Maria Montessori: The Child is Father to the Man
The Montessori method has become synonymous with excellence in early childhood education. Even secular institutions have implemented the pedagogy of the Italian paediatrician Maria Montessori (August 31, 1870 – May 6, 1952), who understood that children have an innate drive to learn and develop their interests and talents.
Her methods emphasise internal discipline and self-directed learning, with the teacher simply facilitating the child’s discovery of the world. She said: “The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”
In the Church, we have the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, built by Dr Sofia Cavalletti and Professor Gianna Gobbi on Montessori’s original principles. Montessori recognised that human beings have certain “sensitive periods” when we are best able to learn and retain certain kinds of knowledge or life skills, such as language, mathematics, music, fine and gross motor skills, observation through the five senses, organisation, and social etiquette. The ages of 3 to 6 mark the natural period for a child’s openness to religious faith.
Instead of looking at childhood as merely a developmental stage on the way to adulthood, as the caterpillar is one stage in the growth of a butterfly, Good Shepherd catechists see the child as a being who deserves to be appreciated and understood as a child – just as Catholics have a devotion to the Child Jesus, relating to the Second Person of the Trinity as a human child in particular, not only a wise teacher, a suffering man or an awe-inspiring Divine Judge.
Montessori wrote: “To understand the child as a creative power, to realise that he is psychologically different from us, to perceive that his need is different from ours is a step forward for all human aspirations…” As such, the teacher prepares an age-appropriate educational environment where the child can exercise his natural curiosity and absorb knowledge through all five senses.
Vision of Tomorrow
At the same time, Montessori saw the future potential of each child: “Clearly, we have a social duty towards this future man, this man who exists as a silhouette around the child, a duty towards this man of tomorrow. Perhaps a great future leader or a great genius is with us and his power will come from the power of the child he is today. This is the vision which we must have.”
As William Wordsworth wrote in his 1802 poem The Rainbow: “The Child is father of the Man,” that is, each child naturally generates a future adult who will be forever shaped by his childhood. Thus, we invest in the education of our young, knowing that this will affect their future ability to fend for themselves and to contribute positively to the community around them.
Montessori noted: “The children of today will make all the discoveries of tomorrow. All the discoveries of mankind will be known to them and they will improve what has been done and make fresh discoveries. They must make all the improvements in houses, cities, communication, methods of production, etc. that are to be made. The future generation must not only know how to do what we can teach them, they must be able to go a step further.”
Although our education system does not generally have the luxury of a Montessori classroom, where children are free to explore various subjects and learning activities according to their passions and individual pace, parents and teachers can still take Montessori’s observations to heart, assisting their children or students in naturally revealing their full potential, as well as forming them in virtue and independence.
“Lord, I’m not praying for miracles and visions,
I’m only asking for strength for my days.
Teach me the art of small steps.
Make me clever and resourceful,
so that I can find important discoveries
and experiences among the diversity of days.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry