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The Montessori phenomenon


Now in its centenary year, Maria Montessori's method of education caters for the different stages of a child's development.

Photos: The HIndu Photo Library and the Centre for Montessori Training

Truly child-centred: The Montessori method helps the child towards greater levels of independence.

JANUARY 6, 1907, The feast of Epiphany: Gathered in a room in a small quarter of San Lorenzo, the hotbed of crime in the city, were dignitaries and the elite of Rome to witness the inauguration of what was to become known as the first House of Children or Casa dei Bambini.

As Medical Officer of Hygiene, Dr. Maria Montessori had been asked to undertake the organisation of infant schools in the model tenements of a building society. Fifty children between the ages of two and six were pulled into the room, frightened and crying miserably.

Dr. Montessori started by reading from the Bible: "... all these are gathered together, they are come to thee; thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise at thy sight. Then shalt thou see, and abound and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee... "

Thirty years later, reflecting on that occasion, she said that she had had a vision and was inspired and felt that the work she was undertaking would one day prove very important.

Maria Montessori provided these children with materials to work with, which we now use today as Sensorial apparatus and tools for the Exercises of Practical Life. In this environment, the children were not imprisoned behind tables and chairs. They were free to move around the classroom and to work with whatever they chose. With these materials they had interesting occupation and no interference from adults. They demonstrated their love of silence, their love of order, their disinterest in rewards and punishments and their love for learning, all of which developed their inner discipline.

Tremendous change

The changes wrought in the children were so wondrous that people came from all over the world to see it. "From timid and wild... the children had become sociable and communicative... Their personalities grew... they showed extraordinary understanding, activity, vivacity and confidence. They were happy and joyous."

From this beginning grew a method of education that has spread the world over. Dr. Montessori, her students and colleagues observed children in different parts of the world in different situations to see the same phenomenon repeat itself before she declared that she had discovered "the secret of childhood".

Although Montessori has become a generic name for any school or activity for pre-school children, her method is unique in that it is truly child-centred. The specially prepared environment provides orderly surroundings, purposeful activities, and space and opportunity for movement, which are vital needs for growth and development. Such an environment has a method that complements the process of learning. This method focuses on helping the child work towards greater levels of independence.

The child of three is not considered a `tabula rasa' (blank slate), and his capabilities are taken into consideration. Motor skills, refined finger movements, eye-hand coordination, cognitive skills, communicative skills, social skills, together with growing confidence, self-awareness, and social integration are part of the process.

For instance, the child needs to be active, to use his hands for a variety of tasks and not just to hold a pencil at this stage of his development.

In Dr. Montessori's words: "The human hand, so delicate and so complicated, not only allows the mind to reveal itself but it enables the whole human being to enter into special relationships with its environment. We might even say that man takes possession of his environment with his hands." (The Secret of Childhood).

Hugo de Vries, a Dutch biologist, used the phrase "sensitive periods of development" in his research on the development of certain animals. Dr. Montessori applied the same phrase to human development. She recognised these sensitive periods as critical periods for learning. "A child makes a number of acquisitions during the sensitive periods, which place him in relation to the outer world in a particularly intense manner. Then all is easy; all is eagerness and life, every effort is an increase in power... It is through this lovely flame that burns without consuming that the work of creating the mental world of man takes place." (The Secret of Childhood)

Only a facilitator

The teacher in the Montessori classrooms is only a facilitator who will observe and assist when required. One of the other special features of this environment is the mixed age group where children learn to live and work together representing a cohesive community.

Dr. Montessori held that the child had a cosmic task, that of constructing the adult and all activities were geared towards this end. Even the child's "play" was considered "work" towards his development. Montessori is not alone in her perception of man as a worker. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Harper Perennial, 1991) interprets Karl Marx thus: "Men and women constructed their being through productive activities; there is no `human nature' except that which we create through work. Work not only transforms the environment by building bridges across rivers and cultivating barren plains; it also transforms the worker from an animal guided by instincts into a conscious, goal directed, skilful person."

Worldwide, people are aware of the Montessori system of pre-school education. However, it is not confined only to the pre-school child.

It must be noted that Dr. Montessori had observed children and created a philosophy and method of education from birth to adulthood. She maintained that an individual goes through four stages of development (birth to six years, six to 12 years, 12 to 18 years, and 18 to 24 years) and that the needs and characteristics at each stage were distinct.

Education then has to cater to the needs of the different stages, to be meaningful. In her words, "Education is assistance to life."

At the invitation of Rukmini Devi and George Arundale, Dr. Montessori came to Madras with her son Mario in 1939. She trained teachers at the Theosophical Society, Adyar, and they also started a school for children. During World War II, as Italians, they were interned in Kodaikanal. It was here that they extended the Montessori approach to the elementary level.

Maria Montessori conducted her first and only training programme for elementary teachers in Kodaikanal in 1942. She has also given a blueprint for adolescent education as well as for Assistants to Infancy (birth to three years).

Besides being a medical doctor, Maria Montessori had studied social anthropology and her interest in education was not confined to literacy and numeracy but extended to the holistic development of the individual and through him society. There is science behind her genius, and her love for humanity enabled her to envision appropriate education for world peace.

Follow the child

She gave to the world not only a method of education but also a philosophy, which she, in all humility, said was revealed to her by the child.

She said, "Anyone who wants to follow my method must understand that he should not honour me but follow the child as his leader."

As in the words of the poet, William Wordsworth, "the Child is father of Man."

The authors are with the Centre

for Montessori Training,

Chennai. E-mail them at or

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