CMS is proud to celebrate Montessori Education Week

February 24, 2015


These are just a few of the words that come to mind when asked to describe Montessori in a single-word response—it is difficult to define such a special concept in such a limited sense. Montessori prepares a child for life, not just (for) the next level of education. This philosophy—a focus on child-centered learning that is observed rather than taught and that separates itself from quantitative markers of education—is notably different from the procedure at most schools.

Throughout the day, the children are really working and learning. Even if it does not (always) seem so, there is a structure, but (it’s) invisible to the observer who does not know much about Montessori. To understand more of that structure, it is necessary to get to the root of the Montessori method, beginning with the Italian woman who started it all, Dr. Maria Montessori.

The method

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 and was the first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree. Around the turn of the century, she became interested in working with children, including some with special needs. Montessori was an individualist, believing that each child had a potential and personality that could be unlocked in an accepting, nurturing environment. She said, “The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference.”

“Obtrusive interference,” in this case, is nothing more than an unsavory term for some of the common daily activities of most traditional teachers. Standardized testing, pop quizzes and the ever-present focus on grades and results were not on Montessori’s radar. Still, to be an educator, she needed to include the required national curriculum in Italy as part of her lessons. To do this, she adjusted the curriculum to focus on children rather than teachers. Instead of lecturing or imparting her own knowledge to her students, Montessori provided materials to guide them in research and encourage them to pursue their own interests. With this method, she found that children would often share their discoveries with one another and grasp concepts that were known to stymie even much older children.   

In 1915, Montessori set up the epitome of experimental observation: a “Glass-Walled Classroom” in San Francisco, where members of the public could observe American children using Montessori materials and the Montessori method over a period of four months. Two gold medals were awarded for education that year at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and they both went to the Montessori classroom. From that point on, Americans began to grasp that there was something both special and effective about Maria Montessori’s ideas.

By the 1950s, the cultural climate was changing, including a growing discontent with traditional American education. Among those seeking alternatives was Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch, who saw in Montessori the schooling she wanted for her own children, and set out to revive American interest in the technique.  Within a few short years she had completed Montessori coursework, founded a Montessori school and teacher education program, and started a vigorous campaign to recruit others to the cause. In 1960, she established the American Montessori Society. Today, AMS is an international clearinghouse for all matters Montessori, and a leading advocate for quality Montessori education.

The materials

Part of what makes Montessori education unique is the materials it utilizes. Many of these materials were devised by Montessori and are still used in classrooms today, with the goal of allowing children to learn experientially, in a self-guided manner. There are multitudes of them, most designed with the intention of expressing complicated concepts in a simple, accessible way. They exist for all traditional school subjects, including language, sensorial work, and math. The Trinomial Cube, for example, is a large cube made up of 27 colored wooden blocks. Primary-school students using the Montessori method can arrange the blocks by color or size. On a surface level, the pieces in the cube are nothing more than regular wooden blocks, but after enough time with them, a child begins to grasp concepts of fractions, formulas, and spatial reasoning.

Another material, the Golden Beads, teaches decimals and shows students the difference between different groupings of numbers. A material called the Pink Tower is similar to the Trinomial Cube in that it’s made up of blocks, but these blocks are meant to be stacked and encourage students to notice differences in size, sequence, and order.   

Over the course of my career, the more I have learned about Montessori materials, the more amazed I have been at their genius. It all makes so much sense and is so beautiful to see in action. The materials encourage personal creativity. Although they are very structured, they offer enormous opportunities for creativity if the child is permitted to experiment and explore. Creativity comes from the mind. The voice gives it power, and the hands become an outlet, but the opportunity has to be allowed in the culture of the classroom. 

Final thoughts

I have dedicated my life’s work to Montessori education, its philosophy and culture. As such, I am proud to serve on the Board of Directors of The American Montessori Society (AMS), a long-standing institution with a dynamic mission. I am equally proud to be at Cambridge Montessori School, an AMS-accredited institution, 52 years strong and committed to authentic Montessori education.

Happy Montessori Education Week!!!

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