Education, as one of the most significant processes in human life, has been the focus of attention for centuries on end. Starting from Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have been attempting to figure out the most productive ways of educating young generations, and thus the philosophy of education was born.
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At a certain point in history, education started to be viewed as a life-long process that could help influence social circumstances. The ideas of social pedagogy, voiced in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were developed, inter alia, during the New Education Movement.
In the first half of the twentieth century, one of the most outstanding practitioners of New Education was an Italian educator and philosopher Maria Montessori (1870–1952). Montessori’s basic view of education as a process of creating the right environment for children to develop themselves found a widespread response among the informal education systems.
The philosophic basis of Maria Montessori’s education system can be found in the teaching of New Education, the basis of which was laid by one of the most prominent philosophers of the French Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Reminiscent of Rousseau’s ideas on childhood being the ideal age for learning and on adult world giving little concern for the peculiarities of children are Montessori’s views of children as creatures who are close enough to nature to be let to develop in their own way and at their own pace: “It is essential to let nature have its on way as far as possible; the more freedom children are allowed to develop, the quicker and more perfectly they will attain higher forms and functions” (Montessori, as cited in Röhrs, 1994, p. 3).
Under the influence of president of the English section of the New Education Fellowship Percy Nunn, Montessori concluded that the human mind is a developing entity which does so in constant interaction with the environment (Röhrs, 1994, p. 3). In connection with this view of education as a process of comprehension of the impulses from the environment, Montessori arrived at the idea of the necessity to allow children develop at their own pace and to evolve their individuality on the way to self-realization.
In compliance with such vision of children as self-learning beings, Montessori reconsiders the role of teachers in the educational process.
Instead of traditional perception of teachers as omniscient mentors who instruct the students by communicating ready-made knowledge to them, Montessori envisions a “new type of teacher”: “Instead of talking he must learn to be silent; instead of instructing he must observe; instead of presenting the proud dignity of one who desires to appear infallible he must don the robe of humility” (Montessori, as cited in Röhrs, 1994, p. 7).
The center of the educational process in Montessori system belongs to the student, while the teacher moves away to the periphery, assisting the students in their development and letting the students’ intuition lead them in the process of exploring and discovering knowledge. Thus, the role of the teacher comes to organizing the necessary learning materials and assisting children by establishing the general atmosphere of search for knowledge in the classroom.
Maria Montessori put her theoretic ideas on education into practice by establishing a series of educational establishments called the Children’s Houses. Those were in fact living environments for children, specially adapted to the learning needs of children so that the latter could freely develop without any hindrance to their individual attitudes and perceptions.
Everything in Children’s Houses was specially adapted for children, starting from small-sized furniture and child-friendly architecture and ending with colors and sounds (Röhrs, 1994, p. 4). The purpose of living in Children’s Houses was envisaged as allowing the children develop in a free manner but in a responsible way.
For Montessori students, freedom and order were combined in one non-stop process of self-determination, or, in other words, discovering the laws of functioning by oneself and submitting to those laws of one’s own free will. Thus the children could actively participate in and even create their daily environment, grasping the rules of law and order and thus arriving to the notion of justice based on moral autonomy.
The understanding of the principles of order, law, and justice were practically brought up in children through a systematical program of daily activities developed by Maria Montessori herself and called “exercises in daily living” (Röhrs, 1994, p. 5).
These activities were aimed at developing the qualities of patience, exactness, and repetition, which in their turn helped to increase the children’s ability to concentrate and thus perform their tasks not simply by manner of mechanical imitation but through thoughtful and orderly approach.
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Maria Montessori continuously emphasized the necessity of not only performing certain practical tasks but of connecting those tasks with intellectual and moral ideas, thus creating a harmonious sense of logical interdependence and relationship among the objects and phenomena in the world.
The didactic materials used in Montessori schools are aimed at appealing to the sensitive side of children, since senses are the initial gateway through which children get to know the world. Colors, shapes, and sizes are combined in Montessori didactic materials so that the child occupying himself or herself with these materials subconsciously enters a certain problem situation, the solution of which would involve employing logical, intellectual, and even moral capacities.
One of the greatest advantages of using Montessori didactic materials is that the child is able to figure out their meaning and possible implications on his or her own, and moreover, is able to assess the degree of success when solving a certain task.
These abilities of independent thinking, self-realization, and continuous self-assessment provided by Montessori didactic materials constituted a significant step on the way to socialization of children, providing them with a combination of both practical and social life within the educational process.
The effect of Maria Montessori’s ideas on educational process cannot be overestimated: she has found the ways to employ the idea of child uniqueness and independent importance in teaching practice. Reassessing the learning nature of the child as a creature able to explore the world intuitively, Montessori created a balanced system of practical activities that allow children trace, discover, and recognize the logical and moral relations existing in the world.
The “absorbent mind” of children allows them to automatically integrate the practical knowledge they acquire into their basic character and thus to form their personality for the rest of their life (Montessori, as cited in Röhrs, 1994, p. 10).
Therefore, it is the task of the teachers to observe the learning process and to control the learning environment (and not the child) in such a way that it would meet the individual learning requirements of children and foster their personal development. Due to such harmonious development of both their inner and their outer characteristics, children increase their chances of independent thinking and successful integration into society in the future.
Röhrs, H. (1994). Maria Montessori. PROSPECTS: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), XXIV (1/2), 169-183. Web.