The ideas of Maria Montessori and her son and assistant Mario Montessori gave rise to a whole new approach to education. In the Montessori system, education means helping in the mental development of a human being from the moment they are born rather than imposing facts, thoughts, and words that the child should memorize. It is based on a belief that from nature, the child is capable of independent development without external influence. The Montessori method relies on the intrinsic desire to learn that can be encouraged in a purposefully built environment without interference from adults.
Human Tendencies or Internal Motivation to Learn
The child plays a leading role in his or her cognitive development. Every child is internally motivated to wander and explore; the child’s perception of the world is built on curiosity. According to Montessori, from birth, children have a desire for self-development; discipline and order are embedded in a child by nature. When given freedom, children will spontaneously choose to learn because they already possess psychological traits that her son and long-time assistant Mario Montessori (1996) called “human tendencies (p. 1).” Provided with a purposefully built educational environment, children will use every opportunity to learn about the world at their own pace.
Unlike animals, humans are not guided only by instincts; instead, they have a natural tendency to perform certain actions. Proper understanding of those actions helps analyze how children react to the environment in which they are born (Montessori, 2007, p.54). As Stephenson (2000) puts it, “they guide his development from birth to maturity” (p. 10). Montessori offered a description of these tendencies, but her goal was not to provide a categorical or exhaustive list of all behavioral tendencies. Among others, those tendencies include exploration, concentration, and order, communication, independence, socialization, imitation and manipulation, movement, repetition, work. The system of Montessori education is based on a human desire to explore. Children begin to explore their surroundings with their first breath; they immediately encounter light, noise, smell, and touch. Even a newborn child explores the world while lying in the crib. Later in life, the surrounding reality expands beyond their house or classroom to the whole world.
Absorbent Mind and Sensitive Periods
According to Montessori, children experience learning through their absorbent minds. The principled idea of the Montessori method is that a child’s cognitive needs and abilities are fundamentally different from those of an adult (Montessori, 2007, p.64). If adults acquire knowledge by analyzing, comparing, and extrapolating, the child absorbs the world around them through experiencing it. Thus, while adults learn by reading, observing, and listening, young children gain new knowledge through doing something.
However, the mind does not absorb the same type of information all through childhood; rather, some predispositions force a child to focus on some stimulus based on what is necessary for their growth. The child’s interests vary according to the stage of development that Montessori called “sensitive periods” (Standing, 1998, p.119). That is, according to their needs, children focus on some things rather than others. At certain periods children explore different things and learn about them with pleasure and with almost no effort.
Freedom and Independent Learning
The child is free to learn in the purposefully built educational environment. Though children often imitate adults who are close to them, the desire to be independent is one of the strongest feelings of childhood. “Children are making their way towards independence from the moment they are weaned” (Gutek, 2004, p.118). Montessori insists that if a child is deprived of freedom and an opportunity to master the world around them, their development will be incomplete (Montessori, 2007, p.30). In the Montessori school, children can walk from desk to desk, between shelves of materials, climb the sofa, go out into the corridor, or even into the other class.
Freedom of learning means the freedom of interest and the child’s freedom to choose the learning material to meet that interest. However, it does not only imply the absence of repressive measures; freedom is understood as an uninterrupted realization of the child’s inner motives. Montessori teaches that when children concentrate on an activity, they are interested in, they spontaneously develop self-discipline, and “discipline comes through liberty” (Gutek, 2004, p.113). The main thing is that the child’s interest should not be determined by the teacher, but by the children themselves. Thus, freedom leads to order and discipline.
Education as an Aid to Life and the Role of an Adult
Maria Montessori understood the process of upbringing and education as an “aid to life.” The keyword here is “aid”: it is this word that broadly defines the role and position of the Montessori educator concerning the child. According to Standing (1998), she “brought into being a new teacher (p. 297).” The role of the Montessori educator is not to teach but to guide the child’s independent activity. Therefore, the educator’s role differs significantly from what is considered normal: the teacher does not lead the child but follows him. Thus, the adult educator becomes a companion and a partner, ready to provide the necessary assistance at the right time.
The Montessori method is based on observing the child in the process of learning. The Montessori teacher only intervenes in the child’s activities when it is necessary. In rare cases, teachers do intervene, and it is a separate skill to understand when it is essential, and when it is possible to do without it (Gutek, 2004 p. 124). The main principle of the Montessori system is, “Help me do it myself!” This means that an adult should understand what the child is interested in at the moment and create an optimal environment for him or her to practice. For example, when the teacher sees that a child develops an interest in letters or dice with letters, they create a language around the child by showing the alphabet or cards with letters or syllables.
Educational Environment and Five Areas of Study
Under the Montessori system, it is implied that the child learns by playing with objects. The Montessori method proves that in a specially designed environment, absolutely everything can be a teaching aid. Montessori games are not necessarily based on specially designed toys; any object can be conducive to spontaneous, indirect learning: sieve, glass, spoon, napkin, sponge, etc. (Gutek, 2004, p.205). Each toy offered to children has two purposes: direct and indirect. Direct is the goal that the child sets for himself or herself, say, to assemble a tower out of cubes; and indirect is the goal of a professional adult who invented the cubes so that the child can develop coordination and concentration skills.
The work of Maria and Mario Montessori shaped the modern attitude to a child’s development and education. The Montessori method relies on a child’s natural tendencies and stages of psychological development. In contrast to the more traditional, teacher-centric approach, the educator’s task is to provide the child with stimuli to learn independently in a purposefully created environment.
Gutek, G. L. (2004). The Montessori method: the origins of an educational innovation: including an abridged and annotated edition of Maria Montessori’s The Montessori method. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Montessori, M. (2007) The Formation of Man. Web.
Montessori, M.M. (1966) The Human Tendencies and Montessori Education. Web.
Standing, E.M. (1998) Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York, NY: Plume.
Stephenson, M. E. (2000). The Human Tendencies. NAMTA Journal, 25(3), 5-22.