Developing the Spirit of a Child in a Montessori Way

July 28th, 2014

One hundred seven years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori instituted the Montessori Method, a revolutionary teaching method completely based on the development of a child. Though this method has been around for awhile, it is still not as well known in mainstream education, let alone in the Christian realm.

Dr. Montessori was an Italian physician and educator. She graduated from the University of Rome as one of Italy’s first female physicians. During her first years after college, she became interested in working with children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This allowed her time to focus on observing and scientifically tracking which methods did and did not work to improve skills for these children. During her time in this field, her students took the state exam that was given to all children of the same age across Italy. Her methods had proven that they were incredibly helpful to children with disabilities. As a result, Dr. Montessori asked why it was okay to just stop there. She felt that if she was able to improve the skills of children with different special needs, why couldn't more be expected of their typically developing peers?

After working and developing new ways of teaching children with disabilities, she decided to open a school in a poor, inner-city area or Rome in 1907. This was the first “Casa Dei Bambini” or “Children’s House.” She spent many, many years observing children and adapting her method to how a child actually grows and develops. The materials she developed were a result observation of how a young child learns. She traveled to observe children of different cultures and found that all children, no matter what country, physically develop the same proving that her method could be used worldwide.

So, what is the Montessori method?

Montessori education focuses on the whole child. It allows the child freedom to develop his physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual sides. The Montessori approach accomplishes this through hands-on materials, one-on-one individualized lessons, freedom of movement, teaching grace and courtesies, and allowing the child to develop at her own pace. The prepared environment is geared towards a specific age group spanning 3 years (for example: 3-6 years old, 6-9 years old) where the older children teach the younger children when able. Studies have shown children learn more from peer tutors than from adult teachers. Not only do they learn from each other, but because of freedom of choice in the classroom, they learn from themselves and the self-correcting materials. They can practice a lesson over and over until it is actually mastered.

As the traditional view of education continues to try to make it better for all children, it seems that people become more and more up in arms about what their children are doing in school. Standardizing testing has run rampant throughout the country and have the end results shown an increase in learning? In my opinion (and many others), it has not. It has shown which students are able to memorize facts and equations for a test and which students cannot do so. Future graduates of education programs from colleges are all taught that children all learn at different levels, in different ways and at different paces. These graduates come out of universities excited to teach and reach every student. They hit the door of their classroom and they find that their hands are tied. They may not stray from the curriculum (fear of their students failing the standardized test), they cannot possibly teach to every child’s level, they may not let children repeat more challenging lessons because they must move on (to get to everything on the test). More and more researchers are coming up with Montessori-like ideas to help improve traditional schooling, but it cannot be truly used in a traditional setting until all adults in the traditional schools develop a respect for the child; for who chidren are as humans, how they develop and how they learn.

My Montessori experience

I became involved in the Montessori world after I graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania with a dual major in Elementary and Early Childhood Education with a minor in Special Education. I quickly realized that this field was not for me. I had to give reading lessons to a class with half of typical 5th graders and half children with learning disabilities. How was I to prepare a reading lesson for the reading levels between kindergarten and 7th grade? My cooperating teacher was not able to help me. She told me just to teach to the middle which didn’t make sense to me. Later, I was to give the PA standardized test to my students with learning disabilities. Many of them cried, one called himself “stupid” several times, and only one child actually attempted the test. Even though I was able to see him work hard and struggle through the test, I knew his answers were wrong and he was failing.

This led me to search out other educational options for children. I was hired as an assistant at a private Montessori school. I remember seeing 4 year olds doing 4 digit addition using hands on materials. I remember seeing 2.5 and 3 year olds pouring water, scrubbing tables and learning sounds. I saw a student walking on an ellipse, holding a flag to keep her balance. I saw a teacher sitting one-on-one with a student, while the other twenty-four in the classroom worked and walked around the room without needing any attention from adults. It was a perfect world for a child. I knew I needed to be in this type of teaching setting. A year and a half later, I had completed my Montessori Primary training and got my Masters in Teaching from Belmont University.

During my Montessori training, I learned more about how our culture of education came to be. It was during the industrial revolution when factory businesses were booming. The thought was, “If we can produce products quickly in a factory, we should do the same for our children.” Thus, the factory model of education was born. Each year, one teacher would dump as much knowledge into these empty vessels and after a year, these vessels would be ready to move onto the next “grade,” just waiting for another year of knowledge dumping to occur. This is not following any sort of child development.

Montessori classrooms

Hearing about what a Montessori classroom is like may bring up a lot of questions. The best way to understand Montessori is to observe a classroom. There are a lot of misconceptions about Montessori. Many people think Montessori schools are only for gifted children, or only for children with special needs. The truth is Montessori is for every child, but sometimes not every family. It is a lifestyle choice and when carried over into the home, it really helps the child to flourish. Some people think that Montessori classrooms must be absolute chaos if the children are allowed to “do whatever they want.” This is untrue. The philosophy does not say to let the children run wild. Children are supposed to be given as much freedom as they can handle, and there are limits to that freedom (rules that everyone in the classroom agrees upon). You can read about more common misconceptions here.

Montessori and religious education

Many people think Montessori is a religious education. This is not necessarily true. Dr. Montessori was a devout Catholic, though she knew if she put Christianity into her education philosophy, children around the world may not be able to take part. She decided to ask Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi to take over the religious arm of Montessori Education. They developed “The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,” a Montessori philosophy based Christian education program. Some Montessori schools choose to be non-secular, while others use the Catechesis in their traditional program.

The Catechesis inspired another form of Christian education called “Godly Play” by Jerome Berryman. Both of these methods have their roots in Montessori. If children can learn incredible things through the Montessori method (according to studies, much more than typical peers in other education programs) starting at the youngest of ages, it only makes sense that we should teach them about Christianity in the same manner.

Christianity can be an extremely difficult concept to teach to young children who learn best by touching, feeling and manipulating objects. Nevertheless, churches across the country continue to do Christian education through worksheets and art projects. In this method (like traditional teaching), the idea is that the teacher has all of the knowledge and needs to impart it to the young students. How many Christians would admit to having all knowledge of Christianity, Jesus and God? In Matthew 18:3, we are actually told to “change and become like little children” to enter the kingdom of God. (NIV) Why is this? I feel this is because children have a very different view of God and feel even closer than many adults do. They see the world differently. They have a lot to say about this subject from their own hearts. They have a lot of wisdom and knowledge that many adults will never know because the belief is children are empty vessels and can only be dumped into.

In the Catechesis and Godly Play models, children are treated respectfully, as equals, with the idea that they have important thoughts and questions. They learn through hearing the Bible, manipulating objects to tell the Bible stories, and are encouraged to come up with amazingly thoughtful and deep questions and thoughts toward the stories. They are shown the stories in a visual manner, are encouraged to retell the story themselves (deep learning) and teach it to other children (teaching is the true test of mastery). Silence is taught as an important human necessity and as a daily activity (something many of us especially families need more of).

This is just the beginning of how amazing Christian education could be if it was taught in a way that children develop and learn. There is a way to help children learn about the amazing God we have and it does not need to include cutting and pasting a picture of Jesus every week. It does not need to include students memorizing Bible verses for candy. It can be a deep, meaningful relationship with God and the church.

Books of interest

"Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius" by Angeline Stoll Lillard. Copyright © 2008 by Oxford University Press. (ISBN 9780195369366)

"How to Raise An Amazing Child the Montessori Way" by Tim Seldin. Copyright © 2006 by DK. (ISBN 9780756625054)

"Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education" by Trevor Eissler. Copyright © 2009 by Sevenoff. (ISBN 9780982283301)

The Good Shepherd and the Child: A Joyful Journey by Sofia Cavlletti. Copyright © 2007 Liturgy Training Publications. (ISBN 9781568541570)

Books about and written by Jerome Berryman

To see an example of Montessori view this YouTube video from Mt. Juliet Montessori Academy

comments powered by Disqus