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 normal children.

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 practice.

"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 Rogers

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 intellectual progress.

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 follows:

    Language. 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.

    Order. Maria 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.

    Senses. It 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.

    Socialization. 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 politely.

    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.

Neuroscience Today. Today 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.

Studies 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 to say:

"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.

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Karl Popper Self Control Body Control Knowing Neuroscience Brain Plasticity Memory