(This article was written by Chris Manville and first appeared in Montessori International Magazine)
In the summer of 1908, just 18 months after Montessori opened the first Casa dei Bambini, my Great-grandfather was appointed head master of a small infant primary school in Essex. From contemporary records of his time at the school it is clear that the children were taught in an authoritarian, sometimes brutal fashion, with the powerful teacher declaiming from the front and the children simply repeating by rote. Every child was expected to learn the same body of knowledge regardless of age, development or ability. Many of the children had to travel several miles, on foot, to reach school where, if they were late, they would be caned for ‘persistent tardiness’. That is if they arrived at school at all. At harvest time, in particular, children as young as 6 or 7 would be required to stay away from school to work on the farms or to look after younger siblings.
It was against just this type of educational approach that Montessori was making a stand. Her aim was to create a school that allowed children to develop naturally and at their own pace; where teachers followed the child, and where the child’s spirit was seen as important as their body and mind.
The world has changed dramatically since the early 1900’s and many of Montessori’s ideas have become standard best practice, as is evident from the close similarity between Montessori principles and much of the EYFS. However, the unique characteristics of the Montessori method continue to support children’s development in ways that are not found in other approaches.
For too many children, childhood is over far too quickly as they rush towards the next must-have gadget; aim for the air-brushed perfection of the latest teen-idol or claim their fifteen minutes of fame in our increasingly celebrity-centric world. Added to this are the pressures to achieve higher and higher academic standards at younger and younger ages brought about by the targets and testing that are so much a part of our education system.
Montessori, I believe, offers a counter-balance to the modern disease of image over substance and allows children to judge themselves against their own standards rather than the expectations of others. From the very start Montessori told us that the child is saying “help me to help myself”. As well as the practical independence this imparts – being able to dress oneself, blow one’s own nose, etc – there is a far more important motivational context. Not only does the child develop the functional capability of doing things for him/herself, s/he also develops the self-belief in his/her own ability. Success is measured by the completion of a challenge set and mastered by the child him/herself. This leads to the intrinsic motivation to move on to the next challenge with a positive attitude that this too will lead to success. The resulting self-esteem and sense of personal responsibility has far reaching implications for the child’s on-going development and self image. For the child, the knowledge that everything is achieved as a result of their own effort, and that the more they apply themselves, the more they are able to achieve, leads them to appreciate what they have far more than if it is simply handed to them on a plate.
The Montessori environment also acts as a defence against the bombardment of “perfect” images constantly presented by the media. Montessori suggested that childhood, like the pre-natal period, is an “embryonic period” during which the timetable, sequence and processes of development are determined by nature. Children need time to pass through this second embryonic period unhindered. Despite the many changes in the world over the last 100 years, this basic principle of development has not changed. To allow the child to benefit from this precious period, Montessori designed the prepared (favourable) environment as a refuge from the damaging influence of a world that did not meet children’s needs. Within the protective cocoon of the Montessori classroom, the child’s spirit is nurtured and given the freedom necessary for the fully integrated personality to reveal itself in its own time. As a result a Montessori child has the confidence and positive self-image needed to resist the vagaries of fashion and the need to follow the flock. A curriculum that is planned for each child’s needs, interests and strengths ensures every child is free to fulfil their potential, following their own individual learning journey. As a result the uniqueness of each child is recognised and celebrated.
The focus on the natural world, that is a central theme within the Montessori curriculum, provides another antidote to the materialistic, consumerism of the modern world. Through the Cosmic Plan and cultural activities, Montessori helps children to understand the important part they play in caring for the environment, and presents them with a vast array of fascinating insights into the natural world. The sense of awe and wonder that this creates fulfils any need children may have for the exciting and fantastical in ways that could never be replicated by a flashing, buzzing electronic toy. I will never forget the look on my daughters face the first time she saw a giraffe!
For over a century, the Montessori method has been a revolutionary approach to education, and has demonstrated that children can achieve great things, academically. But in our increasingly hectic, cut-throat world it is, perhaps, the spiritual aspects of Montessori that will set us apart from other approaches to education.