1.8.2 Critical Pedagogies 1: Montessori

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

- explain clearly the context in which the Montessori approach emerged and the ideas behind it

- understand and explain clearly what the Montessori approach means, and define some key terms

- understand and explain how this theory applies to education

- critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory

- link this theory to educational practice

What are the origins and key ideas behind the Montessori theory?

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was born into a wealthy Italian family and studied engineering and then medicine at a time when it was not usual for women to go to university or take up a professional role. Montessori noted that many children languishing in hospitals and asylums had educational rather than medical needs, and this sparked her interest in pedagogical theories. She realised that there were few suitable educational methods and materials for children with disabilities and so she took some time out from her medical work to study the history of educational theory and some branches of anthropology and philosophy, in the hope of developing a scientific approach to the education of children with disabilities.

Montessori was living in Rome in 1906 and she was asked to set up some small-scale provision for the pre-school children of working people which came to be known as the Casa dei Bambini (House of the Children). In this venture, she observed how the children behaved and tried out her ideas about education for all children, and not just those who had special educational needs. Gradually a fully-fledged theory of education, along with specially designed equipment and teaching materials, was developed.

What is Montessori's theory?

One key insight informs the whole of Montessori's theory: the idea that all children have innate qualities that enable them to relate to each other and to the world around them, and that these qualities were being restricted rather than enhanced by the prevailing educational methods of the time. She wanted to nurture and draw out these inner qualities of the child, rather than impose learning upon them in a forceful way. This is a quite radically different approach to education than the traditional methods which involved learning by rote under the watchful eye of a stern teacher. Montessori believed that gentle support and praise are much more effective ways of guiding a child than strict discipline, and she emphasised respect and courtesy in the classroom, as ways of building children's concept of self, and giving them confidence in their own abilities.

Another important dimension of the Montessori theory is the idea that children learn in stages, and must progress to the end of one stage, before moving on to the next. The stages were defined in terms of sensitive periods in which particular types of learning will most easily take place. This staged learning is viewed as an individual process, because it is obvious that children will move at different rates through the stages. In order to facilitate the differential needs of children, the theory proposes that children should spend their time in groups of mixed age and ability, and in the presence of adults also. This environment provides plenty of opportunity to observe others who have reached a higher stage of development, and also allows children to give and receive assistance in all their learning activities.

Montessori believed in a latent capacity that exists within every human being, and did not approve of artificial prizes and punishments that are designed to modify human behaviour. The activity of learning should be its own reward, and this implies that children need attractive and appropriate learning materials and a pleasant learning environment, so that they are encouraged to experiment with new things. The theory holds that children have a mind that will automatically absorb information from the world around them. They are expected to automatically assimilate new learning, because the Montessori environment is geared to the child's current stage of development.

Underpinning these methods there is a core belief in justice and the rights of the child. In her later work, Montessori focused on the earliest phase of development (from 0 to three years) and presented her famous idea of "the absorbent mind" (Montessori, 1967) which likens the young child to a sponge, soaking up information from all the stimuli around him, and developing into his own personality. Even at this early stage, she urges not only nurture, but also respect for the emerging individual, acknowledging her right to develop in the way she chooses.

How does this theory apply to education?

The idea that children are born with an innate ability learn leads to a view of education that is very child-centred. Children are spoken to with respect, rather than talked down to from an authoritative position. There is an emphasis on freedom to explore and learn at the child's own pace, and an expectation that physical and emotional learning will take place as well as the academic type of learning. The application of Montessori's ideas is called the Montessori method and it is "characterized by multi-age classrooms, a special set of educational materials, student-chosen work in long time blocks, collaboration, the absence of grades and tests, and individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills" (Lillard and Else-Quest, 2006, p. 1893). The environment in which learning takes place is fundamentally important in Montessori-inspired education. In every Montessori classroom, the space is divided into five distinct thematic areas, each of which is designed to promote one of the main principles of the Montessori method. These are as follows:

  • Practical life - to develop the child's sense of order, independence and courtesy.
  • Sensorial education - to develop the child's physical senses and help him or her understand the world.
  • Language - to offer auditory, visual and cognitive experiences and activities including hand movements to aid writing skills, phonic and reading aids, spelling aids etc.
  • Mathematics - to provide materials such as rods and beads for practising mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, as well as geometrical figures.
  • Culture - "to offer the child experiences in geography, history, art, art history, biology, zoology, music, music appreciation and creative arts all using concrete materials first before moving towards the abstract" (O'Donnell, 2013, p. 139).

What are the strengths and limitations of the Montessori theory?

There is therefore a very useful emphasis in Montessori's work on the individuality and learning potential of every child, including children who have physical, mental or emotional challenges to overcome. The method encourages independence, and though this was radical at the time when the first Montessori schools were created, it chimes very well with contemporary ideas about children's learning.

One limitation of the Montessori method in its original form is that it incorporates some views which were commonly held by most European educators in the early twentieth century, but which are no longer regarded as ethically acceptable in modern schooling. This means that care must be taken when reading Montessori's own writings, especially in passages which expound her somewhat reactionary views on matters such as intelligence, racial qualities, and some aspects of gender, race and class. Montessori writes about "the instruction and education of man" (Montessori, 1912, p. 3), for example, when she means the education of all human beings, both male and female. Even her view of disability is heavily influenced by the scientific dogma of her time. Much early work by Montessori, and by her international critics and supporters, uses vocabulary such as "deficients" or "idiots" (Montessori, 1912, p. 42), for example, to refer to children with learning difficulties or disabilities. Montessori's work is understandably rooted in a particular historical place and time. Even though she achieved some radical and beneficial reforms in her work, there are still some aspects of her work which educators today would question or reject outright. Later research has provided more useful insights, for example about cognitive development, and changing views on equality and human rights in education have ensured that disability is defined and spoken about in more positive and respectful ways. This point is true of all older educational theories, incidentally, and not just the work of Montessori and her associates.

Another limitation of Montessori's work is that it tends to be confined to the Early Years period of education, and is much less commonly used in the later years of primary school and all the different stages and types of education that follow after that. There are a few areas of experimentation, as we noted in the example of the older adults with dementia teaching pre-school children, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

How can this theory be linked to practice?

There is much that can be learned from the Montessori method, even for teachers who work in mainstream schools that do not sign up to this approach. The guidance for teachers on observing each child carefully, and noting when they are at a sensitive stage for learning is a good principle that can be applied in any Early Years setting. Teachers can follow the lead given by the child to anticipate which activities will provide just enough challenge to help the child progress. If a child chooses activities that are below their current level of development, the teacher can make suggestions of something at a higher level. Similarly, if a task is too difficult, or a child is frustrated because he or she cannot complete it, the teacher should be able to offer alternative tasks that are more suited to the child's stage of development.

The giving of positive feedback is recognised as an important part of the contemporary teacher's role, but it is often forgotten that it should be more than just affirmation of the child's attainment and encouragement. The Montessori philosophy is invaluable as a source of ideas, and as a model which exemplifies a respectful and positive attitude towards the child. It inspires teachers to think about the sensory aspect of learning, for example through exercises with blocks, shapes and different textures that encourage children to use their fingers to trace the shapes of letters, while listening to sounds that also relate to the letters. This focus on pre-literacy skills helps to prepare children for reading and writing and it can be invaluable for children who may have difficulty with one or other aspect of language or literacy.

One of the most striking aspects of a Montessori classroom is the rather slow pace and orderly way in which learning is being managed, mostly by children themselves, and sometimes with support from one or more teachers in the room. This slow pace should not be mistaken for a lack of learning activity: there is a fundamental belief in the Montessori method that children need time to learn at their own pace, and they should be allowed to make mistakes and try out different methods of approaching the same task.


This chapter has introduced and discussed the Montessori theory and how it was put in to practice in Italy first, and then in other countries across the world. The theory is most useful for Early Years teachers, and teachers who are interested in or working in Special Educational Needs, but there are aspects that can be applied to all teaching contexts. Above all. this theory stresses the individuality of each child, and the role of the teacher as an encourager and guide, rather than instructor, and it requires a very careful selection and arrangement of furniture, tools and learning materials to support individual learning through graded steps for each child at their own pace.


Camp, C. J., Judge, K. S., Bye, C. A., Fox, K. M., Bowden, J., Bell, M., Valencic, K. and Mattern, J. (1997) An intergenerational program for persons with dementia using Montessori methods. The Gerontologist 37(5), pp. 688-692.

Gray, C. and MacBlain, S. (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood. Second edition. London: Sage.

Lillard, A. and Else-Quest, N. (2006) The early years: Evaluating Montessori education. Science 313(5795), pp. 1893-1894.

Montessori, M. (1912) The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as applied to child education in 'The Children's Houses' with additions and revisions by the author. Trans. by A. E. George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. Available at: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/montessori/method/method.html [Accessed 12 December 2016].

Montessori, M. (1967) The Absorbent Mind. New York: Holt, 1967.

O'Donnell, M. (2013) Maria Montessori. London: Bloomsbury.

Pajares, F. (2008) Motivational role of self-efficacy beliefs in self-regulated learning. In D. H. Schunk and B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research and Applications. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 111-140.

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