The Montessori Method

I had never heard of Montessori schools until sometime after college, when I moved to a city and gradually became aware that they were, in the affluent part of town, ubiquitous.  Eventually I developed a hazy understanding of these institutions as vaguely progressive places – do-it-yourself, get out in nature, let the children be themselves, blossoming, flowering, unfurling, that sort of thing.  Defer to the child’s nature.  They seemed pretty similar to Waldorf schools.

I’d had a copy of The Montessori Method for some time, but to be honest, the education of very young children has never particularly interested me (even though it should).  Still, I knew this book is an educational classic, a seminal book, so I’ve just started reading it, and wanted to share what I’m noticing so far.

Scientific Pedagogy

Montessori characterizes her approach as “scientific pedagogy” and describes her own methods as arising out of a time when pedagogy was trying, as medicine had once done, to rise out of the lowlands of speculation and onto the heights of definite science.  

The first thing that stood out to me about Montessori was that she was very much approaching education as a scientist – as a trained physician (which is what she was) rather than as an educator, per se.  Many of the educational goals she has for the Children’s House, her first school, an educational program run in a tenement building in Rome, seem to come from a desire to set up favorable conditions for teachers to become researchers of children, in order to study and learn about them, rather than as educational conditions for their own sake, for some definite educational goal.

Nowhere is this more clear than in her desire to promote a Rousseau-ian liberty among her pupils.  Rather than as a good in itself, liberty seems to be, for Montessori, merely the best possible condition in which to observe, to study, and to learn about children as they naturally are.  Compulsion of any kind, rather than being an educational, developmental, or political problem of itself, is merely unfavorable because it quashes a child’s natural impulses, hindering real scientific study on the part of teacher researchers.  

Earlier in the book, Montessori claims that “child psychology does not exist” (72), and she clearly sees herself as trying to change that.  By the book’s concluding chapter, Montessori writes, “I believe that I have by my method established the conditions necessary to the development of scientific pedagogy; and whoever adopts this method opens, in doing so, a laboratory of experimental pedagogy” (371).  This is surely a worthy goal, but what specific research questions does she hope to pursue through this observation of children?  This is where things get a little tricky.  On the one hand, Montessori clearly believes that her work is laying the groundwork for future study.  She writes, “From such work [experimental pedagogy], we must await the positive solution of all those pedagogical problems of which we talk to-day [sic]” (371).  So in one sense she believes she’s setting up future educators to make discoveries. 

But, again, what research questions was she hoping to pursue through her study?  This is where it gets murky for me.

In the conclusion of the book, she writes that one of the major findings of her work include the very same need for liberty which she seemed to require at the very beginning of the study in the first place.  Again, much of the book seemed to be an odd stance: we must begin by providing the pupils liberty in order to observe them in their natural environment in order to make discoveries about them – and the key discovery about them is that liberty is really important in the process of education!  It all seems oddly circular and preconceived.

Montessori’s Romanticism

For a scientist, Montessori is amazingly Romantic.  Although her stated influences are Itard and Seguin, it is Jean-Jacques Rousseau who kept coming to my mind as Maria Montessori’s obvious main influence.  Time after time, I found myself coming across lines that sounded straight out of Rousseau.  At one point she writes that non-confining clothing items “are so many liberations from the oppressive shackles of civilisation” (154).  

Or: “We have had most beautiful proof of an instinctive love of knowledge in the child, who has too often been misjudged in that he has been addicted to meaningless play, and games void of thought . . .  We have belittled the son of man by giving him foolish and degrading toys, a world of idleness where he is suffocated by a badly conceived discipline” (372).

At the very end of the book, in the final paragraph, Montessori writes that her book aimed to “keep [man’s] real nature unspoiled and to set it free from the oppressive and degrading yoke of society” (377).  

She subscribes to the view of human nature and education as a kind of natural “unfolding”requiring a studious tending of the child’s environment in order to ensure that a child’s nature is not quashed by unnecessary discipline and authority.  This is again more romantic than Dewey’s pragmatic vision of children as all-the-time-developing and progressing through various churning stages.  For Dewey, there is no ultimate nature, no tree in the acorn, for each child – only a complex interaction of environment and subject that can produce (it would seem) any number of results.  

But Montessori’s vision is classically Romantic and child-centered.  “We cannot know the consequences of suffocating a spontaneous action at the time when the child is just beginning to be active; perhaps we suffocate life itself” (87), Montessori writes.  “If any educational act is to be efficacious, it will be only that which tends to help toward the complete unfolding of this life” (87-88).

I appreciated this Romanticism, but the part of her approach that I really like was her discussion of discipline.  Here Montessori’s goal of liberty starts to feel more like a true educational priority and less of a means for neutral observation.  Montessori believes that the traditional notions of punitive discipline used with young children actually hinder development because they do not teach the child to become increasingly independent.  “Any pedagogical action, if it is to be efficacious in the training of little children, must tend to help the children to advance upon this road of independence” (97).  Indeed, the whole Montessori classroom is built around this idea – that children do not need formal discipline, but engaging lessons, freedom of choice, and targeted instruction designed to help them manage their liberty.  Montessori speaks of outside observers entered the Children’s House and noticing the “magic” of 60 children behaving well with little apparent teacher intervention necessary.  

All of this reminds me of John Dewey’s pragmatic theory of experience – that we must prepare a child for the way we want him to conduct himself by providing him not only the materials but the experiences designed to prepare him.  If we want to train a boy to be an independent man, we must provide him with opportunities to exercise the skills of practicing his independence.

Sensory Education

One of the most important aspects of Montessori’s educational approach is the primacy of the education of the senses.  She has several chapters on this, taking up some 15% of the entire book.  Montessori has a striking passage about the inadequacy of many doctors when they begin practicing; the reason is not that these doctors have not been taught correct theories, but that they have not been taught to distinguish the physical signs of various illnesses and conditions.  They have not received enough education of the senses – something that Montessori thinks is critical to begin with humans from a very early age.  

At first, I didn’t really understand what Montessori meant by education of the senses.  Don’t our senses actually work best when we’re young?  Isn’t our eye sight, for instance, far better at age five than at age 50?

But that’s not what Montessori means.  Instead she’s talking about developing a child’s “capacity for discriminating between sense stimuli” (219) or “fineness of differential perception” (178).  I thought those were both great phrases.  What she means is not so much being able to hear well, but being able to understand what you hear.  There are a few parts to this:  First, one must learn what, for example, a guitar sounds like.  Then, one must learn how to listen closely to differentiate between the sound of a guitar and the sound of a bass.  One must, in other words, learn to listen closely and to be able to understand the messages his senses are telling him.  

Moreover, Montessori, like Rousseau before her, sees the education of the senses as a (what we might call today) developmentally appropriate step in preparing children for intellectual education.  The teacher must lead the child, in Montessori’s words, “from sensations to ideas – from the concrete to the abstract” (224).  There is a whole chapter that includes a variety of practical activities that Montessori does with children to train the different senses.  Part of what makes her book quite moving and quite unique is this blend of practical activities with exalted passages about the theory in which these activities are grounded.  

The only place I found myself really questioning Montessori was in her description of the “didactic materials” (as she calls them).  These are the objects – toys, perhaps – that she gives to students in order that they can teach themselves better sensory perception.  She calls this process “auto-education” and insists that it is the best and most important want to teach.  Again, much of this reminds me of Dewey’s – a child is really only going to learn certain things by doing them in the end.  But Montessori’s description of what sounds to me like the classic children’s shape sorter sounds pretty classically utopian/behaviorist.  The didactic tool will control the learning experience, she promises; the child will find it so interesting that he’ll want to keep doing it, and so well designed that it will allow the child to teach himself, freeing the teacher to be a facilitator of experiences (a “directress” in Montessori’s language) and a scientific observer as well.  No doubt there are toys and materials that are stimulating and “educational” – but this belief that an object can be any sort of real substitute for a human teacher should always be regarded with great suspicion.

Social Mission

And yet, despite her Romanticism (or perhaps because of it?), Montessori feels a strong sense of social mission.  She is very much a kind of social reformer and clearly sees her Children’s House as the template for a promising alliance between school and family (and possibly government).  Although she speaks with Rousseau’s disdain for the corrupting influence of society on innately good children, Montessori conceives of her school as an intermediary between the family and the wider society, an institution capable of “soften[ing] this transition in education” (154).  In this process liberty is important, but so are the perks of social life, and the preparation of such is worth some degree of compromise.  In education, Montessori writes, “we should sacrifice to natural liberties in education only as much as is necessary for the acquisition of the greater pleasures which are offered by civilisation without useless sacrifice” (154).  All of this I appreciate.

Yet where I became more skeptical – turned off even – was in Chapter 3, “Inaugural Address,” when Montessori began describing her grand plans for the Children’s House.  This facility – and subsequent ones – were set up within the tenement houses in Rome, with a function of providing both childcare and education to the children of the house’s residents.  Montessori makes much of this closeness – the school is almost within the home – and she writes in fairly exalted language about her mission of freeing up women to be able to participate further in society.  It’s quite moving – and strikingly modern.  She has a rousing passage about how a perennial issue in education is the divide between the values of the school and of the home.  “But the family is always something far away from the school,” she writes, “and is almost always regarded as rebelling against its ideals.  It is something upon which the school can never lay its hands” (63).  This is a fascinating statement of something I often felt as a younger teacher: the tension between what parents want, and what the school wants.  Yet in a way, this is only a way of highlighting a much more fundamental tension – that between society (represented by schools, especially public ones or government-funded ones) and the individual (represented by individual parents or families, or even students).  Montessori is right that at its best the school and the family have shared goals and ideals, and she clearly sees it as the mission of her facilities to bridge this gap.  After all, she writes, the schools are in the buildings themselves, so parents have open access to see what is going on with their children in the program. 

Yet it turns out that Montessori does not particularly intend for parents to have any sort of real authority; after all, one of the house rules is that parents must “cooperate with the Directress in the educational work” (61).  instead, Montessori sees her mission as teaching the parents to become more active in their children’s formal education.  After three years at the Children’s House, when mothers send their children to the common schools, they will have learned not only how to partner with schools, but they will have learned from the Children’s House how to better and more morally conduct themselves!  This is surely one of the most striking boasts I have ever read in all of educational literature: “[Parents] will have acquired a sentiment, rarely found even among the best classes; namely, the idea that they must merit through their own conduct and with their own virtue, the possession of an educated son” (64).  The implications of this are striking: Is this to say that parents who do not behave in the way that Ms. Montessori or her associates wish somehow do not deserve to have children who are allowed to pursue an education? 

In fact, she is saying this.  The Children’s House, in the first place, was part of a reform effort of the tenements for the poor, and Montessori clearly sees herself as not only instructing the children, but instructing their parents – the poor – in cleanliness, hygiene, and even in morality.  She writes, “If the child shows through its conversation that the educational work of the school is being undermined by the attitude taken in his home, he will be sent back to his parents, to teach them thus how to take advantage of their good opportunities” (61) – !!  What a line this is.  Once again, she invokes the notion that parents must “deserve” her services:  “The parents must learn to deserve the benefit of having within the house the great advantage of a school for their little ones” (61).  In other words, Montessori believes that her approach is so valuable that the parents must deserve her.  This is no surprise, given that she sees the parents of her students as “almost savage people” whose homes are “closed not only to pedagogical progress, but often to social progress” (63) and among whom her directress stands as a “true missionary, a moral queen” and “a constant example to the inhabitants of the house” (62).  Montessori’s goal, in fact, is what she describes as the “socialisation of the house” (65) – part of the “communistic transformation of the general environment” (65).  Because women are increasingly forced to work, Montessori says, the “house” (which is a way of saying the state or the government) will take over the traditional functions of the woman in the home: “In other words, the administration shall become the steward of the family” (68).

Clearly Montessori means well here and sees herself as improving the lot of the poor through education and moral example, but her plan for the socialistic merging of the school and the home is surely one of the most expansive educational visions of the influence of the state over individual citizens that I have ever read.  What’s more, Montessori’s desire for the state to assert control over the household is hard to square with her educational ideals of liberty and independence – to say nothing of her innate suspicions about the corrupting influence of society.  Maybe Montessori does not see herself as an agent of the state, but as a beacon of love and respect for children’s natural impulses and development – while in fact it is the children’s families themselves who are the corrupting influence that must be overcome.  If so, that’s surely an adversarial relationship to take with the community, one which does not bode well for real school/family partnerships.  It’s similar to the view of many educational Progressives (which I capitalize to represent the political movement) – the “administrative progressives” (as opposed to the “child-centered progressives,” as I’ve heard it distinguished): the technocratic impulse to put everything, even child-raising itself, under the purview of the “experts.”

What is interesting of course is that it worked out the complete opposite way in the United States.  Despite Montessori’s expansive mission to use her educational template to help socialize of the home, in fact Montessori schools in the U.S. ended up being not only standalone institutions, but largely private institutions – removed from the life of the home as well as from the educational mainstream of the public school system.  If anything Montessori schools have a reputation for catering to wealthier parents, rather than the poor who Montessori originally created her programs for.  


Even though Maria Montessori’s expansive notion of the unification between home and school never came to fruition, the absolutely stunning scope of her influence must surely have surpassed Montessori’s wildest dreams.  There are at least four or five Montessori schools here in a small area of central Vermont alone; they are ubiquitous, and so are many of Montessori’s educational ideas, of which there are far more, spelled out in much greater detail, than I have done justice to with this short survey.  There is surely much more that I have missed, in part because, as I mentioned above, I am just not as interested in the education of very young children.  Still, I very much appreciated The Montessori Method as a fascinating piece of educational thought that still holds up well to this day.