Dr. Montessori, quite famously, did not want to be a teacher. Born in 1870, pedagogy would have been a highly suitable career for an intelligent, educated young woman. Her mother had been a teacher herself, and her father wished for her to take the same path. But signorina Montessori had different ideas, and wanted more for herself. She wished to learn how things worked: the world as a whole, the human body in particular, the human mind… and she followed that wish by studying technical sciences, by becoming a doctor, by further studying and teaching university courses in psychology and anthropology.
Being quite the determined woman – stubborn as a mule, if you will – Dr. Montessori accomplished exactly what she set out to do. Learning how the human being worked became her life’s work, and her legacy to us.
Even as Dr. Montessori became one of the most famous educators of the world, she remained a scientist, experimenter and observer; the children became her dearly beloved subject matter. She did not show us, not at first, how to educate the child. She showed us who the child was (her seminal work could not be more aptly named). Dr. Montessori observed and deduced, studied and investigated, what was it the child needed most. Her experiments were not so much to build a pedagogical theory but simply to find out how best to fulfill those human needs. She found out, to her surprise and delight, that by doing so the traditional aims of pedagogy are fulfilled as well: that the child, if given the right opportunity, will learn all on their own.
Education, in the Montessori view, is not about transmitting knowledge, whether higher mathematics and philosophy or practical, vocational training. It is in its essence the act of supporting the child, providing them the necessary resources so that they may educate themselves, by which we mean: create the person they are to become. Education is not teaching. It is an aid to life.
In reality there is no Montessori method, there are not Montessori principles – what we are speaking of are universal principles guiding the development of man from conception to maturity. In order to understand Montessori, we need to understand that it is the tendencies of man which govern his development and that these tendencies must be realized and catered for, if there is to be any real change in the structure and content of education, with a consequent answer to the problems facing us today.
Margaret Stephenson, 1956
This is why the all the essential pillars of Montessori theory are concepts and guidelines of human development, with nary a note on classroom management in sight. Cultures shift, classrooms change, our lifestyles transform; the children of today live in a world barely comprehensible to the children of a hundred years ago. But their humanity is the same, and therefore the Montessori approach is as fresh, vibrant and applicable as ever before.
There is more than one way to do anything, my first trainer said. It is not necessary to have the Pink Tower or the Binomial Cube or any of the beautiful materials from our curriculum (although they have been found, over the past century, to be useful; and so we shall likely keep them around for a while yet). It is not necessary to furnish your home the way Dr. Montessori’s grandchildren had theirs furnished, or to follow the same schedule she instituted at the first Casa with your four year old. But we do have the duty and responsibility to study children; and we have the great advantage of being passed a life’s worth of Dr. Montessori’s brilliant work to help us. To understand the human characteristics we share with children and the ways in which they are different from us. To assist them as they work and learn and grow on the path of becoming adults. That is, in its heart, the Montessori Method.