Founded by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), the Montessori method is aimed at teaching students independence at an early age. Maria Montessori was a medical doctor who sought to enhance learning for children through her goal, which she defined as, “the development of a complete human being, oriented to the environment, and adapted to his or her time, place and culture” (Lillard, p. 3). Maria Montessori was a visionary who based her educational plans on observations of children in different places and cultures. The Montessori method is a teaching approach that gives children more independence and freedom than traditional forms of schooling, it also gives students the freedom to construct their own knowledge within the classroom by allowing them to be responsible for the activities they take part in (cleaning up and putting away all things used once they are done playing in that center). The Montessori method also differs from traditional public school teaching methods in that this method allows for mixed aged classrooms, in other words a classroom may have ten students who are three years old, five students who are four years old, and three students who are five years old. The classroom, or prepared environment (Lillard, p. 24) provide ample space for children to explore and work freely with one another. The beauty of this method is that students learn from each other to respect one another as well as the classroom where the learning takes place. The Montessori method provides students with unstructured play that is also missing in traditional schooling (Boulmier, p. 42). Maria Montessori
While Maria Montessori began her work in Italy, Montessori schools have gone worldwide spreading to different countries and continents. Although Montessori schools have been present in the US since 1911, they did not initially succeed, and even after the “rebirth” of Montessori in the 1960s its growth has been relatively slow. By looking at its origins and ways in which the Montessori method has changed, I seek to discover why the Montessori movement was not initially successful, and why its growth has been relatively slow in the US. The Montessori method had much success in Italy where it originated and much attention was given to the method in the US in its early years, however, rising skepticism from media outlets (news papers, magazines, etc.) contributed to the temporary departure of the Montessori method in the US. Many people, however, were influenced by the amazing teaching approach that was introduced by Maria Montessori and in the 1960s the method was reborn in the US.
The Arrival and Departure of Montessori
Maria Montessori opened her first school in Rome in 1907 called Casa de Bambini in the San Lorenzo District in Rome. Soon after the opening of this school, which was in a run-down tenement building of San Lorenzo, the Montessori method grew more popular and eventually made its way to the US in 1911. In their article called “Montessori and the Mainstream: A Century of Reform on the Margins” Keith Whitescarver and Jacqueline Cossentino referred to McClure’s Magazine, a very popular journal that brought the Montessori method to the attention of the American people. McClure was ultimately able to convince Maria Montessori to travel from Rome to the United States to inform the American people, in greater detail, of her great teaching approach in the hopes that once informed, Americans would take action and help implement the Montessori method into American schools. Through the slow application of the Montessori method in American schools, Maria Montessori began to generate followers who opposed the traditional forms of schooling. For example, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a best-selling author and great supporter of the Montessori method emphasized the faults of modern education and stressed the idea of “’Dr. Montessori to the rescue’” (Whitescarver and Cossentino, p. 2576). Montessori had many supporters not because she said all of the right things, but because she advocated for active children even before it was commonplace to have children do activities in school (Rathunde, p. 11).
The Montessori method was a booming movement, and more and more people became interested in the educational approach by 1913. American teachers traveled to Rome to become better informed and trained in the teaching method, things seemed to be going really well for Maria Montessori and her movement in the United States, however, as quickly as the movement was picked up speed, it slowed down and by 1915 the Montessori method began regressing in the media and received critical reviews in newspapers and magazines. The supporters that Maria Montessori once had were no longer supporting the Montessori method, but moving on to other things that interested them. Though Montessori schools still existed, the movement and major support for the method was nonexistent.
The very implementation of the Montessori method into American schools played a significant role in its failures. Having gone from the slums of San Lorenzo to Tarrytown, where the first Montessori school was opened in the US and backed financially by the president of the country’s most prestigious bank, it was evident that:
“This private school did not emulate either the location or clientele of Maria Montessori’s schools in the slums of Rome, but instead served children from the financial and business elite in a fashionable home overlooking the Hudson River” (Whitescarver and Cossentino, p. 2575).
From the start the Montessori method implemented in the United States vaguely resembled the Montessori method that originated in Italy. As the years passed, the movement was slowly slipped under the rug and forgotten by many media outlets, thus the Montessori movement had died out. The success of the Montessori method in the United States was short lived, however, bits and pieces of the Montessori method were being talked about among kindergarten teachers seeking different ways to supplement the kindergarten experience for students. In bringing her teaching method to the United States Maria Montessori did not intend to have bits and pieces of her method implemented in schools. The American inclination to tamper with newly introduced educational advances was highly prevalent during the period of 1911-1915 in which the US did not entirely go in accordance with what Maria Montessori’s intentions for her method were in bringing the movement to the United States. And this way of using her method proved that the intent to apply the Montessori method to schools in the United States was unsuccessful from 1911-1915.
P. Donohue Shortridge’s article entitled, “Maria Montessori and Educational Forces in America” presents more background on how Americans viewed the Montessori method when it was first introduced to Americans. This article begins by referencing Maria Montessori’s address at Carnegie Hall in December of 1913 where she spoke to excited parents who were eager to learn about her method. However, Dr. Montessori did not appeal to educational establishments who, “Found more to dislike than to admire in Montessori [and] marshaled their considerable power to discourage any permanent American Montessori movement for years to come. As with Whitescarver and Cossentino’s piece, those institutions were factors playing a role in the short success of the Montessori movement in its early years. The Montessori method appealed to many hopeful parents who believed in the method, however, at the same time it clashed with educational institutions who did not favor that change. A great critic of Dr. Montessori’s work was William Heard Kilpatrick, “the most famous education teacher in America” of Teachers College (Shortridge, 42). Shortridge cited a diary entry by Kilpatrick in which he wrote:
“ I am reasonably sure that we cannot use it [the Montessori method] thus so in America. I do not object to the notion of the liberty, in fact that seems very good. [But] the sense of training seems to be carried too far and to include some indefensible areas. (Beineke, 1998, p. 67)” (Shortridge, 44).
Kilpatrick, like many critics of the Montessori method viewed the approach in a negative light, not agreeing with the level of freedom and independence that is given to the child. The unfortunate decline in support that was experienced by Maria Montessori played a major role in the early failure of the movement. What is important to note, however, is that although the Montessori method went inactive for many years, the growing support for the movement continued to excel in different countries (Whitescarver and Cossentino, p. 2580-81).
The Rebirth of the Movement
Just as the Montessori method saw failure in 1915, in the 1960s the movement experienced rebirth through Nancy McCormick Rambusch. Rambusch studied Maria Montessori’s methods while in college and ultimately helped revive the Montessori method when she was in pursuit to find alternative teaching methods for her own child. Rambusch saw for herself how the Montessori method worked while she was studying in Paris (Whitescarver and Cossentino, p. 2581). Rambusch worked in collaboration with Maria Montessori’s son Mario in an effort to become properly trained and eventually return the Montessori method to the United States. Rambusch did just that; she took training courses in the Montessori method to become an expert on Maria Montessori’s way of thinking and applied what she learned to her efforts to open a Montessori school in the US. Rambusch was the prominent force in opening the Whitby School, a Montessori school in Greenwich, CT. The success of returning the Montessori method to the United States and having it be accepted in the way that it was played major roles in the rise of the Montessori Movement after its fall decades earlier. Whitescarver and Cossentino provide readers with both ends of the spectrum, showing that the Montessori method had little success and received many critiques, thus leading to its temporary demise, and later showing how the movement rose from the ashes and has grown to be very well known and implemented around the world.
What Rambusch did differently that helped the Montessori method thrive in its revival in the US was keep Maria Montessori’s goals in mind. Mario Montessori made sure that bringing the Montessori method back to the US meant making no changes to the teaching approach that his mother had created. Ultimately Maria Montessori wanted to implement the pure and unchanged Montessori method into American schools, and Nancy McCormick Rambusch and Mario Montessori did that. The rebirth of the Montessori Movement in the United States can be attributed to many things, however, the main contributors to the revival of the movement were Nancy McCormick Rambusch and Mario Montessori.
Slow Growth in the United States
Maria Montessori’s teaching approach went through many ups and downs. From being heavily supported by the media and American people, to being almost forgotten and erased from American education, and finally breaking through in the 1960s and still being around today, the movement has gone through a lot in the past century. Although the Montessori method is used in many states across the country, its growth is still quite slow considering the efforts that have been put forth for the movement to thrive. The slow growth of the movement can be attributed to the still present skepticism of educational institutions. Over the course of one hundred years the Montessori movement strived to become effectively implemented into American education, and while it has succeeded in doing so, the movement is slowly growing because tensions exist between the Montessori movement and American educational institutions and policy makers (Whitescarver and Cossentino, p. 2581 & 2589).
Like the critics that Dr. Montessori did not appeal to in her 1913 address, Kilpatrick did not agree entirely with the Montessori method. Shortridge and Whitescarver and Cossentino all present readers with ample background of the rise and fall of the Montessori Movement and the wonderful works of Maria Montessori and her followers such as Nancy McCormick Rambusch to revive the movement.
So many Americans embraced the Montessori movement when McClure first introduced it to the United States; however, the interest of Americans in the method was short lived and the movement was ultimately cast out by its critics and non-supporters. The ups and downs experienced by Maria Montessori and her followers were what made the movement stronger and what made Montessori want to stick to the purity of the approach. Maria Montessori laid out the foundation for her followers to help the movement grow into what it is today. And although the movement is growing slowly, more and more supporters of the movement continue to raise awareness on the importance of instilling independence, respect, and self-accountability into children at an early age.
Boulmier, Prairie. “Looking at How Children Succeed, Through the Montessori Lens”. (2014).
Lillard, Paula P. Montessori Today. New York: Shocken Books Inc., (1996). Print.
Rathunde, Keivin. “MONTESSORI EDUCATION AND OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE: A
FRAMEWORK FOR NEW RESEARCH”. The NAMTA Journal. (2001).
Shortridge, P. Donohue. “Maria Montessori And Educational Forces In America.”
Montessori Life 19.1 (2007): 34-47. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web.
Whitescarver, Keith, and Jacqueline Cossentino. “Montessori and the Mainstream: A
Century of Reform on the Margins.” The Teachers College Record 110.12 (2008): 2571-2600.