Maria Montessori’s methods were not derived from any extant pedagogical wisdom. She had in fact sidestepped the more traditional education path for women — teacher’s training — in favor of science. But as an astute scientist and quick-minded observer, she had soon discovered some important and, for the period, revolutionary principles about children and the process of learning. Among these was the notion that children have an innate drive to learn, and that all on their own they are capable of amassing an incredible amount of information and wisdom about the world around them. This was startling news at the turn of the 20th century as  it had been assumed that children could only learn through instruction — or more specifically, from being lectured by an adult.

Montessori further discovered that children’s innate power for learning worked best when they are in a safe, hands-on-learning environment. Given furniture, equipment, and supplies that they could access and work all by themselves, they were self-motivated to explore, experiment, and reach new understandings. She found self-correcting, or “auto-didactic”, puzzles and other equipment to be an essential component of independent learning and the child-friendly environment. What’s more, she found that if children were put into groups with other children with a small range in ages (such as 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, etc.), they would not only work together but also help teach each other. Older children would learn teaching and nurturing skills, and younger children would glimpse strategies for learning and playing that they had not considered yet.

Montessori also found that children of all ages thrived when they were given the opportunity to experience mastery of real life skills and knowledge that was appropriate to their age and stage of life. Thus preschoolers thrilled at being allowed to assist in the kitchen and felt pride and increased self-esteem at being able to help set the table and use appropriate manners and verbal expressions. Meanwhile the self-confidence and joy of young teenagers was bolstered by mastering basic home economics, and by learning information about running a business, or building furniture or a home. These young teens also did best when the primary emphasis in their learning process was practical and action oriented, rather than purely intellectual. Montessori believed this was because this age group was under so much psychological and physiological pressure that the surging swings of emotion made it harder to focus on purely abstract studies.

Above all, Montessori felt her most significant discovery was the awareness that it is the teacher who must pay rapt attention to the students, not the other way around — a notion utterly contrary to the expectations of her day. But she found that by observing how the individual children responded to various lessons and materials, she could easily figure out what lessons/experiences to present next. And by acknowledging that each child is an individual, with individual needs and abilities, she could apply this method to guiding particular children to fulfillment of their potential. What’s more, she demonstrated the truth of this philosophy by transforming the lives, and minds, of the children with whom she worked.

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