Maria Montessori synthesized the principles and practices of four sciences and put them to work in a large room full of small children to develop a framework for the discipline she came to call Scientific Pedagogy. Having herself been educated as a medical doctor, with enough coursework in anthropology to warrant her employment as a lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Rome, she brought an observer/diagnostician’s mentality to an early-career assignment addressing the needs of the so-called “idiot children,” who were confined to an asylum on account of having been deemed incorrigible and unteachable. Though she had insisted as a young girl that she would never be a teacher, she found herself transfixed by the children’s behavior and riveted by the insights she came away with. She never turned back to medicine, but applied her scientific mindset to pedagogy in a way that had never been done before.
Just months after the opening of her first preschool classroom in the slums of Rome, a rising tide of enthusiasm for replicating the miracles that visitors were observing (all of which Montessori attributed not to instruction, but to “natural development”) made it possible for her to expand to a multi-site iterative implementation, employing classroom-based collaborators all over the globe, whom she had trained herself and with whom she stayed in close communication. Without necessarily having planned to do so, she managed to create a coherent worldwide community of practice, and to amass huge volumes of narrative data to support and challenge her evolving understandings.
Not having begun her work as an educator, per se, Montessori had no a priori interest in transmitting academic content to children. She was a student of human development, trained as a physician, who started out an “agnostic” observer, and eventually shifted to observation with an agenda: to identify and replicate the principles and practices that promote the evident thriving of children at various stages of growth.
Dr. Montessori believed that conscious acquisition of the gifts of our human heritage and culture is essential to the flourishing of the child. However, hastening – or even guaranteeing – the acquisition of specified content on a preordained timetable was never on her agenda. Accordingly, she engaged in a continuous and rigorous cycle of observation, theory development, and modification/development of classroom implementation principles – to great effect.
Educators from all over the world began to take note of the remarkable successes of these classrooms full of autonomous, industrious, peaceful and gregarious young people … whose spirited engagement in their school work was, within less than 50 years, replicated across classrooms, age groups, socioeconomic spectra, language groups, cultures, and continents.
For Dr. Montessori, the rapid and joyful academic content acquisition that was coming to be a predictable and widely touted outcome of these pedagogical practices was not a goal, but a barometer of the “rightness” of the learning cultures.
To Dr. Montessori’s dismay, her American publisher refused to publish her findings under the title “Scientific Pedagogy,” as she had wished, insisting that “The Montessori Method” would sell more books. (No doubt it did.) Although, during her lifetime, this ensured that she retained intellectual control of the further evolution of “The Method,” it’s not hard to imagine that this accident of naming has been an obstacle to broader acceptance and further development of a discipline of Scientific Pedagogy. (See next post – Scientific Pedagogy, Part III: formulating a new discipline for details on how these intellectual streams are integrated.)
Other obstacles to wider acceptance exist, to be sure (starting with the frequent use of biblical metaphor in her prolific writing) – but an eponymous field of study has created, since Montessori’s death in 1952, an unhealthy dynamic of jealous territorialism in the management and certification of Montessori knowledge.
During Montessori’s lifetime and that of her son and grandson, who continued her work, decision making about classroom implementation and training of teachers was thoroughly, definitively, and unapologetically autocratic. I’m convinced it’s this decision making structure, more than any other factor, that has inhibited the serious study and practice of a pedagogical paradigm that, applied to any number of challenges faced by humanity, could change the world.