“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.” – Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori’s legacy reshaped the field of education, introducing the philosophy that we learn and grow best by following an innate path of self-development. She knew what she was talking about—she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize an astounding six times, and her image was even on Italy’s 1,000 Lire banknote. She urged her students—both children and adults—to “trust that you know what you’re doing.” It worked in classrooms when we were children, and it works in the workplace today.
An educational rebel
In the late nineteenth century in Italy, when Maria Montessori was born, girls had only two career choices: to be either a teacher or a nun. But that didn’t stop Maria. She was an excellent student, passionate about her education, and ambitious. Her parents certainly didn’t hamper their daughter’s natural enthusiasm for learning. They were both avid readers and well-educated themselves. They also had the means to support their daughter in doing something that bordered on scandalous. Montessori entered an all-boys technical school at 13 to study engineering (where she was required to spend recess inside to avoid being tormented by her male peers). After graduating high school, she decided her next step was another male-dominated field—medicine. Hey, the girl liked a challenge.
Montessori applied to, and was rejected by, the University of Rome’s medical program, ostensibly due to her lack of knowledge of classical languages. Undaunted, she studied for two more years, then reapplied. The university finally had to admit her. Still, it was considered too risqué for her to work on cadavers in mixed company, so she did so in the evenings, alone. Boundaries be damned. Maria Montessori graduated in 1896, the first woman in Italy with a medical degree.
Forging her own path
Montessori’s early medical practice focused on psychiatry, which was still in its infancy (Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, for example, was published in 1899, and took eight years to sell all 600 copies). She also attended courses on education, where she developed a deep interest in educational theory, especially in the ways children with intellectual and developmental disabilities were treated. In 1900, she launched a new training institute for special education teachers. This gave her a place to experiment with different teaching methods. In 1907, she opened the Casa dei Bambini, a childcare center for unsupervised poor children. There, she designed the classroom environment and the learning materials to foster what she believed was each child’s natural desire to learn.
Montessori’s approach to education was enthusiastically adopted internationally and in her native Italy. When Benito Mussolini seized power in 1922, Montessori, who had been traveling and lecturing aboard, returned to Italy to accept the position he offered her, that of “Chief Educator.” Blending politics and education didn’t work out so well for Montessori, however. She fled the country in 1934, after refusing Mussolini’s dictate that her schools pledge their allegiance to fascism. Mussolini retaliated by shutting more than 70 Italian Montessori schools. Meanwhile, Montessori headed to India, where she spent time with Gandhi, who was a huge proponent of the Montessori system; he taught the children in his ashrams using a similar technique. Her friendship with Gandhi and her continued focus on pacifism influenced Montessori’s books Education for Peace and Education for a New World.
Learning in its natural state
Montessori founded her method on the observation that children who are placed in a rich, unstructured environment learned naturally. An educator could simply provide opportunities for the natural stages of learning to flourish. Her schoolrooms were equipped with child-sized furniture (radical for the time). She trained teachers to give children the freedom to play however they liked with “spontaneous discipline.” It was so successful that by 1910, the Montessori Method was known worldwide. Today, there are 22,000 Montessori schools in at least 110 countries.
Interact and learn: The Montessori Method
Another educational innovation Montessori introduced was based on the then-new concept that we learn by interacting directly with our environment. She also concluded that children learn things, then build upon what they learn, moving to the next step naturally, without the need for a forced, inflexible lesson plan.
All of Montessori’s theories can be great for grown-ups, too. How many of us get stuck in the way we’ve always done something, rather than reacting to what’s actually happening? Instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all solution or way of thinking, trust yourself to develop your own path.
Freedom and challenge: Not just for kids
If you’re hitting too much resistance, you may not be using the right tools, or maybe you’re working toward the wrong goal.
Even as adults, we “fall behind” when we try to force something too early. Meeting an arbitrary norm isn’t a good reason to set a goal. For example, there’s no rule that says you should have a good grasp of a foreign language after two years’ study, or that you should have mastered a software program after a month of using it. Someone just made that up, and it doesn’t take individual circumstances into consideration. The Montessori Method trusts that kids will guide themselves to an appropriate stage of learning. It works for adults, too.
Individual paths: forge ahead
For self-guided learning to work, the Montessori educational model relies on a methodical progression from one level to the next. Students tackle lessons in the way that works best for them. First, discover the best learning style for you. Once you get that, you can turn up the gas.
Montessori believed in “sensitive periods,” a developmental stage in which a student has the most to gain from a new experience. When in a sensitive period, a child shows an intense interest in a certain activity or type of play until a new skill has been mastered. Adults do it, too, becoming enamored of certain hobbies or interests. The key is trusting that your interests have value. Pay close attention to your enthusiasm – what is it guiding you toward? That’s where you’ll shine.
Montessori believed that all students to develop strong “self-regulation,” the ability to educate yourself, know what is being learned, and assess the learning experiences. Where is your work style weak? Where are you strong? Determining each aren’t value judgments, they’re information tools to help you get to where you want to go.
Goals and structure: We still need ‘em
Montessori insisted on uninterrupted blocks of work time. Without interruptions to disrupt that groove, you’ll have the mental space to make crucial connections and let those discoveries sink in. Block out uninterrupted work, play or creativity time just for you. It’s crucial for creative thinking and innovation.
Mentorship and Community: Connect
Montessori also relied on the community created by mixed age groups. Younger kids look up to older ones as supportive, helpful figures. Older kids enjoy playing the role of mentor. For adults, many of our best mentors may not be rock star success stories, but rather people who are just a few steps further along the same path. A mentor can either be someone who’s been where you are now, or who has already arrived where you want to be. Ask them for advice or just try some of their approaches.
Applying the Lessons: Get out there
Montessori recognized that for children, their play is their work, especially activities which appear creative, abstract, and fun. Take that concept and run with it: It’s all good. Embrace things that don’t have a clear path to profit or external growth. Time spent doing something creative and (un)constructive is still totally worthwhile.
“Respect your process,” “Find your groove,” and “Work hard, play hard.” These are not just tee-shirt mottos, they’re proven educational approaches. Take it from Dr. Montessori: You can get where you need to go by respecting your own way of doing things. Wander from someone else’s game plan. Grab some quiet time. Play to your strengths, and yes, play as hard as you work.