This year is being celebrated worldwide as the Montessori centenary, marking 100 years since the opening of the first Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) in the slums of Rome.
In 1907, Dr. Maria Montessori had no intention of starting a school. But as a scientist and physician passionately interested in studying child development, she jumped at the opportunity to oversee a day care arrangement for children of factory workers. Her experiments and observations in that first Children's House rocked the establishment of her day and sparked a worldwide educational and social movement.
There are now more than 8,000 Montessori schools on six continents, with programs serving children from birth through adolescence.
Americans often associate Montessori with private education, yet Montessori programs are increasingly being adopted by public schools - many in poor urban areas - and these schools routinely have waiting lists. However, the opportunity for Montessori to become more available to children in Maryland and throughout the United States is hindered by several institutional or bureaucratic obstacles, including resistance by some teachers unions.
Montessori embodies many features that set it apart from the traditional American model of education. These include:
Focus on each child's uniqueness. The powers, capabilities and unique attributes of children are honored. Adults work in concert with children's changing developmental needs and abilities rather than superimposing an agenda.
Learning through activity. Visitors to a Montessori classroom are amazed to see children involved in many different activities simultaneously while maintaining a generally orderly atmosphere. Children are excited about learning and demonstrate high levels of concentration and motivation.
Importance of environmental design. Instead of classrooms, Montessori speaks of "environments," carefully prepared to encourage full development - not only academic but also social, emotional and physical.
The teacher isn't center stage. Teachers use their observations of the children to determine how best to assist. They use demonstration, story-telling and guided experimentation, generally working with individuals or small groups to encourage the child's activity and exploration and to assist his or her growing capacity for evaluation and self-reflection.
One size does not fit all. Although there is a general "curriculum," children do not access or experience it in the same way, nor is there a lock-step sequence. Independence and initiative are encouraged, allowing children to learn at their own pace, build upon success and develop competence and confidence.
The community context. Montessori classrooms are small communities of mixed ages where children take responsibility for their behavior. Older children expand their exploration into the larger society. The community concept extends to support and education of parents and families.
Clearly, Montessori education requires a different approach to teacher preparation. Until recently, Montessori teacher training in this country has not been part of traditional higher education, which, in turn, is closely linked with teacher certification. States must be willing to devise alternative teacher certification for Montessori schools, and school districts must provide retraining for teachers who want to convert to Montessori programs.
Because Montessori recognizes the importance of early foundations, children begin at age 3. Yet most school districts do not provide funding for children under age 5. Increasing attention to the importance of early development is prompting school systems to consider funding for preschool children, and this will enhance the growth of Montessori programs.
Quality Montessori schools require implementing a comprehensive Montessori model rather than trying to adapt selected aspects for the traditional program. This demands a significant degree of autonomy within the established system. Recently, many new public Montessori schools have been established as charter schools, particularly in states - unlike Maryland - where strong charter legislation encourages innovation and alternative approaches.
Montessori is a profoundly optimistic social and educational movement. It aims far beyond standardized performance goals to foster children with passionate interests, initiative and a desire to contribute to their community.
As Montessori enters its second century, its vision remains rooted in the belief that by fully developing the potential of our children, we develop the potential for a better world. Montessori advocates hope that these next decades will bring expansion of this opportunity for more children in Maryland public schools and throughout our country.
Sharon Dubble is director of graduate programs in Montessori education at Loyola College. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.