It is a very thorough educational approach, which is now almost a hundred year old: an educational approach which is described as alternative, although it's a traditional education system in many countries (particularly in Nordic countries).
It is an educational approach which we are lagging behind in France, often because of ignorance but also because of a very rigid and monopolistic state system of education in our country (although we're not calling it a ""mammoth"", as some ministers have...). This is not an educational approach for the rich, disabled or autistic: it's an educational approach for all.
Help me to do it on my own
It's a little simplistic and impossible to summarise such an educational approach in a few words, but this quote from Maria Montessori is a rather clear introduction to the foundation of her educational approach. Maria Montessori was a great woman of her time: one of the first female doctors in Italy in 1896, she graduated with a degree in biology, psychology and philosophy and was also a psychiatrist. She was a real researcher and a scientist - not a teacher. And that's undoubtedly what helped her, because she had to start by unlearning, before learning by looking afresh!
It all began when she observed that the disabled children she was caring for were capable of great independence, self-discipline and concentration, provided that they developed in a suitable environment and used suitable materials (Montessori Spirit's reason to be). This revolution may seem simple enough at first glance and it may seem logical but it's not always applied today - all you have to do is look around. Her methods enabled children who were initially seen as disabled to develop better than "normal" children, consequently indicating a problem with the education given to so-called normal children!
The Montessori educational approach is therefore a set of principles which seem simple and obvious but which require us, as adults, to question many things which have been instilled in us, to make an effort to relearn, to stop our excessive interventionism (even if we want to do the right thing by helping children), because we must trust children as part of their own long-term learning process, we must let them flourish and discover things at their own pace, as they see fit: "a child is not a vase that we fill, but a source that we allow to flow".
However, don't believe that the Montessori educational approach causes anarchy by leaving children to their own devices! the role of the educator is essential: supporting children's development, helping them to become as independent as possible, giving them confidence, shaping their own personalities and listening to them by means of expert observation. Yes, with the Montessori educational approach, it's the educator who listens and observes! This enables them to better guide and encourage - but never to order because "to educate is not to train".
According to Maria Montessori, children go through various sensitive periods, phases of development which all children go through in their early years and which they will not experience thereafter. It is therefore necessary to respect these sensitive periods as much as possible in children who will not only ask for something of themselves, but will also be much more receptive and understand them much more deeply. That's the role of the educator (and of parents, too): to observe these different periods and respect them too.
This completely contradicts our traditional education system: children do not all learn the same thing at the same time! Some children walk before others, others speak at an earlier age... how could we make every child walk at the age of 1? Must all children be potty-trained at 2 years and 11 months, before starting nursery? Must all children talk at the age of 2? Should that be the law? No, they naturally develop at different rates, that's all (and yet the vast majority will end up being potty-trained, walking and talking). The real issue is quite simple: our system, which already struggles to manage "masses of children", cannot afford to treat children as individuals, in its current structure and form. Should the educational approach adapt to the system or vice versa? Children have different rhythms, without this making them "quick" or "slow", just as we adults have different rhythms in our everyday lives. It's important to respect them without any particular judgement.
This may seem contradictory - nevertheless, it's what this approach is all about. The Montessori educational approach doesn't involve leaving our little ones to create anarchy within a classroom as they see fit. The work of the educator and this educational approach all begins in the classroom: all materials are in sight and within reach of the children, thanks to customised furniture and careful preparations. There is only one item of each type, teaching children about sharing and respect for others and how to manage frustrations too. Children instinctively choose an activity they want to try from those made available to them. They know this activity, which has already been presented to them, they want to experiment and devote the necessary time to it.
The presentation which the children have been given and materials which offer endless opportunities for self-correction ensure that the children will identify mistakes themselves. They know that they have the right to start again and, more importantly, the right to make a mistake. This concept is fundamental: we don't criticise mistakes - the goal here is not to succeed but to experiment again and again and to improve. Who would want to try an activity again, having made a mistake and having been criticised? This just leads to fear of another failure, so children don't dare to try, let alone improve. If children succeed, however, there's no need for fanfare to congratulate them: they should be happy for themselves, not because the adult is happy. So just because your child's done a drawing (and because he/she is your child...), there's no need to call him/her a genius and exclaim "what a beautiful drawing!". Instead, ask him/her if he/she likes the drawing and what he/she wanted to show, for example.
It is more beneficial to act on the child's environment than on the child himself. Once again, we're back to the subject of an environment which has been carefully prepared and adapted. There's no point shouting at children because they have trouble moving an adult chair which is 3 times too big for them or when they can't get dressed on their own when there are 3 zips, 4 Velcro fastenings and 10 bows just to put their trousers on (or to take them off when going to toilet on their own, in a bid to toilet train them faster...).
Indeed, we don't shout and we don't just speak in a Montessori school: we speak quietly. Children will speak less loudly themselves, respecting the atmosphere and other people in it. We don't tell children to tidy things up, we put furniture within their reach and they will tidy things up naturally. If they make a mess but have materials which are adapted to their size and strength within reach, they will clean up after themselves as well. All of children's indirect actions are important, and go hand in hand with self-discipline and freedom, independence and fulfilment.
We've already pointed out that children have the right to make mistakes; they also have the right to start again simply because concepts have escaped them, despite everything, or because they want to see something in particular again. Who hasn't seen a baby drop a rattle 50 times (50 times? You're very patient parents - that's good...!). A paediatrician will tell you that children are already experimenting, they look at how an object falls, try to understand why and how, try to make it fall differently and start again until they have understood and assimilated the experience. It must be understood that children are faced with an adult world with adult concepts and that they are discovering them for the first time!
To appropriate this concept, children must experiment, using all their senses. They need materials which appeal to them with their beauty and colour and which are enjoyable to use. Children need to measure, weigh, compare and count to integrate these concepts and to make them their own. In Maria Montessori's view, children are capable of plenty on their own. They must be respected and left to experiment. By respecting children, children will also respect others; through socialisation, children can acquire inner discipline and self-confidence. These are essential experiences for the future: education in this sense is not just the sum of knowledge but a way of helping children to live.