Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Montessori Movement: A US Historical Perspective

young girl works with montessori sandpaper letters the history of montessoriThe following contains a response to a NAMC student inquiry concerning becoming more informed about the history and efforts of those supporting Montessori in the United States, and why it is not broadly embraced in public school systems.

The Montessori method was close to being adopted in the US as the model for all public school instruction shortly before the start of WWI. However, in 1914 William Kirkpatrick (a follower of John Dewey’s) wrote a highly critical ‘expose’ on the Montessori method: The Montessori System Examined. In it he argued against Dr. Montessori’s use of scientific observation of children and her ideas of freedom and liberty. He believed the teacher to be the center of the classroom, not the child and argued that the teacher should direct all student activity. He argued for social group work before the child had approached the social second plane of development.

Montessori was for children to learn self-reliance and independence; Kirkpatrick argued the need for conformity through social pressure! He called Montessori schools chaotic and anarchist; traditional schools were models of properly trained, well-behaved children who did exactly what they were told. Montessori schools encouraged divergent thinking; traditional school children, he said, did not question authority.
Kirkpatrick asked:
  • Why allow the child to exercise his choice?
  • With free choice granted, how is cooperation in group activity to be secured?
  • How is the child to secure the requisite knowledge and skill?
  • How shall we secure conduct that conforms to social standards?

The Montessori Method and the US Public School System - An Intriguing History

Kirkpatrick was also successful in getting people to believe that Montessori did not believe in play. Dewey was a big proponent of constructive and imitative play. Montessori believed that real work (her Practical Life activities) were more important to the child because they actually had meaning for the child, giving him a sense of purpose. Dewey wanted to teach through the use of ‘games’ while Montessori taught through real life activities and didactic materials. Kirkpatrick even went so far as to state that American games were far superior to the Italian Montessori materials. He said that Italian children may need to be taught the lessons of practical life, but American children certainly had no need as they had respectable mothers who saw to their needs. He said that Montessori eschewed the use of stories and imagination, never giving credit to the Montessori Five Great Lessons which provide the child with ample opportunity to use imagination to explore the world around them. Kirkpatrick said that children over the age of two did not benefit from sensorial exercises as it was impossible to train their senses after that time. And since the Montessori sensorial lessons had no “general transfer” use, they were not relevant.

Kirkpatrick also said that the use of phonetic training was merely a novelty in America, since teaching children to read and write using phonics was impossible. Italian is phonetic; English is not. He called it a novelty that would quickly die. He saw no use at all in the Montessori mathematical materials. He was quick to point out that “In this country, we seem pretty well agreed that these subjects, as a rule, better not be taught prior to the age of six.” (Kirkpatrick, page 59) He believed that introducing books too early was damaging to children: “The writer agrees, therefore, with those who would still exclude these formal school arts from the kindergarten period. To him a school for the young without books is Froebel’s chiefest glory.” (Kirkpatrick, page 60)
Reference: Kirkpatrick, Williams. The Montessori System Examined. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914. eBook.

As you can see, for a society based on educating the masses to be skilled workers, Congressional decision makers were quick to jump on Kirkpatrick’s argument. Then, with the US involvement in WWI, all monies allocated toward education went to the war effort. And if that was not enough, the fact that Mussolini had initially funded all Italian Montessori schools was enough to have them all but abandoned in the US (never mind the fact that Montessori refused to join Mussolini’s fascist movement, causing him to subsequently close all Italian Montessori schools and forcing her into exile!)

The Montessori system experienced resurgence in the 1960s primarily through the work of Nancy McCormick Rambusch and Margaret Stephenson. Rambusch began the American Montessori Society (AMS) in 1960 and Stephenson received permission from Mario Montessori to start the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) in the US. Montessori was slow to become established in the mainstream US due to the negative publicity at the early part of the century. Because of the Cold War, the US was in a race to achieve and succeed against the Soviets and the Montessori method was seen as too liberal. Most American Montessori schools in the 1960s were small grassroots homeschools, many of which grew into larger facilities. It was not until the mid 1970s that public school districts began to experiment with the Montessori method. You can read more about this in the Washington Post article “Montessori, Now 100, Goes MainstreamCurrently, with the growing number of disgruntled parents and teachers over the US “No Child Left Behind” initiative, the Montessori movement is gaining momentum as a dynamic alternative to conventional education.

For more information, you may wish to read Dr. Angelina Stoll Lillard’s book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Once herself a Montessori skeptic, psychologist Lillard has spent more than two decades studying the Montessori method. You might also research the Montessori public schools in the Durham and Charlotte-Mecklenberg districts in North Carolina. They both are having amazing results and are adding more schools. Here is a recent article written about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg decision to open a Montessori middle school: Middle schoolers thrive in Montessori magnet.
As much as possible, NAMC’s web blog reflects the Montessori curriculum as provided in its teacher training programs. We realize and respect that Montessori schools are unique and may vary their schedules and offerings in accordance with the needs of their individual communities. We hope that our readers will find our articles useful and inspiring as a contribution to the global Montessori community.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Thursday, December 22, 2011.


  1. I truly enjoyed my Montessori experience as a toddler! Great program.


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