At the turn of the century Dr. Maria Montessori, Italy’s first woman doctor, crafted a unique educational approach that stresses cooperative learning with an integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum. This Montessori approach provides a blueprint for the implementation of what Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and American philosopher John Dewey had posed only as theory: that education should be based on the implementation of a universal method which corresponds to the natural development of each individual child. Created before American public schools chose, in the 1920’s, the Henry Ford factory assembly line as a model (a model which persists in many schools to this day), Montessori schools believe that educational environments should neither feel nor look like factories. Montessori schools are created to look more like a home than an institution, and stress a community-based approach to learning.
Modern educational research supports the premise that children learn better working collaboratively than working alone. In the Montessori classroom the children discuss and collaborate with colleagues of their own choosing. These periods of discussion, the meeting of minds and sharing of ideas, is fundamental to the production of highly creative work. In such dialogues, children focus on each other’s ideas and build on them, a skill that that children develop increasingly with age as they come to take others’ perspective. Termed by educational researchers as “transactive dialogue”, these experiences benefit the child by building skills of inference and interpretation, key to moving beyond the literal and descriptive, and critically important to academic performance and problem-solving. In this way the children learn quickly and with such enthusiasm that new knowledge sparks and renews the learning process, creating the “touchstone effect”. Content and process merge, interrelationships become clear, and sensibilities are solidified.
The three-year cycle in Montessori classrooms provides the time for deeper friendships and the reuniting each year of friendships and relations that span a longer time period then conventional single-age groupings. Children are motivated to interact with each other, especially with friends, and they become motivated about learning when collaboration is an avenue for learning. These familiar peer groupings reinforce the positive results of achievement and support reinforcement that motivates the child to higher levels of performance. By placing the learning process in a context of highly desired social interaction, Montessori responds to the needs of children at this age and creates motivation for learning that is not dependent on external motivators like testing and grades.