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A Remarkable Lady
Maria Montessori had first been trained as an engineer, the first Italian woman to do so. She then became the first woman doctor in Italy, and later studied experimental psychology. Her scientific studies went well with her acute observation skills and her drive to experiment. When asked to work with the "idiot" children of the Roman slums, she depended on the teachings of educational greats, such as Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin to guide her in developing activities for them.
She provided a variety of apparatuses that required the use of the hands and manipulation, as well as movement. Educating the children through multiple senses, in a concrete fashion, allowed these supposedly retarded children to perform as well as the normal children in a public school exam. The experiment then became, what would happen if these techniques were used with so-called "normal" children?
Maria Montessori opened her first Children's House in 1907. More soon followed in Rome, then throughout Europe, Asia, etc. Great prominence in the United States came in the 1960s, and continues to this day. Her original program was designed for children ages three to seven. Now, Montessori programs are available from infant through high school ages. Unfortunately, not all Montessori schools are created the same, as there are no copyrights on the name, and no formal organization truly regulating their operation.
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Concrete vs. Abstract Learning
Maria Montessori believed that children learned best through concrete means, instead of strictly abstract ones. To learn how to count, one must count actual objects, to feel and see the difference between 1 and 10. Arbitrarily pointing to pictures on a card doesn't help a child truly internalize the concept. Watch the difference between a child trying to count objects out on a rug, versus counting the same number on a card. The finger is more likely to slip around on the card, and the pictures cannot be moved and ordered by the child in a way that makes sense to him.
Studies of a scientific nature, such as animals and plants, are done by observing and caring for real animals and plants, instead of merely reading about them. Children need to be a part of what it is they are studying, in order to truly understand it. Once they have a basic, concrete understanding, they will naturally move into the more abstract realm.
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Movement in the Montessori Curriculum
Manipulation of concrete materials is a part of the movement that is part of the Montessori curriculum. Maria Montessori felt that children learned better through movement than they did sitting still in a chair. Therefore, they are free to walk to a shelf to choose an activity, then return it to the shelf when they are finished with it. Some activities, such as the Brown Prisms (or Brown Stairs) require ten trips to the shelf and back to the rug, just to get it out. As the child carries each prism, she can feel how the thicknesses of each object is different. The movement allows her more time to internalize this concept.
When observing a Montessori classroom in action, notice that the children also seem to have an order and purpose in their movement. Children are not arbitrarily wandering around. They do not yell or run across the classroom. They have a destination in mind. If a child is wandering, he is quickly directed into purposeful activity by the teachers, known as directresses. Another child may appear to be wandering, but is actually actively engaged in the process of observing the works of the other children around him. The trained directress can tell the difference, and responds accordingly.
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The Montessori curriculum is quite dependent upon concrete means of teaching, as well as movement. Maria Montessori developed her materials and teaching methods to reflect these two concepts, also based upon the teachings of Itard and Seguin. This Montessori philosophy is used in classrooms all over the world.
For more information on the Montessori Method, read the first book penned by the woman herself, available in numerous editions:
Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method. London: Heineman, 1912.