Understanding Montessori learning in the 21st century

Dr. Maria Montessori formulated her ideas for working with and teaching children more than 100 years ago. Can those ideas still be effective in working with children today? International Montessori teacher trainer M. Shannon Helfich references current brain research to demonstrate an analytical explanation of Montessori’s philosophy in the book “Montessori Learning in the 21st Century.”

Helfich says that in the mid 1990s, neuroscientists came to several conclusions that are scientific proof confirming Montessori’s empirical findings on education:

• Brain development is a combination of genes and experiences.

• Early experiences have a decisive impact on the way the brain is “wired,” and its adult capacities.

• There are prime times for the brain to acquire different types of knowledge.

Educational psychologists define intelligence as more than simply knowledge recorded and organized in the brain. Intelligence is also the ability to learn from experience, to adapt to the surrounding environment, and make distinctions when interpreting data.

Montessori believed that while gathering data is one of the mind’s tasks, the real work of intelligence is in making distinctions in the interpretation of the data.

The organization and progression of the sensorial materials and activities in the Montessori classroom leads to a systematic and in-depth exploration of the elements of the physical world. The richness of the Montessori environment supports and nurtures the student far beyond what he might experience randomly or spontaneously in the world. The clarity of the experience allows for a keenly refined abstraction.

Current child development research verifies the Montessori physical approach to mathematics. The abstract concepts built upon the physical sensory experiences are much stronger and more usable concepts.

Montessori believes the mathematical mind is not merely the capacity to remember math operations and formulas but the orderly mind that organizes data into usable patterns.

When a child can explore activities where the order is dismantled and then recreated, he learns strategies for creating order. Later, the student will call on these strategies to interpret numbers and math operations. These strategies eventually form the foundation for critical thinking, logic, and the understanding of cause and effect.

Based on observations of children throughout the world, Montessori developed her theory of the planes of development.

First plane: Infancy 0-6 – the absorbent mind

This is a time of dramatic growth that builds a foundation of skills and abilities. During these years, when provided with experiences that expose them to the richness of the world, children develop a love of learning, the capacity to make choices, and independence. Conducting the self-constructive process, practicing skills, and learning from their mistakes creates a solid foundation for the next plane of development.

Second plane: Childhood 6-12 – The powers of abstraction and imagination

Students in this plane enjoy working with peers and begin developing collaboration skills. They experiment with the roles of teamwork and division of labor, recognizing their strengths and building confidence in the ability to offer their skills to the problem-solving process. Sharing their insights with others gives them the opportunity to practice their logical thinking and judgment skills.

Third plane: Adolescence 12-18 – Human tendencies

Montessori views this plane of development as the birth of the social being. Adolescents are experiencing dramatic physical and emotional changes and need time and space for contemplation and reflection, as well as avenues for self-expression.

Adolescents seek to develop emotional and economic independence and a sense of self as a member of society. Participating in extended trips away from home, community service, and small business projects creates opportunities for adolescents to develop their independence in the larger world.

The future and its rewards

The student becomes a fully developed young adult at the completion of all planes of development. At this point he has learned life skills that allow for independence and is a self-motivated, competent, and confident young adult. He has compassion toward others and empathy for individual situations and capacities.

Children who are supported toward optimal fulfillment of their natural development acquire skills and attitudes that impact how they think about themselves and their responsibilities as a member of humanity.

Michele Eldon is the director of communications at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School.