[First published in Insight, January 2021]
Aimee Kimbell, Principal of Riverside Nursery Schools, is one of the UK’s foremost experts in the Montessori Method. She explores the ways in which this theory of education, developed in the early 1900s, continues to deliver an outstanding start in life for our children, to this day.
‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’ This famous quote, attributed to Aristotle, demonstrates how important early influences are on human development. The Montessori Method is based on a child-centred approach that encourages pupils to follow their own initiatives, leading to confident, positive learners at the beginning of their educational journey. Dr Maria Montessori believed early years pupils have ‘absorbent minds’ which have a sponge-like capacity to absorb from the environment that which is necessary to create an individual, before transitioning to a reasoning adult mind. For Montessori, the goal of education is to allow the child’s optimal intellectual, physical, emotional, and social development to unfold naturally.
Self-motivation and independent learning are intrinsic to the Montessori Method. From the earliest age, pupils are encouraged to find their own motivations for learning and growth through freedom in the ‘prepared environment’. The Montessori Method focuses on creating an enjoyable, ‘hands-on’, collaborative learning experience where pupils progress at their own speed. It teaches them to start with their own ideas and build on them through problem solving and physical experimentation. Each child is valued as a unique individual. A pupil’s path through the early years is not driven by instructions and judgements, but a desire to let them learn in their own unique way. The ‘prepared environment’ of Montessori settings nurture order, concentration, and creativity. If a child wants to spend three hours building a Roman arch, figuring out a trinomial cube, or working out the geometry of a tower, that’s fine. Uninterrupted time spent problem-solving and self-teaching is vital to the method. Montessori described such times as ‘sensitive periods’. She identified eleven different sensitive periods occurring from birth through to the age of six. During these times children have an inner compulsion to master an activity without assistance. The Montessori materials have inbuilt controls of error to enable self-correction, fostering independence and concentration.
“A pupil’s path through the early years is not driven by instructions and judgements, but a desire to let them learn in their own unique way.”
Positive social skills and emotional intelligence are other proven benefits of the Montessori Method. Multi-age classrooms ensure pupils are part of a close, caring community with older pupils as role models for the younger ones, developing positive socio-emotional skills. This approach fosters a community-based social intelligence by focusing on self-awareness, enabling pupils to understand moods and emotions. We encourage pupils to consider the perspective of others, fostering empathy and building emotional skills. Montessori children have been found to interact in a positive way and show a greater sense of justice and fairness. At the heart of our ‘Grace and Courtesy’ curriculum is respect for self, others, and the environment. Peace education is a part of Montessori’s vision and focuses on inner peace and conflict resolution. Montessori said that a child is ‘a hope and a promise for mankind’. She defined peace as ‘a mindset of collaboration and respect for different cultures and religions coupled with a respect for the natural world.’ This aim has never been more important than it is now.
“We encourage pupils to consider the perspective of others, fostering empathy and building emotional skills.”
The Montessori Method stresses the importance of nature because of its effects on the growth of the whole child. According to the philosophy, nature enriches the life of each child by physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Nature helps to encourage curiosity and the desire for exploration within a child, whilst offering rich, sensorial experiences. Maria Montessori wrote in her book The Absorbent Mind, ‘Only through freedom and environmental experience is it practically possible for human development to occur.’ This seems to chime with contemporary Britain as many people have reconnected with nature during recent lockdowns. This also relates well to contemporary global concerns about environmentalism and climate change and the young generations following in Greta Thunberg’s crucial footsteps.
The Montessori philosophy encourages a positive attitude to learning, collaboration, and problem solving to prepare students for a successful and fulfilled life and can provide a set of skills that are most relevant in the 21st century job market. In Maria Montessori’s words ‘the education of a small child does not aim in preparing him for school, but for life’. Research has shown that the Montessori Method produces more mature, creative, and socially adept children. Skills for the 21st century job market are usually summarised as: collaboration and teamwork, creativity and imagination, and critical thinking and problem solving, which all spring from the Montessori Method. In the 21st century, digital world, creativity and imagination are vital skills to help progress our culture and contribute to society. As Maria Montessori said, ‘Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create’.
“It is no coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Larry Page (Google) all attended Montessori schools.”
The Montessori approach gives students courage and strength to follow their imagination. In the most popular TED talk of all time, ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?’, Sir Ken Robinson argues that creativity is as important as literacy. He explains that to thrive in the post-industrial, 21st century economy, the most valuable skills are creativity, self- motivation, and social intelligence. The Montessori Method aims to nurture these qualities by providing the environment and stimuli to allow independent creativity to flourish. In the age of artificial intelligence and robotics, it could be argued that creativity should be more highly valued as technology can out-perform people in retaining, processing, and repeating rule-based information prevalent in the industrial 20th century employment market.
In the USA, where Montessori education is popular, observers have described the ‘Montessori Mafia’ dominating Silicon Valley. Many of the key innovators in our digital technological age are former Montessori pupils and perhaps the Montessori child within each has helped to shape the world we know. Former Montessori student Bill Gates demonstrates typical Montessorian traits of independent creativity and has revolutionised the world popularising home computing. Former Montessorian Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, developed his drive and vison in the Montessori prepared environment. It is no coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Larry Page (Google) all attended Montessori schools. As Larry Page pointed out, the formative qualities of his Montessori background were in ‘not following rules and orders, and being self-motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world, and doing things a little bit differently’. Although the Montessori Method is 150 years old, its ideas are proven to work and are more relevant today than ever. The Californian tech world recognises how the method benefits creativity and innovation so much that Elon Musk is building his own Montessori school, on site, to serve his Space X employees.
“We have an opportunity to shape the next generation of leaders and innovators. Our students are able to think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly — skill sets for the 21st century.”
At our Riverside Nursery Montessori Schools, we welcome two year-olds on the next steps of their educational journeys as absorbent-minded toddlers thirsty to learn, through our carefully prepared environments, into a world of exploration and discovery. By nurturing their unique characters and allowing them to flourish, they become self-reliant, compassionate, knowledgeable, global citizens with a desire for life-long learning. We have an opportunity to shape the next generation of leaders and innovators. Our students are able to think critically, work collaboratively, and act boldly — skill sets for the 21st century.
Is it possible that without the Montessori Method our modern world could look very different, without the innovations of the tech giants that define our age? Maybe Aristotle could have seen a spark of creativity and innovation in the seven-year-old Montessorians Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. It is our privilege to educate and nurture the minds of the next generation of creative greats.
Categories: Principal's Blog