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By Nancy McCormick Rambusch




Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambush

Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambush

Dr. Nancy McCormick was the founder of the American Montessori Society in 1960 and is widely considered to the tireless inspiration of the second wave of interest in Montessori education in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1992, she was a member of the founding board of the Montessori Foundation.

All of us who knew and worked with Nancy remember her as she often described the parents who formed the energetic Montessori movement of the 1960s: she was “sassy, critical and articulate”.

Nancy published the following article in The Constructive Triangle, the former journal of the American Montessori Society (AMS Teachers’ Section), in the summer of 1978 (Vol. V, No. 3). We want to thank the American Montessori Society for giving us permission to republish it in the September 2007 issue of Montessori Leadership. It is included here in the archive of articles from past issues for reference by members of the International Montessori Council. Copyright remains with the American Montessori Society, and this article may not be reproduced or republished without the American Montessori Society’s permission.

We feel that Nancy McCormick Rambusch’s perspective and concerns are just as relevant today as they were thirty-eight years ago when first published. As evidence documenting the widely varying interpretations of Montessori practice continues to mount, we note a concurrent growing level of concern expressed by parents about the inconsistency that they find in educational philosophy and practice from one ‘Montessori’ school to another.

The International Montessori Council welcomes all members of the Montessori community. However, while embracing diversity, we believe that our common heritage is what Dr. Maria Montessori actual wrote, said, and did. To maintain both intellectual and spiritual integrity, we hold that the legacy of Dr. Montessori’s theory and practice, as it evolved during her lifetime, should remain the foundation of our own practice today and the standard against which our own evolving work must be measured.

The Montessori approach is not a closed book. However, it is not a blank journal into which anything can be written either. What leads us to identify our own professional identity with that of a woman who died fifty-five years ago is that her ideas formed a systems-based approach that shares the characteristics common to all important reforms: it is effective, it is replicable, it can be adapted to many different situations, and it is sustainable over time.

As Nancy McCormick Rambusch points out, a truly major concern has yet to be adequately addressed by the Montessori community. That concern is our mistaken emphasis on a limited subset of her larger ideas, such as the role of the prepared didactic materials, without preparing Montessori educators to truly understand the essential concepts of a systematic, anthropologically-based approach to observation and study of children individually and within the context of the children’s community that they form together. Equally important, Rambusch points out the vital importance of allowing children liberty (freedom from unnecessary adult intervention) to choose their work freely and to interact with one another and the prepared environment, within reasonable guidelines of courteous and responsible behavior. Rambusch argues that by ‘placing the accent on the wrong “syl-LAB-bell”, we have missed the meaning and message within Montessori’s keys ideas. She proposes some specific steps toward a new approach to Montessori teacher education.

We believe that the ideas that Nancy set forth in this seminal article deserve a close second reading by those of us who first read it many years ago, and careful consideration by those reading it now for the first time.

* The author did not add notations to demark subsections nor did she use bold font to make certain points stand out. She did occasionally print certain words and phrases in italics, which we have continued. We have added some subsection headings and bolded some words for additional clarity or emphasis.

Tim Seldin


The following preface appeared on the preceding page of the original publication:

The following article may be construed by some readers to contain criticism of existing AMS teacher training courses, of current Montessori teacher practices, and of the implementation of Montessori methodology in classrooms. We have been pleased to print Ms. Rambusch’s essay in The Constructive Triangle because we appreciate the innovative, conceptual thrust of her research. Always a prophet, she points in forceful style to what may be the road ahead for all of us. We welcome her opinions in that spirit.

Bonnie O’Connor
Chairperson, AMS Teachers Section


By Nancy McCormick Rambusch

The history of Montessori teacher training, both in Montessori’s lifetime and after her death, is one based on an act of the heart, conversion, rather than an act of the mind, persuasion. This is a perception that has been twenty-five years in the making.

In her lifetime, Montessori’s mode of induction into her “method” was one of conversion. She spoke of the need to convert or transform both teacher and school at the same time.

The transformation of the school must be contemporaneous with the preparation of the teacher.1

Since Montessori had more immediate access to would-be teachers than to schools, she diffused her message through teacher training, which, in its beginnings, was based upon observation of and anecdotal information concerning her work.2

The ‘conversion’ mode of training was admirably suited to a person of Montessori’s charismatic personality and stature. Anna Maccheroni, one of her first followers, described her first encounter with Montessori.

It was as if I had been thirsty and had found pure water.3

The conversion mode was also congruent with the manner in which Montessori became not only the center of a ‘method’ of education but of a social movement. The roots of her dual definition were seen in comments such as those contained in a 1914 Times Educational Supplement review of Mr. Cecil Grant’s English Education and Dr. Montessori.

…to say he canonizes her is to put it mildly. He is so carried away by his zeal that he regards her as a special creation of the Providence, which ordereth all things in heaven and earth. She has been raised up by God, ‘in these last days’, after much and careful preparing of the way … to show us how simple and inevitable, yet how new and radically change-bringing, are the required reforms.4

The same journal published a comment of an “ex-official of the Montessori Society” who saw the danger of her dual definition in 1921.

A movement might be set up to introduce a method, but a method should be able to justify itself intellectually and to demonstrate its satisfactoriness with well-authenticated facts. A movement, on the other hand, makes a moral appeal and relies very largely on suasion in which the emotions are stirred.5

Suasion is perilously close to uncritical acceptance. It was the hallmark of those of Montessori’s followers who sought discipleship. Published versions of life with Montessori used expressions like “cenacle” or “faithful band.”

The little band of women, living, and working with Montessori, Dorothy Canfield Fisher compared to nuns about an adored Mother Superior.6

The conversion model is powerful in the hands of a true prophet. As long as Montessori lived, it was the model for the diffusion of her ideas and practices, and as such, it permeated teacher training. In retrospect, it is clear that Montessori might as well have awarded a chasuble as a diploma to many of those who completed a training course under her direction.

After Montessori’s death in 1952, there were two groups who could make no further claim on the conversion model. One group, her son and other close followers, was the Association Montessori International (AMI); the other, those who came to Montessori’s ideas as “method” rather than “movement” because they had not known Dr. Montessori in life. Neither of these groups was able to establish convincingly the conversion model of teacher training, although some in each group tried.

Persuasion or appeal to reason seemed a surer strategy to the young American parents of the late 50’s and 60’s believed in Montessori’s ideas. As strong as the appeal to reason in Montessori education was its appeal to the lived experience of these parents who sought a match between their aspirations for their children and an education which would represent those aspirations. Such was the exclusive nature of these parental aspirations in the beginnings of the American Montessori movement, that John McDermott, professor and student of American philosophy, accused it of foreclosing the larger community. Thus did the vision of Montessori come to depend upon those willing to implement it in America, in a particular way. Had this group of “sassy, critical and articulate” parents had a larger vision, there would have developed a greater variety of American versions of Montessori’s method, and a greater acceptance of it.

When young Dr. Montessori visited the Hospice de Bicetre in Paris, at the turn of the century, she went in search of the practice that her French inspirer, Eduoard Seguin, had initiated there fifty years earlier. She was dismayed to find the pedagogy widely discrepant with her understanding of Seguin’s original text.

Like Seguin, who developed much of the apparatus, which Montessori modified, Montessori recognized that the apparatus was merely the occasion for the child’s awakening to learning, not the cause.

We must know how to call to the man, which lies dormant within the soul of the child. I feel this intuitively and believed that not the didactic material but my voice which called to the children awakened them, and encouraged them to use the didactic material, and through it, to educate themselves.7

Seguin had perceived the preparation of teachers as the most critical aspect of his work. What Montessori saw in Paris was both a shift in emphasis within Seguin’s method and a difference in interpretation from what she perceived as Seguin’s intention.

At the Bicetre, where I spent some time, I saw that it was the didactic apparatus of Seguin, far more than his method, which was being used although the French text was in the hands of educators.8

Although Seguin was constantly quoted in all of the publications dealing with institutions for deficients, the educational applications described were quite different from the applications of Seguin’s system.9

Seguin’s method, in Montessori’s view, had been lost by his disciples. This insight could have proved instructive to Montessori.

Had Montessori been more aware of the fate of educational theorists, she would have been less surprised in the changes wrought in Seguin’s method over time. McDermott, as one of the founders of the American Montessori movement, stated the case for a reexamination of Montessori in the same terms as one might have done for Seguin.

It is so strange that Montessori is in need of updating when no philosopher of education has ever developed more than a handful of practical suggestions which were instituted beyond his own historical period?10

When, in 1963, McDermott took a look at the direction that the American Montessori movement was taking, he raised questions, which proved to be of methodological import. In penetrating Montessori’s original insights, McDermott questioned the parochial interest of affluent Americans in only one version of Montessori education, and in one which excluded those children for whom Montessori’s vision seemed most relevant.

A presentation of the Montessori position in its generalized fundamental contentions will prove revealing … Montessori is important for precisely those youngsters who are in need of personal development at an age prior to their complete submission to hostile surroundings.11

He further questioned the notion of the “supranational” child, which absolved its believers from a willingness to address the specific concerns of American culture.

The contentions of the traditional Montessorians about the universal similarity of children for purposes of education display a basic naiveté about the extraordinarily powerful and irreducible interrelationships between a culture and the child’s development of a modality of consciousness.12

McDermott suggested that if all the American Montessori movement aspired to was a “private history”, then it could continue to ignore the ways in which growth and change occur in America … Of particular significance for the American scene is the tradition of public education and the needs of an egalitarian-oriented society.13

McDermott demonstrated that while the mechanics of organizing a national movement were engaging the time and attention of a small band of committed zealots, the larger questions concerning the “method” remained as unaddressed and unanswered as they were in Europe.

Montessori had attempted a synthesis of physical anthropology and pedagogy, a science of education, which she called “pedagogical anthropology.” The first and most important statement of her work appeared as The Method of Scientific Pedagogy applied to the Education of Young Children in the Case dei Bambini. This book, written in 1909, appeared in English as The Montessori Method. It contained Montessori’s educational philosophy.

… if we make of the teacher an observer, familiar with the experimental methods, then we must make it possible for her to observe and to experiment in the school. The fundamental principle of scientific pedagogy must be, indeed, the liberty of the child—such liberty shall permit a development of individual spontaneous manifestations of the child’s nature.14

Montessori used the pedagogical methods she devised,-an amalgam of intuition, information and observational acuity,-to watch children act on their environments. She focused particularly on the interaction of children with the standard assembly of her didactic materials. Critics of Montessori tended to see her method as “nothing but the didactic apparatus.” Sheila Radice, writing of Montessori to an English audience, suggested that Montessori was far more than this.

To critics who complained that Montessori reduced the world of the child to nothing but the didactic apparatus, Radice replied that ‘no one can continue to nurse this absurdity who meets this clever, sensible woman-doctor and woman of the world face-to-face, who has listened to her terse summings -up and trenchant criticisms, and noted her kindly, sympathetic, assured manner and the occasional deprecatingly humorous glance of her dark, far-seeing eyes.15

The critical features of the Montessori “method”, as Montessori presented it, were observational acuity and an attendant sensitivity to the spontaneous manifestations of individual children, exemplified by their interactions with the prototypical materials, which she had devised as information models. In translating or transposing Montessori pedagogy across space and time, the critical variables in her “method” would be the capacity to observe and the ability to use observation as the basis for advisement in helping a child move from where he is to where the culture intends him to go. That there were many ways to achieve this goal was apparent from Montessori’s willingness to respond to every spontaneous manifestation of every child in every culture.

The Montessori training I received in London under the auspices of the AMI in 1954 consisted of lectures containing short anecdotes of Montessori’s life and long dictations of the sequences of Montessori’s didactic apparatus. Such “training” was an inadequate reflection of Montessori’s thought and a dysfunctional translation of that thought into pedagogy.

The focus of the training was the manipulation of the didactic material. The material was divided into categories of Practical Life or self-mastery, Sensorial Education and the Indirect Preparation for Academic Learning. Lecturers in the course, like Claude and Francesca Claremont, illustrious stars in the tiny Montessori firmament, presented the didactic material in the context of anecdotal information about Montessori’s life and thought. The materials were not discussed in terms of the concepts they, encapsulated. They were offered as quasi-magical mechanisms, through which children would prehend sensorially what others struggled to comprehend cognitively.

Each of the students in the course was expected to make a series of Albums of all the didactic materials and to write out, from dictation, the sequences of highly ritualized steps of each of the “presentations”. In the many evenings spent in the course, fully three-quarters of the time was spent in taking dictation.

The reason for copying from dictation the procedures to be used in the presentation of didactic material had its origin in Montessori’s remembered experience. Montessori described the catalytic effect that meditation on the works of Itard and Seguin had had on her “method”, when she copied their works by hand, translating them into Italian.

Having through actual experience justified my faith in Seguin’s method, I withdrew from active work among deficients, and began a more thorough study of the works of Itard and Seguin. I felt the need of meditation. I did a thing which I had not done before, and which perhaps few students have been willing to do. I translated into Italian and copied with my own hand, the writing of these men, from beginning to end, making for myself books as the old Benedictines used to do before the diffusion of printing.

I chose to do this by hand, in order that I might have time to weigh the sense of each word, and to read, in truth, the spirit of the author.16

Montessori’s own education had been one of ceaseless memorization. The Italian schools from primary through university level demanded uncritical regurgitation of received subject matter. Kramer suggests that the two methods of learning most employed in the schools of Montessori’s time were “drill and more drill.”17

The teachers’ work consisted in overseeing the performance of required exercises by pupils. The school system was not one that did much to develop or encourage imagination. Montessori’s secondary education was very like her primary.

There was a syllabus to be taught in every subject, and most teaching was by means of the printed text only, which pupils were required to memorize and repeat. It was heresy to dissent in any way from the ideas as presented in the syllabus.18

Her medical school experience was yet another example of the same pedagogical strategy.

The university existed primarily to administer examinations, a highly ritualized set of hurdles marking the progress of the student toward his diploma, and he could prepare himself or them as he saw fit as long as he reproduced the required answers,-all of which could be found in his lecture notes.19

The point to be made concerning Montessori’s school experiences is not that she transcended them in her own creative, imaginative thought, but that she incorporated them into the diffusion strategy of what came to be called her “method.” By insisting that students master the intricacies of each of a series of prototypical materials, which she had developed, and then commit to memory the ritual for demonstrating each of them, Montessori had devised a way of exporting a discernibly different educational strategy around the world. It was one which could be overseen by those far less gifted than she.

As Montessori moved from the center to the periphery of her world, she revealed her emergent concerns and speculations to her disciples. As Montessori materials moved from the center to the periphery of her world, there was little thought that her disciples would have concerns and speculations relating to the “method.” There seems to have been little change in the training after Montessori’s death.

The (London) training offered by the AMI was similar in content to that offered during Montessori’s lifetime. Bereft of her genial presence, much of it made little sense. The principal focus of the training was the provision of structured experiences with an array of `didactic apparatus” which Montessori. .. had developed and which was to her `method’ what Froebel’s Gifts and Occupations were to his. A secondary focus was on the transmission of Montessori folklore and myth in the form of anecdotes of Montessori’s life and work, which were delivered with the reverence and solemnity usually, accorded scripture. Since none of the didactic apparatus was demonstrated with children present, students had to imagine what child responses to it would be. They also needed to ponder what all of it might mean in the context of their own culture-specific educational settings.20

When Betty Stephenson embarked to conduct the first American training course, her reticule contained the standard store of anecdotes about Montessori’s life, repetitious statements from Montessori’s written works and a standard set of the Montessori didactic apparatus. This was the core of the Montessori teacher training. It was completely a-contextual, based on the assumption that children the world over were more alike than different. This training was, after all, the best that any of Montessori’s disciples could offer in lieu of her living presence. The manipulation of the ritual objects of Montessori pedagogy was the core of the teacher training. It was what Montessori had, in fact, disseminated as training in her lifetime, but then such manipulation was situated in the rich context of her living and evolving thought.21

I never knew Montessori. I met her cenacle of disciples shortly after her death. I worked for almost ten years with the group surrounding her son, Mario. In this group, discussions on the relevance of her thought or apparatus were never entertained. It was assumed that the entire corpus of her work was beyond challenge. In light of this, McDermott’s 1963 question concerning the need for Montessori to be updated beyond her lifetime, like every other educational philosopher, was considered impertinent in the extreme.

Methodological questions raised were not resolved. Dewey’s difficulty with Montessori’s apparent insistence that a child’s enactment with the didactic apparatus automatically elicited understanding was one such question.

(The Montessori) demand is for materials which have already been subjected to the perfecting work of mind … That such material will control the pupil’s operations so as to prevent errors is true. The notion that a pupil operating with such material will somehow absorb the intelligence that went originally into its shaping is fallacious.22

Montessori had standardized part of her message so that it could be transmitted around the world with minimal distortion. Her materials, she argued, could be used effectively anywhere in the world, if they were used according to prescribed rubrics. Montessori’s contention that all children were more alike than different translated into the universal applicability of her methods. However, her diffusion strategies and those of her disciples gave rise to a teacher training phenomenon which can be called “the Calypso paradigm”, or putting the accent on the wrong syllable.

Outside the American Montessori movement, concern was expressed at the direction taken by Montessori’s American followers. In 1964, J. Mc.Vicker Hunt, an American psychologist who had come to know Montessori through a Swedish colleague, argued that in any “revisitation” of Montessori, one needed to beware of cultishness and its consequences.

There may be another aspect to the danger of cultishness. (This is the) danger of standardizing the ways in which each child is supposed to utilize the various didactic materials … Various people have complained about Montessori teachers who insist that each child must pass through each of a set of prescribed steps of work with each kind of material … Such insistence loses the basic advantage of breaking the lock step of having all children doing the same thing at the same time, by demanding that all children do a series of things with each kind of didactic material … The basic pedagogical implication of individual differences is missed, and children lose the growth-fostering measure of following their own predilection in their informational interaction with the environment.23

David Elkind, an American explicator of Piaget, reiterated Hunt’s concern twelve years later.

(Montessori) believed that teachers have to watch how children use materials as clues to how materials should best be presented. It is important to emphasize this point, because some of Montessori’s followers have rigidified her teaching practices to the point where children are allowed to use materials only in prescribed ways.

This is contrary to the spirit of Montessori teaching, which is to allow children to experiment on their own, and to take clues for teaching practice from children’s experiences.24

One might ask how it was that both Hunt and Elkind were able to see as Montessori’s original insights something that those calling themselves Montessorians had missed. The answer is simple. Hunt and Elkind approached Montessori as Montessori had approached Seguin. They read the “text” and they saw the practice. They found that text and practice were discrepant.

What had happened in the diffusion of the Montessori “method” as didactic apparatus was that the apparatus had become the centerpiece of the method in an inflexible way. What Montessori professed concerning the respect for the child’s spontaneous manifestations with materials had been lost. The way in which the teacher presented a piece of material was seen as the model for the way in which the child operated on the material. This was not Montessori’s intention. It had become Montessori practice because those trained in the “method” had not been trained in observation and the attendant sensitivity to divergent child response.

The first American Training Course in 1958 was a replay of the European training. The training was a reflection of the vision and capabilities of the Montessori emissary. There was no systematic training in observation offered in the course. In lieu of this, there was a strong exhortation to the students that they learn to observe. How they were to do this was and remained unclear. Frustration mounted as one read in The Montessori Method that:

In the giving of lessons, the fundamental guide must be the method of observation in which is included and understood the liberty of the child.25

What emerged as the core of the American training was the didactic apparatus, presented by adults and used by children in an identical way.

The inadequate grasp of Montessori’s thought by those disciples sent to establish training programs was masked in the early years of the American movement by the focus placed upon the didactic apparatus as the center of the training. Small wonder that terror was struck into the hearts of Montessori practitioners whenever a McDermott or a Hunt would insist that the materials should not be considered “sacrosanct.” The notion that one might organize a Montessori school, true in spirit to Montessori, without any Montessori apparatus was thought laughable by Montessorians heavily dependent on the apparatus for their definition of the “method.”

The disparity which Montessori had observed between Seguin’s method, as he expressed it, and its codification by those disciples who carried on after his death, was becoming evident in her own method.

The American Montessori Society began to accredit courses in Montessori teacher training in 1963. In that year, the joint AMS-AMI Course was held for the last time. What is clear, in retrospect, is that the message of Montessori’s closest disciples, brought to America to provide the foundation for the American training, was flawed. The people who had spent their lives with Montessori missed the point of what she had been talking about for years, at least as far as training was concerned. Perhaps they were so attentive to her person, that they missed her message. Whatever the explanation, it is interesting to speculate on the possibility that Montessori herself understood, years before she died, how difficult it would to be to transmit her real message to her followers, and so settled for less. Clearly, these “happy few” failed to communicate what Montessori knew her message to be. Her failed message became the basis for American training. The failed message was the emphasis on didactic material at the expense of observation.

What the first years of American Montessori training demonstrated to me, who had been trained in the inadequate European model, was the importance of its achieving parity with American Early Childhood teacher preparation. This would prove a necessary condition for the diffusion of Montessori education in the culture.

An enormous amount of time and energy was spent in the early years of the American movement in fruitless palaver with Mario Montessori and the AMI. Attempts to persuade them of the importance of teacher professionalization fell on deaf ears. Over time, it became apparent, that the AMI saw the diffusion of Montessori’s ideas as solely a phenomenon of conversion. In 1963, the American Montessori Society severed the transatlantic umbilical cord that connected to Amsterdam, the headquarters of the AMI and the putative world center of Montessori education. In McDermott’s opinion, it was not a moment too soon.

… the American professional community finds it difficult to see why such long distance control has to be exercised over a movement devoted to specifically American educational needs.26

As the American Montessori Society expanded and became institutionalized, it developed a Teacher Training Committee, charged with the evaluation and management of Montessori training. The group was comprised of persons heading already “approved” training courses. It was doubtful that a re-examination of Montessori’s original insights would come from them.

In the training programs sponsored by the American Montessori Society, attention is paid to Observation or Child Study, two names for the generic enterprise of looking at children in the demonstration class during the introductory summer phase of training and hoping to God to see “something.” Techniques of observation are introduced, but it can be stated confidently that, in the subsequent internship year, the practice of observation is not characterized by Montessori’s quality of concern nor by Hunt’s or Elkind’s sophistication of instrumentation.

Because the didactic apparatus is at the center of the training, it provides the most usual and comfortable point of departure for observation in a Montessori pre-school environment. A typical observation activity is the checking of individual children’s activity against a list of didactic apparatus. Such a list offers little help in discerning an individual child’s “spontaneous manifestations,” since such activity is often forbidden or ignored. Granted, observation is a difficult task. Hunt suggests:

… It is not easy to teach (observation) to teachers. Those who have attempted to do so have commonly fallen back upon metaphors and similes for their communication.27

The Calypso paradigm may be seen at work again in the way in which observation is dealt with in the Montessori class. The recording of a child’s use of the ritual objects of the “method” is different than a look at the child, according to the “method.”

The method of observation is established upon the fundamental base, the liberty of the pupils in their spontaneous manifestations.28

The codification of teacher training through the AMS has been in the direction of further specification of materials, their extensions and variations rather than in the direction observation. Hunt suggests that:

If a teacher can discern what a child is trying to do in interaction with the environment, and if that teacher can have on hand materials relevant to that intention, if he can impose a relevant challenge with which the child can cope, supply a relevant model for imitation, or pose a relevant question that the child can answer, the teacher can call forth the kind of accommodative change that constitutes psychological development or growth. This sort of thing was apparently the genius of Maria Montessori.29

Part of the present state of Montessori teacher training derives from the fact that although Montessori spoke of the necessity for teachers to acquire observational skills, she did little to train them, after an initial, abortive attempt to use the tools of physical anthropology.

Montessori acknowledged her great pedagogical debt to Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, her medical inspirer.

Itard was perhaps the first educator to practice the observation of the pupil in the way in which the sick are observed in hospitals.30

She exhorted her hearers at the University of Rome in 1913 to consider that as teachers:

our only book should be the living individual; all the rest taken together, (i.e., theoretical knowledge) forms only the necessary means for reading it.31

Montessori posited the necessity of teachers being “trained” in observation.

To observe it is necessary to be ‘trained’ and this is the true way of approach of science …32

She then moved quickly to how the “trained” observer would behave.

He who has been `trained’ to see begins to feel interest, and such interest is the motive power which creates the spirit of the scientist. As in the little child, internal coordination is the point of crystallization round which the entire physical form will coalesce, so, in the teacher, interest in the phenomenon observed will be the center round which her complete new personality will form spontaneously.33

Montessori insisted that the teacher prepare herself, not by means of content, but by means of the “method”, which is observation.

The fundamental quality is the `capacity’ for observation, a quality so important that the positive sciences were also called `sciences of observation’, a term which was changed into `experimental science’ for those in which observation is combined with experiment. Now it is obvious that the possession of senses and knowledge is not sufficient to enable a person to observe; it is a habit which must be developed by practice. 34

A new type of mistress has been evolved; instead of facility in speech, she has to acquire the power of silence; instead of teaching, she has to observe . . ,35

I retained as the only essential (of my work), the affirmation or rather the definition of Wundt, that ‘all methods of experimental psychology may be reduced to one, namely, the careful recorded observation of the subject.’36

In the giving of lessons, the fundamental guide must be the method of observation, in which is included and understood the liberty of the child. So, the teacher shall observe whether the child interests himself in the object, how he is interested in it, for how long, etc., even noticing the expression on his face… .37

How are teachers to become observers? Certainly one may not merely exhort them to look at children, Montessori would argue, although in fact that appears to have been what she did.

We cannot create observers by simple saying ‘Observe,’ but by giving them the power and the means for this observation, and these means are procured through education of the senses .38

Montessori saw in the anthropometry of her time, a possible instrument for the training of teachers in observation. She proposed a method:

… starting from an individual (which) would be decidedly original, very different from other methods which preceeded it. It would indeed signify a new era …based upon anthropology. 39

Montessori used a general definition of Anthropology as the science or study of man. A specific definition of it included observation. To Montessori, the determining factor in anthropology was “the same that determines all experimental science, the method.” 40

The content bursts upon us as a surprise, as a result of applying the method, by means of which we make advances in the investigation of truth. 41

It is our duty to read the truth, in the book of nature. (I) by collecting separate facts, according to the objective method; (II) by proceeding methodically from analysis to synthesis. The subject of our research is the single human being. 42

We need method and a mental preparation, that is a training which will accustom us … to become simple instruments of investigation. 43

We shall become anthropologists only at the moment we become investigators of living human individuals. 43

The originality of Montessori’s “method” of Scientific Pedagogy was due to the use of anthropology as its base. Its concerns and hers, in her time, were congruent. Frederick Gearing, a pioneer in the use of ethnography in educational settings, suggests that

historically anthropology and education studies have usually sought to have some impact on human practice,- principally an impact on the schools … the most instructive early career is that of an adoptive colleague, Maria Montessori.

She was half scientist and inquirer, half mystic and prophet … At all crucial points, she acted like an anthropologist, in her insistence that the human animal learns not with tongue and ear and brain alone but with all its parts, not through transactions between adult and child alone but through interaction with the total physical and human environment …She insisted that however ‘true’ (processes of cultural transmission as prevailing patterns might prove to be) there must be ethnography, that one must see the general in the rich, particularized detail of good ethnography. She required this disciplined constraint of herself and even insisted that the workers in her schools …incessantly do ethnography.

She has been described as ‘the woman who looks at children as a naturalist looks at bees. 45

Gearing looks at Montessori’s environmental design in relation to her ethnographic emphasis.

She structured classroom environments mainly in the form of a cafeteria-like array of ‘didactic apparatus’ among which the child moved, selected, manipulated. But her main task and her teachers’, was ethnographic; to watch what the children did. When it became evident that an item was not working for the child, the task was then to devise some modification or some alternative device, on the spot, or later if necessary, and the new device, in turn, became part of the cafeteria. 46

Like Hunt, Gearing saw the task of Montessori’s teacher as one of observation leading to the revisioning of the child’s needs.

What is ethnography, according to Gearing? It is

the art and discipline of watching and listening and of trying to inductively derive meaning from the behaviors initiated by others. 47

Montessori as anthropologist proposed a new way of educating children, observation coupled with the willingness to be advised by it. Montessori modeled this behavior in her lifetime. Although her desire was to have those trained by her become effective observers, she was not able to provide them with the tools necessary to accomplish this. The anthropometric charts which appeared in Pedagogical Anthropology and The Montessori Method represent her intentions with respect to a fully formulated strategy for observational training, not the strategy itself. The strategy never materialized.

The ethnography of which Gearing speaks is an enterprise involving data collection and analysis. Its purpose is this.

The task of ethnography is one of setting down the meanings particular social actions have for the actors whose actions they are and stating, as explicitly as we can manage, what the knowledge thus attained demonstrates about the society in which it is found …48

One of Montessori’s contemporaries, Emile Durkheim, would argue that her desire to focus on the particular in order to illuminate the general was a very sensible strategy.

… when one comes in contact with social phenomena, one is surprised by the astonishing regularity with which they occur under the same circumstances. 49

What Montessori was proposing as her “method” of Scientific Pedagogy derived from her recognition that the observational strategies of the adult would dictate all subsequent pedagogy. If her words concerning observation went largely unheeded by those who surrounded her, so did those concerning the liberty of the child.

Montessori was no breeder of social anarchy. She never suggested that children be permitted to behave in any way they liked. It was clear that her norm in any situation or any culture was one of what she called “good breeding.” She emphasized the need for respecting children according to whatever cultural norms constituted the “best.” Like Dewey, she envisaged schools reflective of what “the best and wisest parents” wanted for their children.

Montessori described the well-ordered environment in this way:

The pedagogical method of observation has for its base the liberty of the child, and liberty is activity. . . . The liberty of the child shall have as its limit the collective interest; as its form, what we universally consider good breeding, We must, therefore, check in the child whatever offends or annoys others, or whatever tends toward rough or ill-bred acts. But all the rest-every manifestation having a useful scope-whatever it be, and under whatever form it expresses itself, must not only be permitted, but must be observed by the teacher. Here lies the essential point. From her scientific preparation, the teacher must not bring only the capacity, but the desire, to observe the phenomena. In our system, she must become a passive much more than an active influence, and her passivity shall be composed of anxious scientific curiosity and of absolute respect for the phenomenon which she wishes to observe. The teacher must understand and feel her position of observer; the activity must lie in the phenomenon. 50

Once the environment had been delineated socially by the teacher and the child knew what the social boundaries were, Montessori presumed that the child, in interaction with the environment, would be left free to explore. This is the reading of all of Montessori’s recent American critics. This is the heart of Montessori’s message.

What a retrospective glance at the past two decades makes clear is that a teacher training enterprise centering on the manipulation of materials was a great deal easier to manage than one built on as complex a conception as Montessori’s notion of observation. In the attempt to simplify an explanation of Montessori’s “prepared environment”, her disciples prevented its occurrence. In place of Montessori’s view, there developed one of the teacher as respectful and silent, establishing an environment in which children were exposed to the standards and constraints of good breeding, but one in which the manipulation of the didactic materials was no experiment. The child was enjoined to repeat literally the presentation offered him by the adult. The issue of adult adjustment or modification of the material in light of the child’s reaction to it was simply not joined.

The didactic apparatus was able to travel well and far in Montessori’s persuasive hands. Through it, Montessori was able to standardize certain aspects of her pedagogy. But, the materials were not the method. The method was observation. The materials were catalytic agents for the emergence of particular kinds of child responses, to be acted upon by the teacher. Such responses could not be predicted.

After Montessori’s death, those succeeding her failed to distinguish between the ways in which adults were trained to manipulate the apparatus in order to understand its encapsulated concepts and the way in which they were to permit children to manipulate it, given the latter’s need to experiment with it. The English Montessori disciples, those missionaries who came to America and many of the Americans trained in the “method” shared the erroneous assumption that the way in which an adult demonstrated the material was the way in which the child should operate on the material. It became common to find Montessori classes in which children were permitted only to the behavior with the material that had been shown them by their teacher.

A way to look at a child’s interaction with his environment is as a model involving three successive, yet overlapping steps: 1) Exploration, wherein a child involves himself in an experience, 2) Consultation, wherein a child seeks additional information after the limits of the experience are reached by him, and 3) Improvisation, wherein he combines the new-found information he has derived from Consultation with that he started with, creating new information. John Ciardi calls creativity “the recombination of known elements into new patterns.” This is what a young child does constantly in his efforts to invest his experiences with ever greater meaning. This model of experience is entirely child-managed. Were one to compare this model with that of the typical adult-managed Montessori materials presentation, one would find an adult-managed model allowing little room for the child’s investment in his own definition of the experience. The Montessori model has three steps:

1) Presentation or Demonstration, wherein the adult shows the child how to manage the material and interact with it. 2) Imitation, wherein the child copies the adult’s manner of interaction with the material and 3) Repetition, wherein the child repeats the imitation of the adult presentation. Although a child will tend to improvise in his successive attempts to enact with the material, the strict rhetoric of Montessori ritual behavior with the material precludes this. A corollary of the “strict” constructionist manner of working with any piece of the Montessori apparatus is the notion that that piece of apparatus may be placed only in an invariant sequence of materials. Thus are many children prevented from working with the materials, unless they follow the “approved” sequence.

Hunt and Elkind maintain persuasively that the point of the Montessori apparatus is lost at the moment that the child is no longer free to invest it with his own definition, but must accept the “ready made” definition of the teacher. So strong is the presumption that the child who does not follow the “approved” sequence of materials will not learn correctly, that many a child in a Montessori setting is short-circuited in his attempts to remove materials, out of sequence, from the display shelves. It is very common to find teachers redirecting such a child to work deemed more appropriate to the child’s perceived level of competence. This short-circuit phenomenon gives the child a mixed message. Although materials are on the shelves to be used, one may not learn what one has not been “shown”. Ought one wonder that American Montessorians are criticized by those astute enough to discern Montessori’s original intent?

The consequence of such behavior is inevitable.

When stagnation is the inevitable consequence, reform is the inevitable response.51

A New Format For Montessori Teacher Education

Once teacher training is seen as dictated by a revisitation of Montessori’s original thought, the challenge of devising a new format for it is clear. What might an imaginatively conceived Montessori teacher training program look like?

The content of the typical Montessori training program has changed relatively little in the past two decades (Editor’s note: remember this was written in 1978). What has changed is the emphases accorded the various foci of the program, with Methods and Materials and Montessori Philosophy holding pride of place more often than any other areas of the curriculum.

A new look at training will require that observation and child development occupy larger shares of participants’ attention, since both provide the equivalent of the rich and living context that Montessori provided in her life and that have been absent since her death.

Video As A Tool In Teacher Education

One of the dilemmas in the training of the Montessori practitioner in a “new” way derives from the use of an “old” conceptual framework. This framework has become rigid and inert, over time. A way to break through it is to express Montessori’s ideas in a new medium. Videotape provides a common perceptual vocabulary for doing this.

Videotape may be used in several effective ways in training. As documentation, it provides both context and content for insights achieved inductively in observation and deductively through the presentation of didactic apparatus.

As documentation, videotape can serve as a tracking device for the recording of the temporary system’s (ed.: children’s community) evolution (emphasis added). Like the Disney “flower blooming in the desert,” the videotape, through skillful editing of time-sampled elements, can draw to the participants’ notice the intentional social design of the training.

Used as an observational tool, videotape provides the living context which serves in learning the skills of microanalysis. As the student sees the flow of behavior pass by and seeks vainly to entrap it, the same behavior taped can be seen again and again and will net, over time, initially unseen information. A skilled ethnographer who has coded typical “routines” on videotape can use these to show students what the definition of a “routine” is.

Videotape used as a record of the physical environment demonstrates the way in which the use of space changes in light of child behavior and perceived needs.

Whatever the prominence accorded didactic apparatus in Montessori training, a very effective way to present it in an optional classical mode of enactment is through videotape. Such tape once presented to students as a standard permits practice against it. This tape is the perceptually accessible equivalent of the written Album, which may be used to rehearse each of the steps in enactment with the material. The videotape seizes and holds the students’ attention in a special way since it frees them from the necessity of reading.

In the area of child development, the same videotape that is useful to the ethnographer may be used to demonstrate the presence or absence of culturally normative behaviors in the children under observation. A demonstration class in a training program provides the focus for this kind of valuable data collection.

Finally, videotape is useful in the area of “self-confrontation.” Each of the students may be videotaped in interaction with children, and have the opportunity of seeing him or herself as “another.” There is evidence to support this strategy as one conducive to the development of changed behavior.

The Value of A Live, Face-To-Face Teacher Education Experience

If the training followed the common intensive summer plus internship format, the first phase might be designed consciously as a “temporary” system. Whether the small number of participants lived in a residential setting or commuted to the program, it would seem important that they share a context of common work reflecting their shared concerns. (Editor’s Note: Keep in mind that the Internet, as a means of delivering prepared media, and of facilitating inexpensive worldwide communication, had not been developed when this was written. Today, the Internet adds yet another and potentially invaluable component to the tools of the temporary community of residential learning during summer academic coursework, the student-teaching experience, the use of video, and a deeper emphasis on child development, Montessori philosophy, classroom management, methods in Montessori education, and [most important of all] observation.)

The “temporary system”, unlike the school or college, is not destined for an extended life. In fact, it often exists in an interstitial relationship to permanent systems.

(Its) members hold from the start the basic assumption that, at some more or less clearly defined point in time, they will cease to be.52

In this sense, the summer phase of such a training program may be compared to a love affair, an office party, or a company picnic.

What characterizes such a system is its anticipated duration. It tends to be strongest when all of its members enter and leave the system at the same pre-specified time.53

The temporary system as a metaphor for temporal organization focuses both on short-term accomplishment on long-term change. It is easier to accomplish tasks in a supportive and novel environment specifically organized for the purpose than in an on-going institutional setting where energy allocation for maintenance in the system often precludes this.

The research project, the industrial `task force,’ the ad hoc committee, the scientific expedition, the jury, the political campaign committee—all are assembled to focus on particular tasks and they dissolve when their mission is completed.54

The permanent systems from which the participants come carry historical freight, which the temporary system does not. All of the energies of the group may be directed toward the task at hand.

The central function of the temporary system has often been seen as that of inducing change in persons, in groups and in organizations. The support of a group is often helpful to an individual attempting to change himself. Permanent systems require energy allocations, which often leave little left for innovation or deliberate change.

In a training program focusing on a persuasion rather than conversion model, the emphasis will be on the group’s acquisition of experience and strategies which permit it to operate in the near future in a way markedly different from that of the recent past. Many students who come into programs set up on the temporary system model feel for the first time, “part of something big.” Whether the intent of the program is to change an organization or an individual, the spirit is typically clearly visible. Miles suggests that a very clear “esprit de corps” evolves early.52

The ad hoc nature of the temporary system is one characteristic that makes of it a training group for contemporary life. Kimball and McClellan argue that

every group is ad hoc in the sense that one’s association with it is tempered by the deep, implicit awareness that one must be prepared to leave whenever the proper moment arrives.

The ability to relate oneself effectively to other people…. and yet to be prepared to move on at any time is, without doubt, the most difficult demand placed upon personality by the conditions of life in contemporary society.57

Temporary systems are training grounds for this kind of social competence. The time-limited dimension of the temporary system provides for other competencies. Goals are defined clearly and a focused range of content is typically selected, reducing the diffuse anxiety attendant upon one’s participation in open-ended groups over indeterminate time periods.

The temporary system frees members’ energies to concentrate on a particular aspect of a keenly felt problem.58

The people who enter temporary systems are usually closely specified. People are brought on board for the “whole” trip. The implicit assumption is that no one will jump ship. By specifying the group within the system, goal focus can be assured and status problems hopefully avoided. By the provision of a context of physical isolation, analogous to that of a summer camp or Caribbean cruise, there is created an alternative reality for a specified period of time. Research indicates that physical and social isolation of the group intent on accomplishing a task removes barriers to change, reduces role conflicts and develops, within the group, a protective feeling. A further benefit is the way in which the group exists outside the constraints of the larger world, at least for the duration of the temporary system.

Changes in persons or systems always involve risks; one can never be sure at the outset that the costs will not outweigh the rewards of a contemplated action. 59

One can risk change by rehearsing in private before one performs in public. Temporary systems need to be small to be effective and need to have a definite “turf” for their duration. Thus do they escape the “restraints of historical time and place. 60

The process characteristics of the temporary system occur predictably. They are the way in which time is perceived and used, the redefinitions of goals, the importance accorded procedural matters, social role-definition, and clarity concerning communication and power structure.

The existence of stress tends to narrow time perspective so that the person lives more “fully” in a present, copes with immediate demands, and forgets both past and future. This narrowed time perspective also induces a sense of clarity and coherence for the life of the system.

Toward the end of the system’s existence, there is a heightened awareness, leading often to intensely creative work. The phenomenon of “living life to the hilt” is a typical exit strategy. No matter what the group set out to do, there has occurred a reconfiguration of initial goals, in which the whole group has been involved. Thus may

Those who have participated in temporary systems speak of the phenomenon of heightened significance as part of the experience. 61

This heightened feeling is congruent with the conversion model used by Montessori and many other social reformers. Disciples avow that they never felt more alive than when in the presence of the master. The heightened significance dimension of the temporary system suits it admirably to educational reform efforts. In coming to feel more fully alive, many participants feel that they have come to know themselves in a new way. Whether this self-awareness outlasts the group effort is not entirely clear. There is evidence that the European Wanderjahr experience, or its American equivalent, the Junior Year Abroad, can be considered a mechanism for defining identity.

Why do temporary systems work? Miles suggests that focused goals make appropriate behavior highly visible and promote a special kind of interdependence among group members.

The consequences of temporary systems are these: They maintain and support the person, they solve problems and they do bring about change .62

Some Problems Inherent In Relatively Short Intensive Face-To-Face Teacher Education Experiences

What are the problems that flow from temporary systems? The first and biggest problem for a group of hard-working enthusiasts electing to stay together for common work is information overload. Training programs typically transmit far too much information. Although in the area of “brainwashing” this might be considered effective, in the area of teacher training it may prove disastrous. Participants become numb with stimuli. They complain of fatigue and often discover that they are “burned out” by the end of the training phase. Planners of training programs must address the problem of overload if they are not to waste a great deal of the time and energy of the participants.

Pull Quote

“Training programs typically transmit far too much information. Although in the area of “brainwashing” this might be considered effective, in the area of teacher training it may prove disastrous. Participants become numb with stimuli. They complain of fatigue and often discover that they are “burned out” by the end of the training phase. Planners of training programs must address the problem of overload, if they are not to waste a great deal of the time and energy of the participants.”


Unrealistic goal setting is the second consequence of the euphoria that pervades the temporary system. Participants believe that they can do “anything.” Utopian planning inevitably leads to failure, due to unrealistic expectations. Lack of interpersonal skills on the part of participants in temporary systems is another common pitfall. With such a short time to be together, it behooves those who are together to know how to work together.

When the group finally disbands, its members return to the larger “real” world. The smoothly working relationships which may have characterized the smaller group often evaporate in the larger.

One may be seduced into the assumption that ideas or innovations developed in the temporary system can be carried over bodily to the permanent system, forgetting the fact that the temporary system may have been created precisely because of the permanent systems’ inability to tolerate such ideas.

Being aware of the dysfunctional aspects of temporary systems seem especially important when the next step after an intensive summer is that of internship. In the school to which the intern goes, there may be many elements which the training was framed to avoid. Interns need to be prepared carefully for the inevitable assault of reality on their carefully crafted fantasies. Choosing as a training model the temporary system offers some interesting and novel challenges to Montessori training groups.

The training programs of the future will focus on a reformulation of Montessori’s original insights. The area in which there appears to be the greatest hope for doing this is in that of elementary education. To the degree that McDermott’s criticism of Montessorians holds, and the importance of the culture in which the individual child lives is deemed unimportant in the evolution of the child’s consciousness, the need to rethink training will seem unnecessary. To the degree that training programs are committed to the ritual behaviors with materials as the Montessori method”, there will be little change in their formats or emphases.

A new perspective, phoenix-like, is developing on Montessori training. It will no more be denied than was the American impulse of twenty-five years past.

Montessori, Maria The Montessori Method. New York: Schocken, 1964
Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976 p. 67.
Ibid., pp. 133.
Ibid p. 242
Ibid, pp. 272-3
Ibid, 1. 179
Montessori Method, p. 37
Ibid., p. 36
Ibid,. p. 35
McDermott, John, Montessori and the New America. In Building the Foundations of Learning, New York; American Montessori Society, 1963.
Ibid., p. 14
Ibid., p. 18
Ibid,, p. 19
Montessori, Method, p. 28
Kramer, op. cit. p. 27.
Montessori, Method, p. 41
Kramer, op. cit. P. 27
Ibid., p. 32
Ibid., p. 37
20. Rambusch, Nancy M. The American Montessori Experience. American Montessori Society Bulletin, XV, 2, 1977. p. 9.
21. Ibid., p. 17.
22 . Dewey, John. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York. MacMillan, 1916, p. 232.
23. Hunt, J. McV. “Introduction” in Montessori, Method.
24. Elkind, David. Child Development and Education: A Piagetian Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 50.
25. Montessori, Method, p. 108.
26. McDermott, op. cit. p. 17.
27. Hunt, op. cit., p. xxxiv.
28. Montessori, Method, p. 60
29. Hunt, op. cit., p. xxxiv
30. Montessori, Method. P. 34.
31. Montessori, Maria. Pedagogical Anthropology. New York: Stokes, 1913. p. 26.
32. Montessori, Maria. Spontaneous Activity in Education. New York: Schocken, 1965, p. 130.
33. Ibid, p. 130
34. Ibid.
35. Ibid. pp. 127-8
36. Montessori, Method, p. 72-3
37. Ibid. pp. 108-9.
38. Ibid. p. 229.
39. Montessori, Method, p. 160.
40. Montessori,PedagogicalAnthropology, p. 23.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid, p. 24
43. Montessori, Pedagogical Anthropology, p. 23
44. Ibid.
45. Gearing, Frederick 0. Anthropology and Education in Honigmann, John J. (ed). Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1974, p. 1226
46. Ibid., p. 1227
47. Ibid.
48. Geertz, Clifford, Thick Description: Toward an Integrated Theory of Cultural
Anthropology, The Interpretation of Cultures. NY: Basic Books p. 4.
49. Durkheim, Emile, Rules for Explanation of Social Facts, Bohannan, P. and Glazer, M.
(eds) High Points in Anthropology. NY: Alfred A. Knopf pp. 233.
50. Montessori, Method, pp. 86-87.
51. Kramer, op. cit. p. 67.
52. Miles, Matthew (ed) On Temporary Systems in Innovations in Education NY: Teachers College, Columbia U. 1964. p. 438.
53. Ibid. p. 441.
54. lbid. p. 442.
55. Ibid. p. 446
56. Ibid. p. 451.
57. Ibid. p. 452
58. Ibid. p. 455
59. Ibid. p. 457
60. Ibid. p. 458
61. Ibid. p. 460
62. Ibid. p. 461

This article was first published in The Constructive Triangle, the former journal of the American Montessori Society (AMS Teachers’ Section), in the summer of 1978 (Vol. V, No. 3). We want to thank the American Montessori Society for giving us permission to republish it in Montessori Leadership.