Last Monday classes sang ‘Tanti auguri a te!’ and ate cake to celebrate the 150th birthday of Maria Tecla Artemisia Montessori, born in Chiaravalle, a small town on the Italian Adriatic coast. Of course we know the subsequent story of the first female Italian to graduate as a medical doctor, whose work with children in Rome led to her developing what she called a scientific pedagogy, a stage-development model of education centred on the needs and tendencies of the child. She was influenced by the thinking of others but she based her work in scientific observation, and the pedagogy we implement today is her set of conclusions about child development, generally regarded as the work of a genius. “It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method… I have studied the child; I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method” (What you should know about your child, 1961, p.3).
Dr. Montessori’s instructions on how to be a prepared adult in a young person’s environment are pretty clear. We are told “the child has a mind to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself” (The Absorbent Mind, 1949/2007, p.5). Therefore, we should “respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them” (The Child in the Family, 1956/1970, p.88). We must never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed because “the essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self” (The Absorbent Mind, 1949/2007, p.142), and independence is a consistent theme throughout the planes of Montessori education.
A young person’s job is to self-construct. The judgement required of the adult is to know when and how to intervene, or to trust, stand back and observe. Sometimes a good compromise working with adolescents is ‘Spray and walk away’: share an adult opinion about the problem then leave the young person to make their own judgement and take their own action.
The adolescent must never be treated as a child, for that is a stage of life that he has surpassed. It is better to treat an adolescent as if he had greater value than he actually shows than as if he had less and let him feel that his merits and self-respect are disregarded. (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948/1997, p. 72)
It was well over a century ago that Dr. Montessori began to tell us about the importance of respecting the dignity and autonomy of young people as an aid to their development. However, in many of the institutions in which children find themselves today there seems to be only slow progress in the direction of those principles. So I tautoko those birthday greetings.
Buon compleanno, Dr. Maria.