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The Montessori Method – Learning Through Natural Curiosity

By: Kathy Diener

Date Posted: 2000-10-21

Once held to be expensive and exclusive to upper class society, the Montessori method of education has lately experienced a surge of popularity, as more and more teachers and schools adopt Maria Montessori’s ideals of self-directed learning, responsibility and independence.

The basic premise of the Montessori method is that children want to learn and, within the right environment, they can do so with no more effort than their natural curiosity. In her book, The Absorbent Mind, Dr. Montessori noted her observations of children as they “absorbed” culture through classroom experiences. She believed that “education is not something that the teacher does, …. it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being.”

Born in 1870, Maria Montessori was the first woman in Italy to become a physician. Specializing in pediatrics and psychiatry, she was appointed director of a school for mentally handicapped children in 1901, where she installed a program to teach them to care for themselves and their environment. Building on the work of physicians Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, Montessori began to develop her scientific approach to education, which was based on observation and experimentation. Two years later, many of her “impaired” students were able to pass the standard tests given by the public schools.

Soon after this success, Montessori began coordinating a series of day care centers for working class children in the slum district of Rome. She found that the children, ages two through five, were fascinated by the perceptual training devices she had developed, and were eager to learn practical living skills. Soon the older children were helping the teacher with the younger students, which remains a key element of the modern Montessori classroom. By age four, most of her students were reading, writing, and performing four-digit mathematics calculations.

From these observations, Montessori concluded that children would rather learn than play, and that to deny them the right to do so because adults think they shouldn’t is illogical.

East-West Montessori, founded in 1986, is the oldest Montessori school on Okinawa. Director Dan Trent is also the chairman of the Asian Division of the International Montessori Council (IMC), an organization that provides training and certification for schools and teachers. Trent says Montessori education continues to evolve due to the technology of the classroom and lessons. “Maria Montessori started something revolutionary,” he says, “but she understood that the world changes and you have to change with it.”

Children are divided into classes by age, usually in three-year groups. This gives younger children the opportunity to learn from older peers, while reinforcing the older children’s knowledge. Classes are typically large, with 20-30 students and two to three teachers per room. The idea is to have more students than the teachers can control, as this allows the children to police themselves. Another characteristic common to Montessori classrooms is the low, open shelves on which lessons are neatly kept, so as to be easily accessible to the children.

The academic day at East-West begins with teacher-directed lessons, or “circle time.” This part of the day is used to teach and reinforce basic concepts such as calendar days, numbers, colors, English and Japanese language skills, and an understanding of time. Children are taught to count one through 20, then to 100 in groups of five and ten. The lessons of Montessori education include shapes, feelings, songs, phonics, and group activities.

While every school has its own curriculum, Trent says there are three elements that should be consistent within all Montessori schools: a stable environment, repetition of lessons, and observation of the children. Within this framework, teachers are allowed flexibility and creativity. That’s why, Trent says, each school has a distinct focus.

Diana Ishikawa, director of Okinawa Montessori School, agrees. “Not every school will suit every student,” she says.

Ishikawa says her school’s objective is to produce students who are well-rounded. In order to be prepared for life, students must learn academics as well as self-reliance. “The more they discover,” she says, “the more independent they become.”

Ishikawa emphasizes that the basis of Montessori method is freedom with limitations. The teacher’s job is to set the parameters within which the children can develop positively. Children are allowed to choose, but only from the options that are offered by the teacher, which create the structure of the class.

“Instead of teaching at a certain level and expecting the children to meet it,” she says, “(the teachers) should be watching the child, teaching where the child is.”

Focus on the individual abilities of each student is central to Montessori philosophy. This is one of the primary reasons that students are not tested, as testing is a form of competition. “Testing is inaccurate,” Trent says. “At best, it reflects technique rather than knowledge.” Nonetheless, Montessori students are generally able to perform at or above their peers on standardized tests.

The diversity of Montessori education attests to its being more than just a method, but an entire philosophy. Everything in the Montessori classroom is designed to teach grace and courtesy, to reinforce responsibility and independence, and to help children understand boundaries, concepts that traditional educational systems postpone until the children are much older. As the IMC asserts, Montessori as an institution “is committed to building a world culture that promotes peace through sensitivity and respect for the rights and needs of all people, beginning with the youngest child.”

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