Commentary Magazine

Montessori Today

To the Editor:

. . . Martin Mayer’s estimate of Montessori as an educator is obviously not based on observations of classroom use of these materials but is a theoretical evaluation based on educational research concerning learning processes [“Schools, Slums, and Montessori,” June]. I have visited Montessori schools in England, France, Holland, Italy, and India, and I have carefully studied many publications by and about this pioneering educator. Nothing I have seen or read makes me feel that the Montessori method will be useful to the pre-schools that are to be developed in America as part of the effort to increase the slum child’s ability to learn when he gets into public school.

Mayer’s statements that the “Montessori model is the best we have” in nursery education is absurd. . . . Nor is it true that the revival of Montessori reflects “the new concern for the education of unlucky children, both the genetically and environmentally crippled.” For the most part, the American revival of Montessori involves normal children from middle and upper-income Catholic homes. It is a reaction against progressive education on the part of parents eager to push their children ahead academically under authoritarian discipline. (Montessori was able to maintain a benign and gentle discipline in the classroom because she excluded children who did not respond to such discipline.) I have worked with slum children for twenty-five years and know that many of them cannot be reached by authoritarian discipline, nor restricted to directed use of didactic play materials. It is absurd to equate today’s American slum children with the “retarded” children of the Case dei Bambini in Rome in 1907. . . .

Montessori had no “original insight into the nature of the learning process,” as Mayer claims. She applied to “normal” children ideas and materials developed by Edouard Seguin (1812-1880) and his predecessor Periera, who did successful work with mentally defective children. . . . This is not to underestimate the good influence she had on early childhood education [but] other educators are responsible for the dominant ideas in nursery education today.

Montessori’s method of teaching reading is not only outmoded, but destructive, establishing brain patterns that make the child dependent upon touching sandpaper letters, rather than brain patterns controlled by the visual brain centers. Children don’t learn to read at age three under the Montessori method. . . . At that age it takes them two years to learn what could be acquired in a few months later on. . . . The method appeals to parents who are eager to prepare the child at age three for acceptance by Vassar or Yale at age eighteen. Montessori’s taboo on spontaneous drawing is destructive of mental and emotional development. . . .

Montessori and her son exploited the Method materials commercially, operating a business producing them in expensive packages. Shri Shewak Boijraj, head of Balkan-Ji-Bari, children’s recreation centers in India, told me that Montessori lost influence in India when she refused to let them be copied in less expensive woods and finish. I understand her son still has sole rights to their manufacture. . . .

The reissuing of The Montessori Method, first published in 1912, is logical for today, when America is bent on a Sputnik education under vast political grants for education of a scientific-minded elite. The latest phase of this program is the salvation of children condemned to school failure because conditions at home render them un-educable in our inadequate elementary schools. . . .

(Mrs.) Rhoda Kellogg
Golden Gate Kindergarten Association
San Francisco, California



To the Editor:

. . . While Martin Mayer’s article is about Montessori and the slum child, the Montessori movement in the United States is predominantly middle class. Montessori schools have been established by middle-class parents who recognize the importance of early learning, with special attention to reading and mathematics. This has created serious problems. . . . Parents who want a Montessori school for their children must start it and run it themselves, which means that the problems of having novices as administrators are compounded by their personal involvement with their own children. Furthermore, decisions about Montessori schools made by middle-class parents may reshape the Montessori method in a middle-class image, thus affecting its suitability for disadvantaged children. . . .

A related problem results from the recent, rapid growth in the number of Montessori schools in this country. The immediate demand for teachers has stimulated intense discussion as to what constitutes adequate teaching training programs in this method—the proper length of time for study,. . . the ratio of Montessori theory and materials to standard nursery school practices, and the qualifications for being a master teacher.

A major problem in disseminating information about the Montessori method is that the . . . structure of Montessori teacher-training, is based largely upon an oral tradition. Much of the instruction about the use of the materials is transmitted through lectures and demonstration, with each student teacher constructing his own “book.” Thus, evaluations of the materials by non-Montessori people usually do not take into account the carefully defined purposes for which the materials are designed. . . .

Mr. Mayer correctly points out that Montessori built her psychological system more on insight than science. . . . Despite her scientific naïveté however, considerable scientific evidence for the validity of her observations has been obtained in recent learning research. In the field of visual perception, for example, Eleanor Gibson has been constructing a theory of perceptual development dependent upon critical dimensions. Montessori designed her materials specifically to help the child isolate critical dimensions.

David Zeaman, an experimental learning theorist studying basic discrimination processes in moderately retarded children, has concluded that the “secret” of training these children “lies in the engineering of their attention.” He then identifies Montessori methods as derivable from his theoretic position:

Montessori advocated the use of three-dimensional cut-outs in teaching form discriminations, such as letters and numbers. In explicating her principles of brevity, simplicity, and objectivity, she cautioned teachers not to present or draw attention to irrelevant details and described ways of making the relevant aspects of the material as prominent as possible.

Another source of validation comes from the laboratory of B. F. Skinner, who has emphasized the importance of eliciting and reinforcing correct responses. As Mayer points out, the Montessori approach places great emphasis on the principle of correction of error. It would seem that the dictates of modern learning theory are very much in harmony with the approach defined by Montessori’s observations.

And lastly, Jean Piaget, probably the most seminal mind in the field of child development, has presented a view of developmental levels strikingly in harmony with Montessori’s analysis of conceptual sequences in children’s learning. . . . Montessori failed in America fifty years ago because our educators were involved in something else. Hopefully, this time we will make better use of her contribution.

Lassar G. Gotkin
Senior Research Associate
Dianne M. Feeley
Curriculum Developer
Institute for Developmental Studies
Department of Psychiatry
New York Medical College
New York City



Mr. Mayer writes:

Dr. Gotkin and Miss Feeley are directly involved in work with kindergarten and pre-kindergarten slum children in New York’s East Harlem; and their respect for the Montessori position is, I think, sufficient answer to Mrs. Kellogg’s fulminations. It is, of course, true that most of the new Montessori schools have been started by middle-class parents for middle-class children, and that the tradition is pretty insecure, in part because Montessori wrote little and spoke only Italian, and after the early years worked with auditors whose Italian was shaky or worse. I touched on both points in my article.

Readers should understand that Mrs. Kellogg is merely repeating the old professional-educator position about Montessori. Nobody (including Montessori) ever said that the method taught children to read at age three; nor have any other actual observers of Montessori schools come up with criticisms of their “authoritarian discipline,” although, as I pointed out, such discipline can be read into Montessori’s words. It will not do for Mrs. Kellogg to make the criticism and then hedge by saying the situation doesn’t arise because the children are pre-selected.

To say that the Montessori method of teaching reading is “destructive, establishing brain patterns that make the child dependent on touching sandpaper letters”—or that the prohibition of spontaneous drawing “is destructive of mental and emotional development”—is to be really absurd. There is no evidence whatever for either statement. Phrases like “Sputnik education” carry a fine emotional charge, but they are not quite adequate as a description of the educational reformer’s insistence that today’s children shall not grow up as ignorant as today’s educators; or of the social reformer’s insistence that the opportunity to participate in the unimaginably complicated human community of the 21st century (which will arrive when today’s pre-kindergartners are turning forty) shall not be denied to children because their parents happen to be poor.

The country is full of free-play, day-care centers run according to the dominant ideas in nursery education today. The children who come out of them populate the remedial-reading classes and the dropout lists. Pride in the situation does not become the director of a kindergarten association.

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