Magazine article Montessori Life

Maria Montessori and the Secret of Tabula Rasa

Magazine article Montessori Life

Maria Montessori and the Secret of Tabula Rasa

Article excerpt

On January 6 , 1907r at 58 via dei Marsi in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome, the first Casa dei Bambini or "Children's House," opened its doors under the guidance and direction of Maria Montessori. This event is not only important to Montessori history, but is monumentally important in the history of world education - probably as important as the educational method of teaching critical thinking through questioning, developed by Socrates in the 5th century BCE in Athens, Greece.

Though there are Montessori schools worldwide, and though 100 years have passed since the development of Maria Montessori's methodologies for young children, the Montessori movement is still in its infancy, just as, believe it or not, after 2,500 years the Socratic method of education is still in its infancy. The late Mortimer J. Adler, one of the great humanists of our time, in his book Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, presented his program of educational reform by proposing a curriculum of values and ethics taught by Socratic questioning and discussion (Adler, 1990). Apparently, we human beings, in our blindness, sometimes take centuries to implement that which is enlightened and rational.

Now, in the spirit of Socratic questioning, let me ask a few questions: Why do I say that the moment of January 6, 1907, at the opening of the Casa dei Bambini, was monumental? Are we justified in naming thousands of schools across the globe "Montessori" schools? Are teachers who have chosen this profession, and parents who have chosen to entrust the education of their children to this method, really aware of the enormity of that decision? In answering, my purpose is to provide a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of Montessori's contribution.

The tabula rasa of this article's title is a Latin term meaning "clean slate." For centuries before January 6, 1907, and continuing more than 100 years since, teachers have walked into classrooms of young children convinced they know full well what is good for them, and what should be poured into their minds and by what means.

But on that day, Maria Montessori walked into her classroom with a "clean slate." Not the clean slate of the blackboard, or clean slates of children's minds to be filled - no, the clean slate was her mind! That is, she divested herself of the bric-a-brac of educational notions passed down uncritically from generation to generation; she divested herself of standard curriculum passed down unexamined as to its appropriateness for the developing human being; divested herself of traditional teaching methods blindly passed down from time immemorial; divested herself of that egotistical mind-set of "teacher knows best." On the contrary, she walked into her classroom as a scientist, passionate to lift the veil from the secrets of childhood. Indeed, she once wrote that the scientist is "the worshipper of nature" whose passion resembles "the follower of some religious order" and works so passionately in the laboratory "as to annihilate the thought of himself" (1974, p. 8).

This was a monumental moment in the history of education. It was the first time, finally, that the tabula rasa of pedagogy was to be filled in by science.

How did this individual come to this determination? How did Maria Montessori arrive at 58 via dei Mars L Rome, as a Copernicus or an Einstein, eager to explore the uncharted universe of childhood - its development, its characteristics, its nature, its potential? How did she come to open a door that no teacher dared heretofore to open?

It was not without preparation, both scientific and spiritual. The earliest foundation of Montessori's scientific background, of course, was that of a medical doctor, one of the first females in Italy to do so, and against opposition from both her aristocratic father and the medical establishment.

Her first medical assignment, as an assistant doctor at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome, was to visit mental hospitals to study the sick and select patients for the clinic. …

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