Maria Montessori: The Woman and The Method

Many schools and teachers from around the world claim to follow the "Montessori Method," an 'auto-education' method conceptualized by Maria Montessori for young children, primarily from the ages of three to six (although, in more recent years, the Method been expanded in some places to accommodate both older children as well as adults). The Method focuses on "the pupil’s liberty as the basis for developing independence, his freedom to work when and for as long as he wants to on a given task and to progress at his own rate" (Kramer, 1976:295-6). Not only did Montessori alter the way schools viewed children’s learning, she also transformed the role of the teacher to that of an observing facilitator at the back of the classroom. She spent many years traveling around the world, including India, and received many eager students who wanted to learn the Montessori Method and establish their own schools. Her ideas were not influenced much by her interactions with many different people, nor by the major economic, political and societal changes of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed the Montessori Method changed little during her lifetime.

The first part of this paper highlights the basic ideas and principles of the Montessori Method. The second part of the paper analyzes a questionnaire distributed to teachers and parents at a function held in honor of Maria Montessori’s birthday at Vidya Bhawan, Udaipur, Rajasthan, on 31 August 1999. Although many said that they were not officially Montessori trained or did not know much about Montessori, 20 questionnaires were completed. Lastly, a framework for looking at early childhood education programs in general will be used to critically analyze the Montessori Method and its approach to learning and development.

At one level, this paper seeks to clarify the basic principles of the Montessori Method with the purpose of highlighting the differences in her approach from conventional forms of early childhood education. As part of Shikshantar's broader objective of re-thinking education and development, this paper encourages all readers to seriously consider and reflect on what is essential for early childhood education. In this way, a dialogue can be initiated among concerned teachers, administrators, parents, researchers and policymakers to think and discuss questions on early childhood and other issues (raised below). At another level, this paper poses questions for further research to understand the Montessori Method in India. Many schools around the nation are freely referring to themselves as Montessori schools, yet Montessori’s influence on and impact in India need to be clarified. Moreover, we need to better understand the ways in which the Montessori Method has been adapted to Indian contexts, and whether this new hybrid form is an appropriate alternative for early childhood education in the 21st century.


Section I: Background

Born in 1870, Maria Montessori grew up in Italy during the late nineteenth century at a time when strict rules dictating social customs and practices were prevalent. However, from a young age, Montessori was prepared to challenge the prevailing system. Against the wishes of her father and contrary to norms considered appropriate for women, she enrolled at the University of Rome to study medicine. Her persistence and willingness to excel in her studies made her competitive and successful against her male peers. She earned her diploma in medicine and surgery in 1896 to become the first female doctor in Italy. Her initial work as a doctor was in the research field of psychiatry, and she spent much time visiting children’s asylums. In Rome during this time, children who were considered "mentally deficient" or "feeble-minded" were locked up in asylums. One of Montessori’s early observations of these asylum children formed a crucial element of her theory that would later influence many people. She watched children who would crawl on the floor to grab crumbs of bread after mealtime and realized that the "the children were starved not for food but for experience" (Kramer, 1976:58). These acts of moving around the room, chasing other children and fighting for the crumbs were the only way of relieving their boredom, for the rest of the day they were locked up in a bare room. Montessori believed that each child, even those classified as "feeble-minded," was capable of learning to function in society, but each had his or her own way of discovery. In other words, she recognized that not all children developed through phases of life in the same way.

Montessori was much influenced by earlier works on child development and psychology, in particular research conducted by Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin. Both worked with children who had some physical or mental disability. Whether they had true congenital defects, or whether they were classified as ‘retarded’ since they did not fit the pattern of development as displayed by the majority of children, is unknown. However, both attempted to teach basic skills, such as reading and writing, using alternative methods from those being employed in the formal school settings. These experiments were a source of inspiration for Montessori who believed that "mental deficiency presented chiefly a pedagogical, rather than mainly a medical, problem" (Montessori, 1964:31).


First Experiments and Discoveries

Based on countless hours of observing the children in asylums, Montessori gradually formed her philosophy on how children learn best. As part of the programs she developed for retarded children, Montessori focused on "first the education of the sense, then the education of the intellect" (Kramer, 1976:76). Becoming aware of one’s own senses relied first and foremost of cleanliness. For example, children could not take in all the smells if their nose was running, nor could they differentiate between different textures if their hands and nails were dirty. The acts of achieving and maintaining cleanliness were to promote motor activity and were considered part of "motor education" (Miezitis, 1971).

Montessori was also aware of the need to stimulate all the senses by going out for walks to smell flowers, to look at plants, to hear birds, and to do physical exercises. Furthermore, she emphasized that the children should learn how to take care of themselves and their immediate physical environments. These "exercises in daily living" included sweeping, polishing and pouring (Spock and Hathaway, 1967). She even proposed a schedule for organizing the day’s events, including meal times and menus. Not only did such activities form good habits, they were also important for the development of self-discipline, responsibility, patience, and work orientation (Miezitis, 1971:125). Her profession as a doctor no doubt influenced her decisions to concentrate on personal hygiene, nutrition and eating habits. "Education of the sense" also included learning how to appreciate silence. Montessori introduced the "game of silence" where all the children and the teacher would remain as quiet as possible to listen for "the lightest sounds like that of a drop of water falling in the distance and the far-off chirp of a bird" (Montessori, 1936 quoted in Kramer, 1976:115). This activity eventually became part of the daily routines in Montessori schools. Montessori herself saw it as "a most efficacious preparation for the task of setting in order the whole personality, the motor forces and the psychical" (ibid).

Rather than encouragement from someone else, Montessori believed that children themselves would have the initiative and intrinsic motivation to learn more complex things. After mastering simple tasks of "few stimuli strongly contrasting," a child would move ahead to more complex tasks with "many stimuli in gradual differentiation always more fine and imperceptible" (Montessori, 1964:184). Montessori stressed that a child needed to have freedom in his life to explore different avenues of learning. It is important to note that freedom was not equated with anarchy. Instead, freedom implied the possibility of taking certain types of action within defined limits. For example, as mentioned above, one of these boundaries revolved around cleanliness.

The First School: Casa dei Bambini

Satisfied with the fact that so-called "mentally deficient" children could learn the same things as normal children, sometimes at a faster pace or by attaining a higher mastery level, Montessori began to focus on working directly with normal children in the field of education. She reached similar conclusions as Seguin that "a physiological method for educating abnormal children, based on the understanding of the individual pupil, would, if applied to normal children, lead to a complete human regeneration" (Kramer, 1976:96). The first ‘school’ that she opened was called Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s Home. It was set up in a ground-floor room of a low-cost apartment building in a slum area of Rome. Its purpose was to provide a space for pre-school age children who were damaging and vandalizing the new building while their parents were at work. The center had few resources — paper, colored pencils, teaching materials (similar to what Itard and Seguin used with their ‘retarded’ children) and some toys donated by friends.

Montessori believed in taking the time to learn from the children, as she herself learned through her observations of the children in the asylums. She and her assistant (who had no prior official training in early childhood education and development) did not impose any limitations to the children’s freedom and allowed them to explore this new space. As Montessori herself wrote, "I merely wanted to study the children’s reactions. I asked [my assistant] not to interfere with them in any way as otherwise I would not be able to observe them" (Kramer, 1976:113). In over just a few weeks, Montessori noticed a great change in the behavior of the children who had been left crying by their parents at the center every day. The children of Casa dei Bambini began to take interest in the didactic materials and they were no longer "the sullen, the disinterested and withdrawn, and the rebellious children" (Kramer, 1976:113).

Didactic Materials

What surprised Montessori even more was the children’s lack of interest in the toys or the drawing materials and their keen interest in the didactic materials. Montessori concluded that "children soon tire of toys that have only one function, but they seek out, continue to work with and keep returning to materials that let them see their errors and correct them, that aid their understanding of the physical world and that develop their intellect" (Spock and Hathaway, 1967). One of her most popular didactic materials was a block with carved holes into which slid corresponding wooden cylinders. The holes and the diameter of the cylinders varied in size, making the purpose of the material to develop the child’s sense of dimensions (Montessori, 1964:169). She referred to these materials as self-correcting since there was only one ‘correct’ way to do the activity. With the block and cylinders, a child could slide all cylinders into the hole with the largest diameter, but the child would eventually ‘self-correct’ herself when realizing that the other holes were never used and that there was the same number of corresponding holes and cylinders. Thus, each didactic material had some carefully planned objective that was pre-determined by Montessori. As she observed children repeatedly placing the cylinders in the holes, she noticed that the children were interested in the challenge presented to them by the didactic materials and in discovering the so-called ‘correct’ way of using them. They persisted in figuring out how to use the materials, and they were happy in doing it by themselves. The teacher was only a guide as the child worked through various sequences of activities. In this way, the child learned to recognize different patterns, colors, shapes, and quantities.

The Child as the Master

Montessori was critical of the system of schooling that forced upon the child a set curriculum as dictated by the teacher. She believed that "the child was master of his house" and that there was no one cookie-cutter method of teaching children (Kramer, 1976:foreward by Anna Freud). Montessori’s concept of the school was as a place to develop "cognitive skills and a self-reliant character," and that everything else would be taken care of by other spaces, such as the home or the church (Kramer, 1976: 253). Her system of education therefore focused on learning different skills and practices that were useful in life. She strongly believed in the notion of learning by doing and thought it important for each child to explore and create his or her own world. To facilitate this process, she created a child-friendly environment. Having criticized traditional school classrooms for their enslaving "stationary desks and chairs," Montessori's standard classroom included small tables and chairs, light enough for a child to carry, low washstands, and different corners for materials and pets (Montessori, 1964:16). Each room contained a set of designed materials and equipment that would cultivate children’s curiosity and enhance learning.

Thus, the "liberty of the pupil" was fundamental to the Montessori Method. This liberty should "permit a development of individual, spontaneous manifestations of the child’s nature" (Montessori, 1964:28). Supporting the liberty of the child was based on Montessori’s conviction that a child was striving for order in his or her life to match the "inherent order and structure in nature" (Spock and Hathaway, 1967:75). It is crucial to keep in mind, however, that "liberty" was always defined in relation to the teacher and to the didactic materials. In other words, this approach was to "encourage accommodation to external reality, rather than assimilation to the personalized motives and fantasies of the child (such as are expressed in spontaneous play)" (R. Gardner, 1966:82). As her biographer adequately phrased it, "To be in control of one’s self was for her the ultimate end of the process of education. It was what she had achieved in her own life and what she wanted to make possible for the children in her schools" (Kramer, 1976:139). In this way, Montessori made an assumption that all children were looking for organized structure or order, and the best way to attain it was to let children reach it in their own way, at their own time.

Embedded in this notion of liberty was Montessori’s discovery that children were not motivated by rewards. Rather, their motivation and persistence at a task were driven by their desire to work at the task itself. For example, she watched what happened when medals were given as a reward for good work and was surprised to see that the "children accepted them politely but with little interest; they were more interested in being allowed to get on with the work" (Kramer, 1976:120). Montessori believed that each child was driven by intrinsic motivation and thus should not be forced to do anything. Instead, her didactic materials would encourage the child to learn, where the learning process meant repeating tasks for as long as the child wished. Through this repetition, a task would eventually be considered completed and would enable the child to proceed to the next level. Montessori believed that the process of repetition was the most effective way of learning a task and of fully understanding its meaning. Repetition was necessary for mastery that took place in contextually meaningful ways.

Stages of Learning

The following examples illustrate how Montessori's use of didactic materials and repetition, belief in individual liberty, and focus on motor and sensory education all converge into distinct stages of a learning process. A young boy once chose an activity of using colored pencils to color in an outline of a tree. At first, he colored the trunk red, and Montessori interpreted that he had not yet become "an observer of his surroundings" (Montessori, 1964:228). In the following days, the boy went for walks in the garden with other children, and the teacher continued to give him outlines of trees to color. One day, he colored the trunk brown and the branches and leaves green. Eventually, he colored both the trunk and branches brown and only the leaves green. This example demonstrates how sensory observation, repetition, and teacher guidance combine to direct the learning of the child, until he understands and completes the sequence of a particular activity (Spock and Hathaway, 1967).

Similarly, Montessori used her ideas to invent a different method for teaching reading and writing to children. She designed a set of script letters of the alphabet made from wood, painting the consonants in blue and the vowels in red (Montessori, 1964). She also painted a set of cards with letters of the alphabet in the same style as the wooden ones. Each card also had a simple word that began with that letter. The children would become comfortable with moving the letters onto the cards and putting the wooden letters together to match the word written on the cards. At this point, the children would trace the letters in "the fashion of flowing writing" (Montessori, 1964:262). A child would first trace the letter first with his index finger, then the index with the middle finger, and lastly, with a small wooden stick held as a pen. Other materials, such as sandpaper, were also used to distinguish between consonants and vowels. Thus, she created stages that a child needed to pass through in order to learn how to read and write.

A final example is that of an eleven-year old girl who could not sew or darn, no matter how many times she was shown. Montessori then adopted a method developed by Froebel – the founder of the first kindergarten (a garden where children grow like flowers unfolding) – that was based on threading strips of paper horizontally in and out of vertical slots as in weaving a mat. When the girl was able to do this task, she was given a needle and thread, and this time learned how to sew and darn (Kramer, 1988:90). This example demonstrates the space and opportunity that Montessori provided for children to learn, or discover for themselves, rather than have someone teach it to them.

Teachers of the Montessori Method

Building upon these ideas, Montessori proposed to radically change the role of the traditional schoolteacher. The teacher would no longer command children forced to sit quietly in rows. Instead, she would be a facilitator, a directress who "teaches little and observes much" (Montessori, 1964:173). Montessori's success with "mentally deficient" children stemmed from her belief that they were capable of learning, a belief which she only arrived at by taking time to observe and analyze them. Just as she tried to understand the world of the asylum children, she believed teachers should try to understand their children through observation and analysis. Then, they would facilitate or guide the learning process instead of directing the classroom and dictating what had to be learned at what pace. This more passive role of teachers is consistent with Montessori's belief that "a man is not what he is because of the teachers he has had, but because of what he has done" (Montessori, 1964:172). Therefore, in training future Montessori teachers, Montessori shared experiences on how to observe children, how to provide them with freedom, and how to offer ‘help’ in the correct dose and at the right time. She believed that the children themselves were the "real teachers of the Montessori method" (Kramer, 1976:294). Conveying this novel concept to teachers-to-be was a challenge in itself.

Montessori in India

Gijubhai Badeka established the first Montessori school, albeit unofficial, in India in 1920. He attempted to 'localize' the method, by removing the didactic materials altogether and replacing them with storybooks, storytelling, role-plays, local games, and creative exercises. In this way, he afforded the children greater freedom; no longer confined by the didactic materials, they could express more of their own potential. However, it was Dr. George Arundale and his wife who were instrumental in convincing Montessori to spend time in India. Dr. Arundale was President of the International Theosophical Society, which, under Annie Besant, had been influential in trying to revive traditional Indian cultures, educating the poor and the illiterate, and fighting for Home Rule. Rita Kramer (1976) makes the following links between Theosophy and the Montessori Method:

"The core of Theosophy was the Indian doctrines of the union of the human soul with the divine consciousness, of reincarnation as a gradual unfolding of innate powers in successive lives, and of karma, the principle of self-realization leading to the liberation of the true self and to ultimate wisdom. There was some affinity between these beliefs and Montessori’s view of education as a process of liberating the spirit of the child, the increasingly vague and mystical language in which she spoke of her very practical classroom methods as she grew older. Many people who were drawn to Theosophy were attracted to the Montessori movement" (p. 343).

In 1939, Montessori finally arrived in India and started the first official training centers for teachers in Madras, Kodaikanal, Ahmedabad, Bombay, and Karachi (then still a part of India). As many of her students had read much about her theory and methods prior to her arrival, her work primarily involved implementing courses and schools rather than ‘selling’ her idea (Kramer, 1976). In the end, over 1000 teachers were trained. During the Second World War, Montessori was not allowed to leave India and she spent this time observing and researching infants. She had always wanted to focus on this younger age group but never had the opportunity before. She found it highly exciting and advantageous to study infants in Indian families since they were at the center of attention.

Montessori and Gandhi met in 1946 at which time he asked her to "Indianise" the Montessori Method (Bhai, 1968). Perhaps one aspect that he was concerned with was the emphasis Montessori placed on the freedom for independence and individual growth. Kilpatrick, a disciple of John Dewey and affiliated with Columbia University’s Teachers College, was also critical of the Method, since it did not provide the space for social cooperation and imitative play. Indeed, he referred to the didactic materials as a ‘meager diet’ affording "singularly little variety… So narrow and limited a range of activity cannot go far in satisfying the normal child… The imagination, whether of constructive play or of the more aesthetic sort, is but little utilized" (Kramer, 1976:228).

Questions for Reflection

Section II: Analysis of Questionnaire

Four brief questions were distributed to parents and teachers at a function honoring Montessori’s birthday in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Along with a series of speeches, the function involved performances by children from different pre-schools in Udaipur Although many respondents said they were not officially Montessori-trained or did not know much about her, 20 questionnaires were completed. In this section, I summarize the answers to the questionnaire and attempt to describe how Montessori herself would have answered these questions.

Questions #1: What is your understanding of the Montessori Method?

Most of the answers included something along the lines of "learning and doing through play." The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines play as an "activity done for amusement, especially by children; recreation." Is this what most of the answers were alluding to? Montessori would argue that the children were not using the didactic materials for "amusement." Based on her observations, she would claim that children chose the materials and repeated the tasks over and over again because they wanted to feel a sense of accomplishment. Her materials were designed such that there was only one ‘correct’ answer and there was a specific skill being targeted. Once the child completed a task, he would continue the sequence as planned by Montessori and then tackle another task. Perhaps this sequence of learning is interpreted as "play-way," since there is little direct interference on behalf of the teacher. This Method may also be considered "learning through play," for the children are free to choose their materials and are allowed to spend as much time as they like working with them.

Other responses made reference to the holistic development of the child as part of the Montessori Method. Some elaborated that holistic development included mental, intellectual and physical development. Montessori’s focus was on the development of all the senses in a child, which she called "education of the sense." Recognizing and stimulating each sense lay the foundation for other activities. For example, Montessori had prepared a set of small tablets. Each tablet was of a different weight and color. The child would first associate the different color with the different weight, thus seeing the difference. Then, the child would be blindfolded and hold a tablet in each hand to feel the difference in weight. By doing this numerous times using different materials (wood, wisteria, walnut, pine), the child would come to understand the concept of weight and be aware that this phenomenon exists with all objects (Montessori, 1964). To quote Montessori herself:

"Our aim in education in general is two-fold, biological and social. From the biological side we wish to help the natural development of the individual, from the social standpoint it is our aim to prepare the individual for the environment…. the period of life between the ages of three and seven years covers a period of rapid physical development. It is the time for the formation of the sense activities as related to the intellect." (Montessori, 1964:215-6)

By "social development," Montessori was referring to learning good manners and habits related to hygiene and cleanliness. Several responses mention "discipline" and "good habits" as being concepts related to Montessori. Indeed, Montessori was extremely strict about children having to learn how to take care of themselves. Children who came to school "unwashed" or in "soiled clothing" could be expelled (Montessori, 1964:71). Montessori believed that it was possible to graduate to higher-level, complex activities only after these basic concepts of cleanliness were observed and maintained.

Other responses also referred to the Montessori Method as being "child-centered." In many aspects, it is child-centered in that the child is allowed to choose which activity she wants to work on, when and for how long. Moreover, the materials were designed based on Montessori’s countless hours of observations on children. Some materials were even inspired by the children themselves as she watched them handle and use available materials.

An important concept that was not mentioned in these responses is in regards to the role of the teacher. Montessori transformed the role of the teacher to that of an observing facilitator, whom she called the "directress." The purpose of the directress was to provide guidance, if and when the child wanted it. Thus, the directress was supposed to stay at the back of the room and to not interfere with the child and his activities.

Question #2: How do you apply these concepts in your school/home?

There was an emphasis on "singing songs," "story telling" and doing things by "actions" as a means to apply Montessori’s concepts. Others mentioned the importance of going on picnics and other outings to spend time outdoors. This seems to be related to the notion of "learning through play" and seems to indicate activities that are fun. However, Montessori’s focus was more functional and utilitarian. She would highlight the importance of letting the child take care of himself – washing his hands, brushing his hair, putting materials back to the shelf, etc. Through these motions, different senses would be stimulated.

Question #3: Do you see any problems with the Montessori Method? What are they?

Only one person wrote "no." Most other responses referred to implementation difficulties since the Method depends on the availability of the didactic materials and time. Several responses alluded to the fact that the Method was time-consuming. Completing a task involved a long process that differed in terms of time for each child. While Montessori believed that the process was the most effective form of learning, especially because it was self-directed by the child, teachers and parents were concerned with the time involved. They mentioned that, in the current age of competition, there is insufficient time available for a child to explore and take control of his/her learning. Under this pressure, early childhood education is reduced to merely preparing children to enter primary school and to take competitive tests.

Other responses expressed concern over whether this Method was culturally compatible with India. Montessori was from Italy and her Method was based solely on her observations of Italian children. Yet, Montessori believed that it was important for learning to occur in contextually relevant situations to children. Thus, local knowledges, practices and languages should be incorporated in the school settings. However, introducing different materials to reflect the local would have altered the essence of the Method, for it would mean a change in the didactic materials.

Other problems not mentioned by the respondents include lack of creativity and specific environment. Research indicates that one of the greatest destroyers of creativity is lack of time (Goleman, et al., 1992). By allowing a child freedom to work on a task as long as he wants, Montessori is perhaps allowing for a child’s creativity to grow. However, creativity is only allowed to develop within the confines of the materials and the environment established by Montessori. Thus, it is questionable whether a child’s true creativity is being developed in Montessori classrooms. Another potential problem with the Method is that it requires a standard set-up. The room must have enough space to let children roam around and decide where to work on an activity. Montessori also designed corners for different themes, such as arts, science, and pets. The classroom also consisted of small desks and chairs that could be carried by the children themselves, so they could sit where they liked. These materials may not be readily available everywhere, which would again dilute the Method.

Would Montessori have seen any problems with her own Method? For one, she was very keen on training each teacher personally. In terms of replicability, she might have considered this requirement a problem with the Method. She also did not believe that her Method would be effective if it was diluted. In other words, any changes, however slight they may be, would ruin the effectiveness of the Method.

Question #4: What qualities should be developed in young children for the 21st century?

Respondents included love for others, as well as love for the nation, as two important qualities. Developing love for others incorporated such qualities as respect and socialization. On a more individual level, there was mention of developing discipline and the ability to learn by oneself ('learn by self-discovery'). Interestingly, 'brotherhood' and 'patriotism' were also emphasized as important qualities. Qualities that Montessori would have emphasized include enhanced stimulation of the senses, initiative to choose an activity, ability to engage in individual work, respect and responsibility for one’s own working area and materials, and satisfaction in completing a task. Thus, while the responses seem to focus on more cooperative and social qualities, Montessori was more concerned with individualistic development.

Section III: Critical Analysis

A framework is proposed for analyzing and re-thinking issues related to early childhood education and societal development. In this way, the Montessori Method and her approach to learning can be critiqued. The three elements of the framework consist of 1) learning to learn, 2) re-conceptualizing development, and 3) understanding the local. The following provides a brief summary of the framework:

1.    "Learning to learn"

    1. ‘Learning’ happens only in response to ‘teaching.’
    2. The teacher is the sole provider of knowledge and students are expected to arrive at the prescribed set of answers.
    3. Learning is forced to take place in the school classroom according to a set curriculum divided into subjects and a rigid timetable.
    1. The brain is rapidly developing in the first four years of life. It is not only responding to the child’s environment, but it is also creating it. One can no longer assume that a child’s personality, skills and talents are predetermined before birth.
    2. There are a set of predispositions that we are born with that shape and guide our learning processes. These include the five senses, the ability to learn language, the tendency to be sociable, and the desire to collaborate. There must be sufficient space and time to allow each of these predispositions to flourish.
    3. Children are intrinsically motivated to learn and they need the opportunities to explore this. Children should not be forced to do or learn something; the will and perseverance should come from them.
    4. Each child has creativity: it’s a matter of whether one uses it or not. Lack of time and pressure kills creativity.
    5. Each child has multiple intelligences that help one understand the world. Each of the intelligences must be explored and learned. There is no such thing as a fixed and predetermined IQ. There are also different learning styles, which we all must recognize and understand.
    6. Children need to be exposed to different resources and materials and be allowed to use and interact with them.
    7. Adequate nutritional intake and balance is necessary for children to develop active human capacities to want to discover, explore and understand their surrounding learning environments.
    1. It is the continuously flexible and evolving process of being conscious and aware of oneself as a learner and how the surrounding environment supports the learning.
    2. It is the recognition that ‘learning’ is not simply in response to ‘teaching;’ learning happens all the time both consciously and unconsciously.
    3. We are all both teachers and learners and the dichotomy between the two needs to be removed to allow for intergenerational, collaborative and creative learning to occur.
    4. Existing models of schooling are extremely distressing and damaging to students. They don’t allow for learning, focusing instead on teaching limiting subjects, and leading to a reduction in human potential development. Learning in essence is a social and collaborative activity that requires fluidity.

2.    Re-conceptualizing development

    1. ‘Development’ has been equated with ‘modernization,’ ‘industrialization,’ ‘economic growth,’ ‘technological and scientific progress’ and ‘Westernization.’ It is assumed that all of this can be achieved by following prescribed, linear steps dictated by an external agency.
    2. Schools are an important tool to promote this model of ‘development’ since it produces industrious, obedient, passive and patriotic citizens.
    1. The current model is unsustainable, dehumanizing, disempowering, and exacerbates/ creates injustices and poverty. Most importantly, it introduces new problems to human existence and the human spirit, even while it claims to be working towards improving the "quality of life."
    2. It views local knowledges, traditions, practices and languages as ‘obstacles’ and ‘barriers’ to development that must be removed.


3.    Understanding the local

    1. It usually involves a select few community members who are involved in narrowly prescribed and mechanical discussions and are token figures to be used for achieving an externally preconceived end-goal.


    1. It has to be recognized both as a means and an end to be self-defined by all community members.
    2. Local knowledges, traditions, practices and languages need to be recognized, shared and incorporated as part of self-reliance, self-sustainability and community regeneration.
    3. The community itself is a learning resource that is constantly evolving, discussing, negotiating and engaging in collective learning.



Some Limitations of the Montessori Method

The three elements of the framework are inter-connected and can be used to analyze the Montessori Method and highlight some of its shortcomings. However, it is important to make a distinction between Montessori's original ideas and the evolution of her ideas by organizations like the Montessori Foundation and the Institute for Advanced Montessori Studies. They have attempted to address some of the weakness I describe below, particularly in the 'learning to learn' framework and in developing a sense of community among the children, parents, and teachers. However, these reforms in the Montessori Method are occurring primarily in the United States and Europe. I imagine that in other parts of the world, including in India, the Method remains, for the most part, intact. Therefore, the critique that follows is applicable to Montessori's original thinking and to all practitioners of the Method as she envisioned it.

First, the Method does not allow children the opportunity for "learning to learn." Because each task and its goals are so rigid and compartmentalized, there is no space to learn, unlearn and relearn in the Method. In Montessori's view, learning was very rigid. It was an end-state reached once a task was mastered. In other words, a child had 'learned' when she correctly finished the activity. In this way, the learning process was static rather than fluid and evolving. Yet, in an increasingly complex, messy and interdependent world, children need to learn how to learn; they need the capabilities to quickly adapt to changing environments and to create new environments. Moreover, taking into consideration recent research on learning, one can question whether the skills that the young children are learning in the Montessori Method are transferable. David Perkins defines "transferable skills" as the ability "to learn something in one situation and then apply it in another, significantly different one" (Perkins, 1992 in The 21st Century Learning Initiative).

Arguably, the Method leads to perseverance and the desire to repeat a task both through failures and successes. Montessori believed that each child had intrinsic motivation to learn and complete the tasks she had designed. It was the interference of adults that ‘ruined’ children’s desire to work at a task and achieve mastery of it. But although Montessori believed in developing and stimulating the five senses (the predispositions that infants are born with), the Method does not allow for the development of higher levels of thinking or for the discovery of complex processes and ideas. One limitation that has been stressed is that the didactic materials were designed "not primarily to broaden the range of objects the child comes in contact with, or the range of sensory-motor interactions with the environment" (R. Gardner, 1966:78). Rather, it was a method of perfection. In other words, it succeeded in creating children who could diligently focus and work on a task until it was ‘mastered.’

The Method thus does not allow for innovation and creativity to develop in the young child. Some may argue that it does provide freedom for the individual pupil, which is important for cultivating creativity. However, the didactic materials severely limit any creative freedom. Montessori herself determined the parameters of what would be appropriate for young children and designed didactic materials that were "self-correcting." These materials fail to provide a space or freedom for a child to self-define his own way of using the materials. If a child found a different way of manipulating the materials and she herself was happy with the outcome, the teacher would not consider this satisfactory. Instead, the teacher would encourage her to continue working on this particular task until she completed it in the way it was designed to be used. Thus, the Method does not promote the development of true inner initiative, creativity and individuality in a child.

However, Montessori did realize that there could be alternate ways of teaching the same set of skills and attempted to understand which learning style and pace worked best with which children. She also viewed ‘economically disadvantaged’ children as being just as ‘intelligent’ as any other children. But in her opinion, ‘intelligence’ was something fixed and inherited in children. Recent research has shattered such assumptions about intelligence and familiarized us with multiple intelligences — linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial representation, naturalist, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal— to help us to understand and make meaning in the world (Gardner, 1983). Notably, each of these intelligences is learnable and is developed in a different way. However, the Montessori Method, with its heavy emphasis on the didactic materials, does not enable the development of these different intelligences. To be fair, Montessori's society (much like the majority of today's societies) placed little value on all but the first two intelligences. Instead, ‘teaching’ children to be more efficient by ‘learning’ extremely functional skills, and by progressing from basic to more complex endeavors, was seen as crucial for survival in a society that was becoming increasingly competitive with limited resources.

In fact, Montessori was primarily concerned with creating children who would be ‘good’ citizens. This goal implied producing functional, utilitarian and obedient students who would support the mainstream notion of development: ‘more, faster, and cheaper is better.’ Hence, Montessori appeared to accept the existing system and what it expected of its citizens. Her belief that each child had the inner desire to live in a structured, organized and disciplined world — and her subsequent creation of structured space and time in her classrooms — most likely stemmed from her faith in the system. Montessori felt that, through her Method, children would explore and discover the attractiveness of the existing discipline and order. The idea that children could self-learn obedience, perseverance and diligence was especially popular during a period when urbanization and its associated social problems were rising. In fact, the general public received with awe Montessori's initial work with slum children in the Casa dei Bambini; ‘transforming’ them from street urchins into hard-working, self-initiating children was considered miraculous. Yet, few recognize that by simply enabling children to learn functional skills in a faster way, Montessori fully aligns herself with the prevailing model of development, a model which reduces human life into rigid, mechanical and compartmentalized items and prevents spontaneity, creativity, leadership, and revolution.

The Method is also limited in its scope and flexibility. Montessori was extremely strict about who were allowed to use the materials she created and who were permitted to call themselves 'Montessori teachers'. "The [Montessori] movement became a business, a kind of franchise operation in which Montessori had a vital stake in such matters as copyright of the materials and official certification of teachers. Her name became a brand name which could not be used without her permission" (Kramer, 1976:156). Montessori feared that unless each teacher was personally trained by her or by one of her close colleagues, the method would be "diluted" and the didactic materials would be used as casual play-toys and not for their intended purpose (Kramer, 1976:166). In this way, there exists tremendous rigidity within the Method itself, especially in the way that children must progress through specific sequences of activities. Given these stringent requirements, there is no room for local knowledges and traditions in the Method. Nor can schools and communities self-define their needs and apply Montessorian techniques to suit them. Other ideas of childhood, of children, or of learning needs/spaces/opportunities, cannot be accommodated in the Montessori Method. With little room for diversity or flexibility, the Method thus risks being inappropriate or irrelevant, particularly for the non-Western world.

Finally, Montessori entirely geared her Method to fit the formal primary school and, therefore, to comply with mainstream models of development. While her contributions were revolutionary for the time — transforming the teacher into a guide and introducing didactic materials that allowed children to work at their own pace — in essence, the Method was a cost-effective and highly efficient way of preparing children to enter school. Yet, in light of the damage schools inflict on children’s cognitive, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual development, why should we start at an earlier age to incarcerate children in such institutions? In addition, Montessori’s definition of holistic development of the child focused on a certain set of skills for a particular period in a child’s life: the pre-school years. By limiting herself to these ages, Montessori did not view child development as a continuous and evolving process, although no research indicates that significant changes occur between five- and six-year-olds. In this way, Montessori complied with the artificial stratification of the current education system, a system which was not (and still is not) conducive for developing human potential and lifelong learning. Thus, for all the benefits of the Method, it still inevitably drives children into the same debilitating and dehumanizing education system and development model. It too ends up supporting their principles of homogenization and eradication of the local.


Questions for Further Thinking and Research

While Montessori contributed much to our understanding of early childhood education programs, we must continue to critique and further evolve her approach if it is to be applicable and meaningful in the 21st century. As mentioned earlier, many have started on this path, particularly with respect the 'learning to learn' framework and the related critiques (mentioned above). Schools have also experimented with applying Montessori's ideas to the middle and secondary levels. Yet, the reach of such reforms is questionable, particularly beyond the United States. It is to further understand the Montessori Method in India that I encourage parents, students, teachers, and community members committed to Montessori, or early childhood education in general, to come together and discuss the following questions. I hope the questions will stimulate us to evaluate the applicability and purposefulness of the Method, to determine which aspects are important, meaningful, or useful for the 21st century, and to re-contextualize the Method to incorporate local environment, values, and knowledges.



Bhai, Ranjit. "Voluntary Efforts in Pre-School Education in India." The Systems of Pre-school Education in India. Rajalakshmi Muralidharan, ed. Delhi: Maxwell Press, 1968.

Gardner, Riley W., 1966. "A Psychologist Looks at Montessori." In Early Childhood Education Rediscovered. Readings. Joe L. Frost, ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968.

Grewal, J.S. Early Childhood Education: Foundation and Practice. Agra: National Psychological Corporation, 1995.

Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. Forward by Anna Freud. Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1976, 1988.

Miezitis, Solveiga, 1971. "The Montessori Method: Some Recent Research." In Revisiting Early Childhood Education. Readings. Joe L. Frost, ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1973.

Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method. Introduction by J. McV. Hunt. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.

Singh, Bhoodev. Preschool Education. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporation, 1997.

Spock, Benjamin, and Hathaway, Mildred L., 1967. "Montessori and Traditional American Nursery Schools – How They Are Different, How They Are Alike." In Early Childhood Education Rediscovered. Readings. Joe L. Frost, ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968.

The 21st Century Learning Initiative. "A Policy Paper: The Strategic and Resource Implications of a New Model of Learning."