“When I was at school we had a teacher whose fixed idea was to make us learn by heart the lives of famous women, in order to incite us to imitate them. The exhortation which accompanied these narrations was always the same. Would you not like to become famous?” “Oh no,” I replied drily one day, “I shall never be that. I care too much for the children of the future to add yet another biography to the list.” (Her Life and Work, Chapter 1, p. 21). Despite not having an inclination of being famous, Dr. Montessori became the founder of the Montessori Method of Education. After graduating in 1896 at the age of 26, Dr. Montessori worked at a psychiatric clinic in the University of Rome as an Assistant Director. She quickly observed how the children were ill treated.
In light of her interest in children, Dr. Montessori’s studies and work were inclined towards the work of Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin who specialized and studied about mentally disabled children. Dr. Montessori was successful in this field of work and it was not long before Dr. Montessori realized that the similar method in educating the mentally disabled children could be used to normal children. “After I had left the school for deficient, I became convinced that similar methods applied to normal children would develop or set free their personality in a marvelous and surprising way…A great faith animated me, and although I did not know that I should ever be able to test the truth of my idea, I gave up every other occupation to deepen and broaden its conception…It was almost as if I prepared myself for an unknown mission.” (The Essential Montessori, Chapter 1, p.14). Nonetheless, she was not in luck and she did not have an opportunity to work with normal children just yet.
Casa dei Bambini or rather known as Children’s House was the first school Dr. Montessori had established in 1907. This was also her first opportunity to work with normal children. Casa dei Bambini was located in a slum area in San Lorenzo. This area was over populated and was known for its poverty and high crime rates. Given the state of the area at that juncture, the government authorities decided that the children of the area should not be left abandoned and thus approached Dr. Montessori to assist in caring for these children. Despite the government having the objective of the school as overcoming social issues, Dr. Montessori was of the view that Casa di Bambini was to provide free education and care to children of working parents. At Casa dei Bambini, Dr. Montessori made the following ten observations.
Dr. Montessori’s first observation led to her discovery of the ability of children to concentrate. She noted that children had the ability to concentrate without easily being distracted. Dr. Montessori was taken aback to notice the intensity of a three year old child who was working on cylinders and their containers. The child was slipping the cylinders in and out of the containers. Her motion was almost perpetual like with no change in speed. She was not distracted by her surrounding that it seemed as though her concentration and interest towards the cylinders had shut her off from her surroundings. Having closely observed this child, Dr. Montessori made efforts to distract the child by requesting the other children to sing loudly and in addition to that, Dr. Montessori also picked up the chair seated by the girl and placed it on the table.
Dr. Montessori’s efforts in distracting the child’s concentration were to no avail. Besides observing the intensity of concentration in this child, Dr. Montessori had also noticed that the child had repeatedly conducted the exercise and managed to complete it 42 times. Having completed what is considered a tiring task, the child seemed pleased. This observation had led Dr. Montessori in developing the method with the fundamental principle of the spontaneous work of the child. In addition to the level of concentration in a child as discovered by Dr. Montessori, she had also observed that the child has love of repetition. She noticed that children needed to repeat a particular task to assist their development. Dr. Montessori shared her experience on how she taught the children in Casa dei Bambini to wash their hands and thereafter became aware that the children had continually washed them despite it being clean. They often repeated exercises for no external purpose and this happened often in various other exercises.
Dr. Montessori noted that the more detail the exercise was taught the more the children continuously repeated the same. “Though periods of concentration that made the children oblivious to the outer world were not frequent, I noted a strange behavior that was common to all and nearly constant in all their actions. This was what I later called “repetition of exercise”. (The Secret of Childhood, Chapter 19, p.120).
Dr. Montessori’s next discovery was the love of order in a child. During her close examination on the children at Casa dei Bambini, Dr. Montessori discovered that the children who had often monitored their teacher placing objects back at its proper place and ‘disobeyed’ their teacher’s instructions to return to their seat were doing so simply due to their interest in wanting to imitate their teacher’s actions; i.e. to place objects back at their proper places. Since they portrayed the interest of returning the objects to where they belonged, Dr. Montessori did not deny their desire and allowed them to do so. With that, the children adopted this new practice in their life. The children always placed things in order, straightened objects up and generally kept the environment in order. Dr. Montessori later observed that this behavior was absent in older children.
In addition to the above, another surprising discovery at Casa dei Bambini which Dr. Montessori came across was that the children had the ability to select materials and objects of their choice. Dr. Montessori explained in The Secret of Childhood and in Her Life and Work that the teacher having forgotten to lock the cupboards in the class arrived in class the next day only to notice that all the children have helped themselves with materials and objects of their choices. Despite the teachers being cross and had intention to punish the children, Dr. Montessori quickly noticed that the children had no aim of stealing as they enjoyed putting things back into their proper places after usage. “This incident was the beginning of that principle of “free choice of activity”
(Her Life and Work, Chapter 2, p.42). Having witnessed that incident, Dr. Montessori had gotten all the locked cupboards replaced by smaller and attractively painted cupboards which allowed the children to access the materials and objects easily. This enabled them select items which corresponded to their inner needs. By providing the children with this freedom of choice, Dr. Montessori further observed their psychic needs and inclination. The children often chose the same materials and objects leaving the other objects unused. Despite exposing the children to ALL the materials and objects, they never voluntarily chose the unused items. With this observation, Dr. Montessori later adopted the method called ‘Free Choice of Activity’.
Dr. Montessori’s next observation led to her discovery that the children were not keen in toys, be it costly toys or otherwise and that their preference was simply to work with materials and objects. Pricey toys which Dr. Montessori placed in the room were never chosen by the children. Dr. Montessori got involved in demonstrating to the children on how to handle and play with the toys but their attention was short-lived. The children never went back to choose or play with those toys. She simply said that “They never made such toys the object of their spontaneous choice” (Her Life and Work, Chapter 2, p.43). Having witnessed this incident Dr. Montessori could conclude that children felt that they had a priority which made them attracted to do any exercise which could assist their development as opposed to playing.
Another incident which occurred led to Dr. Montessori’s conclusion that children need not be rewarded or punished. She once entered the room and noted that a child who was being punished by a teacher had a decoration on his breast and was seated in the centre of the room. On the other hand, there was another child who was being rewarded with a badge. Surprisingly, the reward did not mean anything to the child and he had removed it and given it to the child who was being punished. The child who was being punished appeared to be indifferent to both the reward and the punishment badges as if it did not mean anything to him. Observing this situation and other subsequent incidents whereby the children often refused rewards, Dr. Montessori discovered that rewards and punishment impeded the children’s choice of activity and soon abandoned the reward and punishment practice. She had also monitored the behavior of the children and distinguished that children were well behaved when they had learned how to work.
Dr. Montessori also regarded mischief or disobedience which exists amongst children was simply due to the divergence of their energies from the true channels. The only solution to this issue was that this diverted energy be fixed via a different orientation of elements of personality through spontaneously chosen work. Dr. Montessori compiled views on rewards and punishments from other Dr. Montessori schools and one directress wrote that “With younger children the greatest reward is to be able to pass on to a new stage in each subject. It is a punishment to a young child not to be allowed to use the apparatus, but to sit still and do nothing” (Her Life and Work, Chapter 2, p. 44).
The discovery of Dr. Montessori’s exercise of silence originated from an observation of hers at Casa dei Bambini. When Dr. Montessori once brought a 4 month old baby into the class who were so silent, she jokingly wanted the children to imitate the silence. As soon as Dr. Montessori pointed out the baby’s silent behavior to the children and challenged them to imitate the same, they proved to her that they were able to be as silent as the child. During this incident, Dr. Montessori discovered that the children were not only silent but their silence was seen to have been a desire from within. Dr. Montessori attempted another activity with the children as an addition to the activity of silence. She very quietly whispered their individual names and requested them to walk to the front of the class where she was at. Dr. Montessori noted that they could not only keep silent but were also very sensitive to a voice that had called out to their names. They were also careful as to not knock any furniture or objects around them. Dr. Montessori realized that “Every exercise involving movement where mistakes can be corrected, as in this case where noise was checked by silence, is of great assistance to a child. Repetition of such an exercise can lead a child to perform exterior acts with a perfection which it could never attain through more instruction”.(The Secret of Childhood, Chapter 19, p.124).
Through Dr. Montessori’s numerous encounters in communicating with the children at Casa dei Bambini, she discovered that children had a sense of personal dignity. She stressed that adults should respect this, failing which the child could be offended in the long run. Dr. Montessori described how she once carefully taught the children how to blow their noses using a handkerchief in the most discreet manner. When the children clapped with much enthusiasm at her demonstration, Dr. Montessori had an instinct that she had touched a sensitive spot in the children’s lives. As opposed to having taught them on how to use the handkerchief, many adults had often scolded the children on this accord. During visits by various observers at the Casa dei Bambini, the children were so well behaved that Dr. Montessori was surprised herself by the positive feedbacks made by the visitors. The children were said to have been very inviting and polite. Dr. Montessori knew that their actions were sincere as they were not instructed to treat the visitors with such warmth.
During Dr. Montessori’s tenure at Casa dei Bambini, she did not have the intention to teach the children to read and write. Dr. Montessori opined that children should begin writing as late as possible, preferably after the age of 6. The children at Casa dei Bambini had never failed to surprise Dr. Montessori when they approached her to teach them. Many parents had also approached Dr. Montessori requesting her to teach their children. As they were persistent, Dr. Montessori finally agreed and together with assistance from other teachers, they made alphabets out of card boxes and sandpapers. The children were only taught the sounds that the alphabets represented and not the name of them. When one student finally managed to spell the word SOFIA, it was proven that the children were seeking for the component sound of the words they had in mind. They also slowly learnt to grasp that each of the sound corresponds to an alphabet. Dr. Montessori thereafter wrote instructions and commands on the board and within a week there were children who could read and perform those commands. It is a common misconception that children start to read before they are able to write.
However, Dr. Montessori discovered otherwise. Subsequent to all of the above, Dr. Montessori had discovered the vast improvement in the overall wellbeing of the children at Casa dei Bambini. During her initial days at Casa dei Bambini, she witnessed the street children being in a disorderly and unkempt state. Nonetheless, as time passed, the children had adapted to the new practices in life of which Dr. Montessori had exposed them to. As mentioned above, the approach of offering rewards or punishments had been disregarded. However, the children had still inhibited the good habits which improved their day to day lifestyle. It was apparent that this change was a spontaneous self-discipline. The children also portrayed positive vibe, being very happy and joyful. Their well behaved attitudes awed many observers who visited the class. With this self discipline, Dr. Montessori discovered that the children were independent and obedient. They were able to attend class, select their favorite materials and work with them in a quiet manner and returned the materials to its proper place when they have completed their exercises.
Casa dei Bambini, being the first opportunity which arose for Dr. Montessori to work with normal children, had indeed equipped her with numerous unforgettable memories and experiences which eventually formed the foundations to her method. Her method is said to have been a consequence of her various discoveries mentioned above via observations of children behavior, particularly the children at Casa dei Bambini. Subsequent to all the above discoveries, Dr. Montessori conducted her first course on education for children in 1909.