The Good Teacher and The Good Pupil - Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Maria Montessori

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery of the Child


When, at the age of fourteen, Maria Montessori was advised by her parents to become a teacher (it was practically the only career open to women at that time) her reaction was categorical: anything but that! Yet she was to become one of the most celebrated educators of all time. Her name came to be associated with a new method of teaching which has gained a world-wide following.

Maria first thought of becoming an engineer because of her deep interest in mathematics, but finally decided to study medicine. That was easier said than done, for in the Italy of those days only men attended medical school. When the head of the Board of Education told her that it was not possible, she remarked quietly," I know I shall become a Doctor of Medicine. "1 Surely enough, she succeeded. Despite all opposition she became the first woman medical student in Italy.

But this was not the end of her difficulties. The other students resented her intrusion into their exclusively masculine world and subjected her to many petty persecutions. In addition, her father continued to disapprove of her chosen career. It came to such a point that she thought of abandoning the attempt. That very day she had an experience which was to alter her outlook on life. On her way home from school she met a shabbily dressed woman with a child of about two years. Hardly hearing the professional whine of the beggar, she intently observed the little child playing on the ground with a small piece of coloured paper. Something in the


E. M Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (London: Hollis and Carter, 1957), p. 5.

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Discovery Of The Child

expression of the child, so serenely happy in the possession of that worthless scrap of coloured paper, observing it with the full absorption of its little soul, provoked Maria a profound inner experience. "I cannot explain it, " she was to say in later years. "It just happened like that. You will probably think it a very silly story; and if you told it to others they would probably just laugh at it. "' But from that moment, she returned to her work with new energy, convinced that she had some special vocation to fulfil, although for many years to come she had no idea that she would find her life' s mission in education.

In 1896, at the age of twenty-five, she became the first woman in Italy to receive the degree of Doctor of Medicine. For ten years thereafter she led a very active life. Soon after graduating, Dr. Montessori was appointed to the Psychiatric Clinic at the University of Rome. In this capacity, she came across idiot children living in extremely bad conditions inside Rome's lunatic asylums. She came to differ with the usual views on how to deal with such cases, believing that with proper educational treatment their mental condition could be considerably improved.

"That form of creation, " she said, "which was necessary for these unfortunate beings, so as to enable them to re-enter human society, to take their place in the civilized world and render them independent of the help of others —placing human dignity within their grasp — was a work which appealed so strongly to my heart that I remained in it for years. "2

From 1899 to 1901 Maria Montessori was the director of a state orthophrenic3 school that housed children considered hopelessly deficient. She prepared a group of teachers "in a special method of observation and in the education of feeble- minded children. "4 She worked all day with the children, and spent the evenings making, comparing, and analyzing notes, and preparing new material. She remarked later, "Those two years of practice are indeed my first and only true degree in pedagogy. "5

She was so successful that some of these children learnt to read and write and were able to pass an examination given to normal children. This success raised further questions in Dr. Montessori. "Whilst everyone was admiring my idiots, "she wrote, "I was searching for the reasons which could keep back the healthy and happy children of the ordinary schools on so low a plane that they could be equalled,


1. Ibid., pp. 7-8.

2. Ibid., p. 10.

3. Orthophrenia: the normal mental state in social relations.

4. Ibid., p. 11.

5. Ibid., p. 11.

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Discovery Of The Child

in tests of intelligence by my unfortunate pupils."1

She concluded that the key lay in the difference between ordinary educational. principles and those she applied in teaching her "idiots". "This feeling, so deep as to be of the nature of an intuition, became my controlling idea. I became convinced that similar methods applied to normal children would develop and set free their personality in a marvellous and surprising way. "2

She gave up her work with the deficients in 1901. Already she was deeply interested in the problem of educating normal children but somehow did not feel ready to put her theories into practice. She felt a need for further study. Although she was already a lecturer at the university, she registered again as a student, this time in philosophy and pedagogy. During this period she made a thorough study of the works of two French doctors, Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, who had looked after deficient children. Itard lived at the time of the French Revolution and was best known for having educated an idiot boy found abandoned in a forest. He also made a study of deaf mutes. Seguin was Itards student. He founded a school for mental deficients in Paris and became well known for his remarkable success. Seguin insisted that his "physiological method", based upon an individual study of the pupil and analysis of physiological and psychological phenomena, should also be applied to normal children. This, according to him, would "lead the way to a complete human regeneration. "3

Maria Montessori was so interested in the works of Seguin and Itard that, she said, "I translated into Italian and copied out with my own hand the writing of these two men from beginning to end (Seguin's book alone was 600 pages long), making for myself books as the Benedictines did before the diffusion of the art of printing. I chose to do this by hand in order that I might have time to weigh the sense of each word and read in truth the spirit of the authors. "4

Besides these private studies, Maria Montessori continued to have a very active life. From 1896 to 1906, she occupied the Chair of Hygiene at a women's college and for four years the Chair of Anthropology at the University of Rome. During this time she published her first major work, a large volume entitled Pedagogical Anthropology. In addition to these activities, she practised medicine in various clinics and hospitals in Rome and even carried on a private practice. One


1.Ibid., p.11.

2. Ibid., 12

3. Ibid., 14.

4. Ibid., p.13.

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Discovery Of The Child

of her students gives a glimpse of Maria Montessori as professor:

The hall was crowded with young people of both sexes. The lecturer remained standing during her discourse, and kept her eyes fixed on her audience with a penetrating look. I found out afterwards that, even with quite a large audience, she was able somehow to be conscious of each one individually with what one might describe as a kind of spiritual contact.

I noticed at once that she was a very good-looking woman; but what impressed me more was that she did not follow the fashion of so many learned women of that time by dressing in a somewhat masculine style. Her attire, though simple, retained an elegant and feminine touch.

In that opening lecture she spoke, not so much about anthropology, as about schools — what the function of a school should be. She emphasized two main points: first, that it is the duty of the teacher to help rather than to judge; and second, that true mental work does not exhaust, but rather gives nourishment, food for the spirit. She was a most attractive lecturer with a manner that was easy and gracious. Everything that she said had the warmth of life. I remember some of the students saying "Her lectures make us want to be good, " which recalls the remark made by another teacher at another of her courses a year or two later, "We do not understand all that she is trying to teach us; but we all find in it a spiritual stimulus. "1

In 1906, at the age of thirty-six, Maria Montessori was leading a brilliant career indeed. Then something happened which, within two years, would make her name known all over the world. The stage was an unlikely one: a classroom hastily organized in a slum of Rome for sixty young children, in order to prevent them from damaging the new flats recently allotted to their families.

It was here in the San Lorenzo slum that Maria Montessori would make her fundamental discovery: that a precious treasure lies hidden within each child, and that her work with mentally deficient children had given her a key to unlock it. In the quotation that follows, taken from Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, the author, Mortimer Standing, describes the outcome of the San Lorenzo experiment and the rapid spread of Montessori's fame:

So great a wonder could not remain long hid. The strange happenings in the heart of the slum quarter of San Lorenzo began to be talked about. A second "Children's House" was set up in another tenement building; and there too the same wonders began to reveal themselves. Soon visitors of all sorts were to be seen making their way


1. Ibid., p. 15.

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Discovery Of The Child

through the drab streets of San Lorenzo to see these astonishing children for themselves, and went away marvelling to relate what they had seen to  their friends.1

The year of the San Lorenzo experiment (1907-1908) forms a landmark in Montessori's career. At the commencement of this annus mirabilis she was known to certain circles in Rome. That was all. By the end of it — or of the year following — her name had travelled all over the civilized world, even beyond it. We might almost say that, like Byron, "she woke up to find herself famous. "

For many reasons she would have preferred to go on living as she had been living, directing the work of the Children's Houses; and at the same time carrying on as a lecturer at Rome University; lecturing at the women's training college; and, in addition, doing as much private practice as time allowed. But it was not to be. From various countries, especially from England and America, people wrote, or came to Rome in person, clamouring for further instruction in the principles of this new method. Apart from these requests, as she came to realize more completely the wider significance of her discoveries, she felt increasingly the burden of a responsibility that could not be evaded. Her mission in life was now no longer a vague sense of something to come: it had crystallized out. Into her hands, without her seeking it, had been placed a key which would unlock immense treasures for humanity. Or, to put it without metaphor, she felt the duty of going forth as an apostle on behalf of all the children in the world, born and as yet unborn, to preach for their rights and their liberation.2

Maria Montessori began to travel extensively. Her writings were translated into many languages and her ideas spread remarkably quickly. In certain countries they even led to a new form of architecture. In Germany, Austria, America, Holland, India und Italy, special "Children's Houses " were built, many of them in collaboration with Dr. Montessori herself. In these buildings everything was constructed in proportion to the dimensions of the physical and mental needs of children.

She received many invitations and gave teacher-training courses in Italy, France, Holland, Germany, Spain, England, Austria, India and Ceylon. She also went to South America. Wherever she went, she made a deep impression.

Her profound insight into the soul of the child; her long and varied experience; her scientific outlook combined with a maternal tenderness and sympathy; the lucidity of


1. Ibid., p. 35

2.Ibid.,pp. 41-42.

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Discovery Of The Child

her discourses and their originality; her strong yet charming personality, at once humble yet dignified; the passionate sincerity of her devotion to her mission - all these . combined to make her the perfect advocate of her cause, which was the cause of the child.1

Yet she knew that immense potential energies were still waiting to be set free, and she felt the need of continuing to study and meditate. She was aware of the risk of dissipating her energies in endless lecture tours. So, for forty years after her initial discovery, and in the midst of her other absorbing activities, she continued to research. The training of teachers, the study of the preschool child, and the application of her principles to children of more and more advanced ages were subjects of that research. The result was apian for the reconstruction of society and civilization, based on the idea that "true education is the armament of peace. "2

In 1939 Maria Montessori went to India to give a training course to teachers in Madras. It was attended by more than three hundred teachers and students. During this time the Second World War broke out. Being Italian, she was automatically regarded as an enemy alien. But an exception was made in her case, and she was allowed to continue her work. During the war years, she gave courses in various parts of India and met many leaders of India, including Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru.

After the war, she went back to Europe. In 1949 she attended the International Montessori Congress at San Remo, the eighth congress of its kind since 1925. In the last years of her life, she was as active as ever, constantly moving from one country to another giving lectures and courses. In the autumn of 1949 she was invited to address a gathering of UNESCO, where she received a standing ovation. She died suddenly on 6 May 1952, at the age of eighty-one.

Maria Montessori dedicated her life to bringing forth the "hidden treasure" that exists in every child. She understood that a child is not a blank slate but a conscious being, and that the role of education is to help this conscious being to grow and develop.

All other methods of education have taken the work of certain adults as their points of departure and have sought to educate or teach the child according to programmes dictated by adults. For my part, I believe that the child himself must be the pivot of his own education — not the child as people ordinarily think of him, but rather his


1. Ibid., p. 46.

2. Ibid., p. 347.

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Discovery Of The Child

innermost soul, seen from a perspective that was unprecedented before the advent of what has been called the Montessori Method.

At the end of one of her training courses, she made the following speech which sums up beautifully her basic attitude:

It is difficult for me to express my sentiments and my thanks. We have been together several months and we have become conscious of a bond uniting us, which has grown stronger and which I believe will never break. I am a pilgrim and you are pilgrims towards an idea. I voyage and you voyage and we unite ourselves together, almost as spiritual pilgrims, to work for the triumph of a principle which does not concern ourselves — but the child for whom we are working and wish to work.

You and I have been, as it were, seduced by something attractive and deep in the child. Not only in those beautiful individual creatures whom we all love, but also in an almost symbolic being — one who holds in himself a secret, a secret we can never wholly fathom, and one which will therefore always attract us.

We began by protecting the child and now we realize that it is we who need protecting. We began with methods of education and culture for the child, and we end by acknowledging that he is our teacher. Not a teacher who gives us culture, but one who can reveal to us, as no other, our own nature and its possibilities. Therefore we are drawn towards the child, as individuals, as members of society, and for the good of the human race as a whole.

The child is an authority: and the adult must make himself in accord with this authority if he wishes to better his conditions. We have been studying the means towards a harmony between the child and the adult; and we have learned many deep things — but there are many more to be learned.

Some of you will go back to your own country and home just to teach. Others will do more: you will go on studying the child. That is why we are all united in this sphere and can never be separated.

This course has not been primarily a course for the study of culture. I myself speak a foreign language you do not understand; and you, young and old, of all nations, races, religions — some of you still seeking a place in the world, others already with honoured names — you all sit, side by side, together and without surprise. We have come together in this way because we have touched a point which is common to all cultures, nations, societies, religions— "The Child".1


1. Ibid., p.58.

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Discovery Of The Child

Madame Montessori at the age of seventy

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Discovery Of The Child


A New Columbus

 If Montessori had died at the beginning of 1906 — she was then thirty-six years of age — she would hardly have been heard of beyond her immediate circle. By 1908 — only two years later — her name was known all over the world. In that short interval she had made the discovery for which all her previous life had formed a preparation. It is really no exaggeration to say that, like Columbus, she had discovered a new world.

The world which Columbus discovered was a world without; Montessori discovered a world within — within the soul of the child. Let us make no mistake about it; it was a genuine discovery of something as objective as America was to Columbus, or the Law of Gravitation to Newton. It is really this discovery which has made her famous, not her method.

Her method is but the consequence other discovery as she herself makes clear. "It would be a great mistake," she says, "to believe that, by merely observing children, we were led to form such a new idea as that of the existence of a hidden nature in the child, and that such an intuition gave rise to a special school and a special method of education. It is impossible to observe something that is not known; and it is not possible for anyone, all at once, by a vague intuition to imagine that a child may have two natures (deviated and normal) and say, 'Now I will try to prove it by experiment.' Anything new must emerge, so to speak, by its own energies; it must spring forth and strike the mind evoked by what we call chance."1

What exactly was this new phenomenon which "emerged by its own energy?" And what was the "chance" which called it into existence?

The Stage is Set

To answer this we must go backwards for a moment to trace briefly the providential chain of circumstances which brought forth this great and unexpected event.

There existed in Rome at that time a slum district known as the San Lorenzo quarter. It was an area of squalor, poverty and crime. In it were to be found a number of large buildings, put up during a building boom, "with utter disregard for the laws

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Discovery Of The Child

of hygiene, and rendered still worse by being used as temporary habitations." They were then occupied by the poorest class of the whole city.

Here flourished unchecked all the evils of sub-letting, overcrowding, promiscuous immorality and other crimes. To form an adequate idea of the appalling conditions which prevailed in this San Lorenzo quarter one must read Montessori's own account of it.2

At that time there was a building society known as the Institute Romano dei Beni Stabili — a well-established concern backed by the principal banks in Italy. This society constructed two large adjacent blocks of flats in the heart of the San Lorenzo quarter. (The intention — never carried out — was eventually to reform all the houses in that district.) When all was ready, upwards of a thousand of the poor people from the district were installed, in families, in these flats — on condition that they would observe certain rules of decency and clean living.

But very soon a new problem arose. Most of the parents were away at work during the day, and the older children absent at school. The younger children, left to their own devices, played up and down the stairs and corridors, defacing the walls and staircases and generally creating disorder — "like ignorant little vandals."

After some consideration it was decided by the authorities that it would be more economical in the long run to collect this rabble of children together in one room and pay someone to look after them, than to be constantly paying for repainting and repairing the damage they had done.

A room was set apart for this purpose. Then the question arose, to whom could be entrusted the care of these children? One of those responsible, recalling a magazine article by Dr. Montessori, decided that she was the best person to direct the work; and accordingly approached her about it. Dr. Montessori readily consented, for she saw in it the fulfilment of a long-cherished hope — the opportunity to work with normal children. We have already noted that for several years she had a "hunch" that if one were to apply the methods with which she had been so successful in the teaching of backward children to normal ones good results might follow. But hitherto such an opportunity had been denied her because of the regulation that all children at the age of six should attend the state schools; and it had been difficult for her to interfere in this department.

Having accepted the responsibility for these "little vandals" the next thing was to fit up the room which had been set apart for them. It was not in her power to furnish it with desks like an ordinary schoolroom, because her expenses, being borne by a building society, had to be put down as an indirect item in the general upkeep

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Discovery Of The Child


Maria Montessori, 1913, photo Maria Montessori Association Archives

of the building. For this reason the only expenditure permitted was such as would have been required by an office for furniture and equipment. That is why she had tables made for these small children, with chairs to match, instead of school desks which were universally in use at that time. This turned out, as it happened, to be a fortunate limitation. She also had a number of little armchairs made, presumably under the excuse that, even in an office, people have to rest sometimes. In addition, she had some precise scientific materials prepared, not identical with, but similar to those she had used in the institution for defectives. These, too, "had nothing about them which should be considered as school equipment."

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Discovery Of The Child

Dramatis Personae

Such then was the not very promising stage-setting for the unexpected drama which was to follow: a slum quarter in Rome, and a room in a tenement house. Nor were the actors any more promising. Let us look at them: "Sixty tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak; their faces were expressionless, with bewildered eyes as though they had never seen anything in their lives ... poor abandoned children who had grown up in dark tumble-down cottages without anything to stimulate their minds — dejected, uncared for.  It was not necessary to be a doctor to see that they suffered from malnutrition, lack of fresh air and sunlight. They were indeed closed flowers, but without the freshness of buds, souls concealed in a hermetic cell." That is how Dr. Montessori described them.

Owing to her many other duties Montessori was unable to look after the children continuously herself, so someone had to be found to do so. As it was a position which offered no future prospects — this job of looking after these sixty children, ages three to six — it was given to the porter's daughter. Later on it was entrusted to a seamstress who, though somewhat better educated, was equally without training as a teacher. "Even in this was heaven ordinant";3 for the chances are that if a teacher trained in the old methods had been employed, she would have been so wedded to the old system that she would have found it next to impossible to carry out Montessori's directions. Montessori did not train these girls: "I laid no restriction on the mistress, gave her no special duties; I merely taught her how to use the apparatus so that she could present it accurately to the children."4


It was decided to have an official opening ceremony, and Montessori was invited to give the inaugural address. The porter's daughter, wishing to be equal to the occasion, informed Montessori that she had taught her charges how to make a military salute. But when the actual day came and the poor dejected mites appeared in their "stout blue orphan smocks" they forgot even their one accomplishment, and were led away in confusion. "I wonder," remarked a Roman lady who was present, "if there will be any change visible in these children in a month's time." She did not speak hopefully.

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Discovery Of The Child

Montessori, however, felt differently. On this opening day — it was 6th January 1906 — there came to her suddenly a mysterious intuition of the immense' significance of the enterprise which was about to begin under those humble circumstances. "I had," she says, "a strange feeling which made me announce emphatically that here was the opening of an undertaking of which the whole world would one day speak." It was the Feast of the Epiphany; and the words of the Epistle seemed to her at once "an omen and a prophecy." "For behold darkness shall cover the face of the earth... but the Lord shall arise upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about and see... Then shalt thou see and abound; and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee...."

When they heard her read these words and listened to the speech which followed the audience were "stupefied" — "amazed" that she should see in a

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Maria Montessori, 1951, photo Maria Montessori Association Archives

roomful of sixty poor children a matter of such wonderful significance. Yet the event proved her intuition to be right. Before a year had passed, literally kings were to walk in the brightness of its rising, and a multitude from beyond the seas were to become converted, as they beheld with wonder and reverence this new epiphany.

The Curtain Rises — "Living in a Fairy Tale"

In the whole history of education, from the time of Plato to the present day, there is no episode more remarkable that the series of happenings which came tumbling into being, one after the other, during the next six months. Nothing that took place in Pestalozzi's school at Iverdun, or in Froebel's Anstalt at Neuheim, or amongst Tolstoy's peasant children can equal it for sheer wonder. It reads like a fairy story.

Everyone who wishes to understand the origin of the Montessori method —

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

and indeed the method itself— should not fail to read the whole of Dr. Montessori's graphic and poignant description in The Secret of Childhood (Part II, Chapter II) from which these extracts are taken:

I set to work, [she says], like a peasant woman who, having set aside a good store of seed-corn, has found a fertile field in which she may freely sow it. But I was wrong. I had hardly turned over the clods of my field, when I found gold instead of wheat; the clods concealed a precious treasure. I was not the peasant I had thought myself. Rather I was like foolish Aladdin, who, without knowing it, had in his hand a key that would open hidden treasures.

What were these hidden treasures which revealed themselves so unexpectedly to Dr. Montessori? Speaking generally, they are the normal characteristics of childhood hitherto concealed under a mask of "deviations". Montessori discovered that children possess different and higher qualities than those we usually attribute to them. It was as if a higher form of personality had been liberated, and a new child had come into being.

We must now pass briefly in review, as Dr. Montessori has related them, these new qualities which so unexpectedly made themselves manifest.

Before doing so it may be well to mention the fact that, when she had worked with backward children, she had found that the materials she had made proved useful to her — as a means of arousing their interest. At the same time, however, she had been obliged all along to put forth the whole energy of her will to persuade the children to keep on working with them. With the normal children things happened differently. In fact — to continue the simile used by Dr. Montessori above — it was the materials which were to prove the "Aladdin's Lamp" which opened up to her wondering eyes the concealed treasures within. For the children chose them and worked with them spontaneously.

Amazing Mental Concentration

One day Montessori was observing a child of three who was occupying herself with some graded wooden cylinders which had to be slipped in and out of corresponding sockets in a wooden block. She was amazed to find this tiny girl showing such an extraordinary interest; she showed, in fact, a concentration so profound that it seemed to have isolated her mentally from the rest of her

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Discovery Of The Child

environment. To test the intensity of this concentration — which seemed so unusual in a child of three — Montessori asked the teacher to make the other children sing aloud and promenade round her. But the child did not even seem conscious of this disturbance; she went on just as before, mysteriously repeating this same exercise (i.e. taking the cylinders out, mixing them, and replacing them in their sockets). Then Montessori gently picked up the armchair on which the child was sitting, with her in it, and placed her on a table. The child, who had clung on to her precious cylinders during this interruption, at once continued her task as if nothing had happened. With her scientific habit of measuring phenomena Montessori counted the number of times the child repeated the exercise; it was forty-two. Then quite suddenly she stopped "as though coming out of a dream." She smiled as if she was very happy; her eyes shone and she looked round about her. And, strangely enough, after all that long concentration she appeared to be rested rather than fatigued.

Here we see the germ of what was later to become one of the fundamental principles of the Montessori method, viz. the reliance, in the schoolroom, on thespontaneous interest of children as the mainspring of their work.

Love of Repetition

This display of mental concentration in so young a child seemed to Montessori a new phenomenon — "a first glimpse into the unexplored depths of the child's mind." Accompanying it came another interesting revelation, another characteristic feature of child mentality — viz., the tendency to repeat the same thing over and over again. In time Montessori came to regard this mysterious and apparently meaningless repetition of an exercise already known as one of the essential features of the child's manner of working. One of the most valuable fruits of that liberty, which has become an essential part of her method, is that it gives unlimited scope for the carrying out of this repetition — which obviously answers to some profound psychological need.

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Discovery Of The Child

Love for Order

The love for order is not a characteristic usually associated with small children. Here again a surprise was in store. This characteristic, like many others, was revealed by chance, the result of an indiscretion on the part of the teacher. The materials with which the children worked were kept in a large cupboard — locked — and the teacher kept the key. Contrary to what happens now in a Montessori class, it was she who distributed the materials at the beginning, and it was she who collected them and put them away in the cupboard at the end of the lesson. The teacher noticed that these little children — however often she told them to remain in their places — used to follow her when she went to the cupboard to put the materials away and solemnly stand round her watching whilst she put the various objects back. This seemed to her to be nothing less than deliberate disobedience. It is the genius who sees the significance of small things. Watching the children behaving in this way, Montessori realized that what they really wanted was to put the things back in their places again themselves. So she left them free to do it.

Whereupon a new kind of life began for them. They revelled in putting things back in their places, and, in general, in keeping the environment in order. Later on Montessori saw in this love of order in small children (which older children do not share) an example of a general law — the "law of sensitive periods in development". This was the sensitive period for order, which lasts from about the age of twelve months to three and a half years. Montessori was quick to realize the practical value of this unexpected trait in small children. Unless this love of order was already innate at that early age it would be impossible to impose it on a whole roomful of small children. And without it, it would be impossible to grant choice of  occupation and liberty of movement to a group of forty small children without chaos ensuing.

Freedom of Choice

One day the teacher arrived late. In addition she had forgotten to lock the cupboard the evening before. It turned out to be another of those occasions in life when "our indiscretions sometimes serve us well where our deep plots do pall."5 Upon her arrival the teacher found the children had already opened the cupboard doors. Some were standing looking on in a meditative sort of way; others were

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

helping themselves to materials; others still had already done so and were taking them away, whilst a fourth group were already busily at work with materials at their own places. The teacher was angry with the children and wished to punish them for "stealing". Again Montessori saw deeper into their motives. She realized that these children, who already knew how to use the materials, were —just because of that knowledge — in a position to be able to choose some materials in preference to others. This was in fact what they had done. That they had no intention of "stealing" was evident from the fact that they regarded the putting back of the material chosen into its right place as an essential part of the cycle of activity involved — almost the crowning joy of the whole procedure. This incident was the beginning of that principle of "free choice of activity" which became so vital a factor in the Montessori system. Here again let us notice that it was the discovery which came first and the method followed after. Shortly after this Montessori replaced the one big, locked cupboard with a number of little low and attractively-painted cupboards, placed round the room at the children's level. In these the materials were so displayed that the children could easily see, choose, take and replace them without the need of any assistance from an adult. This formed an important step towards their more complete independence.

They Preferred Work to Play

We usually think of play as the natural spontaneous expression of the child's personality; and of work, on the contrary, as something which has to be imposed. But now came another and very astonishing revelation. Some of Dr. Montessori's rich friends — society ladies in Rome who were interested in her work with these poor children — had presented her with a number of costly toys. These included elegant dolls, a doll's house, doll's crockery and even a doll's kitchen. These toys Montessori placed in the room with the children, making them as easily accessible as the materials for work.

This led to the next surprise. The children never chose the toys. Montessori was so astonished at this that she intervened herself, showing them how to play with these toys, how to handle the doll's crockery, how to light the fire in the doll's kitchen, "placing a pretty doll beside it," etc. The children showed an interest for a time; and then went away. "They never made such toys the object of their spontaneous choice." In this way Montessori was led to one of the most revolutionary discoveries of all

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

— a fact which is still unknown to, indeed still beyond the credibility of most persons, viz., that children prefer work to play....

No Need for Rewards and Punishment

The teacher — or rather the girl who was put in charge, for she was not a trained teacher — devised a system of rewards and punishments for the children. One day Montessori came into the room and found a child sitting in one of the little armchairs; and on his breast he wore a "pompous decoration" which the teacher had prepared as a reward for good behaviour. As it turned out, however, this particular child was actually being punished. What had happened was that a few moments before a boy, decorated for his good behaviour, had taken his medal off and pinned it upon the breast of the young malefactor. Apparently the former regarded his decoration as a thing of little worth, apt to get in his way when working. The culprit, for his part, looked round about him complacently without feeling at all disgraced by his punishment. This struck Montessori as an anomalous state of affairs. After making a great number of experiments the teacher, realizing that the children set no store by these rewards and punishments, abandoned the practice. As the Montessori method developed and many Montessori schools came into existence, this same experience was repeated many times. The children became good and orderly as soon as they learned how to work. On the other hand it was found that the naughtiness of others was in almost every case the result of "deviations" — i.e. manifestations of disordered personalities, due to the fact that constructive energies had been diverted from their true channels. Further, it was found that no amount of punishment could set the matter right; but only the sloughing off of these "deviations" by a new orientation of the elements of personality through spontaneously chosen work.

Many years after this, the present writer once spent a morning in a large Montessori school in the Borough of Acton (London). There were over three hundred children in that school, yet the only name in the official punishment register was that of the H.M. Inspector whose duty it was to examine and sign his name therein. One might imagine this was a special case; but it is not so. I once sent a questionnaire round to a number of long-established Montessori schools, and one of the questions in it was this: "What use do you make of punishments?" One directress wrote: "Work is its own reward. Punishments are rare; a troublesome child might be removed from her companions until she is ready to behave properly." Another said:

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

"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." Another teacher (with twenty years Montessori experience behind her) said: "If a warning does not suffice, the offender is separated from other children and made to sit beside the directress. The lessons given by the directress to other children generally arouse interest and the child settles down to work. Either this or she becomes bored and asks to return to her place. This 'punishment' proves quite sufficient."

Lovers of Silence

Most persons are apt to think of children, especially in large numbers, as noisy creatures; indeed delighting in noise. As mothers sometimes say: "He is never quiet unless he is asleep." It was therefore a real revelation when Montessori discovered that, deep down in their souls, children have a great love for silence. We must leave the reader to find out for himself (in The Secret of Childhood, pp. 153-55) the manner in which, with the assistance of a baby four months old, Montessori was led to make this discovery....

The Children Refused Sweets

One day when the children had carried out the "silence game," which involves great patience and self-discipline, Montessori decided to reward them each with a sweet. But to her astonishment the children refused them. It was as though they said, "Don't spoil our lovely experience: we are still filled with delights of the spirit; don't distract us."

This phenomenon seemed to Montessori so unexpected, so extraordinary, that she tested it again and again; for, as she remarks, "everyone knows that children are always greedy for sweets. But repeated experiments only confirmed this extraordinary happening." The sweets remained untouched — sometimes for weeks. "Was it", she asks, "from a feeling like that of monks, who flee from ease and from such outward things as are useless for the true good of life, once they have risen in the ladder of spiritual life?"

In later years this same indifference to the allurements of sweets when placed

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

in conflict with the interests of the mind, was to be verified times without number. The present writer himself witnessed a striking example. It happened in a Montessori school in Barcelona run by the Sisters of Charity in connection with a maternity home. A little girl of about five to five-and-a-half years was doing sums with the help of the number rods on a rug on the floor, recording her operations in chalk on a little blackboard. She was so absorbed in this occupation that she had not even left it (though quite free to do so) to join her companions who were dancing round the room to a musical rhythm. The door opened and some visitors entered. One of these — having more kindness than discretion — began to give a sweet to each marching child as it passed her by.

As was only to be expected, this ill-timed charity disorganized the marching, and the children soon began to cluster round the visitor. The latter, becoming embarrassed by this clamorous attention, quickly handed the bag to the young assistant who had, by this time, left the piano. (The senior directress was not in the room at the time.) At this particular juncture the little girl whom I had been watching —being in some doubt as to the accuracy other latest sum — had left her work and had come to ask the assistant-directress to help her. The latter, seeing her amongst all the other little ones crowding round her holding their hands up for sweets, and thinking she had come for the same purpose, placed a bon-bon in the child's hand. The little girl's expression betrayed surprise and disappointment. She looked, in fact, as if she had "asked for bread and had been given a stone." Without saying a word she turned round and went straight back to her rug, carrying the sweet in her hand. There she at once set to work to do the sum over again by herself. The most astonishing thing about the whole incident was that — far from eating the sweet or even thinking about doing so — the child actually used it as a sort of pointer — tapping with it each of the divisions of the various number rods, placed end to end, until she finally came to the correct answer, which she duly recorded on her little blackboard. Then, automatically putting the sweet away in her pocket, she set to work to compose another sum. It was a complete triumph of mind over matter.

The emergence in these small children of intellectual interests so strong as to cause a sort of "ligature" of the lower faculties (as in the ecstasies of the saints) seemed so extraordinary that, upon hearing of it, a number of persons came especially to verify it. One day a Cardinal came to visit the Casa dei Bambini at San Lorenzo. Beneath the scarlet robes of his high office there beat a simple and kindly heart; and the old gentleman brought with him a bag of biscuits. Now it just happened that these dainties had been manufactured in geometric shapes similar to

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

those with which the children had been working in the wooden insets. Imagine his astonishment when, instead of eating them, the little children crowded round the table eagerly looking at them, and recognizing them, cried out excitedly — "That's a triangle!" "Mine's a circle!" "Cosmo has a rectangle!" and so on.

A Sense of Personal Dignity

The next incident has its amusing as well as its pathetic side. One day, when Montessori came to see how the children were getting on, she decided to give them what was at that time a rather unusual lesson — on how to blow one's nose. After explaining first of all how it should not be done she showed them how to do it as politely as possible, with as little noise as one need, and taking out the handkerchief unobtrusively so that the action remains more or less unnoticed. The children followed her demonstration with silent interest. When the lesson was quite finished they all together broke forth into a burst of genuine and heartfelt applause, clapping their hands "as when in a theatre a great actress evokes an ovation repressed with difficulty." Montessori was completely amazed at this sudden demonstration of emotion, until all at once its true significance dawned on her. The question she had touched upon — keeping one's nose clean — was one which children too often associate with derision and humiliation. People are perpetually complaining to them on this score, and making disparaging remarks, such as "Blow your nose, Tommy", "Why don't you use your handkerchief, you dirty boy," etc., etc. But no one had ever quietly and calmly taught them how to do it, without attacking them or reproving them at the same time.6

This was the first of many similar experiences by which Montessori was led to realize that even very small children have a profound sense of personal dignity; and that if adults neglect to respect it "their souls may remain wounded, ulcerated and oppressed in a way adults seldom realize." Later on the inculcation of this respect for their personal dignity — of even the smallest child — became one of the most prominent elements in the training of her teachers.

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

 The "Explosion" into Writing

Perhaps none of the happenings which took place during these wonderful months "when we seemed to be living in a fairy tale", made more impression on those who heard about it than the fact that a number of these children — ages four to five years — "burst spontaneously into writing" without having been taught.

When she began Montessori had no intention of tackling the problem of writing with children as young as this. In fact she tells us that at that time she shared the general prejudice that it was necessary to begin writing as late as possible — certainly not before the age of six. But the children themselves thought otherwise: some of them came to her and demanded to be taught to read and write. Even then she did not concede this request but gave in only when the parents added their solicitations.

She decided to apply means similar to those which she had used previously with defective children. Accordingly she and her assistants set to work to make some sets of alphabets. These were of two different kinds. In one the letters were cut out of cardboard; in the other out of sandpaper — each sandpaper letter being mounted on a little wooden board. Both kinds of alphabets were made in cursive style, i.e. as used for writing, not for printing. The children were not taught the names of the letters, but only the sounds they represent. Further, they were encouraged to trace the forms of the sandpaper letters with their "writing fingers," i.e. the first and second fingers of the right hand. That was all. They were not taught to write.

One day a little fellow of five made a great discovery. Montessori heard him going round saying to himself, 'To make 'Sofia' you need S, 0, F, I and A." He had in fact discovered that one can analyze spoken words into their component sounds; and that those sounds were the ones he had already learned in connection with the symbols. Thereupon he, and others with him, began to compose various words with the movable cardboard letters, spreading them out on rugs on the floor.

But still this was not Writing.

What happened next was so extraordinary, and so unexpected, that we must give the account of it in Montessori's own words:

One December day when the sun shone and the air was like Spring, I went up on the roof with the children. They were playing freely about and a number of them were gathered about me. I was sitting near a chimney, and said to a five-year-old boy who sat next to me: "Draw me a picture of this chimney," giving him a piece of chalk. He

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

got down obediently and made a rough sketch of the chimney on the tiles which formed the floor of this roof terrace. As is my custom with the littler children I encouraged him, praising his work. The child looked at me, smiled, remained for a moment as if on the point of bursting into some joyous act, and then cried out: "I can write, I can write," and kneeling down again he wrote on the pavement the word "hand" (mano). Then full of enthusiasm, he wrote also "chimney, roof(cammino, tetto). As he wrote he continued to cry out "I can write: I know how to write." His cries of joy brought the other children, who formed a circle about him, looking down at his work in stupefied amazement. Two or three of them said to me, trembling with excitement, "Give me the chalk. I can write too." And indeed they began to write various words: MAMA, HAND, JOHN, CHIMNEY, ADA (in Italian of course). Not one of them had ever taken chalk or any other instrument in hand for the purpose of writing. It was the first time they had ever written, and they traced an entire word, as a child when speaking for the first time speaks an entire word.

The first word written by my little ones aroused within themselves an indescribable emotion of joy. Not being able to adjust in their minds the connection between the preparation and the act, they were possessed by the illusion that, having now grown to proper size, they knew how to write. In fact they seemed to think that writing was but one of the many gifts of nature; and at the proper time it would come to them, just as later on, a moustache would appear at the proper age.

The child who wrote a word for the first time was full of excited joy. He might be compared to a hen who has just laid an egg. Indeed no one could escape from his noisy manifestations. In general, after the first word the children, with a species of frenzied joy, continued to write everywhere. I saw children crowding about one another at the blackboard; and behind those who were standing on the floor another line would form consisting of children mounted upon chairs so that they might write above the heads of their fellows.

Others ran to the window shutters or the door, covering them with writing. In these first days we walked upon a carpet of written signs. Daily accounts showed us that the same thing was going on at home; and some of the mothers, in order to save the floors of their houses, and even the crust of their loaves upon which they found words written, made their children presents of paper and pencil.

Later experience came to control the exuberance of this phenomenon, keeping it within reasonable bounds, so that now the moment of "explosion" does not come to all the children at the same time. Nevertheless in a well-run Montessori school the rapturous moment of "explosion into writing" still comes for many children. It comes when certain inner elements of preparation having been completed, fuse together in a psychic synthesis.

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

The writer knew one little boy who — on the day of his "explosion" — went round saying excitedly to everyone, "I can write, I can write," adding quickly and emphatically: "But nobody told me how! Nobody told me how!"

The Discovery of Reading

One might very naturally conclude that because these children had learned to write they had also acquired the art of reading. But here again another surprise was in store. Montessori found that writing came before reading; came in fact several months before. "Their tireless activity in writing was like a torrent — six months of continuous and unlimited exercise. All their energy, all their forces were given to writing — but not to reading."

One day towards the end of this period Montessori, without saying anything, wrote on the blackboard some little sentences such as "If you love me, give me a kiss." "If you can read this, come to me." For several days she did this, but nothing happened. "They thought" — says Montessori — "that I was just writing on the blackboard for my own amusement as they themselves were writing for their own joy and edification. However on the fourth day a tiny mite of a girl came up to me and said eccomi (here I am) and a short time after another came up and gave me a kiss."

And so the secret was out! One human being can communicate with another in this new and mysterious way without a word being spoken. It was a thrilling experience. "And so they watched with silent eagerness as I wrote sentence after sentence — little commands for them to carry out. They read and responded and carried them out with an intense and secret joy.

"In this way they discovered the essence of writing — that it transmits human thought. Whenever I began to write they fairly trembled in their eagerness to understand what I was thus about to communicate to them — without a word spoken." In this way were born those reading commands which have now passed into general use.

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Spontaneous Self-Discipline

When one remembers that the very reason why this first Casa dei Bambini came into existence was just because these children were so disorderly, their next "revelation" seems all the more astonishing. As the weeks went by and the children became accustomed to this new mode of life, a happy and extraordinary change came over them. From being unruly they became just the opposite. It seemed as though a new form of goodness had developed inside them, which — as it grew — caused their disorderly habits to fall away, as the opening flower causes the leaf scales to fall off. They began to exhibit an extraordinary self-discipline; and with it a serenity of spirit, and a great respect for the rights of others.

It was a spontaneous self-discipline coming from within. (We have already seen that rewards and punishments were done away with.) These transformed children moved about their little world in a quiet and orderly manner, each getting on with his own business. They selected their materials for work; settled down at their tables and got on with their affairs, without disturbing their companions; and afterwards quietly replaced the materials when finished with them. Their bodily movements became more harmonious; their very expressions serene and joyful. Everything about them betokened a heightened interest in life, and with it a new form of dignity. They looked — as indeed they had become — independent personalities with power to choose and to carry out their own acts. They did not abuse the liberty which had been granted them. Rather this liberty was the very means through which they were able to reveal this new self-discipline.

This independence which they had acquired did not in any way diminish their respect for authority. In fact they became so obedient that the woman in charge of them said one day to Dr. Montessori: "These children are so ready to do what I say  that I begin to feel a sense of responsibility for every word I utter." This statement recalls a remark made to the writer, some twenty years later, by an experienced Montessori directress in a school in London.

She said, speaking of the children in her class, "Their docility is so great that when one wishes an individual or a group to do something at a given moment one has to take care to explain first when to do it before what to do: otherwise the children will carry out the order instantaneously."

In after years, when Montessori schools came to be set up in all the countries of Europe and beyond, this same phenomenon of self-discipline regularly appeared. And so it has remained to the present day. Many teachers who still teach in the old

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

collective method find it hard to believe that such spontaneous self-discipline is possible in a class of forty children under six. They think such descriptions as are" given here, and elsewhere, must be exaggerations — until they enter a well-run Montessori class and see for themselves. Even then it has sometimes remained beyond belief to some observers. I knew one man, a lecturer on education too, who, rather than believe it, fell back on the theory that somehow or other all these children who appeared free had really been hypnotized.7

Cosmic Discipline

When Montessori beheld for the first time this self-discipline in such small children — a sight so touching in its simplicity, and as beautiful as unexpected — she was deeply moved. It roused in her a feeling akin to awe. "Where did it come from?" she asked herself: "Who was the author of it?" The more she pondered over it and marvelled at it, the more clearly was it borne in upon her that it was a part of that universal discipline which holds the atoms to their affinities and keeps the stars in their courses.

In a passage of great beauty (even in its translation) she expressed herself as follows:

The quiet in the class when the children were at work was complete and moving. No one had enforced it; and what is more, no one could have obtained it by external means. Had these children, maybe, found the orbit of their cycle, like the stars that circle unwearying and which, without departing from their order, shine through eternity? Of these the Bible speaks, in words that could be applied to such children, "And the stars have given light in their watches and rejoiced: They were called, and they said: Here we are, and with cheerfulness have shined forth to Him that made them."8

A natural discipline of this kind seems to transcend its immediate environment, and to show itself as part of a universal discipline ruling the world. It is of such discipline that the prophet speaks as something men have lost, "Young men have seen the light and dwelt upon the earth, but the way of discipline they have not known!"9

Even at that time — a generation ago — Montessori had the feeling that the beneficial effect of this revelation would extend beyond the classroom. This is apparent from the rest of the passage quoted above; which goes on: "One has the

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

impression that this natural discipline must provide the foundation for all other forms of discipline, determined — like that of social life, for instance — by outward and immediate considerations. One of the things, indeed, which aroused the greatest interests and gave greatest food for thought, seeming as it did to hold something mysterious, was precisely this fact of order and discipline being so closely united as to result in freedom."

"Of Such is the Kingdom of Heaven"

These then are some of the revelations which were manifested to Montessori and her assistants by the poor children of San Lorenzo during those extraordinary months in 1907. Not that they complete the tale. Others — like the law of sensitive periods — were still to come, but for these it was necessary that a longer period of time should elapse before they could show themselves completely. Nevertheless, this San Lorenzo experiment, taken as a whole, resulted in an epoch-making discovery with regard to the nature and capacity of young children.

We can readily sympathize with any reader who finds the record of these events hard to believe. It was exactly the same with Montessori herself at the time, as she herself freely admits:

It took time for me to convince myself that all this was not an illusion. After each new experience proving such a truth I said to myself, "I won't believe yet; I'll believe in it next time." Thus for a long time I remained incredulous, and at the same time deeply stirred and trepidant. How many times did I not reprove the children's teacher when she told me what the children had done of themselves! "The only thing which impresses me is truth," I would reply severely. And I remember that the teacher would answer, without taking offence, and often moved to tears: "You are right! When I see such things I think it must be the holy angels who are inspiring these children." One day, in great emotion, I took my heart in my two hands as though to encourage it to rise to the heights of faith, and I stood respectfully before the children, saying to myself: "Who are you then? Have I perhaps met with the children who were held in Christ's arms and to whom the divine words were spoken? I will follow you, to enter with you into the Kingdom of Heaven." And holding in my hands the torch of faith I went on my way.

From E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (London: Hollis and Carter, 1957), pp. 17-34.


Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child


1. Secret of Childhood (Longmans). 2. Muntessori Method, pp. 50 seq. ?, Hamlet. .The Secret of Childhood.

5. Hamlet.

6. Here we see a good example of Montessori's maxim, "Teach teaching, not correcting" and also of a "Lesson in Grace and Courtesy".

7. It reminds one of the man at the Zoo who saw a giraffe for the first time and said, "I don't believe it"

8. Baruch iii


Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Maria Montessori

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child


Silence: The Inhibition of Movements

For how long, in the common schools, it has been thought that silence could be obtained by a command.

The meaning of the word has not been studied. It has not been realized that it demands immobility, almost the suspension of life for that particular instant during which silence is maintained. Silence means the suspension of every movement; it is not, as is generally considered in schools, in a rough and ready way, the secession of noises greater than the normal noises tolerated in the place.

Silence in the ordinary schools means stopping talking, quelling a disturbance, the opposite of noise and disorder.

On the other hand, silence may have a positive meaning, indicate a state of things or a higher level than that of normal conditions. It may be like an instantaneous inhibition which costs an effort, a dictate of the will, something which detaches us from the noises of common life, almost isolating the mind from outside voices.

This is the silence which we have attained in our schools — profound silence, although it is produced in a class of more than forty little children between the ages of three and six.

A command could never have secured the marvellous victory of wills united in preventing all action, during that period of life in which movement seems to be the irresistible, ever-present characteristic of life.

This collective work is done by children who are accustomed to act independently in satisfying their own desires.

It is necessary to teach the children silence. To accomplish this we get them to perform various silence exercises which contribute in a noteworthy way to the surprising capacity for discipline displayed by our children.

The exercises of silence and afterwards the "silence lesson", one of the most characteristic peculiarities of our schools, had their origin in a casual episode.

During a visit paid to a Children's House, I met in the court-yard a mother who was holding in her arms her four-months' old baby, swaddled as was still the custom among the people of Rome. Tiny infants were so tightly swathed in the bands moulded round their little bodies, having no other coverings, that they are known as pupi (puppets). This little one, fat and tranquil, looked the incarnation of peace.

I took her into my arms where she lay quiet and good. I went inside with her in my arms, to be met by the children of the House who rushed out to meet me, as they usually do, all trying to embrace my knees in such a tumultuous fashion that they almost upset me. I smiled at them, showing them the "cocoon". They understood, and danced round me but without touching me out

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

of regard for the little creature in my arms. So I entered the room with the children walking all round me. We sat down, I in front of them, on a high chair, not on one of the small chairs which. I generally used. That is to say, I seated myself with some solemnity. They gazed on my little one with a mixture of tenderness and joy: we had not yet pronounced a single word. I said — "I have brought you a little teacher." They were surprised; they laughed. "A little teacher, for no one can keep as still as she does." Every little figure stiffened itself in its place. "No one keeps his legs as still as she does." They all carefully adjust their legs so as to keep them still. I look at them smiling — "Yes, but they will never be as motionless as hers; you will move them a little, she will not: no one can be like her." The children are serious: they seem to have realized the superiority of the small teacher: some of them smile, and seem to say with their eyes that the bandages deserve the credit. "No one can keep as quiet as she does." General silence. "It is not possible to keep silent like her; you hear how delicate her breathing is. Come close up on tip-toe." Some of them rise up and creep up to me very, very slowly, on the tips of their toes, stretching out their heads and turning their ears towards the little one. Deep silence. "No one can breathe as silently as she does." The children gaze in astonishment; they have never thought that even when they keep still they are making noises, and that the silence of little ones is deeper than that of the big ones. They almost try to stop breathing. I get up. "I am going away very, very quietly" (I walk on the tips of my toes without making any noise), "yet you hear that I make some noise, however quietly I go; but she walks with me in silence, she goes away in silence." The children smile, but they are moved, for they understand the truth and the joking in my words. I restore the "cocoon" to the mother through a window.

Behind the little one there seems to remain a fascination which takes possession of every mind;

nothing in nature is sweeter than the silent breathing of the newly born. Human life renewed, resting in silence, what majesty! Compared with that how colourless are the words of Wordsworth about the silent peace of nature — "How calm, how quiet! One single sound, the drip from the suspended oar."

Even the children feel the poetry of the silence of tranquil, new-born human life.

The Silence Lesson is Established

After this surprising experience I felt a desire to repeat it, but how to achieve this? One day I decided in favour of simplicity and asked the children: "Shall we make silence?" To my astonishment all the children seemed happy at the prospect and answered: "Yes, yes!"

I then began my attempt. "In order to obtain silence nobody should move...." "Even a foot that moves, makes a noise..." "Also loud breathing may make a noise..." All tried to keep still and so did I with them.

During these attempts the children remained enchanted, all of them competed in the effort to avoid even the slightest movement. Thus the attention of the children was drawn to every part of their body.

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Whilst these doings are going, on, and my short, excited speeches are being interrupted by intervals of immobility and silence, the children listen and watch with great delight. Very many of them are interested by the fact which they had never noticed that they make many noises of which they are not aware, and also, that there are many degrees of silence. There is an absolute silence, in which nothing, absolutely nothing, moves. They look at me in astonishment when I stop right in the middle of the room; it is really as if I were not there. Then they all set themselves to imitate me and try to do the same. I point out that here and there a foot is moving about almost inadvertently. The attention of the children is fixed on every part of their bodies, in an anxious desire to attain immobility. Whilst they are doing this, there is truly created a silence which is different from that thoughtlessly called silence. It seems that life gradually vanishes, that the room by degrees becomes empty, as if there were no longer anybody in it. Then there begins to be heard the tic-tac of the clock on the wall; and this tic-tac seems to grow in intensity little by little as the silence becomes absolute. From the outside, from the court-yard which had seemed silent, there come various noises — a bird chirping, a child passing. The children are fascinated by this silence, as by a real conquest of their own. "See," I say, "it is now quite as quiet as if there were no longer any one here."

This stage reached, I darkened the windows and said to the children, "Now listen for a gentle voice to call you by name."

Then from an adjacent room situated behind the children, through a wide-open door, I called, in a muted voice but lengthening out the syllables as one would in calling to someone across the mountains, and this half-hidden voice seemed to reach the hearts of the children and to call upon their souls. Every one I called rose up silently trying not to move the chair, and walking on the tips "f the toes so silently that one scarcely knew they were walking; nevertheless the step resounded in the absolute silence which is never broken whilst all the others remain motionless. The one called gained the door with a countenance full of joy, making a little leap into the next room, stilling little outbursts of laughter; or he laid hold of my dress leaning against me; or he set himself ID watch the companions who were still waiting in silent expectation. He felt almost as if he had received a privilege, a gift, a reward, yet he knew that all would be called, beginning with the most absolutely silent one who was left in the room. In this way each one tried to deserve by waiting in perfect silence the call which was sure to come. I once saw a little one of three tiying to check a sneeze, and managing to do it; she held back the breath in her heaving little chest, and resisted, to emerge triumphant.

Such a game fascinates the little ones; their intent faces, their patient immobility, show that they -re eager to get the pleasure it affords. At first, when I was still ignorant of the child's mind, I used io show them little sweets and toys, promising to give them to whoever was called out, imagining ;hal presents were necessary to stimulate such efforts in childhood. But very quickly I had to ^knowledge that they were useless.

The children arrived like ships in port, after having experienced the efforts, the emotions and 'he delights of silence; they were happy, because they had felt something new and had gained a victory. This was their reward. They forgot the promised sweets, and did not trouble to take the toys

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

which I had supposed would attract them. So I abandoned this useless method, and was amazed to find that after the game had been repeated again and again, even children three years old could keep silent during the whole of the period necessary for calling out of the room some forty other children. It was then that I learnt that within the mind of the child dwell its own reward and its own spiritual pleasures. After such exercises it seemed to me that their love for me was greater; they certainly became more obedient, sweeter and gentler. We had really isolated ourselves from the world, and had passed a few moments of intimacy among ourselves — I in desiring them and calling for them, they in hearing in the deepest silence1 , the voice directed to each one of them personally, adjudging him at that moment to be the best of all!

From Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, trans. Mary A. Johnstone

(Madras: Kalakshetra, 1948), pp. 134-39

Photo Nathalie Nuber, Auroville


1. Silence, which has become one of the best-known characters of the Montessori method, has been adopted in many ordinary schools, and so to some extent the Montessori spirit has penetrated into these schools. It was its influence which has caused to penetrate into the public manifestations of social and political order the silence of immobility, and it was also used for religious education.

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Montessori and Froebel: Similarities and Differences

Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782-1852), was a German educator who founded the kindergarten movement. Other educators had established schools for very young children, but Froebel was the first to use the word kindergarten. This word comes from two German words meaning "garden of children ". He started his first kindergarten in 1837, and by 1900 kindergartens had spread throughout Europe, Canada and the United States.

The question is often asked: What is the relation between Montessori and Froebel and their respective systems? As we shall see, there are certain differences — more in practice but also in theory — which go very deep. It is rather when one compares the spirit of Froebel with that of Montessori that one realizes their profound affinity. It is in their attitude of love and reverence for the child as a spiritual being that they are in complete unity — not in the details of their system nor in their philosophy of life.

According to Montessori — the vital thing in a true educational method is the activity of the child, and that the function of the teacher is to direct the child's spontaneous energies. This is also Froebel's fundamental maxim; "Education, in instruction and training and in its first principles, should necessarily be a passive following — only guarding and protecting — not prescriptive, categorical, interfering." Again, "All prescriptive categorical interfering must necessarily hinder and destroy." As Dr. Montessori so succinctly phrases it, "Every useless aid arrests development."

Because Froebel and Montessori both realized the vital importance of Self-Activity in education they both saw the necessity of devising special occupations to arouse and sustain it — the "Froebelian Gifts" on the one hand, and the "Montessori Materials" on the other. But they differed considerably as to the principles on which these materials were constructed. As the Board of Education's report on infant and nursery schools says: "Madame Montessori, like Froebel, stands for the right of the child to unfettered growth; but while Froebel approached problems of education from the stand-point of theology and metaphysics, Madame Montessori has approached them from the stand-point of modem physiology and psychology."

Montessori often uses the simile that the child's soul can be compared to soft wax; while at the same time she inveighs against the notion, once so prevalent, that the teacher must make use of this delicate plasticity in order to mould it. On the contrary she maintains that just because it is so sensitive we must be extra careful not to obliterate the first delicate tracings made on this infantile intelligence by destroying its spontaneous activity. Froebel uses this same simile:

We grant space and time to young plants and animals because we know that, in accordance with the laws that live in them, they will develop properly and grow well. Young plants and animals are left in peace; and arbitrary interference with their growth is avoided so as not to disturb their pure unfolding and sound development. But the young human being is looked upon as a piece of wax which man can mould into what

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

he pleases, instead of being allowed to unfold in beauty and all-sided harmonious development.

Dr. Montessori compares the child's mental development to a series of metamorphoses; and insists that the important thing is that, at each stage, the child should have what it needs at that stage without thinking of the future. "Each plane must be lived through in order that the individual may pass from one plane to the next." Otherwise there may be arrested development, for, "those who have not lived through any plane fully may return to it later... The child's work is to create the man that is to be, and we cannot hurry it. The adult will be a fully harmonious individual only if he has been able, at each preceding stage to live as Nature intended him to."

This is exactly Froebel's idea, which he repeats again and again in many different forms. "The child", he says, "the boy, the man, should know no other endeavour but to be at every stage of development wholly what that stage calls for. Then will each successive stage spring like a new shoot from a healthy bud, for only the adequate development of man at each preceding stage can effect and bring about adequate development at each succeeding stage." Or again, "The boy has not become a boy, nor has the youth become a youth, by reaching a certain age, but only by having lived through childhood, and further on through boyhood, true to the requirements of his mind, his feelings and his body. Similarly the adult man has not become an adult simply by reaching a certain age, but only by faithfully satisfying the requirements of his childhood, boyhood and youth." "Rousseau has ascribed all the defects of body and mind in pupils to the 'desire to make men of them before their time'."

According to Montessori, these various stages through which the developing child passes are each characterized by special sensibilities and corresponding interests. Froebel, too, in a general sense was aware of these periods of special sensibility, though they were never so clearly demarcated by him as with Montessori.

Dr. Montessori constantly refers to the small child in her lectures as — the explorer. She sees in the child's never-ending interest in stones, flowers, coloured objects, sticks — anything he can get hold of— an activity of the highest importance — corresponding to the researches of the scientist into the mysteries of matter and energy. So also does Froebel.

Both Froebel and Montessori emphasize the importance of assisting this "little explorer" in his researches. With the former this is to be accomplished by the direct help of the adult; with the latter more indirectly by means of a "prepared environment" so simplified and set in order that the objects in it easily and systematically reveal their qualities to the enquiring mind of the little scientist.

One of the chief differences between the Montessori school and the Froebel Kindergarten lies just in the fact that Montessori has been more successful in finding and placing at the child's disposal "the means to find the answer in the sphere of his own knowledge" by himself.

According to Montessori, many of the disagreeable traits of children — their caprices, fears, lying, timidity, etc. — are generally caused by a deviation of the child's vital energies from their normal constructive channels. Froebel too realizes this; but again in a more vague and general way. Where Montessori diverges from Froebel is in her belief that the cure for deviations lies not in play

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

but in "normalization through work."

Froebel stood firmly for auto-education as a first principle. "To stir up, to animate, to awaken and to strengthen the pleasure and power of the human being to labour uninterruptedly at his own education has become and always will remain the fundamental principle of my educational work." Realizing too, that the will can be strengthened only by voluntary activity he sees the importance of liberty in the schoolroom; and that this freedom "can only come by self-activity". We have noted ... how much further Dr. Montessori has gone in actually achieving this liberty for the child in practice. But here we are only concerned to point out how vividly Froebel realized the importance of freedom. With him, too, as with Dr. Montessori, freedom was not to be confused with licence; and for him, too, "only freedom within the law was to be regarded as true freedom".

Montessori and Froebel resemble each other in relating their educational aims to ultimate religious values as they saw them. In this sense they can be both called idealists.... Montessori and Froebel are both at one in having a spiritual or religious aim in their educational systems; and both are equally opposed to purely utilitarian or materialistic conceptions of education.

Coming now to differences ... let us first look at the sphere of practice. All who have had experience both of Montessori schools and Froebelian kindergartens are in agreement as to one fundamental practical difference. It relates to what one might call the Teaching Unit. In her attractive little book Teaching in the Infant School Miss Hume states the matter succinctly as follows: "In the Froebelian school the unit of teaching is the group of eight to ten children; in the Montessori school the unit of teaching is the individual child."

Speaking generally ... Froebelians, as a whole, tend to regard the Montessori system as too rigidly intellectual, not giving enough scope to the child's spontaneous play and make-belief. On the other hand, the point of view of the average Montessorian is that the Froebelians have never realized — because they have never seen — the child's passion for intellectual work. The Froebelians, they would say, treat the child as something lower than he really is; and this because they have never seen what Montessori calls "the soul of the awakened child".

Perhaps no part of Dr. Montessori's doctrine has aroused more opposition than her belief that the child prefers work to play. Not only prefers work; but... never really comes to himself until he has had the opportunity of "becoming normalized through work."

On this question of work or play — or to put it another way, reality or make-belief — we come to a real divergence between Froebel and Montessori. "Play", says Froebel, "is the purest, most spiritual activity of man at this stage, and at the same time typical of human life as a whole." Dr. Montessori" says: "The child's aptitude for work represents a vital instinct, and it is by work (not play — sic) that the child organizes his personality." To her it is work, not play which is typical of humanity — Homo Laborans should be man's title even more than Homo Sapiens.

Montessori and Froebel differ in their attitude or approach to reality. Montessori's approach is more objective while Froebel's is more subjective. In the Montessori system the child takes things (selected things) for what they are, instead of turning them by imagination into something else. The Montessori child is subject to the discipline of reality, to the persuasion of truth as revealed in sensible objects, and in their relations one to another. On the other hand the most ardent supporters

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

of Froebel, such as the German Professor Hessen, maintain that it is the teacher's business to exploit the child's immaturity; and deliberately to encourage his tendency "aus allem alles zu machen" ("to make anything out of anything"). This is why such Froebelians as he protest against the Montessori principle that the child must use each piece of material for the purpose for which it was intended, and not otherwise. He would allow the child, for instance, to use the bells as silver toad-stools for fairy dolls to sit on; the five-cube-chain to be used as a necklace; and encourage the child to hang out the contents of the box of fabrics along the 1000-bead-chain in an imaginary washing day. Montessori would say: If the child wants to wash something — let him do so by all means. Let him wash out the dusters and hang them on a real line in the garden. If the child wants to build a house or a bridge let him use some materials specially kept and made for this purpose. If he wants to make a necklace let him use the proper beads kept for that purpose; but not those which are dedicated to some special problem in number.

Readers of Froebel are aware how often he speaks of the importance in Education of "making the inner the outer". This is well enough in so far as it refers to the importance of creative self- expression; but it does not sufficiently realize the importance of also making the outer the inner, especially in early childhood. After all it is the Macrocosm which has to be reflected in the Microcosm — and not vice versa.

The German writer Dr. Helming... emphasized this same point, in the following passage:

The Montessori occupations have been prepared as the result of long observation of the child, and correspond to his needs. The child works with them as long as he wishes to do so. The Montessori material does not enter the child's life as a hard and forbidding task to be accomplished; but rather as a door through which he enters a fuller life. It is just the definite limits of the material which form a further help to the child. More than is the case with other playthings they are a proof against the arbitrary whims of the child, and so lead him towards reality. Out of an ordinary piece of wood the child can make anything he likes, and even a doll is subject to the child's arbitrary decision. But the Montessori material stands solidly there, an invitation to something definite, not to be changed by the child's arbitrary whim, something which teaches obedience with freedom.

That world, which is not the child's self, reports itself there and draws the child towards it. Here we see the difference between the Catholicity of Montessori and the philosophy of Froebel, which leaves the child shut up in itself. The soul of the child is awakened by the material. By its resistance to the child's own still very limited and short existence it stirs within it the presentment that it stands at the threshold of two worlds — within and without — and thereby wins readier access to that freedom which is his human birthright.

From E. M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work

 (London: Hollis and Carter, 1957), pp. 301-31.

Discovery Of The Child

Discovery Of The Child

Photo Nathalie Nuber, Auroville

Discovery Of The Child

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