Critical Pedagogies 1: Montessori Lecture


This chapter explains the Montessori approach to pedagogy.  It explores the thinking behind this theory and the context in which it first emerged. Some key terms are defined and the chapter then discusses how this theory can be linked to education. Examples are provided to illustrate how the theory was first developed in Italy and then how it has been has been used, with some modifications, in different educational settings across the world. As in previous chapters, the strengths and limitations of this theory are explored and the reflection sections are designed to help you use this theory when thinking about your own experience in teaching.

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • explain clearly the context in which the Montessori approach emerged and the ideas behind it
  • understand and explain clearly what the Montessori approach means, and define some key terms
  • understand and explain how this theory applies to education
  • critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory
  • link this theory to educational practice

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What are the origins and key ideas behind the Montessori theory?

Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was born into a wealthy Italian family and studied engineering and then medicine at a time when it was not usual for women to go to university or take up a professional role. She was supported by her mother in gaining a higher education, but her father disapproved of this path, presumably because of the way in which it challenged traditional Italian views of the role of women in society. She was the first woman in Italy to qualify as a doctor. After graduating, she specialised in paediatrics and developed an interest in child development. Her interest in education started, therefore, from a doctor's concern to find treatment which could assist children with disabilities of various kinds. In 1898, Montessori was appointed as the director of a State Orthophrenic School, which was the place where children with mental disabilities were educated. This institution was also a teaching facility, where trainees could observe children and carry out tests and experiments in a specially designed laboratory attached to the school. At that time, Montessori noted that many children languishing in hospitals and asylums had educational rather than medical needs, and this sparked her interest in pedagogical theories. She realised that there were few suitable educational methods and materials for children with disabilities and so she took some time out from her medical work to study the history of educational theory and some branches of anthropology and philosophy, in the hope of developing a scientific approach to the education of children with disabilities.

Montessori's thinking was influenced by an eclectic mix of European scholars, since she avidly read the works of famous educationalists including the German scholar Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) who "viewed play as central to the education of children and their future development" (Gray and MacBlain, 2015, p. 35). She was also influenced by earlier nineteenth century French educational theorists Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (1775-1838) and Adhered Séguin (1812-1880), both of whom were specialists in treating and educating children with special needs. Their work on sensory education inspired Montessori to develop her own ideas on educating young children. Montessori notes that she translated their books by hand into Italian, "in order that I might have time to weigh the sense of each word, and to read, in truth, the spirit of each author" (Montessori, 1912, p. 41). Later, she travelled as far as India, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, spending time there and using her linguistic skills to publicise her work.


Think about the background, and training that Montessori benefited from in the first half of her life. In many ways, she was very privileged, since she had the encouragement and funding to pursue her career, but in other ways she was faced with opposition and practical hurdles such as the need resist a patriarchal order that had no place for women in professional roles.

Review the benefits and the challenges that you have experienced in your life and consider how they have affected you so far.

What do you think about Montessori's strategy of translating whole books (some of them 600 pages long!) into Italian as a way of learning about their contents? How do you master new material? Have you ever tried to absorb ideas from other languages and cultures? How do you do this? Is there anything you can learn from Maria Montessori's example?

On the basis of her reading, Montessori designed various activities and materials which would encourage children to play in active and creative ways. This broad foundation in both medical and educational literature proved to be an important foundation for her life's work, as she built up a cohesive new philosophy and method, as well as creative learning materials. This was no easy task for a woman in those days. Montessori was a very strong-minded and determined woman, who overcame many obstacles before she could realise her ambitions, and eventually she became a famous educationalist, who travelled the world lecturing on her method, and helping to train generations of Montessori teachers in many different countries.

The first realisation of these ideas occurred in 1906. Montessori was living in Rome at the time and she was asked to set up some small-scale provision for the pre-school children of working people which came to be known as the Casa dei Bambini (House of the Children). In this venture, she observed how the children behaved and tried out her ideas about education for all children, and not just those who had special educational needs. Gradually a fully-fledged theory of education, along with specially designed equipment and teaching materials, was developed. This progressive ideology aroused the suspicion of the Fascist authorities in Italy at the time, and eventually, Montessori was forced to leave Italy and take her ideas elsewhere. Her work became very popular in the United States, where its merits were debated alongside the innovations being introduced by American educational reformers. 

What is Montessori's theory?

One key insight informs the whole of Montessori's theory: the idea that all children have innate qualities that enable them to relate to each other and to the world around them, and that these qualities were being restricted rather than enhanced by the prevailing educational methods of the time. She wanted to nurture and draw out these inner qualities of the child, rather than impose learning upon them in a forceful way. This is a quite radically different approach to education than the traditional methods which involved learning by rote under the watchful eye of a stern teacher. Montessori believed that gentle support and praise are much more effective ways of guiding a child than strict discipline, and she emphasised respect and courtesy in the classroom, as ways of building children's concept of self, and giving them confidence in their own abilities.

Another important dimension of the Montessori theory is the idea that children learn in stages, and must progress to the end of one stage, before moving on to the next. The stages were defined in terms of sensitive periods in which particular types of learning will most easily take place. There is a stage when an infant first learns to walk, for example, when attentive parents will provide various kinds of physical support to aid her balance, and there is another stage when the infant learns to talk. Different stimuli are required for these stages, and so the adult should be attentive to the needs of the child and provide the right support at the right moment. A child who is not supported in the right way, at the right time, will have his or her development slowed or distorted.

This staged learning is viewed as an individual process, because it is obvious that children will move at different rates through the stages. In order to facilitate the differential needs of children, the theory proposes that children should spend their time in groups of mixed age and ability, and in the presence of adults also. This environment provides plenty of opportunity to observe others who have reached a higher stage of development, and also allows children to give and receive assistance in all their learning activities.

The language that Montessori uses to describe the role of the teacher combines elements of worship and spirituality as well as the scientific processes such as observation and experimentation. This reflects her background in Roman Catholicism, as well as her scientific training at the university. She brings together disparate elements in European culture and knowledge to create a vision of education that is both humane and scholarly, based on liberty rather than coercion, and emphasising gentle, natural methods. Surprisingly for her time, Montessori was also interested in the social and economic reasons behind many types of illness and deformity in Italian society. She laments the journals full of remedies for industrial diseases, for example, and argues that "the underfed workman does not ask for a tonic, but for better working conditions which shall prevent malnutrition" (Montessori, 1912, p. 18). Physical wellbeing is a key concern, but Montessori realises that there are factors in the way society operates that enslave workers and prevent them from realising their true potential.

Montessori believed in a latent capacity that exists within every human being, and did not approve of artificial prizes and punishments that are designed to modify human behaviour. The activity of learning should be its own reward, and this implies that children need attractive and appropriate learning materials and a pleasant learning environment, so that they are encouraged to experiment with new things. The theory holds that children have a mind that will automatically absorb information from the world around them. They are expected to automatically assimilate new learning, because the Montessori environment is geared to the child's current stage of development. In a sense, then, this theory sees education as being a process that draws something out from the inner potential of the child, rather than something that pours knowledge into the child, as if the child were an empty vessel, just waiting to be filled up by the teacher.


The very first Casa dei Bambini brought innovative teaching practices into an impoverished part of Rome. The guiding principle was that of liberty, and there was only one teacher and an assistant in charge of about forty children. Order was maintained by games that emphasised control of the body and awareness of the space around each child. Silent demonstration of household tasks was an important part of the daily routine, and this was used to show children how to use child-sized implements to carry out tasks like cleaning the floor and weeding the garden.

Special exercises were designed to encourage both motor skills, such as learning how to manipulate the fingers of the hand, and muscular skills such as walking in a straight line, climbing and jumping, again with specially designed, child-size learning aids. New materials and learning aids were carefully chosen to stimulate the senses of the child, and this was done as follows:

"each child was introduced to each piece of material individually. He was invited to observe a silent demonstration of a piece of material, or was given a three-period lesson for some other materials, and only then was he allowed to work with the materials himself … Montessori education was based on the spontaneous interest of each child" (O'Donnell, 2013, p. 23).

There appears to be something of a paradox in this description, since there is a clear emphasis on the child's own curiosity and her desire to use new materials and techniques, but at the same time the way these new elements are introduced, and the setting in which learning takes place, are characterised by silence and order. Children's choices are respected, and they are allowed plenty of time to carry out their own private experiments with the materials.

This means that the design of the teaching and learning materials is fundamental to the Montessori method. The tools and materials themselves should have an intrinsic power to guide children's learning because they are designed to help the child focus on one element of learning at a time. By experimenting with the materials, the child draws conclusions about that element, whether it be the physical properties of a cube, for example, or the relationship between different sizes, amounts or colours of bead. One tool focuses on one aspect, such as size, shape or weight for example. Once the fundamental qualities of the tools are understood on a deep level by the child through manipulation and experimentation, the teacher can move on to explanation in words using abstract concepts. As the child progresses, the tools and learning materials become more sophisticated, allowing the child to explore even quite advanced concepts such as volume, ratios etc.

Underpinning these methods there is a core belief in justice and the rights of the child. In her later work, Montessori focused on the earliest phase of development (from 0 to three years) and presented her famous idea of "the absorbent mind" (Montessori, 1967) which likens the young child to a sponge, soaking up information from all the stimuli around him, and developing into his own personality. Even at this early stage, she urges not only nurture, but also respect for the emerging individual, acknowledging her right to develop in the way she chooses. This may not seem very radical in our contemporary society, where there are many international declarations, national regulations, and institutional policies aimed at protecting children and guaranteeing basic freedoms. In the early twentieth century, however, at a time when totalitarianism was on the rise, and patriarchal views of women and children were dominant, the idea of educators listening to young children and following the wishes that children expressed must have appeared very radical indeed.


Compare this theory with Freire's pedagogy of the oppressed which was discussed in the previous chapter. Do you see parallels? Do you see any differences? Think about the way in which theories emerge from real, historical situations and how they both reflect, and resist, prevailing ideologies.

Read some of Montessori's own writings (details of her main works are given in the reference list at the end of this chapter). Identify some passages which could be described as critical theory. What exactly is she dissatisfied with, and why?

How do you think your own background and experiences have affected your world view? By now you should be developing your own position on important issues, and weighing up which theory or theories you can learn from in your development as a teacher.

How does this theory apply to education?

The idea that children are born with an innate ability learn leads to a view of education that is very child-centred. Children are spoken to with respect, rather than talked down to from an authoritative position. There is an emphasis on freedom to explore and learn at the child's own pace, and an expectation that physical and emotional learning will take place as well as the academic type of learning. The application of Montessori's ideas is called the Montessori method and it is "characterized by multi-age classrooms, a special set of educational materials, student-chosen work in long time blocks, collaboration, the absence of grades and tests, and individual and small group instruction in both academic and social skills" (Lillard and Else-Quest, 2006, p. 1893). Materials are attractive and carefully chosen to encourage open-ended learning. Classrooms are arranged in a very orderly fashion, and everything is labelled and stored in ways that make them accessible to the age and physical size of the children. Tables and chairs are designed also to suit the small body, and children are encouraged to work on the floor, if this position suits the task in hand, for example building wooden blocks or laying out patterns of beads. Teachers do not interrupt children while they are engaged in a task, and children are allowed to work alone, or in small groups, as they wish. The aim is to create an atmosphere that is calm and productive, with the expectation that teachers and learners will co-operate to maintain this environment, including an equal obligation on everyone in the room to tidy up any materials after use, and help with general chores. These non-academic activities are opportunities for social development, helping children to take on small responsibilities and feel part of the community. 

The environment in which learning takes place is fundamentally important in Montessori-inspired education.In every Montessori classroom, the space is divided into five distinct thematic areas, each of which is designed to promote one of the main principles of the Montessori method. These are as follows:

  • Practical life - to develop the child's sense of order, independence and courtesy.
  • Sensorial education - to develop the child's physical senses and help him or her understand the world.
  • Language - to offer auditory, visual and cognitive experiences and activities including hand movements to aid writing skills, phonic and reading aids, spelling aids etc.
  • Mathematics - to provide materials such as rods and beads for practising mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, as well as geometrical figures.
  • Culture - "to offer the child experiences in geography, history, art, art history, biology, zoology, music, music appreciation and creative arts all using concrete materials first before moving towards the abstract" (O'Donnell, 2013, p. 139).

It is notable that the emphasis is on direct experience with the learning aids, and in the case of younger learners especially, developing physical and sensory appreciation of objects in the world before there is any abstract reasoning. Wherever possible these learning aids should enable the child to discover things for himself, rather than listen to some abstract explanation that he may struggle to link with the real world.


An article by Camp, Judge, Bye et al. (1997) reports on an interesting educational experiment involving 14 preschool children (aged 2.5-4 years) and 12 older people with dementia (median age 88). It used Montessori methods and teaching aids in intergenerational sessions involving both adults and children. The older adults acted as instructors or mentors to the children while they were engaged in educational tasks. The authors describe how "in a matching exercise in which pictures were sorted according to labeled categories or names, an older adult could read the labels and offer advice to children, who would then perform the motor components of the sorting task" (Camp, Judge, Bye et al., 1997, p. 689).

The authors observed that the older adults with dementia were able to act as tutors, and that the children learned new skills from these interactive sessions. The children appreciated the individual attention that they received, and the sense of achievement that came from completing the tasks. The older adults displayed great care and patience, as well as pride in their ability to act as mentors, and this contrasted sharply with the disengagement that they often displayed on days when the children were not visiting.

The authors also make an interesting observation about the way older people benefited from using the specially designed Montessori tools: "… when presenting a lesson requiring the placement of 10 wooden cylinders of varying widths and depths into appropriate holes in a long wooden block, the older adult with dementia does not have to remember what task is taking place - the materials provide this information and thus create an external memory aid" (Camp, Judge, Bye et al., 1997, p. 691). 


This example is clearly an extension of Montessori theory into an unusual setting but it appears to indicate. Think about the role of the teacher of the young children in this example. There is little obvious instruction on the part of the teacher here, but what do you think the teacher is doing while all of this interaction between children and older adults is going on?

Do some research into the nature of Montessori teaching materials. What have you learned? How could you use this knowledge in your own lesson planning?

What are the strengths and limitations of the Montessori theory?

It cannot be denied that Montessori's ideas have inspired many educators and many countries across the world. One contemporary textbook notes that "Maria Montessori is a name that has universal meaning, and she is recognized as being a hugely creative and influential figure in the world of Early Years education" (Gray and MacBlain, 2015, p. 39).  Perhaps her greatest contribution to the history of education was her insistence that children have the ability to learn for themselves, and make choices that will advance their knowledge and skills, without constant instruction by the teacher. This notion fundamentally changes the role of the teacher, and sets up a requirement to observe each child and respond to his or her needs as they arise.

There is therefore a very useful emphasis in Montessori's work on the individuality and learning potential of every child, including children who have physical, mental or emotional challenges to overcome. The method encourages independence, and though this was radical at the time when the first Montessori schools were created, it chimes very well with contemporary ideas about children's learning. There is structure in the Montessori method, but it comes from the way the environment is laid out and the way the teachers provide individual attention to each child, helping them to discuss what they are learning and form their own choices about what to select as their next project. The teacher ensures that the learning environment adapts to the needs of the child, rather than coercing all children to follow the same instructions, whether or not they are ready for the lesson in question.

One limitation of the Montessori method in its original form is that it incorporates some views which were commonly held by most European educators in the early twentieth century, but which are no longer regarded as ethically acceptable in modern schooling. This means that care must be taken when reading Montessori's own writings, especially in passages which expound her somewhat reactionary views on matters such as intelligence, racial qualities, and some aspects of gender, race and class. Montessori writes about "the instruction and education of man" (Montessori, 1912, p. 3), for example, when she means the education of all human beings, both male and female. Even her view of disability is heavily influenced by the scientific dogma of her time. Much early work by Montessori, and by her international critics and supporters, uses vocabulary such as "deficients" or "idiots" (Montessori, 1912, p. 42), for example, to refer to children with learning difficulties or disabilities. Montessori's work is understandably rooted in a particular historical place and time. Even though she achieved some radical and beneficial reforms in her work, there are still some aspects of her work which educators today would question or reject outright. Later research has provided more useful insights, for example about cognitive development, and changing views on equality and human rights in education have ensured that disability is defined and spoken about in more positive and respectful ways. This point is true of all older educational theories, incidentally, and not just the work of Montessori and her associates.

Another limitation of Montessori's work is that it tends to be confined to the Early Years period of education, and is much less commonly used in the later years of primary school and all the different stages and types of education that follow after that. There are a few areas of experimentation, as we noted in the example of the older adults with dementia teaching pre-school children, but these are the exception rather than the rule. More research is needed before the Montessori method, and the tools and techniques that it requires, could be made more widely available for use with a larger range of teenage and adult groups.

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There are clearly many benefits to be gained from Montessori theory and methods, but it remains very much a side-line in educational theory as a whole. The method has its enthusiastic supporters, and there is a lively international Montessori network, but it has not been adopted in mainstream schools as the dominant method, even in Italy, where the ideas first emerged.

Why do you think this is? How can an educational theory be so much admired, but so little used? Carry out some informal research with people in your circle of friends and family. Have they heard of Montessori? What do they know about it? Are their views positive or negative? By analysing what people say about Montessori, you might discover some key mis-matches between the underlying Montessori philosophy and prevailing views in the modern world.

How can this theory be linked to practice?

There is much that can be learned from the Montessori method, even for teachers who work in mainstream schools that do not sign up to this approach. The guidance for teachers on observing each child carefully, and noting when they are at a sensitive stage for learning is a good principle that can be applied in any Early Years setting. Teachers can follow the lead given by the child to anticipate which activities will provide just enough challenge to help the child progress. If a child chooses activities that are below their current level of development, the teacher can make suggestions of something at a higher level. Similarly, if a task is too difficult, or a child is frustrated because he or she cannot complete it, the teacher should be able to offer alternative tasks that are more suited to the child's stage of development.

The giving of positive feedback is recognised as an important part of the contemporary teacher's role, but it is often forgotten that it should be more than just affirmation of the child's attainment and encouragement. Very often teachers praise a child briefly and move on to the next point, or the next child, without considering how to use positive feedback to guide each child's learning, encouraging them to move on to the next step. Pajares, (2008, p. 129) notes that praise should contain an element of persuasion as well as affirmation because "persuasions encourage and empower … [and] such persuasions should be genuine, should offer specific information about what was praiseworthy, and should provide avenues for continued improvement". This kind of praise takes longer to formulate, and requires close attention to the child's current stage of progress, but it is extremely valuable in building confidence and motivating the child to strive for ever higher achievement. It also signals to other children in the vicinity some achievement or activity that they might wish to try out for themselves. In modern educational research these qualities are referred to as "self-efficacy beliefs" and "self-directed learning" (Pajares, 2008, p. 111). Montessori would not have used this vocabulary, but she would certainly have approved of the principle.

The Montessori philosophy is invaluable as a source of ideas, and as a model which exemplifies a respectful and positive attitude towards the child. It inspires teachers to think about the sensory aspect of learning, for example through exercises with blocks, shapes and different textures that encourage children to use their fingers to trace the shapes of letters, while listening to sounds that also relate to the letters. This focus on pre-literacy skills helps to prepare children for reading and writing and it can be invaluable for children who may have difficulty with one or other aspect of language or literacy.

One of the most striking aspects of a Montessori classroom is the rather slow pace and orderly way in which learning is being managed, mostly by children themselves, and sometimes with support from one or more teachers in the room. This slow pace should not be mistaken for a lack of learning activity: there is a fundamental belief in the Montessori method that children need time to learn at their own pace, and they should be allowed to make mistakes and try out different methods of approaching the same task. The notion of the sensitive period demands intense focus, and so when children are engrossed in an activity, they are likely to be making important conceptual links, and developing a deep understanding. Teachers should not interrupt such learning, but observe carefully, and offer encouragement or suggestions when the child is ready for the next step.


Think about the way children are assessed in schools today. How far do assessment regimes reflect, or not reflect Montessori ideas?

  • Is there room for individuality and creativity?
  • Can children choose to present their work in groups of their own choosing, or in themes of their own choosing, or are they always assessed in ways defined by the teacher?
  • Does assessment arise out of authentic, meaningful tasks?
  • Does assessment encourage critical thinking?
  • Does assessment encourage children to make connections and develop a holistic understanding?

List the main types of assessment that you have come across so far in schools. Rate them according to the criteria mentioned in the bullet points above.

Has this reflection changed your view of the nature and role of assessment in any way?


This chapter has introduced and discussed the Montessori theory and how it was put in to practice in Italy first, and then in other countries across the world. The theory is most useful for Early Years teachers, and teachers who are interested in or working in Special Educational Needs, but there are aspects that can be applied to all teaching contexts. Above all, this theory stresses the individuality of each child, and the role of the teacher as an encourager and guide, rather than instructor, and it requires a very careful selection and arrangement of furniture, tools and learning materials to support individual learning through graded steps for each child at their own pace.


By the time you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the examples and reflection sections, you should be able to:

  • understand the origins of the Montessori theory and the ideas behind it
  • explain what the Montessori theory entails and how it relates to other theories
  • understand and explain clearly how this theory applies to education
  • relate this theory to educational practice at different levels from infancy to adulthood.

Now you should complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter. Use what you have learned in this chapter to complete the short task described there.

Reference list

Camp, C. J., Judge, K. S., Bye, C. A., Fox, K. M., Bowden, J., Bell, M., Valencic, K. and Mattern, J. (1997) An intergenerational program for persons with dementia using Montessori methods. The Gerontologist 37(5), pp. 688-692.

Gray, C. and MacBlain, S. (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood. Second edition. London: Sage.

Lillard, A. and Else-Quest, N. (2006) The early years: Evaluating Montessori education. Science 313(5795), pp. 1893-1894.

Montessori, M. (1912) The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as applied to child education in 'The Children's Houses' with additions and revisions by the author. Trans. by A. E. George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. Available at: [Accessed 12 December 2016].

Montessori, M. (1967) The Absorbent Mind. New York: Holt, 1967.

O'Donnell, M. (2013) Maria Montessori. London: Bloomsbury.

Pajares, F. (2008) Motivational role of self-efficacy beliefs in self-regulated learning. In D. H. Schunk and B. J. Zimmerman (Eds.), Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning: Theory, Research and Applications. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 111-140.

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