1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Montessori System

MONTESSORI SYSTEM. — In connexion with the theory of education, one of the chief points of new interest during 1910-21 was the attention aroused by Dr. Maria Montessori's work. It is hardly too much to say that, since Froebel, no such stimulus has been given to a revolution in the elements of educational method as her success, from 1907 onwards, with the Case dei Bambini in Rome; and the Montessori system has given a new direction to ideas upon child education.

Maria Montessori (b. 1870) came to the study of educational theory after a thorough training in practical medicine. She was the first woman to whom (in 1894) the university of Rome gave the degree of M.D., and as assistant doctor in the “psychiatry” clinic at the university she had become specially interested in the question of the treatment of the feeble-minded. At the Pedagogic Congress at Turin in 1898 she gave an address on this subject, which led the Italian Minister of Education, Signor Barcelli, to ask her to give a series of lectures to teachers in Rome; the result was the foundation of a new school for feeble-minded children, the Scuola Ortofrenica, of which she was made directress. Her ideas as to the proper way of awakening a defective intelligence had been founded on a study of what Dr. Itard, physician to the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Paris, had attempted early in the 19th century in the case of the much-discussed “Wild Boy of Aveyron,” and particularly of the later work of Edouard Séguin (1812-88), author of the Traitement des idiots (1846), who opened in 1839 the first school for idiots in France, and who in 1850 made his home in America and there did so much for the education of defective children. In carrying on Séguin's principles at the Scuola Ortofrenica for the two years that she was directress, Dr. Montessori had such remarkable success that it was borne in upon her that something must be wrong with the methods of education ordinarily applied to normal children. Idiots sent to her from the asylums were being taught to read and write so that they passed just as good examinations as pupils of the same age in the public schools; and, as she says, “while everyone was admiring the progress of my idiots, I was wondering what could keep the normal children on so low a plane.” The reason, in her opinion, was clear; the children from the asylums, under her treatment, had been helped in their psychic development, while the normal children, taught by ordinary methods, were retarded. If the same methods were applied to good material that were successful with bad, much better results ought to be attainable; and she determined to investigate the whole subject afresh.

In 1900 she left the Scuola Ortofrenica, and turned her attention definitely away from the question of the feeble-minded to that of the normal child mind and its development. She returned to the university of Rome as a student of philosophy, and devoted herself to experimental psychology, then in its infancy at the Italian universities, at the same time making a prolonged and careful study of the actual practice of teaching at the primary schools. The result of several years of child study and practical pedagogy was to establish her conviction that the master principle in any proper system is “self-education” — that the work of mental growth must be done by the child itself, according to its own initiative and inclination, not in mechanical obedience to dogmatic dictation from a teacher; and she set herself to devise new methods for making the child-mind shape its own channels instead of the teacher telling the pupil what to do.

After six or seven years of inquiry and study a unique opportunity arose in Rome for putting her theories into practice. During the building “boom” at the end of the 1880's, a whole new quarter of apartment houses had been run up by speculators outside the Porta San Lorenzo. It was from the first a complete fiasco, the houses failing altogether to attract the superior class of tenants for which they were intended; and the district gradually developed into the worst of slums, the flats being farmed out room by room to the poorest families, so that at last a serious condition of insanitary overcrowding had resulted, which seriously engaged the attention of social reformers. In order to remedy this evil, an association was started on philanthropic lines, the Instituto Romano di Bene Stabili, with Signor Edoardo Talamo as director-general. It bought up a large part of the San Lorenzo quarter, and reorganized it in 1906 in separate and convenient working-class tenements, with proper air-space, prizes being instituted for the best-kept dwellings. A novel point of the scheme was the provision of infant schools (Case dei Bambini) for the children of each block, the supervision of which was entrusted to Dr. Montessori, the first of these being opened in Jan. 1907. These “houses of childhood” for children between three and seven were themselves a very interesting social experiment apart from the new methods of teaching which Dr. Montessori introduced. They provided a creche and something more, taking the children off their mothers' hands during working hours. Each school had a directress living in the block which it served and in touch with the parents, who could at any time come and see how the children were getting on; it was thus part of the home life.

The Montessori system of education was first put in practice in these tenement schools, under teachers following Dr. Montessori's methods. Its fundamental aim and object is self-education by the pupils themselves. There are no time-tables, no set lessons, no classes. There are no rewards or punishments of the ordinary kind. The pleasure of succeeding and getting things right is the only incentive. “Each child is doing what, for the time being, pleases him best. When he is admitted to the school he sees small groups of children playing at various ‘games,’ and he joins the group which happens to take his fancy. Then and there his education begins. All kinds of interesting ‘occupations’ are going on, and wherever he goes he will get help and guidance from the teachers. If he gets tired of playing at this thing he goes off and plays at that. But he is never idle, for whatever he does interests him. The children are provided with light and comfortable chairs, which are easily moved about. There are also rugs laid on the floor for them to sit, kneel or recline upon, should they prefer those attitudes. Low and light tables are provided in abundance, but there is also plenty of open floor-space, and many of the ‘occupations’ are carried on on the floor” (Holmes). An extensive variety of apparatus, elaborately devised by Dr. Montessori, is provided for the educational games by which the children are stimulated to acquire knowledge; and this “didactic material” constitutes a distinctive part of the originality of the system.

The first stage is to develop the senses of touch, sight and hearing; this is done both by games of various sorts and by guiding the attention systematically to the association of things, names and ideas. When a child washes his hands, for instance, he is given first cold and then hot water, and led to observe and understand the difference; the distinction of rough and smooth is emphasized by the provision of different qualities of cards for fingering and sorting. In each case the teacher gets the child to know the word, “hot,” “cold,” “rough,” “smooth,” and thus the knowledge of language is extended in all directions (“high,” “low,” “thick,” “thin,” “round,” “oval,” etc.) before any question of writing or reading arises. Ideas of form and colour are given precision by games with blocks, cylinders, etc., of varying sizes, to be fitted into frames, or with shades of silk to be arranged to match; touch is practised by playing the games blindfold; the sense of hearing is developed by the “silence” lesson, and by the use of small cylindrical boxes containing stones, sands and different substances to be rattled by the children, who arrange them in order of intensity of sound and so forth. Skill and neatness in the use of the fingers and movement of limbs are stimulated partly by the mobility of the light furniture, which the children learn to rearrange for their own comfort, and partly by games at tying and untying, hooks and eyes, dressing and undressing, waiting on one another at table, washing up, and so on. Many of these occupations are preliminary to writing and reading, and lead naturally up to both.

Writing comes essentially before reading, on the Montessori system, in any proper sense of “reading.” Emery-paper letters gummed on cards are provided, with which the child is familiarized by games of hide and seek, etc., so that, without any active teaching of the alphabet, he not only knows them by sight and by name, but also by feeling. He learns how to imitate them, partly by a touch game of passing the fingers over the paper letter, thus making the actual motion of writing, and partly by playing at pencilling and colouring with specially devised cards on which an outline is given. The child thus learns to write before he knows that “writing” is what he is learning; the sounds and shapes of the letter being known it is a natural transition to build up the letters and their sounds into words.

The next thing is for the child to “read” — not merely to re-translate into sound a word he has translated into symbol, which goes with the acquisition of “writing,” but to extract a previously unknown idea from written or printed symbols of the same sort not put together by himself. It is found, however, that, at any rate in so easy and phonetically spelt a language as Italian, this is very quickly learnt. Numbers of words, already well known to the children, are written on cards, and various games are played in identifying them with their objects; and from single words the children pass to phrases and sentences, the teacher writing on the blackboard, for instance, questions or orders which form part of a game. Arithmetic is similarly introduced to the children's minds by the employment of counting games, in which an apparatus of striped poles, counters, etc., is used. The whole curriculum is devised for the content and happy employment of the natural energies of the child, who is left free to respond to his own impulses, under the influence of “didactic material,” rather than under the discipline of a teacher.

After 1912 the diffusion of Dr. Montessori's educational influence was rapid and widespread. Following close upon the interest which had already been aroused in Italy and America, Dr. Montessori, in response to urgent requests from educational enthusiasts all over the world, began a series of international training courses for teachers. These courses were held in Rome in 1913 and 1914. In subsequent years Dr. Montessori held training courses in Barcelona and in several cities of the United States, two international courses having been held in London in 1919 and 1921. To these training courses came not only class teachers of the particular country, but persons eminent in the educational field from all over the world. During this later period two of the most notable features in connexion with the Montessori movement were the appearance of Dr. Montessori's new books, The Advanced Montessori Method and The Didactic Material for the Education of Children from 7 to 11 years. The first volume gives a clear and complete exposition of the scientific researches which led to the establishment of the fundamental psychological and physiological principles upon which Dr. Montessori bases her method of auto-education, and the second volume fully describes in detail the educational material for the older children. The form of the advanced apparatus is such that the children who have passed beyond infant school age are provided with material which continues to perfect the muscular control achieved in a previous stage, while at the same time the way in which the material is used tends to strengthen those attributes of character which are the tests of educational values. By means of the objects provided for the child between the ages of 7 and 11 he becomes possessed of considerable mental acquirements, notably in the comprehensive intellectual fields of mathematics and language. The arrangements of artistically coloured beads which are used by the child for his progress in arithmetic, the ingenious geometrical forms which render geometry no longer a tedious abstraction, but a fascinating reality, the system of small attractive cards handled by the children in their study of grammar, all form a far more potent incentive to work and persistent effort than any exhortation or command of the teacher.

“Montessori Societies” have, since 1912, come into existence in London, New York, and elsewhere, for dissemination of the ideas of the system and promoting its training courses.

The Special Report (1912) by Mr. E. G. A. Holmes to the Board

of Education in England contains a critical examination of the Montessori methods. See also Dr. Montessori's first book on The Montessori Method (Eng. trans. by Anne E. George, 1912), in addition

to her later books mentioned above.

(H. Ch.)