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Key Figures in Education: Maria Montessori

July 24, 2018 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In this series we introduce key figures in education, and take a look at pivotal areas of their thinking. Educational research draws on research from a number of fields, and these in turn influence our approaches to designing our lessons and courses. Our aim is to inspire you to revisit these theories and to suggest ways of applying them in your classes.

We continue our journey with Maria Montessori, a household name in many countries throughout the world thanks to Montessori schools which carry on her method. Let's get to know the person and ideas behind the method.

Maria Montessori in 1913. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who was Maria Montessori?

Maria Montessori is one of the most inspiring female scientists and educators, who is still a role model, almost one and a half centuries after her birth. She was born in Chiaravalle, Italy in 1870. Her father was an accountant and her mother loved reading. Maria was dedicated to her studies, and originally intended to become an engineer which was unusual for the time before deciding to study medicine. She met with great disappproval and at times hostility but in 1896, after years of hard work and true commitment, she became one of the first female doctors in Italy. During her career as a doctor she worked mostly with mentally disturbed children and became an advocate of their right to education. When the first teacher training school for mentally disabled children was opened, Montessori was appointed co-director. She continued her studies into 'scientific pedagogy' and became interested in applying her theories in mainstream education. She opened her first 'Casa dei Bambini' (literally Children's House) school  in Rome in 1907. The success of her method spread quickly throughout Italy and then all over the world. Although the World Wars put a lot of obstacles in her way, she never stopped her research, developing her theories and educating hundreds and thousands of teachers all over the world, from  the US  to India.

What are her main theories?

As we learn from the Montessori biography on the Association Montessori Internationale website, her basic ideas of education developed when she was working with children with mental and educational disorders. After long years of observation and developing teaching methods, she realised that it was important to support the natural development of children by providing them with the right activities and environment.

Montessori's educational philosophy was informed by the research and theories of two French doctors and educationalists, Jean-Marc Itard and Edouard Séguin. They promoted learning through the development of sensory perception and motor skills. She also studied the educational writings of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel.

The Montessori method describes that sharing knowledge is just as important as exploring the human potentials in children. This type of education cares for the total human being, with special focus on the needs of each stage of cognitive and emotional development.

The Montessori Environments are the basis of the method. They are built on the trinity of beauty, order and accessibility. This way both the materials and classroom are designed to support the natural curiosity and auto-didactic tendencies of children. It is also important that children share the same classroom in three-year cycles. This is how a special kind of community is formed, where younger and older children can support each other's development.

How can we use her ideas in the classroom?

Although it is not always advisable to take on segments of a method in our own educational approach, especially when it is such a well-developed method as the Montessori Education, we can still be inspired by many aspects of it.

The role of the teacher in the Montessori schools is more of a well-prepared facilitator, who has the materials and environment well-planned and set up. The teacher introduces the children to new materials when they are ready for the next task. It is fundamental that the teacher models a love of learning and continuously shows respect and love for the children they work with.

In your English language class you can make use of this philosophy easily. It is important that you have nicely designed, engaging activities which resemble activities and materials your students would instinctively choose to explore and are able to use on their own. Activities and stories which engage their imagination as well as build on the use of their sensory and motor skills can be successful.

Take a reader from a Helbling Young Readers or The Thinking Train series, and leaf through them to see how they are similar to picture books your pupils like reading. Short, engaging stories with full-colour and double-page illustrations and lots of scaffolding questions and activities provide reading and learning materials which are designed specifically for young readers with the right level of lexical and syntactic difficulty, while raising curiosity in the reader. The activities and projects at the end of the books will invite the students to respond to the stories through arts and crafts and other creative activities.

Where can we learn more about her learning theory?

The best place to start learning about the method is the website of the Association Montessori Internationale.


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