Maria Montessori – The Visionary Teacher of Practical Skills for Life

“Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants – doing nothing but living and walking about – came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning: would you not think I was romancing? Well, just this, which seems so fanciful as to be nothing but the invention of a fertile imagination, is a reality. It is the child’s way of learning. This is the path he follows. He learns everything without knowing he is learning it, and in doing so passes little from the unconscious to the conscious, treading always in the paths of joy and love.”(Maria Montessori)

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educator, proponent of one of the most interesting pre-school education programmes in history and founder of “Case dei Bambini”, Italian kindergarten day-care centres in Rome at the beginning of the 20th Century.

I studied her philosophy in a one year diploma course, organized by the London Montessori Centre and franchised to different Montessori schools throughout Britain, for adults to learn the Montessori method and to understand better the cognitive and emotional development of babies and small children. My daughter, who is now sixteen, was just a couple of months old when I started the studies, and even now, many years later, I am still practicing what I learned there every single day.

In particular, I enrolled onto the course because I wanted to learn how I could enable my daughter to become bi-lingual, in both Italian and English, since I did not want her to be a stranger to my mother tongue whilst living in Britain. What I learned in that very intensive programme was a set of invaluable skills, not just for language and reading, but for all paths of learning and discovery which I then went on to use in my profession and in every single cookery class I have taught thereafter. The Montessori way of teaching is so inspirational and compelling, it informed my own way of thinking, teaching and motherhood thereafter.

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in Chiravalle, in the province of Ancona in eastern Italy. Her father was an accountant in the Ministry of Finance and even in her early years she showed diligence and studious curiosity in the sciences and mathematics. She went on to study Medicine at the University of Rome and after her degree, in 1896, she was awarded a license to practise medicine, as Italy’s first female doctor.

In her early career she focussed her work on special needs children and in 1906 set up the very first “Casa dei Bambini”, in the slums of Rome’s San Lorenzo district. The Casa was a pedagogical centre to help educate children from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, who were considered unable to join mainstream education. It was in this school that Dr. Montessori established a prepared environment, where sensorial education and practical life skills were to form the core of self-driven education and collaborative learning. She financed the centre through charitable donations from friends.

She discovered that from birth babies use their senses to learn about the world around them: using taste, sight, hearing, smell and touch, they are able to become aware of and learn about their environment and solve the problems that arise within it. She wrote:

The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence… Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.”

As children progress through their toddler years they repeat actions and spontaneously interact with objects, people and nature to develop both a cognitive and emotional language, at their own pace, and in their own time frame. Dr. Montessori harnessed this inner desire that children have of learning, repeating and connecting with the world through their senses and provided a stimulating and varied classroom environment so that all children, of all backgrounds, could follow their learning desires and reach their full capabilities.

The Montessori classroom was furnished with small furniture, child-centred facilities, filled with building blocks, tactile fabrics, solid shapes, coloured equipment and a variety of practical life objects, from dustpans and brushes to gardening kits and sewing baskets. Children would sit in groups, across age ranges, and nourish the inherent desire for learning, in their own interactive and independent way. This concept will resonate with any parent who has ever stopped, in silence, to observe how small children can be completely absorbed in building a tower, making a sand castle, stirring pancake batter or making a daisy chain, utterly oblivious to the world around them.

Believing that “The child should live in an environment of beauty”, Montessori laid out plans for all classrooms to be filled with light, fresh air, flowers, quiet reading areas and interesting things brought in from the garden or from home.

One of the most interesting corners of the classroom is the “Practical Life” area, where small children would be taught useful skills and techniques that would help them in later life, from pouring water from a jug into several glasses, spooning food onto a plate, cutting a cake into slices, washing hands, wiping a table, laying plates and cutlery or putting things away tidily.

Children would be shown grace and courtesy, how to ask politely for more food, how to walk in a line, queue, wait their turn, say please and thank-you and share equipment, materials and books. The actions would be shown slowly, repeated and then children would be able to perform the action themselves.

During the child’s “sensitive period”, in the ages 0-6, or the most formative years of a child’s life, Dr. Montessori saw the child’s imagination as a tabula rasa, waiting to absorb knowledge, ideas and concepts from the environment and the people within it.  The method encourages using and developing fine motor skills in actions such as carrying a tray with cups, opening a milk bottle or folding cloths, as well as eye-hand co-ordination, as in spooning rice from a bowl into a pan, holding a pencil or placing seeds in terracotta pots. She argued that these skills were just as important as the three “R’s”, reading, writing and arithmetic, which were also taught using the senses to guide and inform the child:

Little children, from the moment they are weaned, are making their way toward independence.”

Independence is the key: conventional schools place dependence on the teacher, the curriculum and testing at the core of the educational process, whereas the Montessori system encourages independence of thought and action through the prepared environment. Because the child’s progress goes unrewarded the child is not constantly looking for reward: the learning, the activity and the experience are the end reward.

Dr.Montessori observed and wrote about how children have their own independent sense of order, how older children enjoy teaching younger children, how children direct their own progress through natural freedom of choice and discovery and how the classroom “directress” (they were not called teachers) could be free to move around the room engaging with different children and not have to “talk and chalk” from the confines of the front desk.

“The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say, “The children are now working as if I did not exist.””

News of the Montessori method and its success soon spread through word of mouth. Dr. Montessori and her son Mario travelled throughout the world and between 1915 and 1950 Montessori schools were soon opening up in the developing world, Europe and America. Her son was born out of wedlock in 1898, allegedly as the result of an affair with a fellow physician when she was working as a doctor. In an era when a woman’s career and social standing would have been in great jeopardy as a result of an illegitimate birth, she was forced to have Mario raised secretly with relatives in the countryside outside Rome, and she was unable to acknowledge him as her son until her death. She died aged 81 of a cerebral haemorrhage. Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Award, she left behind her a legacy of lectures, books and research papers as well as thousands of schools from London to Lahore, Paris to Perth and Boston to Barcelona.

The Montessori method, like many revolutionary forms of education that created a recalibration of the old order, was criticised by a number of subsequent educational theorists who, paradoxically, called the system too structured and too lax at the same time. What they failed to recognise, I believe, is that Dr. Montessori was a proponent of a holistic philosophy for life long learning, which began at birth and ended at death, and not just a pedlar of nursery equipment or a bureaucrat looking to tick boxes when one skill after another was mastered.

A number of exceptional artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors and writers past and present, benefitted from a Montessori education. Among them are Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize winning author, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook; Julia Child, the food writer; Anne Frank, the diarist; Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia; Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer and musical impresario; Yo Yo Ma, the cellist, and lastly Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who, outside of her marriages, forged a career in publishing and the arts and achieved notable work in the field of architecture conservation and interior design. Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse and Slow Food campaigner was a Montessori teacher. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, and his wife Mabel were so enthusiastic about the teachings of Maria Montessori that they helped provide financial support and also founded the Montessori Education Association in 1913. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, moving picture camera and the light bulb also founded a Montessori school.

I have put the methodology I learned in my diploma to good use, regardless of the age range I am teaching, from ages 5 to 95. I prepare the cookery classroom to ensure that all the ingredients and equipment are set out in readiness for the pupil’s arrival; I show the different recipes and techniques but give each student the freedom to explore and experiment; I highlight the interesting facts behind ingredients and their provenance and I encourage everyone to use their senses to develop their palate and sense of olfactory recognition. I believe that for all students to love food, its preparation, presentation and enjoyment, they need to be engaged with it, from seed to soil, sink, saucer and sideboard. I also make sure young children, especially, learn the importance of washing their hands before and after cooking, to clean their own mess, tidy up after cooking and learn to store and preserve what they have cooked as well as serve it to others graciously. We talk about food, farming and foraging, how important it is to eat within the seasons and celebrate high days and holidays with homemade cakes, pastries and confectionery. From carving a chicken to frying zucchini and weighing flour, I believe that the hands that stir the soup rule the world. Cooking is empowerment, and the Montessori method facilitates that empowerment one gradual, gentle step at a time.

These fundamental skills are, sadly, almost entirely absent from the National Curriculum in Britain today. In the £60 billion budget allocated for education in the state school sector, there are very few schools where this sort of teaching is available, at any age. As a result private cookery schools have sprung up all over the country, offering short courses in the school holidays and half-terms, but because they need to charge full commercial costs to parents, many are outside the budgetary scale of what many families can afford.

As I read news of the daily increase of childhood obesity, the soaring demand for ready and frozen meals and takeaways, in a market valued at £250 million per annum, and the chronic diet-related diseases that afflict millions in this country, adding £40 billion to the NHS bill per annum, I wonder what Maria Montessori, the conscientious, visionary teacher with her tiny budget in a backwater Rome slum, would have made of it all.

Further reading

I have found these three books by Dr. Montessori particularly helpful in my teaching and in motherhood:

“Secret of Childhood”

“The Absorbent Mind”

“Discovery of the Child”

There are several informative websites you might like to visit:

This website has an excellent video which gets to the heart of Montessori education:

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