The Concrete Materials Part 1: Important attributes of the manipulative materials

Maria Montessori designed her manipulative materials to meet specific developmental needs of children as they progress through the sensitive periods of development. These sensitive periods are also recognised in current research on brain development. Furthermore, Montessori’s holistic and child-focused perception of education and learning corresponds with the expectations and requirements of the National Quality Standard (NQS) and the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF). As such, Montessori’s method is still applicable and relevant to the education of children today.

Important attributes of Montessori manipulative materials

All of Montessori’s manipulative materials are designed to teach or introduce an abstract concept in a concrete way. This visual, sensory, and hands-on approach to learning enables the child to explore the materials in a way that is appropriate for their developmental stage (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; Kramer, 1988; M. Montessori, 1912). Each material has a relationship with later materials in some way, building on what was learnt with one activity with another later on (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; M. Montessori, 1912). The Sensorial curriculum covers all the senses—tactile, gustatory, auditory, thermal, baric, chromatic, olfactory—providing the child with a rich array of learning experiences to teach a love of learning and develop all aspects of the brain’s capabilities (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; M. Montessori, 1912).

To develop the brain’s potential, Montessori’s manipulative materials have several specific features. These features allow the child to work with the materials without much input from an adult, enabling them to explore and learn at their own pace with control over their own learning (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; M. Montessori, 1912). The materials have an in-built control of error so that the child can see if the activity is completed incorrectly (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). For example, if the brown stairs are not graded correctly, the stair appearance will not be achieved. Isolating a single quality aids the child to focus on that quality and not be distracted by other features (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). The colour of the brown stairs, pink tower, or knobless cylinders remains the same whilst the size changes, as size differentiation is the lesson being taught. The Montessori materials require active involvement rather than passive observation (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). Movement, spatial awareness, problem solving, and gross or fine motor skills combine to assist in learning. Finally, the materials are attractive to the child, with mathematical proportions that are aesthetically pleasing, uniformity of beautiful colours, and colour coding that also assists with organisation (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007).

The Geometric Solids

The Montessori manipulatives prepare the child’s mind for academic thought and processing through teaching the child’s senses to isolate a characteristic and hone their observation skills (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). They improve thinking, problem solving, and visual discrimination skills through distinguishing, organising, sorting, classifying, and matching (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). All of these activities are preliminaries for reading, writing, and mathematics, preparing the mind for the sensitive periods of these learning opportunities (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). The materials provide “feedback” to the child, with the patterns and solutions stored in memory to be utilised by the child’s imagination in the form of new ideas and answers (Chisnall & Maher, 2007). Montessori designed these materials to be a link between concrete experience and abstract thought and reasoning, better to absorb learning (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; Kramer, 1988; M. Montessori, 1912). Furthermore, she designed her materials to assist the child in the development of their personalities into “… mature and independent adulthood” (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 31).

Mario Montessori believed that this last aspect of the Montessori materials is usually disregarded when considering their attributes (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). He explained that some believe the Montessori materials are considered too rigid to assist in the unconstrained development of the child’s personality, while others view them as limited and deficient in meticulous systemisation (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). However, Mario recognised that the Montessori materials play a significant role in children’s learning through. He identified two main purposes of the materials—to extend the child’s internal development and to assist the child to obtain new understandings of the world through exploration (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). They sharpen the child’s powers of observation and how to use this gathered information, and he believed that each material also “… challenges the intelligence of the child, who is first intrigued and later fully absorbed by the principles involved” (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 36). Once the principle has been internalised and mastered by the child, they then apply this knowledge to the use of other objects (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). Mario Montessori goes on to identify the “guiding instincts” or “inner directives” that drive humans to learn and progress, linking them to the sequences (or developmental planes) of development and maturation (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 33). Moreover, he highlights Montessori’s theory of “the absorbent mind” as a developmental tool that children are equipped with but adults are not (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 33). He highlighted that the materials do not teach the “factual knowledge” but rather enable the child to recognise their own knowledge, which in turn expands the child’s faculty for additional learning (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 36). Consequently, Maria Montessori named this process “materialized abstractions” (Haines, Baker, & Kahn, 2000; M. Montessori, 1912; M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 36; Röhrs, 2000).

Blackfriars Public School Montessori Methods, 1910

Reference List

Chisnall, N., & Maher, M. (2007). Montessori mathematics in early childhood education. Curriculum Matters3(23), 6.

Haines, A., Baker, K., & Kahn, D. (2000). Optimal Developmental Outcomes: The social, moral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions of a Montessori education.

Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori MethodEnglish (Second). New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.

Montessori, M. M. J. (1976). Education for Human Development: Understanding Montessori. New York.

Morrison, G. S. (2007). Early Childhood Education TodayEarly childhood education today (Tenth). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Röhrs, H. (2000). Maria montessori (1870-1952), XXIV(1), 1–12.

History of Montessori’s influence in Australia Part 2: How Montessori’s educational ideas have impacted the wider educational context

At Montessori’s first international training course in 1913, she described the restricting social conditions for children at the time (Feez, 2013). She presented the attendees with the notion of freedom with limits, describing the materials and conditions of her methods, as well as the way a Montessori directress should interact with individual children and their needs (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). Twenty-first century Montessori student teachers still follow a very similar course of topics to that of the first lectures, and her material presentations are just as appealing to modern day children across the globe (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013, p. 108) declared that Montessori training has the same effect now as it did back then in that it “… has a lasting influence on the way people interact with children, and prepare learning environments for them, no matter the context and prevailing wisdom.”

Blackfriars Montessori school, 1913

Although Montessori’s influence was starting to decline in educational leadership circles in the late 1930s, there were some diligent believers who quietly continued their work, such as Norma Selfe (Feez, 2013). There were also still Australians travelling to Rome to learn from and participate in Montessori’s training courses (Feez, 2013). Aside from kindergarten and state infant school teachers, some of the teachers who worked alongside Lillian de Lissa and Martha Simpson were known to have continued their work in the Montessori education field (Feez, 2013). Furthermore, some Montessorians opened private schools across Australia, or were involved in the areas of child health or religious orders (Feez, 2013). Some of these known or significant contributors are described further by Feez (2013). Moreover, Feez (2013) declared the work of these dedicated Australian Montessorians made an impact internationally from the beginning.

Feez (2013, p. 14) marvelled that “… for over a century, and across the world, the Montessori approach has resisted obsolescence, making it an oddity among the educational choices available to parents and teachers today.” In the Montessori schools of the past and present, children are taught how to be independent contributors to society, where this independence is the foundation of their freedom (Feez & Sims, 2014; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984) and where children are “… free to follow their true nature and to learn through their own effort.” (Feez, 2013, p. 15). Children are considered active learners, understood to be developing in a series of stages, through use of a specially designed environment to assist their progression (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). Furthermore, that exploring a concept first in its concrete form is vital for foundational learning (Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). These ideas can still be seen in a variety of early childhood settings today, whether Montessorian or not (Simons & Simons, 1984). Children are being given more choice in their basic educational needs, and their development through learning stages recorded in detail. This idea of observing a child’s development stems from Montessori’s scientific observations she employed during her time as a medical student (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Simons & Simons, 1984).

It was Montessori’s belief that these observations were the basis of a Montessori teacher’s work (Feez, 2013; Montessori, 1912). Montessori thought that observing children in the strict, traditional settings of the past could not uncover the truth of each child (Feez, 2013; Montessori, 1912). However, some of the more detailed methods for observing children’s development from the original 1913 training course are no longer used (Feez, 2013). These incredibly precise analyses arose from Montessori’s medical experience at the University of Rome’s Psychiatric hospital (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). They were, however, ground-breaking at the time in that they focussed the educator’s attention on children’s developmental and social needs, presaging the way twenty-first century educators plan individualised learning programs across a diverse range of educational fields and age ranges (Feez, 2013; Simons & Simons, 1984).

Blackfriars Public School, c.1913

Possible reasons why the Montessori approach is not more widespread in Australia

Social conditions during the depression worsened, resulting in increases of infant and maternal mortality, poor health and sanitation, unemployment, homelessness, and overcrowding (Feez, 2013). Free kindergartens and infant schools became safe places where children received care as well as an education (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) noted that the disparity between infant schools and kindergartens became hard to differentiate between at this time as well, so phrases such as early childhood education and preschool became more evident. However, Feez (2013) also acknowledged that there was still a distinct separation between education and childcare. Due to the severity of social and financial conditions, these centres had to reduce staff and resources, which Feez (2013) posited could be a reason for the decline in the Montessori vs. Froebel debate, and the popularity of both.

When the 1937 international New Education Fellowship Conference was held in Australia, the most popular papers and presentations were by “… the new leaders of the progressive education movement, the educational psychologists and psychoanalysts promoting play as the basis of children’s intellectual and social development” (Feez, 2013, p. 107). Although the start of the New Education Fellowship in 1921 was originally inspired by Maria Montessori, and 1937 was the Froebel centenary, there was not much interest shown in either of these educational fields at the conference (Feez, 2013).

Feez (2013) also identified a shortage of trained Montessori teachers as a significant limiting aspect for Montessori education’s reach. She links this to “… the tyranny of distance …”, made worse by teachers leaving the unstable working conditions of small schools for greater security in their careers (Feez, 2013, p. 134). Moreover, Simons and Simons (1984) posited that Montessori teacher training is not up to modern standards of teacher education. This limitation could possibly deter people from undertaking the training. Additionally, Murray (2008) declared that access to Montessori teacher training is limited.

While access to pure Montessori education is still somewhat limited for families in twenty-first century Australia, there seems to be a resurgence in some of its principles, which Lillian de Lissa already remarked upon in 1955 (Feez, 2013). On reflection of the educational ideas of the past, she observed that rather than being outdated, they could have been understood as radical and enlightened thought if worded in more modern phraseology (Feez, 2013). However, it can still be difficult for parents to identify the degree to which a centre is Montessorian, adding to the confusion about what Montessori education actually is (Murray, 2008).

Lastly, limited or misinterpreted understanding of the true nature of Montessori education is another possible limitation (Murray, 2008). Analyses of Montessori education by Simons and Simons (1984) outlined many misunderstandings that are often stated in regard to the field. For example, they argued that the “… classroom environment is frequently impoverished, rigid, and rule-bound” and that “music, dance, drama, literature, and poetry are neglected” (Simons & Simons, 1984, p. 44). This narrow idea that Montessori education is too suffocating of children’s creative potential seems to be a common view in modern society.

Summary of Parts 1 and 2

Montessori’s ideas had a significant impact on Australian education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The concepts of liberty, freedom and independence appealed strongly to the post-invasion, democratic Commonwealth ideals of Australia’s past. The advocacy of a few sparked a tidal wave of educational reform that gradually diminished with the rise of progressive New Education after the war. However, her philosophies continue to influence early childhood education today, whether in Montessori classrooms or otherwise. While there is still limited access to pure Montessori primary and secondary schools, there appears to be increasing interest in Montessori early childhood education. Whether there is a resurgence or not, Dr Maria Montessori left a legacy that changed Australia’s educational history for good.

Reference List

  • Feez, S. (2013). Montessori: The Australian Story. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.
  • Feez, S., & Sims, M. (2014). The Maybanke Lecture 2014 (pp. 1–58). Sydney: Sydney Community Foundation.
  • Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.
  • Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori MethodEnglish (American E.). Radford: Wilder Publications.
  • Simons, J. A., & Simons, F. A. (1984). Montessori and Regular Preschools: A Comparison. Urbana.

History of Montessori’s influence in Australia Part 1: Beginnings of the Montessori movement in Australia

Montessori’s libertarian philosophies about education impacted significantly on nineteenth and twenty-first century Australian history, at a time of social reform and a desire for democracy. That impact has remained, even though the Australian educational field moved away from authentic Montessori methods in favour of the New Education Movement.

“Australia in the 1890s was in the midst of an economic depression” (Feez, 2013, p. 42). As such, educated women that were committed to social reform established free kindergartens for poor children, including training teachers (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). These women aimed to improve living conditions for the poor, alongside the government’s increasing reformation of primary school education to control child labour and care for neglected children (Feez, 2013). The kindergartens (based on Froebel’s theories of play-based learning) differed greatly from the teacher-directed rote-learning for the masses of infant classes originally established to relieve congestion in schools (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). Nevertheless, Feez (2013) stated that by the 1890s and beginning of the twentieth century, variations of Froebel’s pedagogy were evident in the infant school pedagogies.

Commonwealth Free Kindergarten in Bettington St, Millers Point, c.1910

Like Froebel, Rousseau and Pestalozzi, Montessori’s methods place high significance on the freedom of the child (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). However, many identify more similarities with the works of Itard and Séguin (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Simons & Simons, 1984). Understanding these approaches and their similarities with Montessori education assists in comprehending the appeal of liberty-based education in twentieth century Australia (Feez, 2013). Independence and freedom, as well as being fundamental philosophies of Montessori and Froebel education, are also significant ideologies of Anglo-Australian culture since European invasion and settlement with a focus on democracy and social reform (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). As such, these aspects of Montessori education appealed to the twentieth century educators and continue to motivate parents and teachers to this day (Feez, 2013; Simons & Simons, 1984). Educators discovered that the progress children made through the liberty they were given could easily be transferred to other contexts, providing a real channel for children’s independence (Feez, 2013).  “The Montessori system offered a program of reform to a reform-minded age …” (Kramer, 1988, p. 154).

Reverend Bertram Hawker of South Australia seems to have been the first Australian to see the Montessori system at work in a Casa dei Bambini in Rome (Feez, 2013). Hawker was a notable philanthropist and social reformer, helping the poor in Adelaide and London (Feez, 2013). Through his observations of children in kindergartens, he resolved that play was integral to children’s social, cultural and moral development (Feez, 2013). Consequently, Hawker invited Frances Newton (principal of the Sydney Kindergarten Training College at the time) to Adelaide to assist in starting the South Australian free kindergarten movement (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). Lillian de Lissa accompanied her mentor, Frances Newton, in delivering lectures and presentations on kindergarten methods at Hawker’s home and the Exhibition Building (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007).

In 1911, Hawker visited a Casa dei Bambini and met Dr Montessori (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). These experiences had such a strong impact on him that he remained in Italy before returning to England and founding their first Montessori classroom, in his own home (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). He then established the Montessori Society of the United Kingdom in 1912, with much of London’s early childhood sector later teaching or advocating Montessori’s methods (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). On Hawker’s return to Adelaide in March 1912, he imparted his new passion for Montessori’s methods to Lillian de Lissa, who subsequently returned to Sydney later that year to see the Blackfriars experiment, travelling on to to Rome for the 1914 Montessori course (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009).

Blackfriars Public School - staff (Margaret Simpson middle row, 3rd from left), 1919

Feez (2013) identified Martha Margaret Mildred Simpson as the educational leader who seems to be the earliest and most prominent advocate for Montessori education in Australia. She had opened an experimental classroom at Blackfriars School in New South Wales by mid-1912, influencing the spread of Montessori philosophies throughout Australia (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Feez (2013, p. 39) noted, however, that a possible contributing factor to the success of the Blackfriars experiment was that “the first Australian Montessorians were trained and experienced teachers …”

Simpson travelled to Rome during the first international Montessori training course in 1913 to meet and learn from Montessori herself, remaining there two months (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Four other experienced and trained Australian teachers also attended the course that year—Rhoda Selfe, Norma Selfe, Ruby Starling and Harriett Emily Barton (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Ruby Starling had been persuaded by Reverend Hawker to attend Montessori’s course after meeting him and visiting his school (Feez, 2013). In 1913, Montessori’s training course and methods were frequently featured in Australian newspapers, including mention of the four Australian women attending the course at the time (Feez, 2013; Feez & Sims, 2014).

Feez (2013) suggested that the students returning from Montessori’s 2013 course would have been filled with hope and passion for what they had learnt. However, she also stated that the epoch they were returning to was “… far less attuned to their enthusiasm for educational reform based on liberty” (Feez, 2013, p. 88). Upon their return to Australia, the Selfe sisters gained employment as Montessori early childhood teachers, with Rhoda at Blackfriars and Norma at North Newtown Public School (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). However, they did not approve of the way Martha Simpson had adapted Montessori’s methods, so chose to resign to open their own school rather than be moved to rural positions (Feez, 2013). They opened Warwick Montessori School in Ashfield, New South Wales in 1915, starting with 24 students and operating successfully for six years (Feez, 2013).

Ruby Starling, conversely, returned to the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales, opening their first experimental Montessori School in Pyrmont in 1915 with 12 students (Feez, 2013; Feez & Sims, 2014). Ruby’s school (dubbed ‘The Little Brown House’) was also a success, doubling in size over the next nine months, and requiring a waiting list (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013, p. 94) noted that with anti-German feelings raging due to the war, it was a “politically astute” move at the time by the Union to overshadow Froebel’s methods with those of Montessori. However, after family and societal tragedies during the war, Warwick Montessori School closed and The Little Brown House resumed its Frobel-inspired methods, later being renamed ‘Maybanke’ (Feez, 2013).

Montessori Teaching Staff (possibly from Blackfriars Montessori School)

Neither Rhoda Selfe nor Ruby Starling appear to have taught Montessori education after the closure of their schools (Feez, 2013). Norma Selfe, in contrast, started a Montessori class at the Havilah Church of England Children’s home where she and Rhoda had been volunteering after their school’s closure (Feez, 2013). Norma was employed as the Kindergarten Leader by 1924, and utilised Montessori’s methods there until 1948 (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) alleged that Norma’s Montessori Kindergarten class was possibly one of the most longstanding Montessori classes run by the same teacher in Australia’s centenary of Montessori Education.

After Lillian de Lissa’s introduction to Montessori education by Reverend Bertram Hawker, de Lissa explored the methods further through visiting various classes and schools across the globe and attending the second international training course in 1914 (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). On her way back to Adelaide from the training course, de Lissa visited Perth to present lectures on Montessori’s methods, which had a profound and immediate effect on their teacher training and kindergarten programmes (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). In 1915 de Lissa started trialling the Montessori method in the free kindergartens of Adelaide, and gave lectures for the training college (Feez, 2013). By 1916, the Franklin Street Free Kindergarten was a Montessori Children’s House (Feez, 2013). It was such a success, de Lissa subsequently implemented Montessori’s methods at the Bowden and Halifax Street kindergartens too (Feez, 2013). In 1917 de Lissa returned to England to accept the position of first principal at the Gipsy Hill Training College, where she remained for 30 years (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009).

Although de Lissa returned to England, her mark on Australian early childhood Montessori education would continue to grow (Prochner, 2009). After the great success of her experimental Montessori classrooms, the program was expanded until all of the Adelaide free kindergartens were Montessorian, and the training college had become the Kindergarten Montessori Training College by 1920 (Feez, 2013). College Montessori School was opened as a private school on the new premises of the training college in North Adelaide in 1918 (Feez, 2013). A graduate of the training college, Helen Jenkins, opened Sydney’s first private Montessori school in Croydon in 1920 (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) identified that the Montessori program of the Kindergarten Union of western Australia was also expanding during the early 1920s. In 1922 they transferred the training college to West Perth and started a model Montessori kindergarten for children of three to eight years of age (Feez, 2013).

Reference List

  • Feez, S. (2013). Montessori: The Australian Story. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.
  • Feez, S., & Sims, M. (2014). The Maybanke Lecture 2014 (pp. 1–58). Sydney: Sydney Community Foundation.
  • Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.
  • Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method. English (American E.). Radford: Wilder Publications.
  • O’Donnell, M. (2007). Maria Montessori. (R. Bailey, Ed.). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Prochner, L. (2009). A History of Early Childhood Education in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Vancouver.
  • Simons, J. A., & Simons, F. A. (1984). Montessori and Regular Preschools: A Comparison. Urbana.