhood settings. (Ministry of Education, 1996)
Montessori’s method was to stand back, observe, and let the child solve the problem themselves regardless of time taken. (Montessori, 1912) Education is different today. Teachers have to use the New Zealand curriculum which dictates what and when they have to teach. (Ministry of Education, 2007) There is still a certain amount of flexibility; however, the teachers are unable to leave children for a long time.
Montessori grouped children into three age groups which they stayed in until they were old enough to progress to the next group. She did not have a new entrance class. (Montessori, 1912) Our education system insists that children are put into aged related classrooms. (Ministry of Education, 2007)
Montessori was a great believer in children working individually or in small groups. (Montessori, 1912) Today’s’ children are taught in classroom group situations. (Hainstock, 1997)
Controversy and confusion, mainly through misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and partial application of the method were common over the years. Other influences impacting include: mainstream resistance, political and philosophical vagaries, and funding problems, statutory and regulatory impositions. Cultural elements have also been introduced into the curriculum and modifications have occurred. The shortage of Montessori trained teachers had a detrimental effect as well. (Shuker, 2004)
Contribution to educational setting
The whole concept, philosophy and application of the Montessori Method obviously confine it to an alternative role in the field of education in Aotearoa New Zealand. Enthusiastic pioneers of the system such as Martha Simpson and Binda Goldsbrough have been followed by equally enthusiastic and committed parents. The formation of a Montessori movement, teacher training standards, and the evolution to higher education levels shows there is an enduring and well supported demand for the Montessori approach. The survival of Montessori for over 100 years is due in some part to its portability, culture sensitivity to its resident country and adaptability. (Shuker, 2004)
Personal reflection by Catherine Mitchell
Maria Montessori was ahead of her time. She had the children’s best interests at heart. However I feel had she been able to accept criticism in a constructive way then her methods would have had more of an influence in society today. Montessori’s methods were built on her observations of the children and were adapted to meet their needs.
I will use a lot of Montessori’s methods in my teaching, as I agree with her approach. Each child is an individual; we should be embracing this and allow the child to develop at their own pace. It is important as a teacher that you do what is best for the children in your care. My own attitudes have not changed; instead they have enforced my beliefs that each child is unique.
Personal reflection by Faye Winter
What to make of Montessori? With no real previous knowledge, apart from being aware that is was an alternative education centre, this study has been extremely interesting and revealing. The credibility of the method is well supported by the founders’ wide academic background allied with her actual experience and observations with both special needs and mainstream children. In this regard, the method is well founded. Although there is a wide range of literature on the subject, acceptance or otherwise of the approach invites further in-depth study, preferably along with hands on experience. As a staff member at an early childhood centre, I can see the potential for the introduction of certain elements, in particular, the use of Montessori didactic materials. Montessori once said she had “discovered the child.” This may well be the key to her method.