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Maria Montessori Had a Good Idea

Updated on August 20, 2014

Montessori Education

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a physician who devised a unique method of education. She lived in Italy. Her first schools were actually day care centers known as Casi dei Bambini (homes of the children). In these day care centers, she used intense observation of the children and how they reacted as the source for the design of her system. She subsequently moved to India, where she changed her religion from Catholicism to Theosophy. She wrote a number of books which have been published.

In the Casa de Bambini, materials were made and were available to the children. It is said it was quite a surprise to everyone when children, using these materials, seemingly learned to read and write spontaneously.

The Montessori school is characterized by the prepared environment. While nearly all other schools structure time, the Montessori method structures the environment, space, and learning materials. Children begin formal Montessori education at about the age of three, which is considered the age of the absorbent mind. Children of this age soak up everything happening around them, and learn from it, for good or ill. The child of this age likes to keep order in his or her environment, and this can be capitalized upon to produce learning, even in academic subjects.

Images used under Fair Use Doctrine, credit given when possible.

The Materials Environment

The Montessori environment contains learning materials, particularly materials that can be manipulated. The materials are in the nature of apparatus that is designed to teach a specific thing. For example, there are rods that teach children to perceive and measure length, volume, and so forth. There are several broad classifications for these materials. For example, exercises in caring for the environment are classified as practical life. The students are taught to wash tables, for example. The technique demonstrated for washing tables begins in the upper left corner of the table from the child's perspective. The child uses a damp cloth and makes a circular motion in a counterclockwise direction, tracing a line that looks like a series of cursive "e's", which is a precursor to writing. This is typical of the Montessori exercise. Each exercise is designed precisely so that the child learns something specific and correct from it. The circular motion used is similar to the circles elementary schoolchildren used to make on lined paper to teach handwriting. Another division is sensorial. In this division, children are taught to distinguish different colors, sounds, etc. For example, there is a set of six small opaque cylinders. Each contains something that makes noise when the cylinder is shaken. There are three green lidded or blue lidded ones, and three red lidded ones. The child is supposed to find the green and red one that make the same sound. The contents will be things like sand, rice, and other such things that make different sounds. Color is taught by means of little color strips, a pair in each color, for matching. This apparatus is fairly comprehensive; it contains somewhere around 64 different colors. The color strips are kept in boxes with slots, where they are lined up like microscope slides. Children are also encouraged to listen to recordings of classical music, and there is an art corner, where various art materials are made available. This is the most creative part of the classroom. Creativity with other apparatus is not encouraged, especially in schools patterned after the International Montessori philosophy. (The international organization is more faithful to Montessori's original design than the American, which incorporates a lot of educational ideas from other sources, most of them invalid, in my opinion.) An earlier color exercise involves one inch blocks in the primary and secondary colors, which can be matched, and can also be used for the Three Period Lesson.

The Montessori method uses a multi-sensory approach, which locks in learning much more efficiently than using one sense alone. Children see, hear and feel with most of the exercises.

Reading and Writing

Reading and writing is taught by means of sandpaper letters to begin with. Large letters surfaced in sandpaper come in red and blue, one color for consonants, and the other for the five vowels. In this way, the child is taught instinctively to distinguish between consonants and vowels. The very young child is taught to use the index and third fingers (piano fingering, not violin) together to trace the letter in the proper stroke order. Red and blue felt letters are used to teach phonics and word construction. These are smaller. By the time the child has used the materials to his or her satisfaction, she or he will almost magically demonstrate the ability to read.


Mathematics is taught to begin with by means of apparatus that teaches length, volume, and other concepts. There are ten rods in length from a tenth of a meter, two tenths, etc. all the way up to a full meter. The child is encouraged to line these up stairstep fashion. Another is a set of ten cubes that can be stacked into a tower. Still another is a set of four cylinder blocks each containing ten cylinders. One set is graduated by length, another by width, another by both characteristics, length and width becoming larger together, and the final one with length becoming longer as width becomes narrower. These are the first exercises of the child in math. More exercises involve things like an apparatus that teaches the Pythagorean Theorem to preschoolers. This apparatus has a 3/4/5 right triangle with a square on each side containing little single unit squares that can be placed into the square area, to show that one side is equivalent to nine squares, one to sixteen, and one to twenty-five. Using this type of apparatus, a Montessori student is doing algebra-level exercises in concrete form by first grade. In general, Montessori students tend to be quite academically advanced. The environment is excellent for children with learning disabilities. I observed a child with Down Syndrome functioning normally in the Montessori classroom.


Montessori materials for the teaching of science include photographs of animals and plants, which are used to teach the names of each, including the scientific names. See my discussion about Glenn Doman. That method also uses such materials. This involves a lot of work on the part of parents to prepare the materials, if you want to teach this at home. Most of the time, people can use catalogs and cut out pictures to laminate with plastic. Be aware that in doing so, if you are not a customer of the store issuing the catalog, you are using material produced at other people's expense, so please try to figure out a way to do business with them in exchange.

(One time, when I was in junior high, in the music class, we were required to produce a notebook with the pictures of various musical instruments in them. We weren't allowed to draw them for ourselves. We had to use pictures out of catalogs. Since I was below driving age, it fell on my mother to obtain catalogs for me. This was a most unfair assignment, as were often other assignments given to children who lack the means or ability to carry them out on their own. But I think it illustrates the problem of using other people's catalogs for materials nicely.)

The Problem of the Match

Montessori schools have the advantage of solving what J. McVicker Hunt called "the problem of the match". According to this idea, a person learns poorly when the level of difficulty of an exercise is not matched to his current level of achievement. If the exercise is too simple, the student will turn from it out of boredom. If it is too difficult, the student will turn from it out of frustration. Only when the exercise matches his current achievement will he experience optimum learning. The reason why Montessori schools do this so excellently is that generally speaking, the students work on their own. A student is allowed to use a piece of apparatus once the teacher (called a directress) has demonstrated how it is used. Students may use a piece of apparatus as long as they want, deciding when to stop and put it back on the shelf. As long as the student is using it, no other student may touch it without that student's permission. Montessori classrooms tend to train students at a high level of social functioning by using social ostracism as punishment. They also tend to teach conformity for the same reason, unfortunately. Montessori schools teach children to learn independently, but unfortunately, this may make it more difficult for a transition into a traditional classroom where the student is NOT allowed to decide when to study what the child is drawn to at that moment. Because of this feature of the traditional classroom plus the fact that children are taught in groups, the traditional classroom solves the problem of the match poorly. This is a major reason why Montessori students tend to be so advanced academically. If at all possible, once you have chosen to submerge your child in Montessori, follow through with Montessori. Traditional classrooms stifle learning, and can undo a lot of the gains the child experienced.

Another Reason Why Montessori Is Superior

Instructional analysis

I have observed a directress interacting with an individual student, in a number of Montessori schools, and also teachers in schools patterned after other philosophies. I analyzed each interaction between student and teacher, and made a cumulative list of the interactions observed. This is what an observer does when she does instructional analysis. Because of the high level of discipline and other factors, in most classrooms and preschools, most of the interactions between directress and student are instructional in nature, with very few disciplinary interactions. Contrast this with nearly all other schools for very young children, where the teacher and student interact one-on-one. In those schools, most of the interactions are disciplinary in nature. Good teachers instinctively guide the students so that most of the interactions are instructional, whether it be the teacher conveying information, demonstrating something, or the student showing mastery. Montessori TEACHES people how to do this. All reasonably competent directresses do this very well.

Photo used under Creative Commons from stevendepolo

The Three Period Lesson

The Three Period Lesson is a method of teaching a concept. The first aspect of this method is called isolation of difficulty. This means that the particular concept being taught is the ONLY concept being taught. Nothing distracting is shown to the student. In a traditional teaching method, a teacher may give the child a red car, and say, "This is red." Unfortunately, this also teaches the concept "car". Montessori, by contrast, isolates redness by giving the child different colored one inch blocks. These blocks are exactly like each other except for the color. Showing by example how the Three Period Lesson works, the directress first shows the child the red block and says, "This is red". As a second step, the directress will show the child the blue block and say, "This is blue". The second period of the lesson comes when the directress gives both blocks to the child and says, "Point to the red block. Point to the blue block." The final period of the lesson is when the directress says, "Point to a block and tell me what color it is." I was able to use this Three Period Lesson in teaching reading. First I would point to a letter in the book and say, "This says 't'" (making a sound without voice to avoid adding any extra sounds). Then I would point to each "t" in the book, and say "t". Then I would have the child point to the "t" and say the sound himself. Then I'd point to another letter and say, "This says 'e'" (where the sound I use is the short sound because it is the most commonly used). As soon as I had gone through the Three Period Lesson with two letters, I would then ask the child to go through the book, pointing to each "e" and "t" and saying its sound. The child is required to do this in order from left to right, top to bottom.


Ideally in the Montessori classroom, children are taught to respect each other and each other's work. This means they learn to respect the student who is using a material they want to use, by refraining from bothering the student (other than to ask permission to join if they wish) until the student has put the material back on the shelf. This also teaches children to respect property and the right to own property lawfully acquired. In addition, they learn to verbalize when something is bothering them instead of hitting or screaming. In a well disciplined classroom, the children SEEM to behave spontaneously. Most people don't realize how much inherent discipline there is in a Montessori classrom that is properly run. By isolating the misbehaving child (essentially making the child sit in the corner), the directress encourages social constraints on behavior.

Summarizing Observations

This is a far from complete description of the method. I will make some observations concerning how this works out in practice. In America, if a person wants a pure form of Montessori, then she should look for an internationally trained instructor. I personally think the international version of Montessori is much more effective. I don't recommend the American approach. I have had some rather disastrous experiences with it. At the same time, the international approach is not nearly as good at teaching creativity. While there are usually art supplies available, I believe this area greatly needs expansion. In some Montessori classrooms, music is taught with the Carl Orff apparatus and method. This is a good addition, because the philosophy is very compatible.

Culture, Religion Critique

Montessori students are taught to appreciate their culture. There is also a set of Montessori exercises intended to teach the church year and other liturgical issues to students. This grew out of Montessori getting its start in Catholic Italy and the fact that originally Montessori was a Catholic. In my opinion, becoming a theosophist is not an improvement. Theosophy is a cult. For my final assignment under Madame van Thiel, I wrote a rather lengthy essay in which I defended the thesis that the Montessori philosophy is more consonant with Christianity than Theosophy. (Madame van Thiel is a theosophist, but she accepts whatever someone produces, and does not grade it. By writing this essay, I completed the requirements for her training course and earned her certificate. Other students designed a piece of apparatus.)

Madame van Thiel was observing one principle which is peculiar to Montessori. Montessori taught that you should not TEST children. This means you don't require them to regurgitate knowledge on command. With the materials, it isn't necessary. The child WILL learn, at the best possible pace.

When we were raising our children, I made it a point to submerge them in many community activities so that they would experience culture. We went to the Greek festival several times. I enrolled the children in Flamenco dancing classes, bought private lessons for them in Hawai'ian dancing, took them to performances of an African dance troupe, and so forth. Another opportunity in our area is Tucson Meet Yourself, where people from different cultures gather and share each culture in music, dance, costume, and cuisine. We also taught them how to swim, and how to ride horseback (with the help of a friend). I took some of them to Hebrew literacy classes. At times, we took them to museums and concerts. We took them rockhunting and I took them to Masterworks Chorale rehearsals. Eventually some of the children actually sang with the chorale. This upset some of the other members, and this was an experience we had more than once. We also experienced this when we enrolled some of the children in college classes at 10 and 11 years. They were capable of doing the work, but the other students didn't like it. Because we had a right to do these things, we kept doing them. The people who led the groups accepted our presence. This is a battle parents will probably have to fight for some time to come. Children are usually not welcome in most adult activities, even though the activities are legitimate and good experiences for children. Far too many people have had experiences with unruly children, and they don't like having children around, because it never occurs to them that children CAN be well behaved and productive in such settings. Besides what happens in the classroom, these are excellent experiences and very educational.

I would love to see our society offer opportunities for apprenticeships once more.

Political and Social Critique

The major weaknesses I see in the Montessori method center around learning conformity to society. The student learns to respond to criticism and condemnation from his peers. This is because of the method of discipline used. Montessori lends itself to communist indoctrination while simultaneously teaching students to respect each other's property. The respect for the property of others is taught more clearly in Montessori. This is because children are NOT required or encouraged to all! But because of the conformity to social norms that is taught, children can easily be indoctrinated into communism as well. The fact that work is so individualized also discourages the students from developing the capacity to work in group situations. That could bring about a major change in the way industry operates, if enough people were Montessori educated. In the aggregate, I recommend Montessori over all other methods of education I have observed (with a traditional classroom with intensive phonics instruction as second best), in spite of its problems. Half the reason we have such a poorly educated populace is because we do not teach with sound methodology, we do not discipline (because it is not allowed), we teach children that the person is the measure of his own morality, and we do not solve the problem of the match. Montessori solves these problems by using sound methodology in pedagogy, provides excellent discipline, and solves the problem of the match. Like the homeschooled student, expect the Montessori student to show a much higher level of maturity in all areas, including social development.

Concerning Materials

Intruding on the child's imagination

There are materials provided specifically for the Montessori classroom. There are also a few other materials that have been designed by others using the same philosophy, and often adding ideas of their own, such as the Cuisenaire Rods. Most materials for children violate the principle of Isolation of Difficulty, and are, in my opinion, quite frankly, ugly. Most toys sold these days are guilty in spades of this problem. I hate going into toy stores! Some older toys lend themselves to the child's imagination much better than modern toys.

I have also observed how in many preschool classrooms take the privilege of imagination away from a child. For example, in one preschool classroom, I watched as a teacher approached a student who was essentially doing nothing, and asked him to decide what to do. When he seemed unable to decide, she said, "It's hard to decide, isn't it?" Of course, this reinforced his lack of decisiveness. It is very easy to convey messages you don't mean. Eventually the teacher directed the child to a box full of costumes. He chose one, and then when he put it on, she proceeded to take the imaginary play away from him, by talking about what was happening, instead of letting him design his own experience. I cringe when I see things like this happening, but they happen all the time.

Montessori insisted that children appreciate beauty, and that they are discerning. This is why children will appreciate classical music, if exposed to it, and why they appreciate materials which are well designed and not gaudy. Children can also appreciate great art. So many people rob children of these beautiful things with trivial things because they do not respect the child, or the child's intelligence or sense of aesthetics. If you ever wonder about this, consider that a child (who begins to learn language in the womb, from hearing her mother's voice, by the way) learns to speak a language completely from scratch, knowing no vocabulary or grammar at all, and through analysis and practice, learns a vocabulary and grammatical structure, first using reason (and thus saying things like "he runned" instead of "he ran") and then learning exceptions to the rules. A tiny child can just as easily learn two or three languages, or even more. I remember reading about one child who grew up in a household that had five adults. Each spoke to him in a different language from the others. He grew up fluent in five languages, and thinking every person has his own unique language. In another experiment, a child was isolated from language to try to determine what the natural language of mankind is. The result was that the child learned no language at all.

Making Your Own Materials

Official Montessori materials are expensive. In the classroom, they are inexpensive by comparison to other alternatives, but for an individual parent, it will be a good idea to make whatever materials you can, yourself.

We never had the opportunity to make many of our own materials, but one we did make which was highly successful was the sound cylinders. At the time, Fujifilm came in plastic cylinders, one with red tops and one with green tops. One was for print film and the other for slide film. I was able to acquire enough of them to make a set. I put sand in the first pair, rice in the second, small gravel in the third, and so forth. Each pair had one cylinder with a red top and one with a green top. The child matches the sounds.

If you are a carpenter at heart, you can make many of the wooden materials at home.

Materials made for other methods may fit within the Montessori philosophy. For example, making cards with pictures on them of many different things, intended to teach vocabulary, which are used in the method developed by Glenn Doman, can be used in the Montessori setting. I will write a Lens on Glenn Doman. His method has good and bad points. Becoming an exact disciple of Doman is not wise, for reasons I will explain.

My Background

I had experience with the Montessori classroom as a volunteer, and observed widely both in Montessori schools and schools not using the Montessori philosophy. I studied instructional analysis, and Montessori methodology with Madame Maake van Thiel, who studied under Mario Montessori, the son of Maria Montessori. I also designed a Montessori environment for my home, patterned after the Montessori philosophy.

You might find it of interest that I set out deliberately to create sensitive periods in myself as an adult, and I was successful. By using the materials in the way they were supposed to be used, I developed a much finer ability to distinguish various sizes of things, for example. I also borrowed an idea from Glenn Doman. He has a set of cards with red dots on them. There was a set of 100, and the dots increased by one for the next card in the sequence, so that quantities from 1 to 100 were illustrated. The dots were randomly scattered. The idea was to teach the child to recognize each quantity on sight. I had my husband write a little program for the Atari 800 (that's how long ago it was) that would display a quantity of zeros on the screen, in totally random order. This means instead of just having four possible arrangements from turning a card four different ways, I had an infinite possibility of different arrangements. I used this program for awhile, and was able to develop the ability to recognize a quantity of zeros up to a fairly high number, though not to 100. However, I can group quickly up to 100. It is a little slower, but it works.

Incidentally, Doman said very young children are attracted to the color red. (This wouldn't be true of a colorblind child, necessarily.) So if you want them to pay attention to something, make it red, and they are more likely to pay attention. Hence, the red dots on white cards.

Recommended Reading

Available on Amazon

Some of these books may be out of print. If Amazon doesn't give you a link, I will list them here. Go and search for them. They are well worth buying if you can find copies there, and often you can. There are also often different editions of the same book available, so to get the best price, do a search on the title before you buy.

Montessori apparatus, and apparatus patterned after Montessori, is also available on Amazon. If you are familiar with the apparatus, you can search for it. When looking at other apparatus, look for isolation of difficulty (explained in the books below), and if it doesn't have isolation of difficulty, it is not in accord with the Montessori philosophy.

The Absorbent Mind

by Maria Montessori

Teaching Montessori in the Home: Pre-School Years: The Pre-School Years

by Elizabeth G. Hainstock, Lee Havis

Teaching Montessori in the Home: The School Years

by Elizabeth G. Hainstock, Lee Davis

Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work

by E. M. Standing

Secret of Childhood

by Maria Montessori

The Discovery of the Child

by Maria Montessori

Religion, Montessori, and the home: An approach to the religious education of the young child

I am especially fond of this book, because I think it teaches the child our rich Christian heritage. Not only the Catholic church uses the liturgy and the church year (an organized set of topics that will present the entire life of Jesus in one year). Also Episcopalians and Lutherans in particular use them. The Liturgy actually grew out of God-mandated worship methods prescribed for the Jews in Old Testament Times. This book is difficult to find, but be persistent.


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