Lessons from the Mentally Handicapped
One can not really write about learning without
considering the outstanding contribution of Maria Montessori. Her
efforts in some ways should be central in the development of what we
know about learning and some ways it must stand apart. It is central
because it foreshadows much of what was to come and it must stand apart
because some of her followers almost turned it into a crusade or a kind
of religion. Some of her followers began to treat her methods as being
perfect without need for improvement.
Mentally deficient children. It
had long been known that children who were mentally deficient could be
helped by certain techniques of instruction to live a happier more
normal life. Maria Montessori set out initially to help mentally
deficient children by devoted application, using these established
techniques in environments especially set up for the purpose. She was
successful beyond her wildest dreams, more than anyone who had worked
with the mentally handicapped before. These handicapped children
actually improved so much in their ability to learn, that they began to
surpass the abilities of normal children. So it inevitably occurred to
Montessori to wonder if these techniques might also be able to help
Dependence and Independence. When
babies are born they are totally dependent on their parents to provide
for all their needs. This remains truer for those children who are
mentally deficient, as it is more difficult for them to master the
abilities to provide for their own needs, and consequently they tend to
remain very dependent. The techniques for helping mentally deficient
children mostly centered around this idea of helping them to become
less dependent, by placing them in these prepared environments. This
became Montessori's innovative initial idea.
Independence in Normal
Children. When Montessori started her
schools using these ideas to help normal children she began to observe
them much as would an anthropologist. After some time she concluded
that the proper function of children's learning or work, as she liked
to call it, was to become independent of their parents and eventually
of all others. Working with the poor, the homeless and abandoned, she
was again wildly successful with children able to learn things far
beyond what was expected for their ages. In her book
"The Discovery of the Child" Maria Montessori had this to say.
"If teaching is to
be effective with young children, it must assist them to advance on the
way to independence. It must initiate them into those kinds of
activities which they can perform themselves and which keep them from
being a burden to others because of their inabilities. We must help
them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down
stairs, to pick up fallen objects, to dress and undress, to wash
themselves, to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood,
and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All
this is part of an education for independence."
"We never stop to
think that a child who does not act does not know how to act, but he
should act, and nature has given him all the means for learning how to
act. Our primary duty is to assist him to perform useful acts."
What Maria Montessori realized was that parents,
teachers, and anybody intent on facilitating children in learning had
to be very careful how they tried to help. What she found that worked
best was what she called a minimal dose of teaching. Teachers as she
saw them were to do three things. First they were to introduce the
child to what is available to learn. Second through the teacher's
enthusiasm for what is being presented they were to pass on that
interest and enthusiasm to the child. Third, they were to then step
back and get out of the way while the child did the major part of
learning by themselves. She had a policy of non interference by
teachers, by which she meant that when working well without help,
children should not be helped. That in fact they should be helped only
when they requested help either verbally or nonverbally. This easily
understood principle is often subtle and difficult to initiate in
"Play is often talked about as if it were
a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious
learning. Play is really the work of childhood." Fred
Maslow and Human Potential. In
many ways the ideas of Maria Montessori parallel and foreshadow many of
the other ideas about learning such as Maslow's. When Montessori talks
about the new child (a child with qualities un-thought of previously as
being childlike) she is clearly talking about a being that will
culminate as one of Maslow's self actualized people. In a way she
foreshadowed the whole human potentials movement.
Her ideas are in no way incompatible with those of Maslow and indeed
they fit together like hand in glove.
Maria Montessori had this to
says about human potential:
"But a time is coming (though we shall
not live to see it) when mankind -or what is left of it after the 'Last
War'- will turn its highest constructive energies to this task of
creating these 'prepared environments' in which the young can grow (as
they never have done yet) into their full stature - not the deviated
misfits that most of us are."
Popper and the Desire for
Order. Maria Montessori, like
Popper, noticed that children, especially those of about two years old,
exhibited a kind of desperate need for order. She, like Popper,
realized that what these children needed was a world that could be
relied on; a world that could be predicted or anticipated. She gives
many examples of what is clearly an inability of young children to deal
with a conjecture which although common among children is never the
less invalid and which is thus shown to be so by events. This
conjecture appears to be common to all children. The conjecture put
simply is that everything has its place and will always be found in
that place. Children live in a world that is total chaos which they can
make little sense of, and this is extremely frustrating and
frightening. Maria Montessori seeing this, set about creating an
environment for children that was so orderly that they could make easy
Piaget and his
Anthropological Method of Studying Children.
Maria Montessori was well aware of the work of Piaget and drew on many
of his observations. She clearly followed in his footsteps by observing
children and trying to interpret the reasons for their actions.
The Sensitive Periods of
Childhood People have always realized
that children went through certain periods when they were more
interested in learning or motivated to learn and more able to learn.
Before Montessori, it had been believed that these heightened learning
periods were a natural part of physiological development. Babies show
early interest in learning how to control their arms and legs. When
they have developed sufficient skill at this, they will become
interested in learning to crawl. When he has developed sufficient skill
at doing this he will become interested in standing up and learning to
walk, etc. This is determined by such things as the development of
muscular strength of balance and of course, of first mastering the
preceding skills. What Montessori did was alert us to the possibility
that these sensitive periods were possibly genetically imprinted and if
not allowed to function on time could be lost, or as she put it, "we
miss the bus". She also developed the idea that these periods could
also be part of the development of certain psychological functions.
These she concentrated on particularly as the more physiological ones
were well accepted.
It is now well recognized, that yes, sensitive
periods exist, but they are not for the most part critical to learning
but rather simply make learning easier at those times. The idea that
children could miss the buss was wrong and became an unfortunate modern
psychological myth. Although children seem to learn better and faster
during these sensitive periods all is not lost if children have to
learn something after the sensitive period has finished. Although it
gets more difficult we can learn almost anything all our lives.
However, in the case of children that were brought up by wild animals
it has proved difficult to teach them human language.
Montessori's Main Sensitive Periods are as
Language is many things and clearly children go through many periods
where the desire to learn this is heightened. Children first imitate
the cadence the general rhythmic sound of continuing speech. Once they
have mastered this, they can begin to pick out individual words and
find they have a possible meaning. When they have done this, they can
begin to speak words to test if the meanings they have given to them
are correct. Once they have found many of these meanings to be correct
they can then begin to string them together into sentences. When they
have developed sufficient skill in communicating in this way, they can
then go on to learn reading and writing. Montessori saw that when each
stage finished, a new stage would open up.
She also saw that learning language in this way
without any teacher, required far more attention, delight and
concentration than a person would ever be immersed in again. This
childhood novelty of internalizing a language is a unique human
experience, that is never repeated to such an extent. She felt that if
language was not learned at this time, it would be only with great
difficulty that it could be learned latter on. The child who learns two
languages at this stage is said to be bilingual. The person who learns
another language later in life, is not usually said to be bilingual,
because his grasp of the second language is not so perfect. By
contrast, a bilingual person would have a considerable advantage in
learning a third language even later in life.
Montessori noticed that children, especially those of about two years
old, exhibited a kind of desperate need for order. She realized that
what these children needed was a world that could be relied on, a world
that could be predicted or anticipated. She saw that the wrong kind of
environment gave rise to an inability to form a stable model of
reality. She saw that when this happened to children, they would become
terrified. She also felt that if this early construction of a guide to
reality failed, it would be very difficult to construct later on.
Small Events and Objects.
Maria Montessori noticed that children were often very concerned with
and observant of events, that were so small as to be essentially
invisible to adults. Children she felt, were showing a preference for
such events and that a strong stimulus merely distracted children
momentarily from these preferred stimuli. She believed that children
were paying meticulous attention to tiny events, and that, if they were
prevented from doing so at this stage, their learning would be slow and
their powers of observation in later life may be badly crippled.
is a well known fact that children, before the age of reason sets in,
have a special interest in sensorial impressions of all kinds.
Montessori found that not only did children delight in these sensory
experiences, but if allowed to indulge in them early enough, developed
powers of discrimination which most adults just could not match.
Sensitivity to sound, color, size, shape, smell, she found, could all
be greatly heightened if children were exposed to them freely at this
early age. A child could be shown a color in one room and then walk to
another room where he could select a matching shade from among 63
different shades. Not only that, but she also found that if children
were not exposed to all of these sensory experiences early enough, they
would remain deficient in discriminating between those missed sensory
materials for the rest of their lives.
Montessori actually calls this the sensitive period for learning good
manners. She believed, that although young children sometimes acted
like little barbarians, that this was not their natural or preferred
state. Children did not want to be rude or upset adults or for that
matter other children. They did so, because on the one hand, they
lacked awareness that their actions are going to upset adults or
children, and on the other hand, because they lacked skill in
performing actions that would not upset adults. Montessori believe,
that as soon as they became aware that their actions could upset
others, they became highly motivated to learn how not to do this. She
made a game of learning these important skills and made the children
aware of how much this could be appreciated by others. She challenged
children to sit still for long periods of time. She had them become so
quiet that they could hear their names called in the tiniest whisper.
She challenged them to perform very simple tasks without making any
noise. She demonstrated how they could blow their noses quietly. She
taught them how to address various types of people correctly and
She passed all this information on to children at
an age far younger than anybody had thought to do it before, because
she could see that at that time they were much more motivated to learn
it. She clearly demonstrated, that if these things were not taught at
this very young age, children would then find it very difficult to
learn and in fact sometimes never learn it. It was possibly this
amazing concept of helping children to learn these cultural norms,
during a period when they were most sensitive to learning them, which
so astonished visitors to the Montessori schools. It was the
politeness, the quietness, the concentrated stillness of these children
that so amazed everybody.
neuroscientists are finding that this idea introduced by Montessori is
very credible. In her book
"The Creative Brain" Nancy C. Andreasen has this to say:
"Another important component
of brain plasticity is the concept of critical periods.
These are relatively limited windows of opportunity during which the
brain can learn, change and develop. If the opportunity is not seized
during that critical period, the window may close forever. The concept
has many important implications for building better brains, for
enhancing creativity and for education.
of neuroplasticity have made it clear that the prime time for language
acquisition is between around age
one and around age
twelve. This is when children are training their ears and brains to
hear subtle differences in sounds and to articulate them with their
lips and mouths."
The Jigsaw Puzzle. E.
M. Standing in his book
"Maria Montessori Her Life and Work" when trying to describe
Montessori's ideas on the development of a child's consciousness chose,
like this site, to use the metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle. He has this
"The universe, as it appears
to the child, may be compared to a huge jigsaw puzzle made of an
infinite number of separate pieces not one of which, at the beginning,
fits into another. Instead they are all jumbled up, higgledy-piggledy,
anyhow, in an inextricable confusion."
A Great Contribution.
Maria Montessori's legacy of prepared environments, her belief in the
goodness and industry of children, her ideas on having optimum times in
life for specific types of learning, her ideas on children's struggle
to be independent, were all great contributions to the body of
knowledge on learning. However, she gave the world something far more
important. She gave the world a new way of improving the lot of
children in the world through learning. She used Piaget's
anthropological method of studying children in their habitat, but used
her findings to try and improve that habitat. What we now recognize as
her method and materials (her prepared environments) was originally a
way of studying children with an aim of improving their environment and
optimizing their ability to learn.
Some of the people who have written books on
Montessori have realized that her work was not complete, could be
improved and that the materials needed to be updated for each new age.
To my knowledge however, nobody has expressly stated that what is
really needed is for her work to be continued. Of course I realize that
teachers cannot be expected to be able to all be Maria Montessoris, but
there is no reason that they should not make the attempt. To study
children, to place new learning aids in their environment, to then see
what works and what does not, this whole business of continually
recreating, adjusting modifying, improving and updating these prepared
environments is surely the true vocation of those who would teach.
Developing Children's Future
Potential. Maria Montessori's system
of prepared environments are early attempts to create a process for
helping people to become self-actualized. She was concerned with
changing the norms of society for children and then letting those
children actualize their potential within that new protected society.
Maslow and Montessori both foresaw the need for a science that would
help individuals through facilitation to grow and become. They also saw
the need to design an environment, which was itself nurturing in such a
way as to make the path to self-actualization easier. We need to begin
again to study children the way Montessori did, to continue to improve
her prepared environments and see how they can be updated for the
present day. We need to try to find ways of extending her ideas, of
preparing such environments for older children or even preparing such
environments for adults to learn within.