By Robert Gardner
February 3, 2012

My first encounter with the iconic Maria Montessori was as a young writer/researcher for TV station CHCH in Hamilton, Ont. I was in my twenties. I was fascinated by her humane approach to education and, apparently, the influence was profound.

I was working on an interview series with Donna Soble Kaufman and, as the researcher-writer on the program, I had to familiarize myself with the work of the great Italian educator. I was mesmerized by what I read. What Dr. Montessori had to say about the enormous capacities of the child stayed with me over the years.

Eventually my career path led me to formal academic study. Peculiarly, in my research at Ryerson, McMaster and the University of Toronto, I never heard Maria Montessori mentioned in any of my lectures. In my years at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (where I completed a doctorate in curriculum), the great Italian educator was completely ignored. I’ve wondered many times about that particular void and I’ve come to the conclusion that what Montessori demands is too difficult. It is far easier, for administrators as well as teachers, to simply create a set of lectures and to endlessly talk to a captive audience. We are paying a terrible price for taking that “easy road.”

It was during my teaching career at Ryerson that I had the chance to test Montessori’s concept of experiential learning. I was dissatisfied with the standard lecture format. It occurred to me that we extended adolescence far too long in a type of unforgiveable intellectual dependency. I sensed that students actually wanted to engage in activities that would test their ideas and skills in a real setting. They were tired of platitudes and untested theories. They wanted to work with colleagues in a collective act of creation.

At that time I revisited books about Montessori and I began to change the standard curriculum in all of the classes I taught. In a sense, I did not know—with any assurance—what I was doing. But the results were breathtaking and even inspiring.

In the television production classes, I gave the students a degree of autonomy they had never before experienced, and they thrived. Instead of arid exercises I allowed them to select from original scripts. I further encouraged them to choose roles in the television production for which they had aptitudes. Access was provided to necessarily limited production resources and stringent deadlines were set. Absenteeism dropped, skill levels rose, and students happily worked around the clock on projects that were completely of their design.

In my coordination of the internship program, I created a “self-management” model that treated the students as capable adults who could deal with accountability. Students actually found their own internships, negotiated with the host company, and set up a contract outlining expectations on the part of the student and the sponsor. The students had maximum autonomy with a minimum of supervision. However, expectations were high and the final report from the sponsor and the student disciplined the entire experience.

How Montessori’s Concepts Made the Greatest Difference in Class

It was in my media-writing classes, however, where Dr. Montessori’s concepts made the greatest difference. Students studied existing dramatic models and then were brought in touch with front-line writers from Los Angeles to actually have their work adjudicated by “readers” who were, themselves, accomplished writers. The results were explosive and profoundly encouraging. Suddenly we found that students in the classes were being hired on front-line shows as junior writers. They had absorbed the theory and the craft from masters in a type of aesthetic apprenticeship. They were stunned to find that their work was being looked at by people of the calibre of Peter Mehlman (Seinfeld), Michael Schwartz and Al Joiner (The Simpsons), and prominent writers from Canadian dramatic series.

The CTV television network was so impressed with the progress of the students that they placed under my direction the expenditure of $200,000. The money was available as part of what is called a “public benefit” when CTV applied to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) for an extension of their system. CTV felt that Canadian television needed more skilled dramatic writers and they decided that our program of study could meet that objective. With the new financial resources I hired professional writers to guest lecture and to review scripts. Contact was established with major shows in Los Angeles, and I set up a process where students would deconstruct existing series and then have their research assessed by writers on the shows they had analyzed. The students had never worked harder in their lives. They also felt confident and assured in their newfound, and profoundly tested, skills.

Recently I’ve been working with Clanmore Montessori School as an educational consultant, and I have become reacquainted with Dr. Montessori in a deeper way. The results have been two seminal articles for Dialogue Online. (Read “The Maria Montessori No One Knows” series, the most popular posts of 2011.) The first deals with Dr. Montessori’s reaction to having a child out of wedlock, and how she turned tragedy into triumph. The second follows Mario and Maria Montessori’s challenges when they were declared enemy aliens in wartime India. As part of my research I had the opportunity to look closely at the Montessori classroom experience and I have emerged from my practical experiences and my theoretical research with a deep conviction. I believe, completely, that Maria Montessori is the most important woman in history. I challenge my colleagues to nominate another candidate for this place in the whole range of development.

The Dialogue articles have clearly touched a nerve. The reaction has been amazing. There’s so much that we do not know about Montessori. Even today no one really understands her. Recently I had the opportunity to speak with very senior academic leaders and not one of them had any significant knowledge of Dr. Montessori. Myths abound and her system has been distorted out of all recognition.

A Revolutionary, But Bizarre, Figure in Education

That distortion, however, is completely understandable. By any measure Montessori is a bizarre creature. She was born in a conservative Italy when Queen Victoria was in the very middle of her reign. She was a friend of Alexander Graham Bell, the first female medical doctor in Italy, and a woman who continued to write and study until the very end of her life in 1952. She had a child out of wedlock, was abandoned by her lover, and forced to deny the existence of her son. She was a superstar in America and then she was ignored. She was considered a revolutionary figure in education, and then she was lampooned as out of date. Through all of this she focused her whole being on addressing the educational needs of the child as it moved towards autonomy. In this she was unrelenting and she accumulated a range of knowledge (through study and observation) that is almost superhuman. Only now is modern science coming to terms with her findings. The tragedy is that so much of what she saw so clearly has been forgotten and, continually, has to be rediscovered. Over and over again I see her insights regurgitated as astounding new information. Occasionally this “new information” was completely understood by Montessori in the early years of the twentieth century.

Her critique of education at primary, secondary, and—perhaps particularly— university, deserves reconsideration. In the field of pedagogy, I would insist that we are “error prone.” One of the best ways to set our professional compass, as educators, is to read (and re-read) The Absorbent Mind. It is pure Montessori: pugnacious, trenchant, disturbing and compelling. You cannot read this book without feeling that, even today, we are all wandering in the wilderness.

Some misguided souls think that Maria Montessori was somehow complicit with Mussolini in the educational system in fascist Italy, not realizing that Dr. Montessori spent the entire duration of the war in India as a “enemy alien” who was loved and admired by the people who, ostensibly, were her captors.

Others think that The Absorbent Mind was written early in the 1900’s, not realizing that it was published in 1949 when she was 79.

Ultimately, what I find fascinating is that Montessori is a truly tragic figure who was buffeted by life and alternately wooed and abandoned by her sometimes admiring public. Nothing of this diminishes the fact that she is a towering figure in the field of education whom we ignore at our peril. I suspect, though, that we will continue to rely on the jaded lecture model not realizing the energy that can be released when young people work in a cooperative way in tasks that have a recognizable relationship to real life.