Montessori's Design Experiments
As part of her medical studies, Montessori was trained in anthropology, most notably by Guiseppe Sergi, one of the world's leading anthropologists in the years when Montessori was his student. He believed in "turning anthropology from the classification of abnormalities to the discovery of ways of preventing abnormality, through the establishment of a scientific pedagogy based on the anthropological study of children." (Kramer, 1988, p. 71)
Montessori, in turn, was a pioneer in the use of anthropology to develop educational artifacts. These artifacts included guidelines for teacher and student practices as well as physical layouts of classrooms and educational materials.
I'm collecting examples in this section to give some idea of her approach.
Figuring out What Interests the Child
From The Absorbent Mind, page 223
We started by equipping the child's environment with a little of everything, and left the children to choose those things they preferred. Seeing that they onloy took certain things and that the others remained unused, we eliminated the latter. All the things now used in our schools are not just the result of elimination in a few local trials, but in trials made in schools all over the world.
Love for Order
From Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, (Standing, 1998, pp. 41-42)
The love for order is not a characteristic usually associated with small children. Here again a surprise was in store. This characteristic, like many others, was revealed by chance, the result of an indiscretion o the part of the teacher. The materials with which the children worked were kept in a large cupboard—locked—and the teacher kept the key. Contrary to what happens now in a Montessori class, it was she who distributed the materials at the beginning, and it was she who collected them and put them away in the cupboard at the end of the lesson. The teacher noticed that these little children—however often she told them to remain in their places—used to follow her when she went to the cupboard to put the materials away and solemnly stand round her watching whilst she put the various objects back. This seemed to her to be nothing less than deliberate disobedience. It is the genius who sees the significance of small things. Watching the children behaving in this way, Montessori realized that what what they really wanted was to put the things back in their places again themselves. So she left them free to do it.
Freedom of Choice
From Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (Standing, 1998, p. 42)
One day the teacher arrived late. In addition she had forgotten to lock the cupboard the evening before. I turned out to be another of those occasions in life when "our discretions sometimes serve us well where our deep plots do pall." Upon her arrival the teacher found the children had already opened the cupboard doors. Some were standing looking in a meditative sort of way; others were helping themselves to materials; others still had already done so and were taking them away, whilst a fourth group were already busily at work with materials at their own places. The teacher was angry with the children and wished to punish them for "stealing." Again Montessori saw deeper into their motives. She realized that these children, who already knew how to use the materials, were—just because of that knowledge—in a position to be able to choose some materials in preference to others. This was in fact what they had done. That they had no intention of "stealing" was evident from the fact that they regarded the putting back of the material chosen into its right place as an essential part of the cycle of activity involved—almost the crowning joy of the whole procedure. This incident was the beginning of that principle of "free choice of activity" which became so vital a factor in the Montessori system. Here again let us notice that it was the discovery which came first and the method followed after. Shortly after this Montessori replaced the one big, locked cupboard with a number of little low and attractively painted cupboards, placed round the room at the children's level. In these the materials were so displayed that the children could easily see, choose, take and replace them without the need of any assistance from an adult. This formed an important step towards their more complete independence.
From The Montessori Method (Montessori, 1912, pp. 299-300)
One of our most interesting discoveries was made in the effort to devise a game through which the children might, without effort, learn to read words. We spread out upon one of the large tables a great variety of toys. Each one of them had a corresponding card upon which the name of the toy was written. We folded these little cards and mixed them up in a basket, and the children who know how to read were allowed to take turns in drawing these cards from the basket. Each child had to carry his card back to his desk, unfold it quietly, and read it mentally, not showing it to those about him. He then had to fold it up again, so that the secret which it contained should remain unknown. Taking the folded card in his hand, he went to the table. He had then to pronounce clearly the name of a toy and present the card to the directress in order that she might verify the word he had spoken. The little card thus became current coin with which he might acquire the toy he had named. For, if he pronounced the word clearly and indicated the correct object, the directres allowed him to take the toy, and to play with it as long as he wished.
When each child had had a turn, the directress called the first child and let him draw a card from another basket. This card he read as soon as he had drawn it. It contained the name of one of his companions who did not yet know how to read, and for that reason could not have a toy. The child who had read the name then offered to his little friend the toy with which he had been playing. We taught the children to present these toys in a gracious and polite way, accompanying the act with a bow. In this way we did away with every idea of class distinction, and inspired the sentiment of kindnes toward those who did not possess the same blessing as ourselves. This reading game proceeded in a marvellous way. The contentment of these poor children in possessing even for a little while such beautiful toys can be easily imagined.
But what was my amazement, when the children, having learned to understand the written cards, refused to take the toys! They explained that they did not wish to waste time in playing, and, with a species of insatiable desire, preferred to draw out and read the cards one after another!
I watched them, seeking to understand the secret of these souls, of whose greatness I had been so ignorant! As I stood in meditation among the eager children, the discovery that it was knowledge they loved, and not the silly game, filled me with wonder and made me think of the greatness of the human soul!
We therefore put away the toys, and set about making hundreds of written slips, containing names of children, cities, and objects; and also of colours and qualities known through the sense exercises. We placed these slips in open boxes, which we left where the children could make free use of them. I expected that childish inconstancy would at least show itself in a tendency to pass from one box to another; but no, each child finished emptying the box under his hand before passing another, being verily insatiable in the desire to read.
From The Montessori Method (Montessori, 1964, pp. 260-261):
While teaching deficient children I happened to observe the following
fact: An idiot girl of eleven years, who was possessed of normal
strength and motor power in her hands, could not learn to sew, or even to
take the first step, darning, which consists in passing the needle first
over, then under the woof, now taking up, now leaving, a number of threads.
I set the child to weaving with the Froebel mats, in which a strip of
paper is threaded transversely in and out among vertical strips of paper
held fixed at top and bottom. I thus came to think of the analogy
between the two exercises, and became much interested in my observation of
the girl. When she had become skilled in the Froebel weaving, I led
her back again the sewing, and saw with pleasure that she was now able to
follow the darning. From that time on, our sewing classes began with a
regular course in the Froebel weaving.
Montessori then generalized the results of her experiment into a design
pattern (Ibid, p. 261):
I saw that the necessary movements of the hand in sewing had been
prepared without having the child sew, and that we should really find the
way to teach the child how, before making him execute a
task. I saw especially that preparatory movements could be carried on,
and reduced to a mechanism, by means of repeated exercises not in the work
itself but in that which prepares for it. Pupils could then come to
the real work, able to perform it without ever having directly set their
hands to it before.
One of the places where she first applied this design pattern was the
teaching of writing. She had a wooden alphabet manufactured.
Children with experience tracing the edges of wooden geometric shapes where
given wooden letters to trace. After experience with the wooden letters,
they were ready to learn how to write.
From The Montessori Method (Montessori, 1964, pp. 140-141):
Now we, with the gymnastics, can, and, indeed, should, help the child in his development by making our exercises correspond to the movement which he needs to make, and in this way save his limbs from fatigue.
One very simple means for helping the child in his activity was suggested to me by my observation of the children themselves. The teacher was having the children march, leading them about the courtyard between the walls of the house and the central garden. This garden was protected by a little fence made of strong wires which were stretched in parallel lines, and were supported at intervals by wooden palings driven into the ground. Along the fence, ran a little ledge on which the children were in the habit of sitting down when they were tired of marching. In addition to this, I always brought out little chairs, which I placed against the wall. Every now and then, the little ones of two and one half and three years would drop out from the marching line, evidently being tired; but instead of sitting down on the ground or on the chairs, they would run to the little fence and catching hold of the upper line of wire they would walk along sideways, resting their feet on the wire which was nearest the ground. That this gave them a great deal of pleasure, was evident from the way in which they laughed as, with bright eyes, they watched their larger companions who were marching about. The truth was that these little ones had solved one of my problems in a very practical way. They moved themselves along on the wires, pulling their bodies sideways. In the this way, they moved their limbs without throwing upon them the weight of the body. Such an apparatus placed in the gymnasium for little children, will enable them to fulfill the need which they feel of throwing themselves on the floor and kicking their feet in the air; for the movements they make on the little fence correspond even more correctly the same physical needs. Therefore, I advise the manufacture of this little fence for use in children's playrooms. It can be constructed of parallel bars supported by upright poles firmly fixed to the heavy base. The children, while playing upon this little fence, will be able to look out and see with great pleasure what the other children are doing in the room.
Polarization of Attention (Flow)
From the Advanced Montessori Method, Volume 1 (Montessori, 1991, pp. 53-54):
My experimental work with little children from three to six years old has been, in fact, a practical contribution to research which has for its aim the discovery of the treatment required by the soul of the child, a treatment analogous to that which hygiene prescribes for its body.
I think, therefore, that it is essential to record the fundamental fact which led me to define my method.
I was making my first essays in applying the principles and part of the material I had used for many years previously in the education of deficient children, to the normal children of the San Lorenzo quarter in Rome, when I happened to notice a little girl of about three years old deeply absorbed in a set of solid insets, removing the wooden cylinders from their respective holes and replacing them. The expression on the child's face was one of such concentrated attention that it seemed to me an extraordinary manifestation; up to this time none of the children had ever shown such fixity of interest in an object; and my belief in the characteristic instability of attention in young children, who flit incessantly from one thing to another, made me peculiarly alive to the phenomenon.
I watched the child intently without disturbing her at first, and began to count how many times she repeated the exercise; then, seeing that she was continuing for a long time, I picked up the little arm-chair in which she was seated, and placed chair and child upon the table; the little creature hastily caught up her case of insets, laid it across the arms of her chair, and gathering the cylinders into her lap, set to work again. Then I called upon all the children to sing; they sang, but the little girl continued undisturbed, repeating her exercise even after the short song had come to an end. I counted forty-four repetitions when at last she ceased, it was quite independently of any surrounding stimuli which might have distracter her, and she looked round with a satisfied air, almost as if awaking from a refreshing nap.