I just read a piece by blogger Cooper Zale (aka “Lefty Parent”) placing Maria Montessori’s work in the context of education reform over the last century plus.
One hundred years ago, Montessori’s approach was popular in the United States, her books selling out and new schools opening. Montessori and John Dewey shared a belief in holistic education that allowed children to develop their love of learning within a carefully planned environment.
But the challenge to this approach came in the form of business led strategies, striving for uniformity and efficiency. One of the best short history lessons of how this thinking impacted schools is in this widely circulated RSA Animate video:
In his piece, Zale quotes Elwood Cubberley, an education administrator in that factory-model time, saying:
Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specification for manufacturing come from the demands of the twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specification laid down.
When Montessori’s approach became popular again after her death in 1952, it was because people started paying attention to the outcomes for children in Montessori schools. Citing Ron Miller’s book What are Schools For?, Zale comments that
it was the efficient and accelerated learning achieved by Montessori's approach that caught the interest of middle class Americans. Yet Montessori had not been concerned with the “output” of the child. To use her method as a shortcut to academic success, or as a tool for efficiency or national prestige, was to adopt the letter of her approach without its holistic spirit. The revival of her method was due more to its academic results than to its holistic foundations.
I agree with what Miller and Zale suggest: education, fully realized in children who are self-motivated, creative, and problem-solving individuals, is so much more than outcomes. While they are in school, that is their lives – shouldn’t it be as rich and fulfilling as the work we hope they will someday do? And although Zale begins and ends by stating that Montessori has had little impact on public schools that educate most students in the U.S., I bet he would be willing to join the movement to prove that presumption wrong.