The Montessori Heritage

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori Philosophy, was born in 1870 and became Italy’s first woman medical doctor in 1896. Her special interest was in children and this led her to study the works of physicians such as Jean-Marc Gaspard ltard who worked at a Paris institution for deaf mutes. Dr. Montessori believed that observation was Just as important in education as in the treatment of the Sick, and that the mind developed through the actions of the senses. She pursued this belief by experiments with the mentally defective. In 1900 Dr. Montessori became the director of a practice demonstration school, established by the National League for Retarded Children. With 22 students she now had her first chance to make use of ltard’s sensory teaching materials and modify them to her own use. She designed and had manufactured a set d teaching materials based on his principles.

Through methodical observations of the children and their individual needs, she worked out the best means suited to teach them. Those children who had previously been abandoned as incapable of learning to function productively began showing the ability to care for themselves. When these retarded children passed exams on a level with ‘normal’ children, she began questioning the caliber of ‘normal’ education. Or. Montessori was so successful in her work with these children that she was now regarded as an educator rather than a physidai. Realizing that great results could be obtained by applying these theories to the teaching of normal children, she left her work with the retarded.

In January 1907, Or. Montessori opened the first Casa di Bambini in the San Lorenzo slums of Rome. When the building was offered to Dr. Montessori, the owners hoped that she would provide a place where the children of working mothers coldi be kept off the streets and thereby reduce vandalism. In the end the children were not only off the streets, they became eager students. The materials for learning were designed to be sett-correcting and the children thrived on the activity involved with learning. In observing these children, Dr. Montessori noticed that after doing a particular activity, the children continued working with it over and over again, rather than putting it away. They seemed to work for the sake of working, not for reward. She also introduced reading and writing to these children of illiterate parents. This project marked a turning point in Maria Montessori’s career and life, and would soon cast her in the role of the world’s foremost female educator.

By 1913 there were nearly 100 Montessori schools in America. Currently the United States has three thousand private Montessori Schools and a like number of educational programs implementing or supplementing with Montessori in their classrooms. The Montessori method has proven itself both adaptable and beneficial to all socioeconomic levels and specialities within the educational systems. In 1976 the first Montessori School was opened in South Africa by Mrs. Strilli Oppenheimer. Today there are numerous Montessori schools throughout South Africa as well as in Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Namibia .

The Basics of a Montessori Education:

1. Vertical grouping(Mixed Ages) with at least a three year span between ages. Traditionally Montessori classes are grouped 0-3, 3–6 years, 6-9 years, 9-12 years, 12-15 years and 15-18 years. This implies that there is no separate Grade R or O in a Montessori school. The 3-6 class my include children preparing for primary school but they are not separated from the rest of the class.

2. Maria Montessori emphasized the importance of preparing a classroom environment in accordance with the natural laws of development. According to Dr. Montessori, these planes of development follow the age spans, 0-3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, 12-15 years.

3. An uninterrupted work cycle of approximately 3 hours in a mature class (i.e. a class that has a core of normalized 
children) •Concentration is the key that opens up to the child the latent treasures within him•. Maria Montessori
expressed this idea throughout her writings and it is imperative that the child be given the opportunity to develop his/her
concentration through meaningful work, free from adult interruption or intervention.

4. A Montessori classroom should be clean, neat, ordered and well equipped with predominantly Montessori equipment
and materials. These should be accessible to the children – at child height- and always be complete and in good condition. A prepared environment based on reality and nature.

5. Generally larger child – teacher ratios are more effective in a Montessori classroom as smaller ratios tend to inhibit the development of independence in the child. Particularly in the 3-6 environment, few group lessons, with the focus on individual learning and lessons.

6. Developmentally the children in the older age groups prefer working and interacting with their peers. Here the focus is on smaller group, co­operative and collaborative learning experiences. Children working at their own pace.

7. There is an understanding that the work of the child is different to the work of the adult.

8. There are several basic learning areas that should be included in a Montessori 3-8 classroom: practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Maths, Cultural Subjects and areas for Art, Creative Expressions and Music.

9. Staff who are trained and qualified as Montessori directresses/directors/assistants. It is Internationally accepted Montessori Best Practice that those working and teaching in Montessori schools should hold a Montessori Teaching Qualifications and undertake Continued Professional Development

10. A sense of happiness and peace should prevail throughout the school with the children showing signs of being comfortable and without fear. There should be no use of reward and punishment in an authentic Montessori environment.