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The Montessori Method

If you are interested in child education (or the nature of man or epistemology) I urge you to get some books on the Montessori Method.  You might start with Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s A Montessori Mother.

Consider the following fractured criticism of the Montessori Method, by John Dewey:

“But there is no freedom allowed the child to create.  He is free to choose which apparatus he will use, but never to choose his own ends, never to bend a material to his own plans.  For the material is limited to a fixed number of things which must be handled in a certain way.”  (Schools of Tomorrow, 1915)

This is a mixture of true and false.  The children we are talking about here are 2½ to 6 years old.  A small child has few mental tools with which to create, and the Montessori Method in fact gives him those tools.  For those unfamiliar with the Montessori Method, the “apparatus” is an abundance of toys or games designed to, among other things, train the senses of sight and hearing, organize the confusion of sense data in the child’s mind, develop dexterity, focus, writing and reading, and the meaning of numbers.  It is true that a given apparatus is to be used as intended and not otherwise.  But if the child wants to, say, build a house instead of work with “the Pink Tower,” there is non-apparatus for the purpose:  blocks and other regular toys.

Dewey had other objections to the Montessori Method.  He wrote that it teaches children too early.  Dewey urged, for example, that a child not be taught to read until the age of eight.

Dewey objected to Montessori’s use of phonics in teaching reading (or rather writing and reading;  the Montessori Method teaches writing before reading, believe it or not).  Instead he advocated look-say, sometimes called whole-word, where written words are not regarded as made up of sounds, but rather as single pictographs, each of which must be memorized, like chinese.

See the book Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955, 1986) and its sequel Why Johnny Still Can’t Read (1981), by Rudolph Flesch, for an answer to Dewey’s objection to phonics.

Dewey once wrote:

“The mere absorbing of facts and truths is so exclusively individual an affair that it tends very naturally to pass into selfishness.  There is no obvious social motive for the acquirement of mere learning, there is no clear social gain in success thereat.” (The School and Society, 1899)

These famous lines were written before the Montessori Method existed, but you can see how someone believing them  and believing that the child should be subordinated to the group  would not like Montessori.  These words of Dewey’s written a century ago are the ultimate cause of the dumbing down of America.

The Montessori Method had a very promising start in the U.S. of the 1910’s.  All the “ladies” magazines featured it, Montessori nursery schools sprang up over the northeast, and some famous people such as Thomas Edison endorsed it.

John Dewey, his student William Heard Killpatrick, and other advocates of “progressive” education, fought this Montessori movement.  Eventually the writings of these influential professionals had the desired effect, helped by the fact that there were no articulate defenders of Montessori in the U.S. except for the layman Dorothy Canfield Fischer.  By the late 1920s there were very few Montessori schools in America, and that state of affairs continued for a generation.

The progressive educationists delayed the U.S. development of the Montessori Method by almost forty years.

Montessori enjoyed a resurgence in the early 1960s  in large part from a backlash against “look-say” and “group adaption”  and it’s now going strong.

Montessori wrote:

“The most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six.  For that is the time when man’s intelligence itself, his greatest implement, is being formed.  But not only his intelligence;  the full totality of his psychic powers. ...  At no other age has the child greater need of an intelligent help ...” (The Absorbent Mind, 1949)