Montessori, the rational alternative

Peter Cresswell's picture
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Fri, 2006-08-25 03:12

(This article was originally written for the blog 'Not PC,' and was reprinted in 'Free Radical' #71.)

As an enthusiast for the Montessori method of education, I get a little annoyed when the Montessori philosophy of 'freedom within a prepared environment' is mis-characterised as un-schooling, as I've seen recently from someone who should know better.

It's about as far from the truth as it's possible to be. In fact, it's downright insulting.

Montessori education is not 'chalk-and-talk' - except when it needs to be, such as in some aspects of the adolescent programme -- instead it sees teachers as guides who direct children to the 'prepared environment' of the classroom, within which they will find materials from each part of the curriculum that allows them to teach themselves. Such is the unique nature of the Montessori materials, and the Montessori classroom. You can get an idea of the Montessori pre-school classroom in this video transcipt. And an example of how the materials work for one part of the curriculum, maths, can be found here.

Dr Maria Montessori began her work in education almost by accident. Graduating as a doctor in 1896, she was assigned to care for retarded children, for whom she devised a method of education that allowed them to sit, and to pass very well, the state education exam. Praised for her mentally-deficient charges doing so well, Montessori was more concerned with why so-called 'normal' children were doing so badly. Thus, her life's work began. The Montessori Method is the result.

The Montessori classroom -- what Montessorians call The Children's House -- is as unlike a 'normal' classroom as it's possible to be. Children work quietly and in full focus, on their own or in small groups. Work is self-selected, self-completed, and self-cleaned up afterwards. The prevailing classroom management technique is respect for the children, and the idea: "Help me do it by myself." Explains one Montessorian, "At no times does a Montessori child sit passively. A Montessori child needs to learn to be in focus, to make choices, to take responsibility for her own learning, and to explore her natural curiosity. Understanding becomes a pleasure, not a duty." The Method and the Montessori materials are the means through which this is achieved.

The materials are unique to Montessori, and -- almost unique to any educational philosophy -- they fully reflect the hierarchy of knowledge that is at the basis of learning. As Montessorian Marsha Enright explains,

Like all thinkers in the Aristotelian tradition, Montessori recognized that the senses must be educated first in the development of the intellect. Consequently, she created a vast array of special learning materials from which concepts could be abstracted and through which they could be concretized. In recognition of the independent nature of the developing intellect, these materials are self-correcting—that is, from their use, the child discovers for himself whether he has the right answer. This feature of her materials encourages the child to be concerned with facts and truth, rather than with what adults say is right or wrong.

I would recommend Marsha Enright's article as an introduction to the Montessori philosophy.

Why is this important? At a time when the state's factory schools approach philosophic and pedagogical bankruptcy, the need for a rational alternative becomes ever more urgent -- Montessori schooling is that rational alternative, as Ayn Rand herself once argued:

The academia/jet-set coalition is attempting to tame the American character by the deliberate breeding of helplessness and resignation-in those incubators of lethargy known as "Progressive" schools, which are dedicated to the task of crippling a child's mind by arresting his cognitive development. (See "The Comprachicos" in my book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.) It appears, however, that the "progressive" rich will be the first victims of their own special theories: it is the children of the well-to-do who emerge from expensive nursery schools and colleges as hippies, and destroy the remnants of their paralyzed brains by means of drugs. [NB: This was written before the 'progressives' took over the Teachers Colleges.]

The middle class has created an antidote which is perhaps the most helpful movement of recent years: the spontaneous, unorganized, grass-roots revival of the Montessori system of education -- a system aimed at the development of a child's cognitive, i.e., rational, faculty.The Montessori Association of New Zealand website will give you an indication of where you may find such a rational alternative for your child in New Zealand. NZ's Maria Montessori Education Foundation (MMEF) has a summary of the history of Montessori in NZ [go here and then click 'New Zealand']. Unfortunately, there are too many 'Monte-something' schools about, (something MMEF are aiming to change with good Montessori training) so do be careful in your choice.

Former head of the Ayn Rand Institute Michael Berliner is also a Montessori educator, and he has bewailed for a long time the misunderstanding of the Montessori philosophy, even -- of not say particularly by its practitioners. Explaining in 1982, he said:

Despite the success of Montessori schools, there is amazingly little understanding of the reasons for that success. As a consequence, the method is either dismissed as nothing more than a series of clever techniques for teaching specific skills, or attempts are made to ground the method in Maria Montessori's personal philosophy, a mixture of Catholicism and Indian mysticism.
At present, the supporters of the Montessori method are unable to defend it against either the educational establishment or compromisers from within Montessori ranks. Teachers and parents need to understand the real philosophic meaning of the Montessori method. Ayn Rand's philosophy makes that understanding possible.

This is true, and Berliner goes on to give a ten-point summary explaining how, specifically, Ayn Rand's philosophy makes it possible. Good reading.

Welcome to the Montessori adventure. "Un-schooling" it's not. "Fascism," it isn't.


TAGS: Education, Philosophy, Objectivism

( categories: )


Peter Cresswell's picture

Since the article was originally written for a New Zealand audience, let me just point to Montessori organisations further afield to whom you should be able to look for guidance on selecting a school in your area. (I posted these links earlier, but I suspect they were probably overlooked in the 'rush to non-judgement' happening on that thread.)

The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)is the organisation set up by Dr Montessori to further her Method worldwide. Until recently it was run by her grand-daughter Renilde. The AMI website has links to help with choosing a school, and to AMI accredited organisations in most countries.

The North American Montessori Teachers Association (NAMTA) is the official North American AMI organisation.

The American Montessori Society (AMS) is a 'breakaway' organisation that, I'm told, is still very good, thought not AMI.

Tread very wearily with organisations like the International Monte-something Council (IMC) or schools or organisations accredited to them. The person running IMC is a charlatan, and you will be unlikely to find real Montessori happening within their walls.

And let me also just offer one piece of advice that all Montessori trainees receive at the London AMI course, and which might be valuable for all of you making 'snap judgements' about what you see in a Montessori classroom. The advice is this (which I paraphrase): "When you as a Directress find yourself reacting 'instinctively' and automatically to what you see in the Childrens' House, then you're probably doing something wrong. Repair instead to your training."

The point is to integrate all your knowledge and bring it to bear, not to react without knowledge (or without your full context of knowledge) and use it to make mistakes.

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

**Setting Brushfires In People's Minds**

**Integrating Architecture With Your Site**


eg's picture

We're looking at this passivity issue two different ways. Children need time to themselves too. Adults shouldn't make sure they are always doing this thing or that thing because it seems the child isn't otherwise doing something. That's all.


Not Passive

Peter Cresswell's picture

Because a Montessori child needs to learn to be in focus, to make choices, to take responsibility for his own learning, and to explore his natural curiosity.

Doing that is not being passive. A Montessori classroom is not a place in which to be spoon-fed.

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

**Setting Brushfires In People's Minds**

**Integrating Architecture With Your Site**

At No Time?

eg's picture

"'At no time does a Montessori child sit passively.'"

Why not? Who's developing whose mind?


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.