Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Dr. Maria Montessori and her method

By DR. DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published May 14, 2020

When it became apparent several weeks ago that schools would close for the duration of the academic year, I was initially excited. “We shall have our own school,” I decreed. I had it all planned out: a careful curriculum of literature, art, and music with catechesis and philosophy embedded in the mix. “We will thrive,” I promised. “We will learn what we need to know!”

My plan lasted about a day. I had not counted on the severe implementation of “remote learning.”

Remote learning is hard. Remote learning is exhausting. Remote learning is Purgatorial and anyone who endures it deserves an indulgence.

At the beginning, we all tried diligently to follow the overwhelming schedule of tasks. While my wife worked in our home office, my sons and I tried to navigate their third and sixth grade curriculums along with my own online teaching of three different college courses and an RCIA class.

Most of the wounds have healed.

All teachers who were thrust into this strange new world deserve praise for their efforts. Anyone who homeschools their children has my admiration. Students who have struggled through this ordeal, often with inadequate equipment and overburdened by stress at home, are to be commended. Not all of us have done well; as we were frequently reminded at the beginning, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Yet some of us have indeed thrived, and the turning point for a lot of us has been learning to let go and be ourselves.

Dr. Maria Montessori

How we teach

As I’ve tried to educate my sons—and my many students—throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve thought a lot not just about how we learn but how we teach, and I’ve been reading especially about Dr. Maria Montessori, who is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential educators of all time, but whose carefully designed method of teaching remains overshadowed by the 19th century rigidity that still characterizes most of our schools.

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. She received a medical degree from the University of Rome in 1896, and she is generally acknowledged as the first modern female physician in Italy. Following medical school, she held a residency in pediatrics, where she worked especially closely with children who had severe learning disabilities. While working with these patients, she began to put into practice theories that through scientific application proved remarkably successful.  Over the next several years, she formulated what became known as the Montessori Method, and she used it in schools she founded that were called “Casas dei Bambini,” or children’s houses. By 1909 she had put her theories into the form of a book called The Montessori Method, and the book became a best-seller in the United States.

It is important to remember—particularly in our current crisis—that Dr. Montessori was a scientist, a teacher, and a devout Catholic. She epitomized the embrace of faith and reason, of the Gospel and of science, and of the dignity of each human individual. All these characteristics are at the core of the Montessori Method; to remove one means to lessen the impact of the others.

What I began to observe in my sons’ learning over the last few weeks mirrors some of Dr. Montessori’s own observations about children and education. Sadly, many of her ideas are misunderstood. When you say Montessori to most people unfamiliar with the approach, they envision a lack of structure or “learning through play.”  This is an over-simplification.

The Montessori Method is based upon a “spontaneous discipline” that is developed over time. It depends upon individual freedom within an organized structure. It encourages personal responsibility, and nurtures student choice of unique “materials” that encourage simple play that subtly enhances the acquisition of practical, even complex, skills. It means learning by doing, and at the student’s own pace. It affirms that we learn more when we are interested and engaged.

Moreover, as Dr. Montessori envisioned it, the method underscores that the child has an “adult soul.”  As she said, “We must not just see the child, but God in him. We must respect the laws of creation in him.”  Further, “The way of teaching in a Montessori school is Catholic—centered on the person. The conventional method is centered on the curriculum, not the person.”

When I read these quotes, I think of the Catholic novelist Muriel Spark’s character of Miss Jean Brodie, who says that education was not about “putting in” information, but “taking out” what was already there, “a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul.”

A presumption of trust and love

After a few weeks, I stopped trying to follow the schedule, and I just let my sons do what they most wanted to do when they wanted to do it. If one had an exercise that he found particularly interesting, I went deeper into the material with him. We didn’t abandon anything, of course, but we emphasized what seemed to be more valuable to their overall well-being. Remote learning suddenly became, at times, fun.

In my own college courses, I observed that the most autonomous class of the three—one not based upon lecture, but primarily upon independent critical thinking—did the best; they all submitted work on time, and they all excelled. Further, I gave this class alternate creative and reflective assignments to which they responded with sometimes heartbreaking empathy and insight.

In short, without really being conscious of it, I was using the Montessori Method more than I knew.

In fact, it is incredible how even in non-Montessori schools, Dr. Montessori’s influence is apparent in everything from preschool toys and furniture to the cherished “free reading” periods programmed into elementary and middle school structure. This is a woman who literally changed our perception of “school.”  She is to education what Fred Rogers is to children’s television.

How is it, therefore, that what so many experts in education call a nearly perfect approach to childhood learning remains largely overlooked in our public and even private schools?  There are many theories, but I think a lot of it has to do with our society’s anxiety about blending faith and reason, belief and science. In Dr. Montessori’s Catholic view of the world, the Gospel and science were not only both true; they were complementary. A post-Christian society where religion is primarily perceived as rigid and fundamentalist cannot accept such a view.

Dr. Montessori also knew that there can never be any real learning without love. Everything that the Montessori Method promises to the student is given as an expression of trust, and there can be no trust without love. This doesn’t mean of course, that the Method is perfect; no pedagogy is. But I see now how my children’s best moments in school, as well as my own best moments as a teacher, occur when there is a presumption of both trust and love: in passion for subject matter, in affirming knowledge for the sake of knowledge, in nurturing both the mind and spirit of the student.   

Dr. Maria Montessori is a woman who changed childhood, and in turn the world. In an increasingly skeptical and frightened society, her enduring lessons are important to remember.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.