Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/June 1914/Is the Montessori Method a Fad?




AFTER all the popular excitement, spectacular magazine articles, and more or less interesting books on the subject, the busy man—even the educator—is still asking: "What is the Montessori Method?" Is it a wonderful discovery of educational principles, an ingenious invention of material and devices, or merely a new fad that has been exalted by manufacturers of educational apparatus and enterprising journalists into a profitable cult and propaganda? Will the inventor of the "didactic apparatus" be eventually enshrined a little above Pestalozzi and Froebel, Mann and Barnard, in the educational pantheon, or will she be relegated to the limbo of the exponents of tiddledy-winks and ping-pong, of Belgian hares and Teddy bears? While "neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet," it is in the hope of answering such questions and of satisfying such a mild curiosity, that this sketch is added to the pyramid of Montessorian literature.

In the first place, it should be noted that Montessori is on the right track in seeking a scientific basis for her educational structure. Despite the close resemblance of the "didactic apparatus" to the "gift of Froebel," it does not find its justification in German idealism Happily the practise of Montessori, which is so similar to that of the kindergarten, is not handicapped with the necessity of awakening the innate concept of "unity" by "adumbration" in the unsuspecting child through his activities with an ordinary ball. The symbolism, mysticism and obscurantism of the literal Froebelians are replaced by a scientific basis of modern biology, physiology and psychology. Some of Montessori' s biological statements have been shown by scientists and physicians to be inadequate, incorrect, or out of date, but, with the rapid expansion of modern science, it is almost inevitable that an educationalist should occasionally reveal a weakness when he builds upon a biological foundation. The scientific attitude of Montessori is an outgrowth of her training and experience. She was the first woman to receive the doctorate in medicine from the University of Rome, and she has followed up this medical education with careful study and researches in psychiatry, experimental psychology, anthropology and pedagogy. And it was her success in supervising the instruction of defective children that led to the experiments that have so stirred the educational world. Her procedure in teaching normal children has fundamentally adhered to the "physiological" method of Seguin, the first great trainer of defectives, and she frankly acknowledges this indebtedness. The scientific foundation of her practise is further shown in the conduct of her schools. Careful records are kept concerning the heredity, parental occupation, feeding and infantile sicknesses of the Montessori pupils, and anthropometric measurements are taken at regular intervals. Moreover, an expert inspection is periodically made of the sanitation and economic conditions in the home of each child.

The Montessori spirit is again revealed in her attitude of allowing the pupil as complete freedom as possible and of holding that the chief function of the teacher should be to study the activities of the child. "The transformation of the school," says she, "must be contemporaneous with the preparation of the teacher. For if we make of the teacher an observer, familiar with the experimental methods, then we must make it possible for her to observe and experiment in the school. The fundamental attitude of scientific pedagogy must be, indeed, the liberty of the pupil." In practise, Montessori carries out this fundamental belief more fully than most Froebelians, who also profess it. Instead of holding the children to a fixed and complete order of exercises imposed by the teacher, she maintains that all education worth having is "autoeducation." The children should select their own occupations and solve their own difficulties, and should be allowed to develop themselves both mentally and morally. Only when their activities interfere with the general interest or are useless or dangerous, must they be suppressed. However, while in this latitude toward individual expression Montessori carries out the "following, not prescriptive" education of Froebel more logically than that reformer himself, she does not develop participation in group activities to the same extent as he. Nor is the material used as rich and varied. There is little opportunity afforded for the Froebelian construction and invention, and the development of imagination is ruthlessly nipped in the bud. The interesting plays, songs and stories of the kindergarten find little parallel in the Montessori practise, although at present the founder of the system seems to be expanding these elements. The conception of "autoeducation "is admirable, but it is difficult to see how genuine activities are to be carried on, except within a very narrow scope, unless the material of the Montessorian schools be expanded considerably beyond the confines of the "didactic apparatus."

The most discussed features of the Montessori method fall naturally into three groups. It should be noticed that none of these exercises are absolutely original, but they are sufficiently peculiar to demand consideration in any description of Montessorianism. They are connected with (1) activities of practical life, (2) sense training and (3) the formal studies of the elementary curriculum. (1) When the child first enters the school, even while he is beginning to find himself, he may take part in the activities of practical life. Besides practise in ordinary courtesy, cleaning the room, setting the table, serving a meal, and washing the dishes, the children learn how to button, lace, hook and clasp various articles of dress by means of a unique apparatus. To the opposite sides of light embroidery frames are attached strips of dress material, linen and leather, which are fastened together at the center. Through constant practise with these materials the child learns to dress himself and trains a variety of useful muscular coordinations. Similar exercises in the activities of ordinary life have for some time been a part of the practise of progressive kindergartens and other modern schools. It may well be that Montessori has suggested several new features in this direction, but we must not suppose that the idea is absolutely novel or that we can follow these devices literally without further consideration. There is always danger that the Montessorians, like the Froebelians, may forget that "the letter killeth, but the spirit maketh alive." His more conservative disciples, in their efforts to preserve all the prescriptions of the master, have often forgotten that Froebel's system was adapted to conditions three quarters of a century ago in the simple and peculiar environment of a small German village. Let the Montessorians take warning and elaborate their principles in a practise that will be applicable to the complexities and independence characteristic of the twentieth century in the United States.

(2) The sense training is the feature most stressed by Montessori herself. Even her remarkable achievements in teaching writing seem to have been forced upon her by the parents of her pupils, who insisted upon the acquisition of something useful by their children. Like Myra Kelley's boy of the Ghetto, they believed the children had not time "to fool with their arms and legs." But with Montessori the sense training is the very essence of her work. She sees in it the biologico-psychological foundation of her system. If this position be maintained, Montessori would logically be regarded as a Simon-pure disciple of Seguin. Her apparatus is strikingly like that used for half a century in American schools for defectives. Even the "three periods "of Seguin find a place throughout her method. For example, she proceeds with the pupil in her training for touch:

(a) "Smooth, rough; smooth, rough."
(b) "What is this?" "Smooth." "What is this?" "Rough."
(c) "Give me the smooth." "Give me the rough."

Moreover, while such sense exercises are doubtlessly of great value in training defective children, the assumption of their usefulness in the education of normal children seems to be based upon a psychology, which, to say the least, has been rudely shaken. Apparently in this Montessori adheres to the theory of "formal discipline." The exercises are intended to train general powers and discriminations. She maintains that: "the aim is not that the child shall know colors, forms and the different qualities of objects, but that he refine his senses through an exercise of attention, of comparison, of judgment; the exercises are true intellectual exercises." And this underlying theory is clearly to be perceived in the nature of the apparatus itself. The primal sense of touch is first exercised, as we have implied above, by passing the finger-tips of the children over various materials and pronouncing their nature as "rough" or "smooth"; and then by having the children name and select them by this description. Similarly, other general senses are developed—the "thermic," the "baric," the "stereognostic," the "visual," including color and form, and the "auditory."

(3) But, despite her own belief and wish, the feature of the Montessori system that has attracted most attention is its apparent success with the formal studies, especially in the facility and enthusiasm with which the children learn to write and in the beauty of their writing. The inventor of the method, of course, declares that this spectacular performance is of little account, save as a single link in the chain of sense development. All the tactile, dimensional, form and visual training, she holds, leads naturally to the writing coordinations. She has, however, made a most careful independent analysis of the writing process into its elements, and has invented three exercises by which the approach to the spontaneous development of the graphic language is directly accomplished. First, the "muscular mechanism to hold and use the instrument in writing" is developed by the child's filling in the outlines of a geometrical form that he has traced upon paper. During this period the child is also engaged in "exercises tending to establish the visual, muscular, and auditory image of the alphabetical signs "by means of sandpaper letters mounted on cardboard. The teacher shows the child how to follow the contour of a letter with his finger as if writing it and at the same time pronounce the sound (not the name) of the letter distinctly. Lastly, he is exercised in the composition of words by selecting unmounted cardboard letters from compartments in a set of boxes resembling a compositor's type-cases. "Now the child, it is true, has never written, but he has mastered all the acts necessary to writing." This is the secret of the much lauded "explosion into writing." The art is learned so unconsciously that the children begin it almost spontaneously and are writing before they realize it. This seems to be one decided achievement of Montessorianism, and if it can be applied to other languages not as phonetic as the Italian, it may be regarded as a permanent contribution to special method.

The Montessori methods in the other formal subjects—reading and arithmetic—are not as striking. Reading is generally acquired after writing through the names of familiar objects written on the blackboard or upon cards. The word is shown the child, and if he interprets the sounds correctly, the teacher has him repeat them more and more rapidly until the word as an entity, and not as a succession of sounds, dawns on his intelligence. After single words can be read with some facility, progress is made to short phrases and sentences. But there is nothing very novel about this method of securing interest in reading, and, when undertaken with English, where sounds are so capriciously spelt, it seems as if it could hardly be effective. Nor do the Montessori methods in arithmetic reveal anything very different in principle from the "table of units" of Pestalozzi, introduced into America nearly a century ago by Warren Colburn, or from the various objective methods in number work that have been so common ever since. The chief feature in the arithmetical methods of Montessori consists in acquiring the fundamental operations by means of rods of different lengths marked off into sections by coloring them alternately red and blue. This apparatus, known as "the long stair," was originally used for part of the visual training, and seems to have been conveniently at hand when Montessori found it necessary to start number work. After the child has learned to count the sections, the teacher selects a rod at random and asks for the next longer or shorter, or has the child build up all the rods until each result equals the longest. When the numbers from one to ten are fully understood in the concrete, the abstract conception is taught by placing the figures against the corresponding sections. Other exercises are similarly performed until the child has some command of elementary arithmetic.

The value of the Montessori system to modern educational theory and methods should now be fairly obvious. It is at least nominally based upon scientific experiment, and, while its biological statements can not always be accepted without modification, it is permeated with the scientific spirit that is animating modern education. Its emphasis upon individual liberty is most admirable, but the material for exercising this freedom is decidedly limited and social cooperation is somewhat neglected. The exercises in practical activities form a valuable, though not altogther original, feature, and the devices for acquiring writing are possibly a contribution. The importance of the sense training for normal children is probably not as great as Montessori supposes, and the psychological theory upon which it is based has been largely discredited. The devices for teaching reading and arithmetic contain no really new principle, and are not markedly superior to the methods practised for many years by progressive teachers. Clearly, however, while Montessori is neither the tremendous innovator nor "wonder-worker" she has been represented to be, her method is not merely the latest fad. Her indebtedness to the past and the comparative worth of her system are fairly evident to one acquainted with the history of education, but it would also seem that she is in harmony with modern progress and has made some contribution to educational practise. Just how large this contribution will be, we can not yet say. Montessori herself is still experimenting both with children of the age with which she began and with older pupils, and schools on a purely Montessori basis or in combination with Froebelian or other methods are springing up everywhere and are likely to obtain illuminating results. It is possible that a new method may yet arise for the lowest classes in our schools, which will combine the best characteristics of both the Froebelian and the Montessorian pedagogy. At any rate, the existence of either as a system, cult or propaganda should end, and both should be based upon and merged with the wider and more dynamic principles of modern educational practise. The Montessori method can be accounted a fad only when half-baked devotees treat it as something that has leaped full-panoplied from the divine head and prostrate themselves before it in blind worship.