Maria Montessori on ‘Free, Natural’ Education

Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was Italy’s first female doctor. Her work with what were then called ‘idiot’ children led her to consider whether her methods would work with ‘normal’ children. Montessori helped establish the ‘Casa dei Bambini’ or ‘Children’s House’ in 1907, a preschool in a poor area of Rome designed to cater for children whose parents were both at work. Montessori’s writings on the Children’s House and her theories leading to and arising from this school had a wide audience at the time and her approach continues to be popular, as evidenced in the large number of Montessori schools around the world today. Montessori believed that the chief role of educators was to assist children to teach themselves in a free, but structured environment and that the separation between school and home (or community) should be reduced as much as possible. Here she is speaking of her Casa dei Bambini:

Montessori was one of the first to articulate a critique of didactic education:

Now let us imagine … a man appointed, by reason of the original work he has done, to a chair of science in some university, with the task before him of doing further original research work with hymenpetera [insects]. Let us suppose that, arrived at his post, he is shown a glass-covered case containing a number of beautiful butterflies, mounted by means of pins, their outspread wings motionless … With material such as this the experimental scientist can do nothing.

The situation would be very much the same if we should place a teacher who … is scientifically prepared in one of the public schools where the children are repressed in the spontaneous expression of their personality till they are almost like dead beings. In such a school the children, like butterflies mounted on pins, are fastened each to his place, the desk, spreading the useless wings of barren and meaningless knowledge which they have acquired …

The school must permit the free, natural manifestations of the child if in the school scientific pedagogy is to be born … [T]he true concept of liberty is practically unknown to educators … The principle of slavery still pervades pedagogy, and therefore, the same principle pervades the school. I need only give one proof—the stationary desks and chairs … [S]chools were at first furnished with the long, narrow benches upon which the children were crowded together. Then came science and perfected the bench. In this work much attention was paid to recent work in anthropology. The age of the child and the length of his limbs were considered in placing the seat at the right height. The distance between the seat and the desk was calculated with infinite care, in order that the child’s back should not become deformed, and finally, the seats were separated and the width so closely calculated that the child could barely seat himself upon it, while to stretch himself by making any lateral movements was impossible. This was done in order that he might be separated from his neighbour. These desks were constructed in such a way as to render the child visible in all his immobility. [O]bliging science … perfect[s] the benches in such a way as to permit to the greatest possible extent the immobility of the child, or, if you wish, to repress every movement of the child …

Often the education of children consists in pouring into their intelligence the intellectual contents of school programmes. And often these programs have been compiled in the official department of education, and their use is imposed by law upon the teacher and the child.

We know only too well the sorry spectacle of the teacher who, in the ordinary schoolroom, must pour certain cut and dried facts into the heads of scholars. In order to succeed in this barren task, she finds it necessary to discipline her pupils into immobility and to force their attention. Prizes and punishments are ever-ready and efficient aids to the master who must force into a given attitude of mind and body those who are condemned to be his listeners … Such prizes and punishments are … the bench of the soul, the instrument of slavery for the spirit …

[The Children’s House] is not simply a place where the children are kept, not just an asylum, but a true school for their education, and its methods are inspired by the rational principles of scientific pedagogy … Linguistic exercises, a systematic sense-training, and exercises which directly fit the child for the duties of practical life, form the basis of the work done …

In the ‘Children’s House’, the old-time teacher, who wore herself out maintaining discipline of immobility, and who wasted her breath in loud and continual discourse, has disappeared. For this teacher we have substituted the didactic material, which contains within itself the control of errors and which makes auto-education possible to each child. [This didactic material consisted of beautifully crafted ‘contraptions’ such as ‘rods’ of varying sizes to represent fractions and a map of the world in the form of a jig-saw puzzle in which each country was a piece.] The teacher has thus become a director of the spontaneous work of the children. She is not a passive force, a silent presence …

From such work, we must await the positive solution of all those pedagogical problems of which we talk today. For through such work there has already come the solution of some of these very questions: that of the liberty of the pupils; auto-education; the establishment of harmony between the work and activities of home life and school tasks, making both work together for the education of the child …

We see here for the first time the possibility of realizing the long-talked-of pedagogical ideal. We have put the school within the house; and this is not all. We have placed it within the [apartment block where the children live] … as the property of the collectivity, leaving under the eyes of the parents the whole life of the teacher in the accomplishment of her high mission.

The ‘Children’s House’ … is the first step towards the socialisation of the house. The inmates find … the convenience of being able to leave their little ones in a place, not only safe, but where they have every advantage … Until the present time only one class in society might have this advantage. Rich women were able to go about their various occupations and amusements, leaving their children in the hands of a nurse or a governess. Today, the women of the people … may say, like the great lady, ‘I have left my son with the governess and the nurse.’

[T]oday … social and economic evolution calls the working woman to take her place among wage-earners, and takes away from her by force those duties which would be most dear to her … The advantages furnished by such institutions are not limited to the labouring classes, but extend also to the general middle-class, many of whom work with the brain … We may see here in this practical act the solving of may of woman’s problems.

The fundamental principle of scientific pedagogy must be … the liberty of the pupil—such liberty as shall permit a development of the individual, spontaneous manifestations of the child’s nature. If a new and scientific pedagogy is to arise from the study of the individual, such study must occupy itself with the study of free children.

[If] we give a comprehensive glance to the moral progress of society, we shall see that little by little, the yoke is being made easier … The yoke of the slave yields to that of the servant, and the yoke of the servant to that of the workman. All forms of slavery tend little by little to weaken and disappear, even the sexual slavery of woman. The history of civilisation is a history of conquest and of liberation.

Discipline must come through liberty … We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.

We call the individual disciplined when he is master of himself, and can, therefore, regulate his own conduct when it shall be necessary to follow some rule of life … If discipline is to be founded upon liberty, the discipline itself must necessarily be active.

Montessori, Maria. 1964 (1912). The Montessori Method. New York: Schocken Books. pp. 14, 15, 21–22, 27–28, 62–63, 65, 66, 86, 370–71. || Amazon || WorldCat

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