What is Montessori Theory?

The Montessori Method is a practice that necessitates lifelong learning. As much as we may know about it and as long as we’ve practiced it, there are still going to be new things to discover, new skills to learn, new insights to explore. If you’re ever feeling stuck on your journey to implement Montessori practices in your life, it can be useful to return to the basics: What is the theory behind the Montessori Method?

The theory behind Montessori is a child-centered approach to learning and teaching that believes all children are innately motivated to learn and will do so given the environment and tools they need. Unlike other educational approaches, Montessori does not think that teachers and caregivers have to force, bribe, cajole, or trick children into an education. Instead, the Montessori Method values independence, autonomy, and respect for children.

Read on to learn more about the theory behind the Montessori method and what it looks like in action.

Young Boy Playing at Montessori/Pre-School
Young Boy Playing at Montessori/Pre-School

Montessori Theory: An Overview

A theory is more than just a couple of sentences, so let’s unpack what it means when we say things like “child-centered approach” and “innately motivated to learn.”

When we say that the Montessori Method is child-centered, what we mean is that it is specifically focused on what is best for any individual child. Now, that might seem a little too simple, right? Of course, we all want what’s best for children! But this aspect of the Montessori Method actually makes it distinct from many other educational approaches and is part of what makes Maria Montessori’s theory of education so powerful.

In other theories of education, there is a focus on using strategies to adapt the child to the learning material. This means that there are set learning outcomes with set timelines and a limited amount of strategies and approaches to draw from in order to meet these outcomes in the given timeline. The parent or educator is in charge of both the outcomes and the timeline and their role is also to choose which strategies will ensure that the child reaches their goals within the designated period of time. The child does not have input into the outcomes, timeline, or strategies. The parent or teacher can interpret the child’s behavior and progress in order to determine the best learning strategies to use, but the child does not choose these strategies themselves in most cases.

If a child is struggling to meet these outcomes, then the onus is put on the child to change: to work harder, to focus better, to care more. There is also pressure for the teacher or parent to make the child do so, with the assumption that – if left to their own devices – most children are not naturally invested in their own learning. Barring a few exceptions for students who have personalized learning goals through documents like IEPs or 504 plans, the learning outcomes, timelines, and strategies themselves are rarely altered in order to best adapt to the needs of the child.

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The theory behind Montessori is almost the exact inverse of this approach. The learning materials aren’t simply adapted to each individual child; the children themselves are almost fully responsible for their own learning. The driving force behind this theory is that children are born with the desire to learn and explore the world around them. They don’t have to be forced to learn or even taught how to learn. They already know!

For those of us who remember watching the clock during 7th period Science, desperate for escape, this can seem counterintuitive. No kids actually like school, right? But it’s important to remember that learning is not the same thing as school. Think back to any time you’ve seen a baby throwing the same toy to the ground over and over again, or a toddler working with total concentration to fit together a puzzle, or an eight year old who’s absolutely obsessed with dinosaurs and can tell you the name of what seems like every living creature from the Cretaceous period. All of these are examples of learning! And, more importantly, these are all examples of children’s natural aptitude for learning.

While other theories of education might seek to redirect these behaviors into something they deem more productive, the idea behind the Montessori Method is that these behaviors should be encouraged and supported. That’s where teachers and parents come in. The Montessori Method theorizes that the role of the parent or teacher is not to tell children what to learn, how to learn it, and when to learn it by; instead, it’s to act as a guide and to create an environment that supports self-directed learning.

Now, some people assume that this means that Montessori teachers and parents don’t do anything; they just watch their children run around like crazy, doing whatever they want. This couldn’t be further from the truth! While all children will learn independently given the appropriate environment, they are not in control of their environments, nor would they know how to be if given the opportunity. This is where the adults come in. In a Montessori space, it is the adult’s responsibility to set up and maintain an environment that facilitates safe and productive learning.

In Montessori, the environment extends beyond the physical space. Teachers and caregivers are responsible for creating a welcoming, appropriately stimulating environment free from unnecessary distractions, but they are also responsible for less tangible environmental concerns as well, such as setting appropriate boundaries and attending to the needs of the children within. Safety is paramount in Montessori classroom, and Montessori educators are responsible for maintaining an environment in which children can be safe to explore and take risks.

This ends up being quite an undertaking due to another essential aspect of the theory of Montessori, which is that Montessori is a holistic approach to education. Montessori takes learning far beyond reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. In Montessori classrooms, children learn social skills, teamwork, independence, motor skills, spatial awareness, and a variety of life and practical skills. These skills are not seen as secondary to more traditional learning, but as equally essential.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the end goal of a Montessori education is not to produce children who have all mastered a discrete set of skills and knowledge. Instead, it is to create well-rounded human beings who are well-equipped for a lifetime of continued learning. Montessori graduates are independent, self-motivated, disciplined, curious, and adaptable. They are ready to take on anything!

Where Did Montessori Theory Come From?

Montessori is named after its creator and first practitioner, Dr. Maria Montessori. Before we get into how Maria came up with her theories, it’s important that we know more about her life so we can understand the context in which she worked.

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. Yes! The theory of Montessori is that old! By her teens, she was already showing signs of thinking differently from those around her. In a move that was unusual for women at the time, she pursued a degree in physics, which she completed at the age of 20. She then made an even more unusual move and applied to attend medical school in Rome. Though she faced harassment and obstacles due to her gender, she successfully submitted her thesis and was made a doctor of medicine at age 26.

As a practicing doctor, her interests led her to work with children with learning and behavioral difficulties. She began noticing how these children’s needs were not being adequately met by the Italian education system. She worked hard to find ways to address each child’s individual needs, interests, and learning styles. This is where she first began the explorations that would lead to her developing the Montessori Method. She opened a school for training teachers how to work with children with disabilities. This school was incredibly successful for both the teachers who trained there and the students they later educated using methods learned from Maria Montessori.

Montessori eventually left this school and went on to continue her studies in medicine, psychology, and philosophy. Eventually, she was asked to run a school in one of the lowest-income districts in Rome. She adapted and built on the methods she had developed working with disabled children at this school to great success, and it was here that she first began implementing her theory of “teacher-as-facilitator.”

While the children played and explored freely, Maria Montessori observed, guided, and took copious notes. She noticed how her students performed best when they were given freedom to explore their interests and were allowed a sense of ownership over their own learning. Children at this school, called “Casa dei Bambini,” developed autonomy and confidence, and learned many important life skills alongside their more traditional education.

So, why is this all important to know? To begin with, it’s important that we understand that Maria Montessori was no dabbler. She was a highly educated woman (which was very unusual at the time) who applied medical, psychological, and philosophical expertise and experience to her theories. Next, we should understand that these theories developed over many years through real-world implementation.

Maria Montessori’s method is not a utopian vision of education, but a means-tested theory based in real world practices. Lastly, it’s crucial to note that this theory is centered around poor, disabled, and otherwise underserved children. Unlike nearly every other theory of education, these children are not overlooked, afterthoughts, or exceptions. Instead, they are at the very core of what makes Montessori so exceptional. The Montessori Method sees all children as unique, special, and capable. In a Montessori environment, there is no “normative” child that can be used as a symbol or stand-in for other children. Instead, children are seen for the very real and complex human beings they are.

After the overwhelming success of her first “Casa dei Bambini,” Maria Montessori began to open more and more schools. She also wrote about her theory of education in a book that would later be translated into English as The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the Children’s Houses. The book became a bestseller in the United States, as well as multiple other countries, and Montessori spent the rest of her life traveling the world to advocate for children and spread her teachings.

What Does Montessori Theory Look Like in Action?

Every child is different. So is every home and every classroom! But there are hallmarks of the Montessori Method that can be seen in any environment powered by the theories developed by Maria Montessori. We can break down some of these hallmarks using the ten principles of the Montessori Method!

Respect for the child: Children are spoken to calmly and taken seriously. Adults do not threaten, plead with, manipulate, intimidate, degrade, or bribe children. Children are seen as experts of their own inner lives and are treated as such. Adults meet children at a human level and give them freedom (within safe limits) to explore their world.

Absorbent mind/Intrinsic motivation: Maria Montessori believed that a child’s mind is highly receptive to new information and skills. In Montessori classrooms, there is an assumption that children are naturally curious and ready to learn. This looks like children learning in environments that do not try to “sell” learning, but simply present ideas, concepts, and skills for children to learn at their own pace and ability. Children are “rewarded” for learning by experiencing the satisfaction of knowing something new, not by effusive praise, gifts, or accolades.

Sensitive periods/Individualized learning: Children are presented with toys, activities, and tasks that are appropriate to their developmental stage, interest, and ability. Children are not engaging in “work” (Maria Montessori’s term for learning) that is overly simple or overly challenging. Adaptive support is given as needed for each child to be able to engage in independent learning. More on sensitive periods of development here.

Educating the whole child: Walk into a Montessori space and you will see children chopping vegetables with child-safe utensils, practicing how to take their coats on and off, and wiping down tables. These activities are considered learning activities, on par with learning a new letter or counting sums.

Freedom of movement and choice/Independence/Auto-education: Children are the leaders of their own space. They move around the classroom or home freely and are free to engage with any part of their environment. All learning is child-led. If a child is reading a book, they are not told to stop and do a worksheet instead.

Prepared environment: All aspects of the environment meant to be accessible to children are actually accessible to children. This means furniture like bookshelves and tables are child-sized, only materials children know how to use are out, and the environment is not overstimulating or unsafe. The environment welcomes learning and exploration.

Overall, Montessori environments significantly differ from environments you’ll see in other schools and homes because they don’t take shortcuts. Children are not grouped together as one big monolith or given strict rules in order to adapt themselves to a cookie-cutter environment. Instead, each child is seen as an individual deserving of respect and autonomy. Teachers and parents are aware of how all the children in the environment engage with their learning differently, and they use this awareness to help support their learning in a way that is best for the individual. The theory behind Montessori demands a lot of work on the part of adult and child alike, but it’s the most worthwhile kind of work possible.

Why The Montessori Method Works

Montessori is backed by research-based theories developed by a highly qualified professional through years of professional experience working with children that many theories of education see as disposable. These methods and theories have been studied, adapted, and perfected over decades by teachers, researchers, scientists, and parents.

Unlike other theories of education, Montessori is not geared towards short-term goals or transitory markers of success like grades, college acceptance, or achievement on standardized tests. Instead, the theory behind Montessori is designed to support holistic, highly individualized learning in order to set up each individual child with the tools they need to build a fulfilling and successful future.

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