The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori (1870-1952) immediately captivated social reformers and educators around the world. First published in Italian in 1909 as The Method of Scientific Pedagogy Applied to the Education of Young Children in the Casa de Bambini, The Montessori Method has been translated into twenty languages, including the 1912 English translation. Its ideas were new and innovative compared to the traditional Lancasterian method in which large groups of children recited the teachers' words, word for word in unison. Instead of the teacher being the center of the classroom and the students being listeners and observers, Maria Montessori believed in children learning at their own pace and in their own fashion. The book begins with a collection of Montessori's speeches and then moves onto her research in education. Early chapters show how she used scientific methodology of the era, anthropomorphic measurement, to substantiate physiological explanations for children's educational potentials. It depicts Montessori as a scientist using scientific inquiry to validate her ideas and methods as the beginning of pedagogical science.
The Montessori Method was written when Maria Montessori was thirty years old, but she had even earlier success. By graduating from the University of Rome Medical School in 1896, Montessori had broken the Italian educational and cultural barriers that kept women from attending medical schools. Using her scientific training as a physician and her intuition, she developed the Casa de Bambini in the San Lorenzo slums. Her revolutionary methods were well-publicized first in Italy and then throughout Europe, where she was invited to give a series of lectures. While spending a few weeks at the villa of close friends Barone Leopoldo Franchetti and his wife, she was encouraged to take time to put her thoughts and writing into a book. The product of this intense thirty days of seclusion and thought produced Il Metodo, a discourse on her findings, methods, philosophy, and influences that would ultimately become The Montessori Method.
With its descriptions of what happened with the three- to six-year-olds attending the Casa de Bambini from 1907 to 1909, Montessori's book forever changed views on education. Casa de Bambini had been established by the directors of Ben Stabili, a real-estate development group, who were hoping to popularize low-income housing. They had cleaned up and rebuilt living quarters in the most impoverished area of Rome, San Lorenzo. However, since they stipulated that tenants had to be married couples, there were also many young children around without supervision because both their parents had to work. In an effort to curb the children's vandalism of their investment, the developers decided to get the children off the streets. Due to the positive publicity already surrounding Maria Montessori, the directors offered her the opportunity to run the center. Montessori's decision to take on the challenge set her on a lifelong journey.
The Montessori Method gives a first-hand account of her observations of the children's learning process at Casa de Bambini. Montessori includes specific anecdotes and conversations with her teachers and children to show the reader how she developed her teaching philosophies. For instance, she noticed that the children began to help her put the learning materials away after watching her do this for several days. Realizing they were not only capable of putting things away in an organized fashion themselves but also wanted to help, she turned the task over to the children. Thus is the genesis of the cubbyholes we equate with Montessori schools today. In this manner of observing how the children responded to her ideas and educational tools, she continually revised what she saw as needed by the children, whether it were basic living skills, social skills, or academic skills.
The book also shows readers Montessori's uncanny ability to identify what she called educational apparatus (what we would call educational toys) appropriate to the needs and development of children and how to use them with children. To teach reading and writing, for example, she created colorful and textured letters which she let the children play with randomly instead of in a guided method; she provided chalk, crayons, and paper for the children to scribble on and draw on as they wished. In this way she learned that writing actually came before reading. She also developed wooden geometric shapes fitting into specific slots. If they were not placed correctly, the child had to use trial and error to discover the correct way of positioning the pieces instead of the teacher showing the child the correct way. By training the teacher not to "help" the child solve the problem, Montessori and English educators discovered that the children became problem solvers on their own and in a variety of situations. These were very innovative ideas for a time in which children were to sit quietly and "be seen, but not heard."
In addition to showing children are more interested in playing with items that challenge their intelligence, Montessori guides parents and teachers in their responses to what they see as "play." In her book she suggests teachers and parents allow the child to continue working with the object holding the child's attention for as long as it holds his or her attention. This concept of letting young children work at their own pace is quite contrary to the tightly-scheduled lives that many people live. As she states, "We cannot know the consequences of suffocating a spontaneous action at the time when a child is just beginning to be active: perhaps we suffocate life itself."
By January 1909, Italy had numerous Casa de Bambini; the Italian part of Switzerland instituted her method in its orphanages and kindergartens; and England had a Montessori school and Montessori Association thanks to Englishman Bertram Hawker's enthusiasm. Soon the interest in Montessori's ideas spread to America. In 1912, the American edition of The Montessori Method translated by Anne E. George -- who was trained by Montessori herself and who founded the first American Montessori school, which was located in Tarrytown, New York -- sold 5,000 copies in four days, a remarkable number for the time. It went into six printings and was number two on the bestseller list in 1912. From 1911 until 1913, American interest was at its height with many reports about her system reported in American publications. Scores of American educators and journalists -- including Arnold and Beatrice Gesell, Princeton's Howard Warren, Harvard's Arthur Norton, and William Heard Kilpatrick of Columbia's Teachers College -- traveled to Rome to talk with Maria Montessori.
As Montessori's fame and popularity rose, teachers felt threatened by her reactionary belief that the classroom activities were to revolve around the child instead of the teacher. Critics interpreted her comments to mean complete freedom in behavior for the child, but what Montessori meant was that it is the teacher's responsibility to construct an environment that was conducive for developmental learning and child participation as opposed to the teacher conducting all of the activity and lecturing. However, Montessori had strict ideas on setting boundaries and limits and how to implement these limits. Montessori's definition of freedom and liberty were not the same as Rousseau's or A.S. Neil's of Summerhill fame. "The liberty of the child should have as its limit the collective interest; as its form, what we universally consider good breeding." According to Montessori, "A room in which all the children move about usefully, intelligently, and voluntarily, without committing any rough or rude act, would seem to me a classroom very well disciplined." She did not want freedom to learn at one's own pace to be confused with a free-for-all or chaos. In The Montessori Method, she states, "The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity as often happens in the case of the old-time discipline. Our work is to discipline for activity, for work, for good…"
Some of her contemporaries complained that she based her conclusions on her work done in 1900 with mentally-deficient children at a demonstration school set up by the National League for Retarded Children and on two years of teaching young children. Her reply to this was that she added decades of research to her personal experiences. She had studied the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Jean Itard (1775-1838), and the "Wild Boy of Aveyon," Edouard Sequin (1812-1880), and the work of nineteenth-century educators like the Swiss Johann Pestalozzi and the German Friedrich Froebel, who established the first kindergarten. Thus her work was a culmination of hundreds of years of research in educating children.
Later critics found Montessori to be overly possessive and controlling about her methodology. They felt she became mercenary in charging fees for every lecture, charging fees for teacher training, and controlling the use of her name and sale of her educational products. They were right: she did become mercenary about these things, but for several reasons. The first was her experiences with American publisher, S.S. McClure of McClure's Magazine. Recognizing an opportunity for financial gain, McClure convinced Montessori to come and lecture in the United States in December 1913. He contracted to pay her $1,000 plus expenses. Arriving in New York, Montessori was exuberantly greeted by the American public, which delighted her. She then spent three grueling weeks traveling between Washington and New York, meeting dignitaries and giving constant lectures, many of which she had not been consulted about scheduling and for which she received no remuneration. In addition to which, she had been charged for expenses by McClure's partner. Meanwhile, McClure gathered revenues on unauthorized lectures he gave about her lectures after her return to Italy. These experiences made Montessori wary of dealings with people desiring to promote her ideas. Furthermore, at the age of forty, Montessori gave up her medical practice and her university teaching positions in order to pursue the development of her method. This put a huge financial strain on her since she supported her entire family. Thus she had to make money in every way possible.
However, a falling out with American supporters, some of whom were genuinely interested in her work, such as Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, and some of whom were interested in her work for their own financial gain or self-aggrandizement, caused interest in the movement to dwindle. Furthermore, John Dewey's disciple, William Heard Kilpatrick, who visited the Casa de Bambini, wrote The Montessori System Revisited in 1914. Revered at Columbia for his ability to generate large sums of money from his lectures, Kilpatrick had a large influence on educators of the day. His view was that Montessori was at least fifty years behind the times. He claimed her methods were "mechanical, formal, and restrictive." He further maintained that she needed more situations encouraging creative play and social cooperation. He espoused the idea that Montessori held a more restricted view of education than Dewey, who believed early emphasis should be on activities "more vital to child life and should lead to mastery of our complex social environment." He cited her use of sense training as outdated and minimized her expertise by continually referring to her as Madam Montessori instead of as Doctor Montessori. Kilpatrick's conclusion was that Maria Montessori was merely an attractive, charismatic personality whom history would show to contribute little to education. Ultimately, Montessori's theories of sensory stimulation would be validated by the work of psychologist Jerome Bruner.
Another element that negatively affected American interest in Montessori's ideas was the press coverage of her lectures in the United States. During her December 15 lecture at Carnegie Hall, she discussed the natural instinct of some children to pull apart and explore the insides of an object to see how it works. The December 16, 1913, New York Tribune headline read, "Smash Your Toys If You Want To. Dr. Montessori Gives Children Leeway to Wreck Christmas Presents. Mothers Alone to Blame, She Says. They Don't Pick Gifts that Appeal to Infantile Mind, Woman Teacher Asserts." As with Kilpatrick's criticism, Montessori's ideas about why children behave in certain ways would be proven correct by the work of modern researchers such as Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. In addition to these negative portrayals of Montessori's innovative ideas, the American involvement in World War I and the poor economy led to a loss of American interest in Montessori's ideas and teaching by 1917.
The rest of the world continued to follow Montessori and her research, though. Her schools and associations spread to Germany, Spain, Austria, France, India, Ceylon, Holland, Australia, and Argentina. Even Russian Montessori schools and practices were instituted in St. Petersburg when Tolstoy's daughter returned from Italy after meeting the Montessori. Ironically American interest in Montessori's methods was rekindled in the 1950s when Russia successfully launched Sputnik and American education came under critical scrutiny. Eager to improve educational methods in the United States and make its students competitive with the world, American educators started rereading The Montessori Method.
Reading The Montessori Method instead of relying on second-hand accounts or summaries -- often influenced by translation problems and media sensationalism in the early 1900s -- expands the reader's understanding of the developmental needs of children and the methods to meet these needs, as well as an understanding of the whole child, regardless of socio-economic environments. Although Montessori wrote later books including The Advanced Montessori Method (1916), The Secret of Childhood (1936), The Child in the Family (1936), and The Absorbent Mind (1949), the early writings in The Montessori Method reveal the lasting educational contributions Montessori made, many of which we take for granted in public education today. A few of these include teacher training, child observation, involvement of the family and the community in the running of the school, learning readiness, the use of multi-sensory materials, the role of early-childhood stimulation for success in later learning, the idea that each child desires to be autonomous, and acceptability of education to be interesting and even pleasurable instead of dull and punishing. Her voice conveys to the reader the hope she had for the improvement of society through education.