Maria Montessori


Jean Henri Fabre is a famous French entomologist. Although he came from a poor and impoverished background, he became a teacher and later he was well-known for his studies and research on insects and arachnids. Fabre was not a dry, clinical scientist. His writings on his observations are poetic masterpieces of literature. ( Perhaps Fabre’s most famous experiments is known as the Pine Processionary. The Pine caterpillars formed a continuous loop around the edge of a pot that held their food. As each caterpillar instinctively followed the silken trail of the caterpillars in front of it, the group moved around in a circle for seven days without deviation, in spite of  starvation. This showed the power of instinct in the creatures; there was no power of reason.) Fabre was precise in his observations, a true scientist who observed, recorded and observed again. Many people thought he was a little crazy in his dedication. I’m sure he looked a little silly as he lay on the ground and watched his insects and spiders for hours and days at a time. But he believed that if he was to see how an insect lived, he must  observe the insect in its own habitat.

Observation is the corner-stone of the Montessori Method. It is not an exercise confined to a training year, but the beginning of a fundamental and intrinsic skill that the teacher must continue to develop. It really means that we learn to see the child, not just look at him. Maria Montessori was a doctor and a scientist and when she observed, she looked with an objective eye at phenomena before her. We must learn to do the same sort of  ‘looking’. What good is our science if we don’t know our subject? The subject is the growth and development of the person. Like Jean Henri Fabre, we must learn how ‘sit still ‘ record what we see without bias or preconceived judgments.

On Friday, I completed the second observation week. Last November I went to France and met Laurant Baurdin and his little one-room school in Grasse. This time I was able to stay in Bergamo and spend each day in the British Bilingual School.  It isn’t a Montessori School, strictly speaking, but the Elementary teacher is Montessori trained and was kind enough to host me for the week.

The teacher was working under a few restrictions: she had to follow the strict and intense Italian curriculum and she did not have the benefit of a mixed-age classroom. The administration had provided some Montessori materials, although a limited selection. Nonetheless, she worked with a marvelous group of children and did the best she could with what she had.

The teacher wasn’t under observation, however. It was the children I had come to see! I quickly settled on a young lady for no particular or distinctive reason. She just happened to be close to me at 8:30 on Monday morning. Each day I sat on a small stool by the door; I watched and waited and recorded. As the days went by the children showed me, in a marvelous way, how much they could do and carry out under their own initiative. Given a structure, they were set free. These children showed a profound love of learning, of self-discipline and self-motivation. They respected the teacher and helped one another; they were fun and creative and asked for more challenge in math and science. There was no such thing as procrastination.  I could say they were ‘on fire’.

The teacher gave lessons to individual students and small groups. She allowed them to make choices and sometimes she channeled their over-whelming enthusiasm to a realizable goal. She was a guide in the true sense of the word. The Montessori maxim of  ‘follow the child’ was understandable in this classroom because the children’s fire and love of learning brought on more discoveries of the children’s own making.

This natural out-pouring of enthusiasm on the part of the children could only arise from ‘freedom within limits’. Montessori observed this same phenomena and realized that she was looking at the nature of the child, ‘hitherto undiscovered.’ It is not a blind humanism that everything good is accomplished with the least intervention. I could see that the children were given structure: freedom and responsibility in balance according to their maturity. Human nature is still weak and fallen and in need of God. Who knows this more than child who has reached the age of reason?

I could see that these children were capable of doing more with their knowledge and freedom. What a joyful sight! Can you imagine having this experience as a child? I think that as an adult you would understand that the world is an interesting place, full of wonders and adventures. More than that, there would be a deep sense of confidence that those adventures could be lived because, once upon a time not very long ago, someone gave you the freedom to live your dreams and to succeed.

That’s what a friend asked the other day. Here is my response:

It’s called the ‘on’ button! Yes, here goes: Montessori Method is the studying human development from birth (and even before) through about the age of 24. It only ends there because Dr. Montessori didn’t really study beyond that age. Besides, she was more interested in the first stages of life (birth -6) where most development takes place.

The first part: So Montessori realized that there a definable periods of growth that a child goes through not just his body but the mind too. The stages are specific and each stage has characteristics that sort of define it. Here they are: birth to about age 6, absorbent mind stage. The person is sensitive (to an extreme, by comparison to how an adult mind works) to language, movement, order and his senses. And it’s obvious from a mother’s point of view, I think! We hear the phrase, “Don’t they grow up quickly!” because in fact, that exactly what the little guy is doing. Second Stage (what I’m studying now) from about 6 through age 12. These folks are sensitive to the moral order ( I think the Church is so wise to send her little ones to confession around this age and get 1st Communion), acquisition of culture, (make sure its good culture) and creative use of their imagination (keep trash like Harry Potter in the trash can and give them  good books!). Then we move on to the adolescent stage (12-18), which I know about because not very long ago I was one; but the child at this age is sort of coming into his own in the wider world and finding his place in it.  Finally, the last stage is 18-24 where we should have a fully functioning adult on the scene ready to take his place in society. This is the time when most children go off to College and begin that ‘merging’ into the adult world. So those are the four stages of human development in a nutshell.  We can see that growth of the mind (or even of the body) is not something linear, but comes in stages.

 Each stage is sort of hard-wired by God to help the person develop into a full-functioning adult. We can also understand these stages as a sort of efficiency on the part of nature to help the child acquire all the skills necessary to be a functioning adult. A Montessorian has to know these stages and teach the subjects (think of the classical disciplines: geometry, math, natural science, etc.) according to the abilities of each stage.

That is the Montessori Method. A poetical summary: “To assist life unfolding.”

And since that wasn’t two minutes, you get more:

The second part: The job of a Montessorian is two-fold: to understand these stages of development and to know the subjects she is teaching. She should master the subjects so well that she is able to give the information to the child in a way that the child can best receive it. She should have complete mastery of the classical disciplines.

Which why I am in school now!

The stages of human development are nothing new to the world. The cave-man’s child and a baby born today have the process of development. What differs is our (the adults) ability to understand and assist the child through life, especially in the realm of culture. If we want our children to know and love the best when they grow up, then give them the best when they are children!

Maria Montessori also understood about a child’s relationship to God. This is why we have the Mass materials and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. But this last point is so profound and beautiful, I will make another post about it.


We often hear about the insights of Dr. Montessori into the growth and development of the human mind. Obviously, this involves children to the a great degree. She is also well-known for devising beautiful and precise materials for classrooms. ‘Montessori School’ brings to mind lovely airy rooms with well-behaved children and lovely activities for them. All this is well and good and as it should be.

But Maria Montessori did not ‘discover’ her method under these conditions. She did not start out with the lovely things we are able to purchase today. She had almost nothing, just a ‘hunch’ if you will, about how the mind works.

So what is the connection between the materials and the child? I believe that the connection ~ and at a very deep level ~ lies between an understanding of natural world that Dr Montessori had when she devised the materials and her intuition about the person.

In order to be clear, I have to take another step back. When Aristotle set out his ten categories of existence he really didn’t come up with anything new. He simply showed us a way of thinking and acting in accord with reality. He organized what we already know. That doesn’t mean its easy to read him however. In fact, it can be rather difficult and rather fun to figure out what it all means. But down at the bottom of it all, we come out with a clearer mind because we’ve organized, categorized, and compartmentalized reality. St. Thomas refers to Aristotle frequently, if that’s any vote of confidence.

Its sort of like having a very very messy room or house. Its your house and you might know exactly where everything is kept, where it was put, at what time and so on. However, it doesn’t look very tidy and in fact, its rather a hassle for yourself and anyone else to tries to help. We might think of Aristotle as the philosopher who tidied things up a bit. Its nothing new really, just the same house organized.

All this is to say that we can operate in the world with a clear sense of what’s real and with assurance of objective truth that can be known, loved, and understood. That is,  to the degree that our minds are organized enough to receive the truth. (Small ‘t’ truth here.)

Maria Montessori understood all this when she began to devise her materials. She put it in her own words: “The simpler and clearer thing is the origin of things: as I use to say, the child has to have the origin of things because they origin is clearer and more natural for his mind. We simply have to find a material to make the origin accessible.” (Rome Course May, 1931).

How do we do that? How many of us have sat down to wrestle with the concept of how quality is a category of existence that  must must reside in a material substance? How do we begin to convey the postulates of Euclid? They are self-evidently true, but not obviously true. And if we don’t know (and don’t even care because life is busy) why would we ever think to try to teach a seven-year old that all horizontal lines are measured in reference to still water and vertical lines to the pull of gravity? How could we begin to teach the intricacies of music theory to children who won’t even sit still to play piano?

If you have figured these things out for yourself, then great! Most of us haven’t because we can’t organize our knowledge in reference to the origin of things.  We were all born on the same planet, but not all of us have organized our knowledge. The point here is that Dr. Montessori already understood the origin. As she designed materials for children, it was always with the effort to “give the most the simplest way.”

The part that shocks us is that a child can learn these concepts when we find it so difficult. There are many examples that I want to share, but for the moment let me give a (rather poor photograph) of some basic math material:

Here is an example:


These are the number rods. Yes, simple rods in red and blue.No, they don’t break apart. Each one is its own rod.  These are used for teaching numbers. Dr. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Prize for designing these. In fact, if she had done nothing else, she would be known as the person who invented how to teach number. You see, the idea of numbers as lines ~ whole lines, measured by a unit ~ goes back to the ancient Greeks. But this is where formal number teaching begins. We don’t stay here very long (obviously!) but a child gets the idea that 3 or 6 or 7 or 10 is a definite value. And its easy to see that the unit measures all the numbers.

That is a great place to start!

Here is another example, also math but a little farther down the line:


This is the little tiny unit. On the ten bar there are ten units. It take 10 ten bars to make a 100 and 10 hundreds to build a thousand. This is just the ‘meet the decimal system’ stage. (Please know that there are many more of each of these.)  But with these simple things, its possible to teach the child all the operations of arithmetic. How? Because all that is required is the skill of counting to ten.

But that is not all. Montessori didn’t waste any time teaching concepts in  slow singular-case stages. Can we later bring out these same materials and begin a lesson on geometry? The unit corresponds to a point; in motion we could understand how a line is made up of infinite points. And from a line we can have a surface, and from a surface, we can understand a solid.

We could go on through the materials for a long time. Bu what I wanted to illustrate is simply this: Dr. Montessori was able to design her materials based on a fundamental and objective understanding of the world; her materials bear witness to the origin of things as ancient philosophers describe. When we teach little children with these materials and bring to life, make accessible, the origin of things, it is as though we gaze upon a  beauty ever ancient and ever new.



One advantage of studying in an old Montessori Training Centre is the exposure to old Montessori materials. Really old materials. Materials that are so permeated with oral tradition that all that is necessary to understand the concept is to hold the material.  I jest but slightly.

These are some of the geometric solids (the sphere, the cone, and the cube). Nowadays, these shapes are base 10cm and painted a dark, almost navy, blue. In the ‘old days,’ they were base 5cm in light blue.

It might seem like a small thing, but l recall that Dr. Montessori developed these materials to a particular size according to the children’s response. When Ms. Grazzini took these ancient geometric solids from the shelf, I almost fainted with delight.

See how the light reflects off the them? We can see a delicate shading as the light falls on the faces of the solid; even the sphere seems round! These are solids that are easy to draw, color and copy!

As opposed to these:



Of course they are still beautiful. And they are useful for teaching.

But I prefer the ancient loveliness of the light blue solids.


The short answer is to say that Montessori is a method of education, built upon a certain set of fundamental principles. The ‘method’ has become very popular today.

But that is hardly a satisfactory answer to a very good and fair question.

Dr. Montessori did not set out to become an educator. Through her observation and studies, she found certain patterns of development that occur within the human mind and spirit. We are aware of how children are born and grow up and how much our bodies change in the course of a lifetime. But what is happening on the inside? Dr. Montessori found that the human find develops in very specific ways and at very specific times. This was her discovery.

What those specific ways are and how they unfold constitute the core studies of a Montessori trainee.  Montessori teachers must know ~internalize~  these principles if they are to help children. This process for teacher-training might be compared to studying medicine; if one is to aid in the healing of bodies, then is highly recommend that one know how the body works before administering care to others.

In addition to her discovery of “Laws of Human Development” Dr. Montessori developed materials that help inform the mind of a young child. She tested and refined the materials over the course of her lifetime. They are a result of years of study, observation and rejection. These are the “Montessori Materials” that you would see in classrooms throughout the world. They are scientific tools, made to precise standards and often extremely beautiful. Even adults are often drawn to touch them “just to see what they’re like.”

How the materials are to be used, and when and in what way children should use them, comprises the second aspect of studies for a Montessori trainee. This is not an easy step. As adults we must pause and almost  ‘re-make’ our minds  to understand how a child perceives the world and then, to assist him without overwhelming him with our knowledge and pre-conceptions. The content of studies is not varied from what we already know with regard to reading, writing, math, and so on but how to teach in accord with developmental needs requires many hours of observation and practice.

The results of Montessori education have been so positive for children throughout the world that it has become increasingly popular. Many dedicated and enthusiastic teachers have realized the truth of Dr. Montessori’s discoveries and bring their enthusiasm to the field of education.

This is a wonderful and fruitful result of awareness that life itself is good and beautiful. Through working with young children comes a realization that we are humble servants of life unfolding.  Dr. Montessori wrote: It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method. I have studied the child, I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that it what is called the Montessori Method (What You Should Know About Your Child: Based on Lectures Delivered by Maria Montessori, transcribed and translated by Gnana Prakasam)