Montessori Looks to the Future

Article excerpt

Wendy Bayer's class at the Julia Brown Montessori School in Laurel is just finishing up "circle time," when the teachers say hello to the students individually and work with them on basic phonics games. The class of 18 students, all between the ages of 21/2 and 51/2, then turns to individual workstations and projects, some of them sitting at desks and others unrolling small mats on the floor.

One girl transfers water from one bowl to another using a sponge. One girl reads a book. Another lines up beads and tiles. The relative silence, compared to the sound in the average public or private school classroom of preschoolers or kindergartners, is deafening.

"It's a respectful, peaceful, planned method," says Julia Brown, founder of four Montessori schools in Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's counties.

"You have to see it for yourself. People can't believe these children behave the way they do. They think they've been brainwashed or something. But they're not. It's all a result of the way they've been allowed to work independently and develop their own study and focusing skills."Montessori's roots

MONTESSORI'S ROOTS

Maria Montessori, Italy's first female physician, developed the educational philosophy that bears her name early in the 1900s after watching children and working with them in learning environments. She deduced that children learned best by doing, not listening, and in multiage class settings where children of different developmental stages could learn with and from each other. She also developed the theory of "the absorbent mind," theorizing that children have an enormous capacity to learn between the ages of 3 and 6 and educators need to capitalize on that period.

She opened her first school in Rome in 1907, serving 4- to 7-year-olds from the city's low-income families. Montessori schools came to America a few years afterward and flourished in the 1910s. They began to dwindle in the 1920s, according to Tim Seldin, president of the Montessori Foundation, as Montessori's theories clashed with those of the prevailing American education experts of the time, most notably John Dewey. The foundation is a research and information clearinghouse in Rockville.

"Dr. Montessori was today what you would call a psychiatrist," Mr. Seldin says. "She was more into brain research. She advocated [that] you could study the way children develop and you could hit it from lots of different disciplines. [Mr. Dewey] misunderstood her completely and her emphasis on sensorial education. They suggested she was part of the Henry and William James school of faculty psychology, where the brain is like a muscle that can be developed. She wasn't saying that. She was saying there appears to be a biological plan for how the human brain develops."

`CHILD-CENTERED' EDUCATION

Montessori education differs from traditional education in that it is "child-centered" instead of "teacher-centered," its proponents say. In Montessori schools, children frequently work by themselves or in small groups. Teachers, in fact, are supposed to be as unobtrusive as possible, which is why Ms. Bayer at the Julia Brown School in Laurel whispers so much.

"Dr. Montessori believed that children should learn as much for themselves and teachers should blend into the woodwork," Mrs. Brown says. "It's less stressful for the teachers and the students."

Montessori also believed children learn best by doing and experiencing things instead of sitting and listening to lectures or discussions. Thus, Montessori schools emphasize hands-on projects and activities such as stacking or arranging number tiles to learn the decimal system or putting shapes of countries on large floor maps to learn geography.

Delton Blackwell of Catonsville, Md., says he was amazed at how well his 8-year-old son Joseph, a former student at Julia Brown, was "tricked" into learning by Montessori's hands-on approach. …