Conversations in Management: Maria Montessori

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”

Maria Montessori.

Maria_MontessoriMore than sixty years after her death, Dr. Maria Montessori’s name is associated with over 30,000 schools worldwide. Each school that bears her name carries out a curriculum that adheres to the educational principles and practices she pioneered over 100 years ago. And Montessori was certainly a pioneer. Born on August 31, 1870 in a small Italian town, she studied engineering in school, but switched to medicine and became one of Italy’s first female doctors. With interests in both pediatrics and psychiatry, she focused her research on human development. In 1907 he had the opportunity to practically apply her clinical research when she opened the Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), a daycare for the children of working parents in a Roman slum redevelopment project. Through observation of the initially “unruly” children, she learned that given the opportunity, they preferred to engage in practical activities and to use educational materials she’d developed rather than toys. Almost immediately, Montessori downsized the classroom. She installed desks and chairs sized for the children and light enough for them to move. She placed her educational materials where they could be easily accessed. She created open spaces where they could come and go freely. She also added more practicality to the curriculum. Skills, including personal care, cooking, house cleaning, flower arranging and pet care all found a place. She found that letting the children work independently promoted autonomy and fostered self-motivation. In little time, the formerly unruly children began to exhibit self-discipline and to thrive. As four and five year olds began to read and write well before what was age typical, others took note. Soon another school opened and within a few years the program was flourishing internationally.

There’s obviously a lot to the Montessori model, but a few elements stand out. First is the belief that children develop by interacting with their environment. Montessori spoke of creating a “prepared environment.” A prepared environment is scaled to the child, facilitates activity, is attractive, ordered, clean and provides only the materials that support the child’s development.  Secondly, the model requires certain conditions for learning. These include student choice of activities, uninterrupted blocks of work time and a discovery model that lets students learn concepts by working with materials instead of direct instruction. Thirdly, the teacher is “decentered.” In this approach, the teacher is the keeper of the environment. The teacher’s role is to observe and, rather than lead activities, engage students from the periphery. Montessori believed that through this rich environment, children would become independent, responsible and motivated.

Those last three words—independent, responsible, motivated—are music to the ears of every supervisor, manager and leader. They describe the ideal employee. And it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that the three components of the Montessori model might well be applied to the workplace. Start with giving every worker a pleasant environment with the necessary tools to get the job done well. Create the conditions in which employees have uninterrupted time to work, where collaboration is facilitated—but not at the expense of individual effort. Finally, get out of the way. Make sure the conditions and environment are providing what is needed and then lead from the edge of the project instead of from the top. A simple substitution of the word child with employee in the Montessori quote tells a new story. If we’ve prepared the environment, created the conditions for success and then stood aside, our employees will do just fine on their own.      —Ebert

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