postheadericon A Montessori Primer

While driving away from my doctor’s office the other day I began to muse about the medical profession. My thinking soon led me to the surprising fact that Dr. Maria Montessori left her thriving and quite lucrative medical practice in Rome to become an impoverished, itinerant educator of young children. As you and I know, she actually became one of the foremost educational reformers of our century. She single handedly set out to reform the mass education of her day precisely because she saw that mass education was failing to help the youngsters of Rome reach their fullest potential as learners.
She had observed as a clinical scientist that the large urban schools of her day were ignoring the needs of individual children. These large schools, following the example of the methods used by the large factories, went for mass production of education. This meant moving away from small village schools of inter-age children to the squeezing of same age children into the boxes of narrow age classrooms in one big building: this bunch in first grade, this bunch in second grade, and so on. It made great logistical sense, but educationally was nonsense. Children lost their identity as individual persons and were put through their academic paces en masse as if they were all clones – everyone on the same page doing the same lessons to the same beat of the ruler on the teacher’s desk, regardless of their individual needs, strengths, weaknesses – no one respecting their actual potentials – no one responding to the person each of them was in truth. Montessori saw that the large graded schools of Rome tended to be blind to the individual and so were doomed to cause harm. When people deal with people in ways that ignore personality, some form of tragedy ensues as surely as illness does from poor hygiene.

And so, Montessori left medicine and labored for the rest of her life to create a new way of fostering the development of a child’s learning and personal formation. She experimented with and then formalized learning environments in which children could be grouped within developmental age spans as they are naturally found within a family or neighborhood. The learning of academic and social skills would go hand in hand through a progression of individual presentations so that each child would be respected and his or her growth would be truly progressive from personal mastery to mastery of each human competence. Real communities of learners were formed so that new children would be introduced into an established caring learning community where the elder students not only were present as models but actively shared leadership with the teacher. A Montessori learning environment is not only well prepared for individual learning but also functions as a true caring dynamic in which one is for all and all is for one. Teasing or neglect or disrespect of another member of the class are immediately seen and felt as communal offences – such offenses stand out like sore thumbs and are addressed immediately. They are not tolerated or ignored but attended to and healed. The health of a community depends directly on the health of every member.

The true character of a Montessori learning environment is that the life of love is a constant. The primary goal within our school is that each and every child will not only learn academics but also will become truly convinced that love is in this world as surely as sunlight and rain. Rightly so, for a school is meant to be a garden.

If I were asked to name the season that most represented Montessori philosophy I would immediately answer, “Autumn!” The time of the year when all the trees put on their beautiful colors and send off a rainbow of leaves flying at every breeze! It is in the season of Fall that, instead of seeing the forest for the trees – crowds of trees all blending into one big mass of green, we can see tree by tree by tree. Now, in Autumn, each tree stands out with its unique color of red or orange or yellow or copper or gold or brown and green – and shows itself singular, proud and happy to be an individual! Right here in the morning sunlight, all by itself even though surrounded by so many other individual trees, each so unique tree says, “Look at me! Here I am!”

The major difficulty for most schools has to do with their problem of dealing with mass education. It is a logistical problem. Children, alas, there are too many of them, so let’s pack them into separate rooms according to grading by chronological ages. That way we can manage them more efficiently. With so many bunched together, the teachers are not able to discern any individuals but have to deal with them en masse. So it is: “Pay attention to me, First Graders. Everybody turn to page 63 and do all the exercises on that page.” – all marching to the same step – to the same marching tune—a condition of always being “lined up.”

The Montessori reformation is found in the unique strategy of presenting academic learning to children as individuals – respecting each child’s level of natural development, learning aptitudes, pace of work, personal passions and individual genius. “Tim, what material are you going to begin working on this morning?” – every child in the room absorbing knowledge in a singular way – each one nurturing personal mastery.

This is why a Montessori learning environment reminds me of an autumn forest all year long. All through the academic year, the children shine out with all their individual characteristics - just like the maple tress and willow trees and elm trees in October and November -- we can see them each bright and beautiful with their own colors, their own shapes, together yet so separate in the forest. Even with twenty or thirty or forty children to a room there is no mass education at all. Living and learning within a Montessori school is Autumn all year round.

How I wish my brother Peter and I had had the opportunity of attending a Montessori school when we were young. No such luck! We were taught our lessons the old fashioned way of mass education with fifty of us packed into a room, made to sit like statues in rows of screwed down desks. There weren’t even text books in those days. We had to copy all our lessons from the blackboard into our note books first and then go home to memorize them as best we could for the quizzes of tomorrow. All day long it was copy this copy that and then recite it back all in one voice like parrots. Pretty dull life for so many hours of each glorious day.

But all was not completely bleak for Pete and me. We had our Grandma at home, and everyday when we got back from school at 3:30 we would find her in the kitchen preparing the family’s supper. She always asked us to help in some real ways – like shelling peas into a big bowl or scraping the skins off carrots and potatoes into the kitchen sink so that they would be then cut and made ready for cooking. We enjoyed doing these jobs with her for it made us feel useful and to really have a key role in that wonderful operation called making dinner. Once in a while she would give each of us a freshly killed chicken to pluck. It was hard work – I remember how tired my fingers would get from pulling at the millions of feathers, but it also was great fun, I tell you!

Years later I learned that such daily practical life opportunities was one of the six primary characteristics of a true Montessori learning environment. Dr. Montessori had observed the truth that children need to work if they are going to develop the great virtue of independence – the life skills of possessing autonomy. self-direction, attentiveness – personal traits that are the very foundation of making moral decisions in life.

Ever hear the expression: things tend to get lost in translation? Being someone who has a passion for the deep meanings of words, I find misinterpretations happening all the time. For instance there are many little Montessori schools all over the country named “Children’s House” supposedly after the name of Dr. Montessori’s first learning environment of 1907 in the San Lorenzo District of Rome which she called “Casa Dei Bambini.” However, the Italian word casa does not translate to “house” but rather to “home” – a significant difference. Dr. Montessori created another home for children not a “house.”

There were “school houses” a plenty in which children were packed in cold, impersonal recitation classes and there were monkey houses too in the zoos with their sad, so barren cages. But she knew as a doctor and as a mother that children need to be within a home full of life where they could continue to grow and to learn naturally within familiar, communal settings. And so, the very first Casa Dei Bambini was a bright, comfortable home setting containing a number of beautifully prepared rooms with small children sized tables and chairs and shelves full of colorful learning materials – even bouquets of flowers here and there. Children were free to walk around, to talk quietly with each other, to work at individual tables or on a mat on the floor. The teacher was not a teacher but a caring, friendly presenter of interesting, learning opportunities.

Dr.Montessori was a medical doctor, a researcher in anthropology – a scientist of the human child – and yet she knew from her maternal wisdom that the proper setting for children to grow within was not a factory classroom or a clinical laboratory but rather must be a homey, friendly environment in which a child could be a child – free to converse, with time to think, to rest, to work at his or her own pace, to collaborate with friends – to be respected as a developing child – and to be loved as a “homebody” – as a “somebody.”

Isn’t that why you and I have chosen to be here within just such a wonderful place of children that has the nomenclature and the principles of Montessori alive and well? Here you, the children, and I have found a home away from home in which we all can live the life of love – a happy, caring place where children not only learn to write and read and do numbers but also can be as sure of love in their world as they are of the rain and the sunlight.

“You’re a primary color,” she said smiling from ear to ear and pointing to my bright blue shirt with joy. One of our little girls from Room 2 had run up to me out of the crowd of children. I was standing out in the back yard of the school at the beginning of the day talking with one of our dear grandmothers who had just dropped off her grandchild. It was eight twenty, and school had not begun, but this little Montessori child was living her learning all the time. For her, school is not ruled by a clock made of cog wheels. For her, learning was all the time. Learning for her was connected to her life. She had already learned how to learn purely with the pristine power of her burning intelligence and her absorbent mind. She is now and already always a learner and always a teacher – like the Law of Gravity, as a Montessori child, she is always “on.”
By announcing to me that I was a “primary color” she was revealing her unique character of being “Montessori grown” – right out of a flourishing Montessori garden of learning. As a Montessori child, she not only knew the nomenclature of the primary colors, she reacted to experiencing them wherever and whenever she now experienced them. Just a four year old, she had become forevermore a keen observer of them and absolutely delighted in finding them all over the place – even on me, the old, gray bearded, rotund head of school who happened to be wearing a cobalt blue shirt just to sport a snazzy bow tie.

Yes, indeed I was a “primary color.” Only a Montessori child would notice this salient, existential, happy fact about my attire of that day. Only a keen observer of the wonderful details that make life truly interesting and alive would notice my wonderful cobalt blue shirt and celebrate that fact with the world! Alert and attentive and passionate about discovery – and oh yes, being especially expressive – these are the hallmarks of children growing up within Montessori learning environments. What a wonder of personal life growing is each and every one of them. I may be a “primary color” but each and every one of them is a “primary learner” – a “primary person.”

I like the attitude of Montessori people. Be it a child or an adult, Montessori people seem to have the “fit” for every given moment, and so are as happy as a puppies in a pile of fall leaves. It is the foremost feeling I noticed whenever I enter a thriving Montessori School: people are happy here – children, teachers, staff, parents -- even the fish in the big tank! –- happy and involved and caring and just plain joyfully alive to everyone and everything. A great attitude abounds. Being an old time philologist I know the word “attitude” is derived from the ancient Latin root APTUS meaning to fit well. This is why our word “apt” describes something’s disposition. A good attitude indicates a good fit – and vice versa. When someone asks me to explain Montessori education as simply as I can, I always answer: “It’s having the learning fit each child as well as his or her shoes.”

When your shoes fit you right, you not only can walk well, you tend to want to skip and jump and even dance. But if your shoes are too tight or too loose, you are in big trouble – and not only your feet know it, but your whole mind, heart, and soul suffer along with your toes. You don’t even want to walk much – you are miserable – and your attitude stinks.

The attitude within a place where Montessori principles rule the day is one of comfort and joy: be it about numbers or language or cultural or physical education, learning is a glorious game! By that I mean: even when the learning work is hard and full of concentration and much mental energy is expended, it feels good – it feels like play feels to a kid.

All the great philosophers of education observed that same criterion for success in the act of learning: does the child display the non verbal signs of thriving or wilting? John Dewey said it very sharply: “If the learning for the child is not as interesting as play, then it is pernicious.”

Montessori learning is so successful because it is knows how to make learning fit each child so very well. We truly respect each child and from such respect comes a good fit and from such a good fit comes a wonderful attitude – and as the whole world knows: success comes from having the right attitude.

The most painful time of my life was when I was about ten years old and the kids on the block began to pick on me. They began to call me “Pauley Boy” and then to make matters worse because I was a little bit flabby at that time, they began to call me “Rolley Polley Pauley Boy!” My twin brother, Pete, who was a lot thinner and had blue eyes and wavy blond hair, did not join in with these kids when they started to rib me but he would just distance himself from me a bit. You know what I mean. Like if the bunch were choosing up sides for a stick ball game and he was already chosen for one team, he would not suggest that his team choose me, too. At that stage of my life, I was one of the last kids to get chosen to be on a particular team. That hurt a lot. I liked to play stick ball and was a pretty good hitter, but because of the “Rolley Polley” label stuck to my name, I guess they didn’t equate me with Mickey Mantle.

My Dad got wind of this problem of my personal pain somehow and in a wonderful, indirect way solved it. He got me a dog. It was a black and white mutt puppy with long hair and a long wagging tail and with big brown eyes that always said to me: “I accept you.” I named him “Blackey” of course, and we became great pals. I took care of him, and we were always together in and outside of the house. I loved him and he loved me back unconditionally. When I got home from school he knew it before I opened the door and jumped all over me in welcome. Best of all, whenever I looked at him, he was always giving me looks of acceptance. Always. Such looks of acceptance would make my very soul soar up and I would feel great and superabundantly happy. Because of those looks I valued myself and felt I could accomplish anything.

I am telling you this story because I was reminded of it last week when I was observing our children and their teachers here at school. Amidst all of the neat Montessori learning materials laid out on the many shelves around the rooms, and while all this quiet concentrated individual work was going on, there also always was this bright and shining interaction going on between the teachers and their students. You had to look close to notice it, but it was there all right. I recognized it immediately for what it was: genuine looks of acceptance! The most essential key to a successful relationship – the very essence of a Montessori Room of learning. Our teachers are constantly giving our children looks of acceptance, and boy does that makes things right!

One final point: I think our world today needs heroes perhaps more than at any other time. It seems to me that the moral ground today is getting pretty mucky. Viewing the many movies being pitched at our youth, watching the salacious plots of TV dramas, and perhaps especially, listening to the lyrics of the songs being sung out by the latest Grammy winners, I find a brazen celebration of selfishness, greed, materialism, sexual promiscuity, shallow pleasures, vanity. Holey Smoley! It is getting pretty slippery out and about.

History records that the great Roman Empire slipped and fell into complete ruin because of such self-centered corruption, but at least it knew itself as evil. Our fabulous modern youth culture not only does not even recognize the evil it embraces but actually flaunts it as some sort of new generation sophistication.

I grew up in the Bronx reading the epic tales of comic book super heroes who fought the minions of the evil empire on every page. I know evil when I see its face, and I also know what it takes to win the day. It takes real life heroes. Our times call for a Wonder Woman and a Captain Marvel to jump right into our day and take on these dark forces straight on. POW! WHAMO! But from whence can we expect our real heroes today?

Well, the reason I left graduate school and my pursuit of a doctorate in philosophy was my discovery of an educational method that could actually develop such super heroes of personal virtue. It was called Montessori. I recognized a bright hope within these unique learning environments of Montessori for they fostered the straightforward attentiveness and disinterested decision making that enable a child to discriminate real values and say “Yes! Or “No!” with personal surety. More than helping children excel in early reading, mathematical thinking and the knowledge of human culture, Montessori learning communities foster a virtuous attitude. And folks, in life it is that attitude that counts.

You and I as parents do not want our children to grow up to be merely good writers, but rather to become authors whose writings bring about the good. We do not want them to become powerful and successful CEOs but virtuous ones. It is for this reason, that Montessorians worth their salt not only look into the children’s test scores that indicate mastery of the basic academic skills, but also look at their everyday behavior to verify the development of sound character. The Montessori learning environment is prepared in such a way as to foster personal attentiveness, disinterested decision making, mutual respect, caring for each other, the sharing of the common goods.

I recall in my Montessori training, way back when at Whitby School, Betty Stephenson, the master trainer from the London course, getting me to see that the simple exercise of helping a three year old master the opening and closing of the room door by doing it with seven distinct steps was not merely an exercise of how to get in and out of a room but also an exercise for developing personal character.

You see, she pointed out, for a child to turn the door knob without making a sound requires the exercise of attentiveness, the exercise of the child’s willpower. Only then will he be able to do it right. For the child to proceed from step to step carefully and attentively requires an exercise of personal willingness. The child is not only developing a common practical life skill, but just as importantly the child is developing the muscle of the personal soul.

I saw in a flash that all the practical life exercises were catching hold of each child’s mind/heart/soul with great interest not only because they were practical and fun things to do -- but also because they were exercising the faculty of the soul’s will power to be truly present and fully aware of what one was doing when doing something. To do any practical life exercise right required the child to be full of care, to be attentive to what he was doing step by step.

I knew from my observations in existentialism that moral decision making depended on being fully present to the challenge there before your face – to be attentive even caring about one’s actions upon another -- to do it rightly with personal awareness of the consequences.

Well, more than in any other institution, when I observe what is actually going on within Montessori schools on any given day, I see heroes – heroic boys and heroic girls - heroic teachers – heroic parents all bright with hope and strong in virtue. And I say to myself: thank goodness – how very much this weary and selfish world needs them.


I am on the road every morning before dawn. It is still very dark on the road and somewhat lonely. But it is ok, because as I drive I notice something is happening all around me – each mile I go the dark is less dark. I can sense something brand new beginning – the new day is coming. I am driving right into the morning.

There it begins – light is beginning to flow over the edge of the world right in front of me. Here comes the glory of the sunrise – red and orange and superabundantly wonderful with its light and promises. What a gift there for me: this new day of personal life.

Before I get half way to school, it is daylight, and I can see everything, and I am ready for all the new things that are coming – challenges, surprises, the bright newness of the children of the Montessori school of which I am a communal part as they come in the front door with a happy “Good Morning!”

Although this is my committed work, because of the revelation of each day’s sunrise, I actually feel as if each new day is a holiday – and I feel ready for it. The sunrise had revealed to me this fact of life: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well!”

Last Updated (Wednesday, 21 July 2010 12:52)