The Montessori method of teaching aims for the fullest possible development of the whole child, ultimately preparing them for life's many rich experiences. Complemented by her training in medicine, psychology and anthropology, Dr. Maria Montessori (1870 - 1952) developed her philosophy of education based upon actual observations of children.
“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.”—Maria Montessori
Dr. Montessori described the child's mind between the time of birth and six years of age as an "absorbent mind". Dr. Montessori believed that children pass through sensitive periods of development early in life and it is during this stage that children have a tremendous ability to learn and assimilate from the world around them, without conscious effort. During this time, children are particularly receptive to certain external stimuli. A Montessori teacher recognizes and takes advantage of these highly perceptive stages through the introduction of materials and activities that are specially designed to stimulate the intellect.
“The environment (our classroom) must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.” —Maria Montessori
The "prepared environment" is Maria Montessori's concept that the environment can be designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child.
In the prepared environment, there is a variety of activity as well as a great deal of movement. In a preschool classroom, for example, a three-year-old may be washing clothes by hand while a four-year-old nearby is composing words and phrases with letters known as the movable alphabet, and a five-year-old is performing multiplication using a specially designed set of beads. In an elementary classroom, a small group of six- to nine-year-old children may be using a timeline to learn about extinct animals while another child chooses to work alone, analyzing a poem using special grammar symbols. Sometimes an entire class may be involved in a group activity, such as storytelling, singing, or movement.
In the calm, ordered space of the Montessori prepared environment, children work on activities of their own choice at their own pace. They experience a blend of freedom and self-discipline in a place especially designed to meet their developmental needs.
“The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.”—Maria Montessori
In the Montessori classroom, learning materials are arranged invitingly on low, open shelves. Children may choose whatever material they would like to use and may work for as long as the material holds their interest. When they are finished with each material, they return it to the shelf from which it came.
The materials themselves invite activity. There are bright arrays of solid geometric forms, knobbed puzzle maps, colored beads, and various specialized rods and blocks.
Each material in a Montessori classroom isolates one quality. In this way, the concept that the child is to discover is isolated. For example, the material known as the pink tower is made up of ten pink cubes of varying sizes. The preschool-aged child constructs a tower with the largest cube on the bottom and the smallest on top. This material isolates the concept of size. The cubes are all the same color and texture; the only difference is their size. Other materials isolate different concepts: color tablets for color, geometry materials for form, and so on.
Moreover, the materials are self-correcting. When a piece does not fit or is left over, the child easily perceives the error. There is no need for adult "correction." The child is able to solve problems independently, building self-confidence, analytical thinking, and the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.
As the child's exploration continues, the materials interrelate and build upon each other. For example, various relationships can be explored between the pink tower and the broad stair, which are based on matching precise dimensions. Later, in the elementary years, new aspects of some of the materials unfold. When studying volume, for instance, the child may return to the pink tower and discover that its cubes progress incrementally from one cubic centimeter to one cubic decimeter.
“The teacher, when she begins work in our schools, must have a kind of faith that the child will reveal himself through his work.” —Maria Montessori
It’s often hard to spot the teacher in a Montessori classroom. She may be sitting with a preschooler next to a floor mat, arranging colored rectangles from darkest to lightest, or intently observing as a handful of elementary students dissect a leaf.
She won’t be presenting information for rote learning. Rather, she’ll be demonstrating specially designed learning materials that serve as a springboard for investigation and discovery. At the heart of the Montessori Method is the concept that mastery is best achieved through exploration, imitation, repetition, and trial and error.
The teacher thoughtfully prepares a classroom environment with materials and activities that meet his students’ unique interests, academic level, and developmental needs. These he introduces to each child sequentially, laying the foundation for independent learning.
Always, the teacher is aware of each student’s progress as she works toward mastering the particular concept or skill. He knows when to step in to offer special guidance, and when to challenge a student with the next step in a learning sequence.