Learning is a life-long adventure in the philosophy of discovery. To maximize learning, one cannot underestimate two things: learning opportunities and the environment surrounding the learning activity. Learning opportunities must be interesting, meaningful, and purposeful for learners -- particularly children. At the very crux of the ideas surrounding the philosophy of education, however, there are two basic views: 1) humans are born with the innate right to learn and self-actualize to their highest degree, or; 2) humans require a strict hierarchy of learning, which then leads to a similar hierarchy within their social contract. To examine this view, we will focus on the philosophy of Maria Montessori, who used both philosophers as a matrix in her early years of forming her unique philosophy of education (Kilpatrick 1914).
Maria Montessori, for example, based much of her philosophy on the work of 19th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Rousseau, and Montessori, humans are born into a natural sense of goodness and until society influences them, are uncorrupt. It is the educator's responsibility to prevent that for as long as possible by acting as a shield to allow children to develop more naturally. Education prepares children for life, not for any specific social institution. Since each person is born with innate gifts that are unique to their own personality, the perceptive educator must nurture those gifts and help the child discover their own individual purpose. Because the process of education is individualized, the school should be away from an indoor "room" and, if possible, in the country, without textbooks, in which the teacher uses nature to discuss science, art, history, philosophy, etc. Rote memorization is discouraged, as is corporal punishment. In fact, the two most important lessons for Rousseau's viewpoints on education are that the child learns morality by experiencing the consequences of inappropriate acts and that the most important thing a teacher can do is guide the process of thinking and reading, so that the child can explore the world through their own gifts . This is particularly important when thinking about children as open books -- the ability for children to conceptualize, actualize, and as learning sponges, retain a tremendous amount of stimuli -- all types of stimuli (Hainstock, 1997).
Synergizing the Idea of Child Development - Montessori was, of course, fortunate to have a family that revered education, and actually attended an all-boys school in preparation to become an engineer. Yet, in 1876, she graduated from the medical school in the University of Rome, and became the first female doctor in Italy. Shortly afterwards, she was chosen to represent Italy at two Women's Conferences; one in Berlin in 1896 and one in London in 1900. These conferences allowed Maria to meet and interact with a number of medical and psychological scholars, and to share some of her, for the time, rather bold, new ideas. In her medical practice, Montessori's observations led her to analyze the way in which children learn. She deduced that they form patterns and layers of learning for themselves based on their own abilities to discover and interact with the external environment. Her interests thus evolved to psychology and philosophy, and she returned to school in 1901, and made a professor of anthropology in 1904 at the University of Rome (Kramer, 1988).
Nevertheless, in 1906, she gave up her position at the university to teach a group of sixty young children whose parents worked long hours and were unable to provide adequate intellectual stimulation for their offspring. There, in San Lorenzo, she founded the first "Casa dei Bambini," or "Children's House." Then in 1907, she introduced her method of teaching children to the public. People called these teachings the Montessori Method. She developed her method from watching the sixty children play, learn, and interact with each other. The method was based on a less structured, and more natural approach to childhood education, especially for the time, since children were often considered "little adults," rather than evolving through a series of developmental stages. Combined with her work with the mentally challenged, she was able to develop and enhance a method for allowing children to learn without really understanding that they were learning (Lillard, 2005).
Exercises for a Practical Life - "Children teach themselves" - was her simple but profound philosophical focus, and one which forms the basis of her educational thesis. Primarily applied, then, in preschool and elementary school, the Montessori Method takes the approach suggested by Rousseau, the guide rather than the teacher, to emphasize regular and robust activity on the part of the child. Unlike Rousseau, though, Montessori knew that the utopian view of an outdoor, unencumbered classroom was not likely to be adopted easily, so instead, she challenges the guide to stress the learning environment, and to provide enrichment materials so that children will naturally develop (Montessori, 1986).
In its most basic, the term practical means useful. For Montessori, Exercises in a practical life simply means to provide the child with a way to coordinate movement, adapt to society and culture, how to experiment and define, how to know, how to be empathetic, courteous, and simply the very pragmatic and useful way to become part of society while still retaining individuality.
Children first learn basic issues about society -- folding, carrying, lifting, sharing, and pulling. This is done so that these movements become seamless and the child's coordination is developed. The movements evolve into applied exercises, which teach about the care and maintenance of self, home, society, and ultimately the environment. This might begin with washing the hands -- but not just rote, but why, how, when, etc. It might also include learning to keep one's desk or area clean and neat, or respecting others by cleaning up after oneself. In grace and courtesy, the child works on their social development with others -- empathy, kindness, the ability to be in groups, to contribute but to listen as well. Then, to enhance coordination and control of movement, the child learns to adapt their own bodies to different challenges; pull ups, climbing a rope, waling a beam bar, etc. Once these inner building blocks are shown in a basic manner and then elaborated and experienced, the idea is that within these small lessons all of relevant and practical life are embedded (Lillard 2005, pp. 48-52).
The Prepared Environment - Montessori knew, and the ideas have been confirmed, that child development does not work as a factory -- cogs into cogs. She knew that the persistence of such outmoded ideas explained why so few children really flourish in school, and why, in many cases, the dropout rate is so high. Instead, a radically different approach to education was necessary - the Montessori Method is a hands-on approach to learning. It allows children to develop their own observation skills by actually "doing" many types of activities that revolve around the five senses, muscle movement, spatial understanding, motor skills, and concrete knowledge that, over time, evolves into abstract thinking. Reading, for instance, is taught with phonics and whole language approaches to real world situations, as opposed to simply sounding out letters (in whatever language) and following picture books that have little meaning in the child's life (Loeffler, 1992).
Conceptually, then, Montessori takes from Locke and Rousseau the educational philosophy that children develop and think quite differently from adults. That they are born with the capacity to actualize, and that the various stimuli that they are provided allows a greater "worldly" experience. The "Lockean Child," or the child born empty and needing to be filled with illumination, however, is rather simplistic for Montessori. Montessori believed, and again, much current research confirming that children are quite able to transfer learning from one contextual area to another -- children can construct knowledge not just associations. Montessori was right in her belief that a meaningful context in learning can be far superior to filling a head with "facts" and that even advanced concepts like mathematical computation, when made relevant, is quite understandable at the elementary level (Damon, W., et.al., 2006)
The "Prepared Environment" focuses on the ability to transfer information from all aspects of the child's learning experience. In the classroom, materials are set up for exploration and the ability to choose and work on environment -- freedom and self-discipline combined with structure. There are six basic principles that help us understand Montessori's view on this:
Freedom -- The child must be free to explore and develop potential through exploration, movement and interaction. Freedom actually brings responsibility, while confinement and too strict an order limit growth.
Structure and Order -- At first glance, this would seem counter-intuitive to the Montessori way. However, if we use the classroom as a microcosm of the universe, then the learner internalizes the order surrounding them and makes sense of the environment by validating experience. It is that validation that helps with structure, not a lecture on the subject. Children can thus see that there is day/night, seasonality, temperature differences, cause/effect, etc.…