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Cult of the individual

Marlene Barron shows why Maria Montessori's ideas are just rightfor these days of "personalised learning"

Most of us were born and raised in what is called the modern world. We live, however, in the postmodern world. This flat world of nuances and dilemmas has caused turmoil in many arenas, including education. But one educational philosophy has survived and even prospered: the Montessori approach. What is it about Montessori that makes it possible for these educational programmes to be successful worldwide?

Early in the 20th-century, Dr Maria Montessori recognised the importance of each child's early experiences to the development of a healthy, responsible adult. She believed that each child's potential must be nurtured by caring adults. Working collaboratively with parents, teachers could create rich, exciting, engaging teaching and learning environments in which each child could develop a good self-image, positive dispositions to learning, friendships and autonomy as well as physical, social and intellectual competencies.

Montessori's approach also aims to celebrate every child's uniqueness and cultural background. The goal is the development of autonomous and competent, caring and empathetic, responsive and responsible, adaptive citizens - life-long learners and problem solvers. Respect, competency, self-initiative, responsibility, self-management, and the ability to view experiences from different perspectives are highly valued.

Montessori herself was a scientist and social reformer, breaking barriers for women, and children, and for the poor. She fled from Italy to Asia as a refugee during the Second World War. She had first-hand experience of war, having lived through two world conflicts. These events created a woman with a vision and a set of beliefs that continue to be important in the 21st century. If we consider schools as communities of children and adults, our first question might be: how do we prepare teachers to teach for the future?

Montessori would respond by first examining our adult values, beliefs and prejudices that arise out of our personal histories. The real preparation for education is the study of one's self.

Second, we need to learn to respect children as developing humans instead of treating them as commodities. And so we discover that education is not something which the teacher does, but a natural process that develops spontaneously in the individual.

Third, we need to focus our educational goals on the development of children's attitudes. Attitudes include the capacity to focus one's energy on a task, to concentrate even in a noisy setting, and to think analytically. Thinking analytically means having the resources to compare and contrast items and to evaluate one's data. Having an analytical attitude enables one to recognise the existence of a problem, specify the issues, and then solve the problem. Gaile Sloan Cannella calls this problematising, a way to reveal not only the history of the problem, but the rhetoric that led to the problem.

Fourth, Montessori developed a set of brilliant teaching and learning practices. She believed that children learn best in aesthetically pleasing physical environments in which they can work and play with a wide range of didactic materials, without adult interference. These hands-on, interactive, multi-sensory, concrete activities are designed to help the child learn how to learn. They focus on the development of skills and concepts. They also provide opportunities to integrate learning.

The psychological environment is based on respect - the core of the Montessori philosophy is respect for each person, for life, and for the environment. Respect for children's individuality and rights sets the stage for trusting relationships.

Montessori viewed each human as a uniquely endowed whole individual living a whole life in a whole world. This holistic perspective construes each individual's personal, educational, social and work lives as intertwined and inseparable. Similarly, self, family, neighbourhood and global community are seen as interconnected. To tease out any one component as more important is artificial and unproductive.

There are a host of other Montessori-specific instructional practices ranging from how to give a lesson (presentation), the provision of long blocks of uninterrupted work time, and creating multi-age classes. When you assemble this package of core beliefs, teaching and learning practices and materials, and you add the richness of human diversity, then you have a classroom preparing children for the future.

The needs of humankind are universal. Our means of meeting them create the richness and diversity of the planet. The Montessori child should come to relish the texture of that diversity.

l Dr Marlene Barron is Head of West Side Montessori School in New York City; a professor at New York University and project director of the NYU Montessori Teacher Education Sequence. She will be speaking at the Montessori Schools Association's conference (see box below for details)

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