The Montessori System

The Montessori System

Editor’s note: On December 3, 1912, The Times Educational Supplement published a letter entitled, “Miss Mason on the Montessori System.” The following year, five introductory paragraphs were added to the letter, and it was published as Chapter VII of The Basis of National Strength. Two years after that, the original text of the 1912 letter (without the added paragraphs) was reprinted in the January 1915 issue of The Parents’ Review. Finally, in 1925, the first six chapters The Basis of National Strength became Chapter IV of Book II of Towards a Philosophy of Education. Interestingly, the seventh chapter on the Montessori System was omitted from the book.

In “The Montessori System,” Mason speaks of efforts to develop a “Scientific Pedagogy.” While Montessori was perhaps a pioneer in this “scientific” approach, in our day science seems to have become the dominant voice in educational methodology. The problem, according to Mason, is that “science” is not able to speak to all aspects of the human person. With “Scientific Pedagogy”:

… there is no gradual painting in of a background to his life; no fairies play about him, no heroes stir his soul; God and good angels form no part of his thoughts; the child and the person he will become are a scientific product, the result of much touching and some seeing and hearing; for what has science to do with those intangible, hardly imaginable entities called ideas?

Mason sees this limitation not as peripheral but rather as foundational. She writes of two approaches to defining an educational system, and says:

… there is no middle way, and there is no detail so trifling but it must be ordered according to one or other of these fundamental principles. The one is the method of scientific, the other that of humane, pedagogy.

Today we are pleased to share our transcription of the 1915 article, which is taken from the original letter to the Times. We share it not merely as a century-old response to Maria Montessori. Rather, we share it as an appeal to Charlotte Mason educators to embrace a “humane” pedagogy that is not controlled by the latest dictates of “scientific” pedagogy.

– Art

By Charlotte Mason
The Parents’ Review, 1915, pp. 30-35

To the editor of “The Times.”

Sir,—The discriminating article on “The Montessori Method,” in The Times Educational Supplement of November 6th, encourages me in an attempt to divest the principles involved in this interesting method from meretricious adjuncts, such as the pleasing deportment and personal cleanliness of the children. Given, a pleasant room adapted to their comfort, and friendly visitors who give respectful consideration to their doings, and children will behave with ease and frankness; if the school be desirable to children and parents and cleanliness be made a condition of admission they will be clean. America has long known how to make free American citizens out of the motley crowds of little aliens who present themselves at her school doors, and her methods are practically identical with those of Dr. Montessori; the delightful spontaneousness shown by those Italian children is evidenced in every English nursery and cottage home as well as in our holiday schools; and certainly, no child under six should go to school unless with full freedom to run or squat or lie face downwards if the mood seize him.

Several years ago I wrote to an educational journal about the possibility of roof-schools to be used (except in bad weather) for quite young children, and it still seems to me that long hours in the open with twice as much time given to play as to work is what children require. In Germany, as we know, six is the school age, and the child has the proud knowledge that he has made a step in life and has entered upon an eight years’ course; but the little children at home sometimes get in the mother’s way and are packed off to some small dame school known as a kindergarten. Perhaps the flat roof of the big school would be a better expedient.

But—

“Me this unchartered freedom tires,
I feel the weight of chance desires,”

is as true for young people as for the poet, and for the rest of us. We must have the ease of habit, the discipline of habit, to save us from the labour of many decisions in an hour as to “which foot comes after which!” To make a cult of liberty in our schools would be to bring up a race of vagabonds. As for a long school diet of geometrical forms and coloured tablets, Dickens has told us all about it in his tragic picture of the young Gradgrinds at school, a passage we should do well to learn by heart.

But it is not the pretty manners of the children nor the freedom under compulsion which mark the Montessori schools that attracts educationalists everywhere, so that we hear of 70 such schools established in Switzerland alone. We all endeavour ourselves to secure these ends, and we owe gratitude to Dr. Montessori for showing us a way. But let us be honest; these children can read and write by the time they are four or five, while with us eight is the usual (and desirable) age at which these accomplishments are mastered. We run away with the fallacy that reading and writing are education, not as they truly are, mechanical arts, no more educative than the mastery of shorthand or the Morse Code, and we think we see the way to add two or three years to the child’s school life by getting this primary labour over at an early age. But here is no new thing. We are told [ in Cf. Professor Vambéry’s early life and The Land of Promise, by Mary Antin.] that young boys in a Russian Ghetto learn Hebrew very quickly, because there is nothing else to learn. This is the secret that all trainers of animals, acrobats, musical prodigies, are aware of; secure concentration by shutting off all other pursuits and interests, and you can get young children to do almost anything; their minds will work of necessity, and it is possible to direct their work into one channel. A child of five may read Greek, compose sonatas, or read and write, if you secure that his efforts are directed into one channel.

Leaving out the pretty manners, the personal neatness, and the rapid progress of the children in the fundamental arts of reading and writing, because these are pretty generally attained by similar means—the friendly notice of cultivated people, moral suasion, and concentration on a single end—what principles are left for our imitation? I fail to discover a principle, but only a practice—that of learning the contours of letters and other forms by touch instead of by sight. It is hard to see why the less accurate and active of the two senses should be used by preference; and the blindfolded children feeling for form remind one of the famous verdict—

“Whenever Nose puts his spectacles on,
By daylight or candlelight, Eyes should be shut.”

The reader tries “touching” the handiest objects which offer an outline, his own mouth or nostril for example, and after much patient touching he produces no resemblance at all unless as he is betrayed into one by memory. But possibly if he were to “touch” given objects for so many minutes each time, day after day and month after month, he might at last be able to draw a mouth or write an “m.” At first the act of touching is tiresome, but it becomes soothing and a rather sensuous state is set up; one is a little hypnotized, and the photographs of both Italian and American children in the act of touching seem to show that a hypnotic state has been induced.

We know that hypnotic suggestion is used in some Continental schools to further the work of education; and here, conceivably, we get the key to the sudden attainment of the art of writing so delightful to read of. But this way danger lies; the too facile child becomes the facile man whose will power has become weakened, whose brain exhausted, until he is little capable of self-direction. The very fact of inducing in eager and active children the habit of continuous “touching” would seem to indicate that undue influence has been exerted, whether through the mere act of touching or through the agency of an external will.

It is claimed that “the relief of the eye by continuing and developing the sense of touch” is a valuable educational asset; but it is well to inquire first whether the definite practice of this sense is safe. The blind man learns to read by touch, and if this “method” is to be carried into schools for older children we shall all need books for the blind; but the blind man’s will is not practised upon, because his strong purpose goes with his “touching” effort and nullifies any hypnotic effect of the act. We cannot put children or ourselves into his condition, and why should we? The eye is strengthened by light and natural use and enfeebled by darkness and inertia.

The Montessori method is one effort among many made in the interests of “scientific pedagogy.” “I don’t believe there’s no sich a (thing).” Would Betsy Prig say it? Would she be right if she did? I think so, although every advance we make is towards Scientific Pedagogy. What we are saying is, practically, “Develop his senses, and a child is educated; train hand and eye and he can earn his living; what more do you want?” But a child so trained is not on a level with the Red Indian of our childhood; his senses are by no means so acute, and the Red Indian grew up with song and dance, tale and legend, and early developed a philosophy, even a religion.

The Montessori child has no such chances; he sharpens a single sense, to be sure, at the expense of another and higher sense, but there is no gradual painting in of a background to his life; no fairies play about him, no heroes stir his soul; God and good angels form no part of his thoughts; the child and the person he will become are a scientific product, the result of much touching and some seeing and hearing; for what has science to do with those intangible, hardly imaginable entities called ideas? No, let him take hold of life, match form with form, colour with colour; but song and picture, hymn and story are for the educational scrapheap.

We are all very grateful to the gracious Italian lady who has shown that courtesy and consideration reveal the dignity and grace that belong to all children, that the rights of children include the right of freedom in self-education, and that every human being is precious and worthy of honour, especially while he is a child. But I am inclined to think that all our indebtedness falls under these three heads, and that the elaborate and costly apparatus, the use of touch rather than sight and the exclusive sensory development are mischievous errors.

The contention goes deep. Is man a material being whose brain secretes thought as his liver secretes bile, or is Brother Body the material and spiritually informed organ of a non-material being, of whom it has been said:—

“Darkness may bound his Eyes, not his Imagination. In his Bed he may ly, like Pompey and his Sons, in all quarters of the Earth, may speculate the Universe, and enjoy the whole World in the Hermitage of himself”?

The person who educates a child must act upon one or other of these premises; there is no middle way, and there is no detail so trifling but it must be ordered according to one or other of these fundamental principles. The one is the method of scientific, the other that of humane, pedagogy. The cultivation of the organs of sense and of muscular activity belongs to both, but the rationale is in each case different. To take a single example, the scientific pedagogue (awful designation!) lets a child sort multitudes of tablets into colours and shades of colour, with a dim faith that perhaps his brain will be occupied in secreting delectable thoughts about various and beautiful coloured objects. The humane teacher, who has his own psychology, knows that the child with tablets is mentally paving the school-room, the street, the town, the whole world, with little squares of colour. Therefore, if he decide to teach at all what children learn incidentally, he gives a child leaves and flowers, beads, patches of silk and velvet, things carrying associations and capable of begetting ideas; and the child does not pave streets, but does “a stately pleasure dome decree,” where are “gardens bright with sinuous rills and sunny spots of greenery.” The humanist knows that the immediate lesson is a fragment of material which a child uses to aid him in speculating the universe, and that therefore a lesson is profitable only as it lends itself to thought and to imagination. An artist entrusted with the woodcarving and sculpture in a great building complained to me that he could not find men with any initiative to work under him. “How shall I do this?” “Do it as you like.” But no way that he likes presents itself to the man. He has been brought up on a mental diet void of ideas.

A great danger threatens the country and the world. We are losing faith in ideas, and substituting practices for principles. As I have said in former letters to the Times, the note of popular education to-day is contempt for knowledge and for the books in which the knowledge of mankind is lodged. “Education by things” is boldly advocated, regardless of the principle that things lead only to more and more various things and are without effect on the thoughts and therefore on the character and conduct of a man, save as regards the production or the examination of similar things. A boy may turn out accurate and workmanlike models in cardboard or carpentry; if he is a neat and careful boy to begin with, these qualities help him in his work; but if he have learned against the grain to turn out good work, the acquired characters will influence only the particular work in question. Handicrafts add to the joy of living, perhaps to the means of living, but they are not educative in the sense that they influence character. Therefore a child should not do handwork (like the ordering of cubes and cylinders in sizes, or tablets in colours, for example) that is not either beautiful or of use. Because a child is a person, because his education should make him more of a person, because he increases upon such ideas as are to be found in books, pictures, and the like, because the more of a person he is the better work will he turn out of whatever kind, because there is a general dearth of persons of fine character and sound judgment,—for these and other reasons I should regard the spread of schools conducted on any method which contemns knowledge in favour of appliances and employments as a calamity, no matter how prettily the children may for the present behave. Knowledge is the sole lever by which character is elevated, the sole diet upon which mind is sustained.

I am, Sir, yours obediently,

Charlotte M. Mason.

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12 Replies to “The Montessori System”

  1. The age later in Mason’s life and during Montessori’s was one of almost idolatry of “science”, and practical meaning of “science” was whatever the elite who had been educated in the latest ideas wanted to try. In a number of fields, it was almost as though any idea the educated elite wanted to try, for soothe just experiments on any institution considered “old”, was viewed as “scientific” by the masses.

    I believe I did read the version of this article with the extra paragraphs. If I recall, it was more acerbic in tone. She criticized Montessori for emphasizing hygiene in young children, believing that meant the children were forbidden from rolling on the floors, which Mason thought young children should be allowed to do. Actually, to this very day, children under six are allowed to roll on floors or hide under tables in Montessori environments, just as Ms. Mason stated should be. There were a few other unfortunate misunderstandings, if I recall, but I don’t remember the specifics.

    I very much agree with Ms. Mason’s thrust regarding the misleading representation of things as “scientific” that aren’t, as well as the need for human minds to feed on high, noble ideas and stories. With that in mind, a few minor notes follow on specifics in this article.

    The “hypnotic” state is today referred to as a “flow” state of concentration in psychology, when one is so concentrated on a task that requires ones mental faculties that the mind seems to lose track of the surrounding space and time. There are a multitude of studies that speak to the effect of integrating physical motion into the learning process, including neurological studies on the use of the nerves in two fingers as opposed to just one to feel something. While children begin with feeling the metal shapes, for example, they will move on to creating works of geometric art using them. The pincer grip is used in many early activities to prepare the fingers for eventually holding a writing instrument. Montessori designed a number of materials to help the child sharpen his perception of small differences in visual dimensions, in sounds, in smells, in temperature, in touching forms, etc. I have no idea if there’s any evidence to back up her theory that these materials would make any difference in the long run in a child’s sense abilities.

    Montessori did have the young children read stories about animals and people, but not talking animals or faeries. She thought the young child might misunderstand. Her son later explained that faery tales were often used to frighten little children into “good” conduct, and Montessori detested that most of all. She explicitly approved of sharing stories of saints and heroes with young children, though, and angels and God. She believed telling young children about angels would help them feel safe. Reading children books, including fiction, is a daily part of the authentic Montessori method. Much of the spiritual components, however, were eventually split off into a separate programme, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

    Around the age of six Montessori believed children were ready to hear stories that included faeries, talking animals, etc. Unlike Charlotte Mason’s programme, very, very few specific book titles that Montessori used are known to us. She did list a number of genres and kinds of books, and believed that narrative books, including older books with elevated language, were greatly appreciated by children. Unfortunately, because we do not have a list of suggested titles from her, I think that today’s Montessori teachers are inclined to neglect books she would have recommended. In both the school age and the young children age methods, Montessori had picture studies, music studies, the making of music, the teaching of painting and mixing colours, singing songs, etc.

    Mario Montessori, who led the development with his mother’s guidance of the school age method, took children out on nature walks every afternoon as a source for inspired further learning. Dramatic enactments of reading passages, practical handwork, the appreciation and production of visual and performing arts are just some of the parts of an authentic Montessori environment.

    It must not be left unsaid that most “Montessori” environments today are nothing like the authentic method. Most do not even know they are nothing like the Montessori method, because their training was poor and they do not read the writings of the founders and first disciples of the method. It was around 1935, I believe, when Dr. Montessori realized that there were schools all over the world claiming to be “Montessori” that were butchering her work, and she created the Association Montessori Internationale.

    I wonder how much of the Montessori method for the six to twelve year-olds was based off of Charlotte Mason’s work? I know of no occasion that Dr. Montessori mentioned Charlotte Mason, however the same emphasis on the “relationships” between things seem to underpin much of both methods in the school age years. Montessori also specifically mentions “hero-worship” as a tendency of that age not to do be stunted. I wonder if Charlotte Mason’s observations were in part based on some local school that was Montessori in name but not practice, or perhaps on news reports that imprecisely or inaccurately relayed some of Montessori’s work? Ms. Mason’s disagreements with the use of physical didactic materials and the ban an faery tales to young children seem to be fully-informed opinions.

    Regarding being out in nature, this is not emphasized by Montessori as it was by Mason in the early years. Montessori began work in the inner city, as it were. The children did not have much nature to explore, but they did garden and they did take their work outside the building into the direct sunlight. Today, Montessori young children are supposed to be taken on nature walks, and weather permitting, there is always supposed to be an outdoor area, such as a patio, that children can wander out to. Personally, I must side more with Ms. Mason on the point that they will be much better off with more time outside admiring God’s creation. Today, what’s worse than children being indoors is the amount of electronic entertainment they are spoiled with, for whatever my own opinion is worth.

    1. Dear Pat,

      Thank you for your thorough and interesting comment. Regarding the extra five paragraphs of this piece, they may be found at this link (scroll down to chapter VII). I think you would find those paragraphs interesting. They are not acerbic and don’t deal with hygiene, but rather they talk about the power of training to achieve unusual results. (Teaser: it is about “Toewriting schools.”)

      For more information on Mason’s self-differentiation from Montessori on the topic of fairy tales and similar stories, please check out her article entitled “The Imagination in Childhood.” I also hope you get a chance to read “Three Educational Idylls,” by Charlotte Mason.

      Regarding your comment:

      I very much agree with Ms. Mason’s thrust regarding the misleading representation of things as “scientific” that aren’t, as well as the need for human minds to feed on high, noble ideas and stories.

      I don’t think Mason was talking about a misleading representation of science. I think she was quite clear (and modern) in her understanding of science. Rather, I think she was pointing to the limitations of science. She was saying that science simply cannot weigh in on the spiritual aspects of the development of human beings. She therefore asserted that a scientific pedagogy would be inadequate for the child who is a person.

      You ask, “I wonder how much of the Montessori method for the six to twelve year-olds was based off of Charlotte Mason’s work?” In what I have read of Montessori, I don’t see elements of influence from Charlotte Mason. Other writers besides Mason wrote about Montessori in The Parents’ Review, and the authors were quick to draw distinctions. I think Montessori was operating in different circles and suspect she saw little of Mason’s work.

      Thank you again for bringing in your very interesting perspective on the Montessori method, both as it was originally conceived, and how it is practiced today. I am happy to see that it includes time outdoors in nature!

      Respectfully,
      Art

      1. Art,
        Yes, that is the one I read before! —The Three Educational Idyll’s, which has the section on Montessori that I was talking about. I confused those two. I’ll have to read those other links, as well.

        There is an interesting question of what we mean, and what was meant in public discourse of the times, by “science”. Simply meaning it as “learning from observation”, which was largely what Montessori said she did, does not seem to account for the credulity of the public toward experts claiming “scientific” answers.

        Montessori was an interesting person, in her “mix” of being very much a “scientist” (doctor, anthropologist, pedagogue) of her day, and also being a very spiritual Catholic who created a children’s chapel, told stories from the Bible and about saints, involved the children in observing communion with bread and wine made from the children’s own wheat and grapes they farmed, among other interesting activities. In one story she might talk about the natural history of the world from a gradualist point of view, while still talking about God as a creator with purposes, or mankind as a special creature that can love, can reason, and can create with his hands.

        I look forward to reading more from and about Charlotte Mason in the years ahead.

        1. Pat,

          Yes, Maria Montessori was an interesting person. She was the first woman in Italy to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine, and according to Gerald Gutek, she approached education as a scientist. For example, he writes:

          As she became more knowledgeable about these important educational theories, Montessori recognized their value but also found them scientifically inadequate. Through promoting children’s dignity and freedom, she found that Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel had relied on a philosophical, rather than a scientific, view of children… Froebel’s kindergarten was so steeped in philosophical idealism that it was not grounded in modern science and psychology. Though recognizing the contributions of her predecessors, Montessori would remedy their deficiencies by turning to the actual observation of children, in clinical fashion, for her ideas on educational method.

          (From Gerald Gutek’s The Montessori Method: The Origins of an Educational Innovation, p. 11). By contrast, Charlotte Mason earned no scientific degree, and relied heavily on a “philosophical … view of children” (if we may consider theology to be a kind of philosophy). I think it is likely that Montessori would have been as frustrated with Mason as she was with Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel.

          I am glad, however, that you note how she expressed her Catholic faith in her practice, and in particular the Eucharist, which is the heart of the Catholic Church.

          Respectfully,
          Art

  2. Thank you for this! It is a helpful clarification to see where there are perhaps some overlap of thoughts but clearly strong distinctions in method and fundamental ideas. I have not studied her method (only have known friends who have been teachers or sent their children to her public charter schools) but I have had conversations where people consider Mason much like Montessori (and also classical) so it is helpful to hear her own words in response. I thought however, Montessori had some spiritual/religious connection, at least originally. That is not brought out in this article, so perhaps I am wrong in thinking that? It is obviously not brought out in the charter school setting. Thank you again for your work to keep these ideas clear.

    1. Anne,

      Thank you for your comment. It is true that Montessori included a religious dimension in her theory of education. For more information about that, please see my article entitled “Maria Montessori and the Classical Tradition.” (Although that article has an ironic twist, the information about Montessori’s theory of education is drawn from reliable sources and is meant to be accurate.)

      Nevertheless, two people can be very religious, and yet have dramatically different views of how religion informs and affects the educational process. You may be interested in a second article by Charlotte Mason herself in which she draws distinctions between her method and Montessori’s: “The Imagination in Childhood.” Finally, please also see “Three Educational Idylls,” also by Charlotte Mason.

      When we look at Mason’s method, as described in her own words, we find something neither classical nor secular. Rather, we find a method drawn from the words of Christ and informed by the science of neurophysiology. Stephen Kaufmann, writing in 2005 for the Journal of Education & Christian Belief summarizes this nicely:

      [Charlotte Mason] wrote at a time when many of the claims of faith were being challenged by the claims of science. She resolved these sometimes competing claims by appealing to the work of the Holy Spirit as the author of both faith and science. Furthermore, she based her innovative pedagogical views on the belief that children were spiritual beings capable of both intellectual and spiritual communication with the Holy Spirit.

      A method of education which gives primacy to scientific research may be effective in practice, but it is not the Charlotte Mason method.

      Respectfully,
      Art

  3. Thank you again, Art. I greatly appreciate your thoughtful response and these helpful additional resources!
    Sincerely grateful, Anne

  4. I read this article a couple years ago online, when I became interested in Montessori methods for my youngest. (I used some of the methods with him which he very much enjoyed. Now though we use Charlotte Mason.) I found the above comments very interesting. I never knew that Maria Montessori was Catholic. There seems to be no God left in the modern Montessori methods at all.

    1. At some point Montessori had to leave Italy for her own safety, and Mussolini eliminated all Montessori education in the country. It has never fully recovered there. She moved to Spain, where she continued her work, developing the curriculum for an elementary level, building a children’s sized chapel. Then she had to leave Spain. While in India giving lectures the British entered the war and detained her and her son as citizens of Italy. She spent her years in India polishing her work with young children, and conferring with her son and others in the evening who worked with the older children during the day. This is where the “elementary” level was finished. She stopped giving religious education in the method here. She wanted her method to be able to be used by the Hindus and any other religion. She passed her religious education on to Gianna Gobbi and Sofia Cavalletti, which became a much more developed system: the Catachesis of the Good Shepherd. Some Montessori schools have an atrium in which they deliver this, but mostly it is given in Catholic and some Anglican diocese. There have been others who have adapted the work much more, like Jerome Berryman and others, just as there have been others who have adapted Montessori’s academics, such as Jerry Mortensen or Joan Cotter.

      1. Pat,

        Thank you for elaborating on the history. In keeping with the Montessori tradition, then, Jerome Berryman went on to develop Godly Play, and Joan Cotter went on to develop RightStart™ Math.

        Respectfully,
        Art

        1. Yes. Most people don’t know that the creator of Math-U-See was trained (not fully) in Jerry Mortensen’s Math, which is basically 90% of Math-U-See, even using identical materials. Mortensen said his work was 90% from the Montessori Method. There are some other interesting relationships, and no lack of controversy about what does or doesn’t fit Montessori theory. I suppose there is some irony in Charlotte Mason schools using Math-U-See, in particular, although even Singapore Maths are at least somewhat influenced by Montessori.

          There’s one Montessori school I know, Oaklawn Christian, that is actually constructing a children’s church inspired by Montessori’s early work.

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