Dr. Montessori sought to do the impossible—teach children that society had labeled unable to learn—in doing so, she gave the world an educational approach that continues to benefit students of all intellectual abilities.
To devise an optimal method of education, Dr. Montessori knew that she had to understand exactly how children learn. So she observed them in classroom and play situations, experimented with educational materials, and sifted through previous research, focusing particularly on the work of French doctors Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin. What she found is that students are not empty vessels who learn best by listening passively to a teacher. What she discovered instead is that students retain more information and can apply that information more readily to other situations when they are active participants in the learning process. What many schools now call “hands-on” or experiential education, Dr. Montessori pioneered more than a century ago. Dr. Montessori also put into practice what educational researchers now know to be true—the more decisions students make about their work, the more motivated they are and the more ownership they take for their education.
To give students practice in making decisions, the Montessori approach allows students to choose the order in which they do their work and, within certain parameters, the focus of their studies. For instance, if upper elementary students are preparing timelines of the ancient world, one student may choose to research the Greek drama while another might focus on the Peloponnesian War. The classroom is organized so that students work independently and have individual or small group lessons. One great benefit is that students take ownership of their work, and the other is that they learn time-management and self-management skills.
To ensure that students are active participants in the learning process, Montessori employs “the hand to teach the mind.” What does this mean? It means that students are engaged with their hands in manipulating Montessori materials and participating in other experiential activities. For example, in the primary (preschool-kindergarten) classroom, a student arranges wooden cylinders from heaviest to lightest. This practice builds observation skills and gives the child a concrete understanding of mass.
In a lower elementary (grades 1-3) classroom, a student might take apart a wooden map of Asia, reassemble it on a large sheet of paper, trace the continent in its entirety, and then remove one country at a time, tracing as he goes. Then he would label each country and capital using an atlas and finish the map with color to produce a work of which he can be proud. This child has experienced the geographical relationship between Tibet and India and will be able to understand geography in a way that cannot be matched by looking at a two-dimensional map or playing a computer game.
In an upper elementary (grades 4-6), a student places numerical beads on a board of colored tiles to learn multiplication of decimals. Instead of learning the short cut commonly taught in traditional schools, Montessori students work with materials and come to realize that a tenth of a tenth is a hundredth; a hundredth of a tenth is a thousandth. Such mathematical understanding comes in handy when they hear on the radio, “The Dow dropped a tenth of a percent.” They know that the Dow dropped a thousandth!