Montessori Today, Chapter 1: The Origin and Theory of Montessori Education



Over her lifetime, Maria Montessori examined childhood behavior throughout various countries and cultures and during times of war and peace. Her discoveries in human development and behavior uncovered universal principles that apply across cultures and time. In the first chapter of Montessori Today, Paula Polk Lillard discusses key points surrounding the origin and theory of Montessori education. Following is a brief review of Lillard’s discussion, focusing particularly on human development and behavior as it relates to Montessori’s shift from science to education.

[Montessori] believed that within the formative years of children lay the answers to humanity’s ability to renew itself in each succeeding generation.
— Paula Polk Lillard, Montessori Today, p. 3.

NAMC studying Montessori Today chapter 1 origin and theory laughing children

Human development is not a constant linear advancement but a progression that occurs during four formative planes


Montessori noticed profound differences in what she described as the four planes of development. She recognized that two of these planes occur during childhood (ages 0–6 and ages 6–12) and two planes occur during adolescence (ages 12–18) and adulthood (ages 18–24). Each plane has specific developmental characteristics with particular sensitive periods for learning and achieving particular developmental goals. By systematically examining how they learned, how they interacted with their environment, and what their natural tendencies were, Dr. Montessori observed children newly inventing and recreating themselves at each plane of development.

Studying Montessori Today, Chapter 1: The Origin and Theory of Montessori Education


Rather than the conventional view of education as being a linear progression, Montessori saw each plane as a uniform, consistent triangular progression. Each plane begins with rebirth followed by a rapid developmental progression that, after reaching its peak, declines at a slower pace. Through her observations, Montessori determined that education required a revolution. Her work turned to constructing an educational methodology that follows the child through this natural ebb and flow.

Montessori curriculum is designed to respond to the unique developmental aspects of each plane, with the ultimate goal of education being the development of the complete human being who is connected and contributing to society. With this goal in mind, Montessori set about teaching children according to what they inherently needed, not to what the state determined was appropriate. “Instead of dividing schools into nursery, primary, secondary, and university, we should divide education in planes and each of these should correspond to the phase the developing individual goes through.” (Montessori, 1971)

Human development is dependent upon interaction with the environment


In her first school, the Casa dei Bambini, Montessori witnessed children absorbing their world through sensorial exploration. We still observe this today, beginning with infants who touch and taste objects to learn more about them. As they grow and with each discovery, they begin to classify objects based on such criteria as what is and is not edible, what tastes and textures they prefer, how things feel to the touch, how things sound, if objects in their environment are safe or harmful, etc. No one can do this important work for the child; she must explore and gain this knowledge independently. From the beginning children are creating their own knowledge.

Humans of all ages attach meaning to information based on impressions made by their experiences. Sensorial knowledge is categorized and organized in the brain based on the repetition of patterns. Children will choose to do something over and over again to see if they obtain the same results, much like a scientist testing a hypothesis. Through repetitive action they are attaching meaning to their exploration.

Montessori education contains “three essential elements: a prepared environment, a prepared adult, and freedom with responsibility.” (Lillard, p. 21) Although curriculum changes to accommodate the unique aspects of each plane of development, these principal elements remain consistent because they are critical to the success of the method.

When the child is free to explore the prepared environment without adult interference, all his energy is focused on the task at hand in a productive, earnest, and peaceful way.

There is very little need for behavior modification or intervention. He applies imagination and repeated manipulation, striving for order, precision, and perfection.

One final human behavioral tendency that Lillard touches upon is communication, calling it part of the spiritual makeup of human beings. Its importance in the Montessori environment is further explored in later chapters.

In later chapters, Montessori Today presents in-depth discussions of important tenets as they relate to human behavioral tendencies described by Montessori: exploration, orientation, order, imagination, manipulation, repetition, precision, control of error/ perfection, and communication.

Works Cited
Lillard, Paula Polk. Montessori Today: A Comprehensive Approach to Education from Birth to Childhood. New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1996.
Montessori, Maria. The Four Planes of Education. AMI, 1971.

Michelle Irinyi — NAMC Tutor & Graduate

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