Can Science Heal the Montessori Movement?

From time to time I contemplate the Montessori alphabet soup (AMI, AMS, IAPM, MEPI, IMC, NAMC, etc…) and I imagine how much better the lives of children, and eventually all humankind, might be if the Montessori movement was more unified.  

If more of the Movement spoke with the same voice, we would be easier to hear and harder to disregard.  If we were more unified there would be less confusion among those who try to understand our message.  If we were more unified there would be more hands working together and the load would be lighter for everyone.

So why aren’t we unified?

Honestly, I don’t know and I doubt we’ll ever know why the movement has splintered.  I personally suspect each new organization begins for it’s own idiosyncratic reasons rooted in internal politics or economic opportunity or braggadocio.  “Why aren’t we unified?” is the wrong question to ask.

A better question is “What might unify the movement?”, because even if we assume that each organization has its own justification for its divisive beginnings, and even if we assume we will never know the true reasons, we can find motivations and incentives to unify the movement.  

I believe that embracing the Scientific Method is the best way to heal the Montessori movement.

If this were a panel discussion or a conversation at a professional conference I would expect to be interrupted now by someone strongly asserting that the Montessori movement is, in fact, based on scientific research.  This person would undoubtedly remind me that Maria Montessori was a trained medical doctor and that the method is based on her scientific observations.  I might even be reminded that Dr Montessori first called her method the Scientific Pedagogy.  We could sum up all these ideas in the following statement.

The Montessori method (or the Scientific Pedagogy) is based on the scientific observations conducted by Dr. Maria Montessori more than 60 years ago.

I would not disagree, and I do not think that anyone can dispute that statement.  However, I think we should explore specific words and phrases in more depth.  

The Montessori method (or the Scientific Pedagogy) is based on the scientific observations conducted by Dr. Maria Montessori more than 60 years ago.

based

There are dozens of organizations worldwide that offer training in the Montessori method, and every training differs from each other.  Regardless of whether the differences are minor (calling it the Red Rods vs the Long Rods) or major (the number of trained adults in the environment) every difference evolved or deviated from the original methods developed by Dr. Maria Montessori.

It is important and necessary that methods evolve to improve results and to accommodate cultural changes that influence families, but the mechanism of these evolutions should be more scientifically rigorous than just the experience of the trainers.  Every time that a trainer presents information based on her personal experience working with children (regardless of the vastness of that experience) she is offering anecdotal evidence in place of, or as equal to, the scientific observations that formed the basis of the method and this can result in deviations from the method instead of an evolution of the method.

Imagine a medical doctor prescribing medications based on her personal experience rather than the dosage recommendations derived from scientific research (“I know the guidelines says take two every morning but personally that makes me feel drowsy so you can take one instead if you want”).  That doctor fills me with concern, not confidence.

The role of scientific research in the Montessori movement is to define best practices and methods based on scientific observations of children. The role of personal experience and anecdotal evidence is to aid Montessori Guides in the art of implementing the method.  Put another way, science gives us the rules of the game and experience shows us how and when to bend the rules.  When a trainer presents her personal experience as fact equal to scientific research it corrupts the method.

Real Life examples

I trained AMI and I worked for several years in New Zealand with a colleague who trained St.Nicholas.  One day we were discussing three period lessons, specifically sandpaper letters, and found that our trainings advised different numbers of objects in the first period.  I had been trained to use three letters in the first period of a three period lesson and following a successful third period, if the child wished to continue, I should then introduce two further letters.  My colleague had been trained to begin with two letters and to stop after a successful third period.

My training emphasized an approach to writing and reading that avoided categorizations of words (three letter, four letter, etc…) and instead focused on phonetic vs phonogramatic.  In my training it was fine to offer the word “subtract” at almost anytime because it is phonetic and we were encouraged to focus on the structure of the word not the length.  In contrast, my colleague had been trained to use a “box method” of reading that categorized words based on length and structure. (blue box, pink box, green box, etc…) She always started with three letter words and progressed gradually to longer words.

These examples illustrate differences in trainings that develop when personal experiences supplant the scientific method.  How many letters should be in a three period lesson is not a subjective question.  When to introduce longer phonetic words is not a subjective question. There is a method for each question that is optimal for the majority of children but we don’t know these methods with certainty because, to my knowledge, there has been no scientific study to determine the optimal number of letters in a three period lesson or when to introduce phonetic letters. If there was such studies there is no peer review Montessori Research Journal in which to read it.  

If we are sincere in our desire to use a method that is based on a scientific understanding of the developmental needs of children, we need to be providing training in methods that are based on scientific research and not personal experience.  Personal experience can show Guides how to make minor adjustments to the method to accommodate an individual child’s needs and it can be the inspiration for future research, but anecdotes are not scientific evidence.

Although I expect that considerable original research will be required to verify Dr. Montessori’s principal findings and to sort out the tangle of deviations that have developed over the last century, I see no better way to break the gridlock of entrenched organizational doctrine than confronting that doctrine with solid scientific facts about our methods.

scientific and more than 60 years ago

In 1896, Maria Montessori graduated as a doctor of medicine and soon after she utilized her training to observe children and develop the Montessori method.   The scientific methods of the turn of the century are not the scientific methods of today.  

Dr. Montessori was trained in observation because at that time there were few other diagnostic tools available to Doctors.  Here is a description of the medical diagnostic methods used in the 19th century

At the beginning of the century, physicians depended primarily on patients’ accounts of symptoms and superficial observation to make diagnoses; manual examination remained relatively unimportant. By the 1850s, a series of new instruments, including the stethoscope, ophthalmoscope and laryngoscope, began to expand the physician’s sensory powers in clinical examination. These instruments helped doctors to move away from a reliance on the patients’ experience of illness and gain a more detached relationship with the appearance and sounds of the patients’ body to make diagnoses. (Berger, 1999)

Germ Theory (the idea that illnesses are caused by microorganisms and not humours) had only been established in 1870.  The medical uses of x-rays were discovered in 1895 but when she graduated Medical school the profession was still unaware of different blood types (discovered 1901) or even vitamins (1906) much less EKGs (1903), Ultrasound (1965), CT Scanner (1971), PET Scans (1976) , or MRI (1980). (Timeline of medicine and medical technology).

The field of psychology was even less developed and still in its infancy at the turn of the 20th century. The first psychological laboratories in the world were opening, Pavlov was beginning his studies and Freud his private practice but neither had published yet.  

Dr. Montessori has never been given the credit she deserves as a pioneer in developmental psychology, but it is important to remember that by definition pioneers are charting new territory, not settling and developing that territory.  A century of scientific advances have given us improved methods and tools resulting in a wealth of research in all areas of psychology including developmental and cognitive.

Dr. Montessori used the scientific methods in which she was trained (careful observation) to develop her educational methods until her death in 1952 (hence more than 60 years ago), and in my opinion she was a singular genius of developmental psychology.  However,  I am unaware of any studies she published in psychological journals or of any studies published in an academic forum.  Einstein was a singular genius of physics, but he published his research in the public forum for his field of study.  

I am uncertain if the Montessori movement has sequestered itself away from the psychological and educational communities because Dr. Montessori’s chose not to adopt new research techniques and participate in the these communities, or if her death and the loss of such a central and inspirational figure may have led to the movement resting on her previous research.  I am certain that today’s movement lacks the scientific rigor to be taken seriously by government policy makers or the scientific and educational communities.

The legend of Dr. Montessori is not a suitable foundation on which to base our practices, we need research to verify and expand on her theories.  If a doctor tried to treat my cardiac arrhythmia using only a stethoscope and justified their choice by relating a story of a brilliant doctor working at the turn of the 20th century, I would leave to immediately for a second opinion and I would never return.  

There may be many reasons why Dr. Montessori’s work does not appear on the syllabi of most early childhood education or developmental psychology programs, but I believe that a significant factor is the Montessori movement’s self-imposed isolation from the scientific community.  We are thrilled when researchers outside the Montessori community include us in their research (Dr. Angeline Lillard, Dr. Adele Diamond, etc…) but we make no effort as a community to fund or conduct original research. There is no peer review Montessori research journal to publish relevant studies.  

I shared this statement earlier,

The Montessori method (or the Scientific Pedagogy) is based on the scientific observations conducted by Dr. Maria Montessori more than 60 years ago.

Someday I hope to be able to say

The Montessori method (or the Scientific Pedagogy) is based on the observations conducted by Dr. Maria Montessori more than 60 years ago and has been verified and continues to develop through rigorous peer reviewed scientific study.  

When that day comes our message will be more credible, we will be more unified as a movement, and we will better serve children and humanity.  

Science can heal the Montessori movement if we are willing to do the research.

 

References

(n.d.). Retrieved January 17, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_medicine_and_medical_technology

Berger, D. (1999, July). A brief history of medical diagnosis and the birth of the clinical laboratory Part 1—Ancient times through the 19th century. Retrieved January 17, 2016, from http://www.academia.dk/Blog/wp-content/uploads/KlinLab-Hist/LabHistory1.pdf

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