Thoughts on Maria Montessori

I have been aware of Maria Montessori and her educational “movement” (as its often referred to) as part of the spectrum of educational alternatives available mostly to more well-to-do families who can afford the tuition to send their kids to a private Montessori school. There are over 3000 such schools in the United States today and more than 20,000 around the world. I have read about her early work researching child development, opening her first school in her native Italy and how she became a star of the progressive education world in Europe and the U.S. in the early years of the 20th century.

I am both intrigued and troubled by the fact that her ideas about creating a developmentally appropriate environment for children seem to have had so little impact on our public education system in what are conventionally the preschool and elementary school years. In digging a little deeper into the history, it seems her innovative ideas suffered a similar fate as the ideas of other “holistic” educators like John Dewey, succumbing to the “business efficiency” movement in education in the second and third decades of the 20th century.

Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Overcoming barriers to women, she managed to gain a degree in the natural sciences from the University of Rome and, despite opposition from students and faculty, fight her way into medical school at the University, finally graduating in 1896 as a doctor of medicine. Her early career involved working with mentally disabled young people and researching ways to help them overcome their developmental challenges. As part of that research she read everything that had been published in the previous 200 years regarding education theory, and applied this wisdom to improving her efforts on behalf of this specially challenged group.

Starting in 1901 she attended the degree program in philosophy at the University of Rome, focusing her studies on developmental psychology and educational theory, becoming a noted voice in academic publications and lecture circles. Her vision was to apply these ideas of improving the educational process for young people with mental disabilities to all youth. In 1906 she began to make that vision real, opening a school for children of working mothers, “Casa dei Bambini” (Children’s House), in a low-income housing project in Rome. By observing the behavior of the kids in her school, applying the educational ideas she had learned, and trial and error, Montessori developed a new educational “method” based on what she saw as the best of human developmental and educational theory.

Her method was based on her observations that young human beings spontaneously seek growth and learning because that is the spiritual nature of their humanness. Given proper nurturing, this spiritual force impels them to unfold their personality, expand their powers, assert their independence, and create an adult identity. What we adults regard as misbehavior is caused by our failure to provide the proper environment or by our misguided efforts to direct human unfolding according to our prejudices. Embracing the context of her own Catholic religious beliefs, Montessori felt that in traditional education, “Man has substituted himself for God, desiring to form the minds of children in his own image and likeness; and this cannot be done without subjecting a free creature to torture”.

Unlike conventional schools at the time (or even still today), her method was centered around the learning process known as Constructivism. Rather than instructing students on existing frames, filters and other constructs that interpret and organize a body of existing knowledge, students were given free reign to experience a prepared environment first-hand (with a minimum of guidance from the teacher) to “construct” their own frames and interpretations and act upon the environment to both acquire and test new knowledge. Preparation of that learning environment was facilitated by specialized educational materials developed by Montessori and her collaborators.

Her school was very successful, and soon others were opened on the same model, and news of her success spread around the world. From the Wikipedia article on Maria Montessori

As early as 1909, Montessori’s work began to attract the attention of international observers and visitors. Her work was widely published internationally, and spread rapidly. By the end of 1911, Montessori education had been officially adopted in public schools in Italy and Switzerland, and was planned for the United Kingdom. By 1912, Montessori schools had opened in Paris and many other Western European cities, and were planned for Argentina, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Switzerland, Syria, the United States, and New Zealand. Public programs in London, Johannesburg, Rome, and Stockholm had adopted the method in their school systems. Montessori societies were founded in the United States (the Montessori American Committee) and the United Kingdom (the Montessori Society for the United Kingdom). In 1913 the first International Training Course was held in Rome, with a second in 1914.

Montessori and her “scientific pedagogy” were stars on the rise as the world was inspired at the turn of the 20th century by the movement of “Modernism”, rejecting traditional thinking in favor of new ideas (including leveraging the latest scientific wisdom) or combining existing ideas in new innovative ways. Her approach to early childhood education seems to have been the state of the art along with her vision of how a more holistic and humanistic education of youth could bring about a more peaceful world. In that latter regard, Montessori would go on to be nominated for six Nobel Peace Prizes during her lifetime.

The Montessori Movement Blossoms in the U.S.

Focusing on the United States, it appears that Montessori’s ideas were beginning to gain traction in the second decade of the 20th century. From the Wikipedia article on Maria Montessori

In 1911 and 1912, Montessori’s work was popular and widely publicized in the United States, especially in a series of articles in McClure’s Magazine, and the first North American Montessori school was opened in October 1911, in Tarrytown, New York. Scottish-born American inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife became proponents of the method and a second school was opened in their Canadian home. The Montessori Method sold quickly through six editions. The first International Training Course in Rome in 1913 was sponsored by the American Montessori Committee, and 67 of the 83 students were from the United States. By 1913 there were more than 100 Montessori schools in the country. Montessori traveled to the United States in December 1913 on a three-week lecture tour which included films of her European classrooms, meeting with large, enthusiastic crowds wherever she traveled.

During this same time period there were other voices advocating for educational transformation. In 1911 American anarchist Emma Goldman was part of a group that set up the Modern School in New York City based on the anarchist ideas of radical Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer and with philosopher Will Durant as its first principal.

In 1912 American educator Homer Lane moved to England and founded the Little Commonwealth School in Dorset. Lane believed that children should completely direct their own educational process with no curriculum imposed on them by their teachers, as well as participating with their teachers on managing the schooling process. His school was perhaps the first democratic-free school, and inspired English educator A.S Neill to open his more famous Summerhill School in 1923, which continues to this day, now run by Neill’s daughter Zoe Readhead.

The most famous and influential of the progressive educators in the U.S. during this period was American John Dewey, who believed, like Montessori, that a dedicated and highly trained teacher could create an enriched learning environment within which the young person could direct their own learning process. Unlike Lane who believed in complete educational freedom for the young person to explore whatever was of interest to them, Dewey was closer to Montessori in seeing the teacher not as the “sage on the stage” (like in conventional schools) but the “guide on the side” presenting a preset curriculum that the student would then explore in their own way rather than being directed step by step by the teacher. From 1904 to 1930, Dewey was professor of philosophy at Columbia University and the university’s Teacher’s College, training and otherwise inspiring a generation of progressive educators.

According to my friend Ron Miller and his excellent summary of American educational history in his book What are Schools For?

Believing in a positive conception of human nature, Dewey and other progressive educators challenged the traditional American culture and its Calvinist pessimism. Progressives supported an ideal of democracy far more liberal than mainstream American ideology, giving students greater responsibility for their own learning. They objected to industrial capitalism which fosters a selfish competitiveness, rewarding the successful with a disproportionate share of wealth and power.

Montessori and Dewey in particular were the most visible leaders of that progressive educational challenge.

A Business-Led Educational Counterrevolution

During this very same time period a number of other events came together to challenge or otherwise diminish Montessori’s and other progressive educational movements. The “muckraking” journals of the period that had previously exposed malpractice and corruption in the meat-packing and other industries (including the same McClure’s journal that published the series lauding Montessori’s method), turned their focus on “inefficiencies” in the American public education system. Public schools were becoming a major expense in community budgets (while not directly producing any revenue), so they were an obvious target. This crusade provided a platform for the business efficiency experts of the day, like Frederick W. Taylor, to strut their stuff criticizing those schools and proposing “business efficiency” solutions that in retrospect did nothing to save educational funds or improve the educational process.

You can read more about this crusade in Raymond Callahan’s book, Education and the Cult of Efficiency (or my piece on the book). But long story short, the education establishment gave in to this crusade, and agreed to rebuild the public education system on these ideas of business efficiency and industrial mass production. The prevailing business view was that young students must be directed in their education completely by their teachers, who in turn would take their marching orders from principals and on up the chain of command. Business-focused educational administrator Elwood Cubberley, famously said…

Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specification for manufacturing come from the demands of the twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specification laid down.

Progressive educators like Montessori and Dewey believed instead in a more holistic approach to education where each student needed to build their knowledge through their own self-directed process.

Dewey’s Disciple Disses Montessori

It is ironic that perhaps Montessori’s educational ideas lost their luster in the U.S. in the second decade of the 20th century because of a critique not from conservatives or business interests, but from educational progressives, particularly one of Dewey’s disciples. Continuing from the Wikipedia article on Maria Montessori

Influential progressive educator William Heard Kilpatrick, a follower of American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, wrote a dismissive and critical book [in 1914] titled The Montessori Method Examined, which had a broad impact. The National Kindergarten Association was critical as well. Critics charged that Montessori’s method was outdated, overly rigid, overly reliant on sense-training, and left too little scope for imagination, social interaction, and play. In addition, Montessori’s insistence on tight control over the elaboration of her method, the training of teachers, the production and use of materials, and the establishment of schools became a source of conflict and controversy. After she left in 1915, the Montessori movement in the United States fragmented, and Montessori education was a negligible factor in education in the United States until 1952.

Doing a little more digging, I don’t think Kilpatrick’s educational vision was that different from Montessori’s? According to Kilpatrick’s Wikipedia article, he…

Developed the Project Method for early childhood education, which was a form of Progressive Education organized curriculum and classroom activities around a subject’s central theme. He believed that the role of a teacher should be that of a “guide” as opposed to an authoritarian figure. Kilpatrick believed that children should direct their own learning according to their interests and should be allowed to explore their environment, experiencing their learning through the natural senses. Proponents of Progressive Education and the Project Method reject traditional schooling that focuses on memorization, rote learning, strictly organized classrooms (desks in rows; students always seated), and typical forms of assessment.

I’m not sure what to make of this! Seems to me Montessori and Dewey had a great deal of commonality in their more holistic approaches to education, and would have done better to establish common ground in challenging the traditional educational establishment. Perhaps Kilpatrick was guilty of playing to some xenophobia, given that Montessori was a European, and even worse, a devout Catholic.

Given the conservative business-focused educational counterrevolution I’ve addressed above, eventually Dewey’s progressive ideals were co-opted, and according to Ron Miller in his book What are Schools For?, the greatest lasting influences Dewey had on the American classroom were…

Cosmetic changes, such as portable rather than fixed seating in classrooms, are about as near to progressive reform as most public schools have ventured. To conceive of the school as a laboratory where individuals explore their lives’ possibilities, or where society experiments with new values, would entail sweeping changes in the philosophy, curriculum, methods, and administration of public schools.

World War I

The case that Montessori, Lane, Dewey and others were making for a more humanistic, progressive and even revolutionary approach to education also lost traction because of the events of World War I, events that I believe destroyed the “immune system” of Western culture and any sense of momentum of human progress. Any forward looking optimism and celebration of human achievement took a devastating hit when the most supposedly “civilized” countries in the world flung themselves into an apocalyptic world war for no better reason that I can see than jaded economic self-interest and macho national pride. Millions of people, the critical mass of entire generation of young men in Europe (and to a lesser extent America) slaughtered each other on the battlefields. Calling it “the Great War” (though technically correct due to its broad scope relative to previous wars), gives it a sort of stature that is an abomination given the self-serving national motives that catalyzed it.

Adding to the scope of the devastation, the overwhelming majority of the artists and intellectuals of the time became advocates and cheerleaders for the war rather than resisting and putting forward a more evolved vision of peace and cooperation. From Jacques Barzun’s book about Western cultural development during the past five centuries, Dawn to Decadence

What is truly astonishing is the unanimity, unheard of on any other subject but the war and the enemy. Looking over the roster of great names in literature, painting, music, philosophy, science, and social science, one cannot think of more than half a dozen or so who did not spout all the catchphrases of abuse and vainglory… But not before 1914 was the flush of blood lust seen on the whole intellectual class… And everywhere the clergy were the most rabid glorifiers of the struggle and inciters to hatred. The “Brotherhood of Man” and the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” were no longer preachable.

In this context, how could the majority of people continue to place any stock in champions of human development like Montessori, Lane and Dewey? How could forward-looking optimism survive in the face of overwhelming pessimism at the condition of human civilization?

Montessori Resurfaces in the U.S.

It was three decades later after her death in 1952, after worldwide depression and an even bigger world war that Montessori’s educational approach would become popular again and considered worthy of another look by Americans because of the space race with the Soviet Union.

According to Ron Miller in his book, What are Schools For?

After 1920, public education responded to industrialization by expanding dramatically in scope. With mandatory attendance and child labor laws, the great majority of young people went to school, and stayed in it much longer. College came to be seen as essential to personal success and the achievement of national goals. By the 1960s it was asserted that the “knowledge industry” had replaced the railroads as “the focal point of national growth.” As a result, education became the battleground for one of the most significant social conflicts of the 20th century.

According to Miller, it was the efficient and accelerated learning achieved by Montessori’s approach that caught the interest of middle class Americans. Yet Montessori had not been concerned with the “output” of the child. To use her method as a shortcut to academic success, or as a tool for efficiency or national prestige, was to adopt the letter of her approach without its holistic spirit. The revival of her method was due more to its academic results than to its holistic foundations.

By the 1970s, the Montessori method was the most widespread, best organized independent alternative movement in American education. Unlike other holistic educational approaches, her method has been welcomed in middle class communities, and as I noted at the top of this piece, today there are over 3000 Montessori schools in the U.S. and over 20,000 around the world. Yet given that, her ideas (and those of Dewey) have had little impact on the public schools in the U.S. that educate nearly ninety percent of our young people.

2 replies on “Thoughts on Maria Montessori”

  1. It is time for an education movement, a paradigm shift in how we think about education, and Montessori can help us get there. That is the premise of the documentary film project Building the Pink Tower — see our fundraising trailer at I am interested in what you think about our project and in any thoughts on getting the word out. I would like to link to your post in my blog post…Thanks for writing this!

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