Since I will consider any publicity good publicity, I am glad that Montessori's work is getting attention. I am happy that Dr. Kirkpatrick is largely supporting Montessori schooling. And I agree that the points he chooses to focus on are very beneficial to the individual, and the ability to lead an independent life. Those are some of the resons why I, and many others, have been involved in Montessori schooling for so many years. However, I have a problem with the way that Kirkpatrick tries to "brand" Montessori. I object to his inference that she was a closeted European socialist, because it simply is not true.
Most educational theorists (such as Dewey) largely based their practices on their philosophies, or on tradition (which often had little relation to reality). As a physician and surgeon, Montessori's work was a precursor to neuroscience, and she based her theories and practices on the actual anatomy and biology of the developing human being. Much of what Montessori discovered was misunderstood because her critics were educational theorists and were not scientifically trained in physiology.
To illustrate, puberty is a natural stage of development that does not commence because of the will of the individual, nor can it be commanded to begin by a parent or outer authority. Because the changes that take place in puberty are so obvious, everyone sees and acknowledges this stage. Through scientific observation, Dr. Montessori realized that the child undergoes a long progression of similar smaller stages (which had gone virtually undetected because no one was looking for them, and they are less perceptible). She realized that our traditional methods of education were in direct contrast to our biology. She discovered that the brain possesses mechanisms that allow children to learn certain things easily at different stages of development, and she made these subjects and materials available to students to match those optimal sensitive periods.
Further, because Montessori's lessons are broken down into concrete representations of academic concepts, the child can easily move from one concept to the next because the materials are in order of only the smallest isolation of difficulty. She broke down algebra, geometry, trigonometry, biology, botany, etc...into concrete experiments and found that CHILDREN ARE NATURALLY DRAWN TO THEM, and are "driven" to explore these concepts. Therefore, they needed very little instruction from the adult. Their natural inclination for repetition caused the development of strong neural pathways. This created an organized "filing system" within the brain that increased the ability to identify, classify and process new information, allowed for easier memory and retrieval of facts and experiences, aided creative problem solving, and strengthened critical thinking skills. Multi-aged groupings allow children to reinforce learning and formulate precise language, as students take leadership roles in the classroom. The child's vestibular systems, nervous systems, limbic systems, etc., all benefited from activities that matched their biological needs, just as offering the right nutrients benefits the body.
So, when Montessori talked about her method of education producing a new kind of civilization, she only meant that for the first time in history, human beings would be operating from an optimal state of health and wellness... physically, mentally, spiritually, socially, and emotionally.
Do I agree that the result of Montessori education would be a citizenry of individuals who are more responsible, creative, intelligent, independent, and able to choose their courses of action with more clarity? Yes, I do. Do I think that Montessori did not realize what she was proposing (as Kirkpatrick suggests)? Not for a second! She was very aware of the implications of her work. She defended her work from Mussolini, from progressive educational theorists, and even from many of her own supporters (who were overzealous and sometimes misrepresented her, or made their own alterations without proper attribution).
Maria Montessori was not a person who had an educational (or political) theory and THEN tried to invent a methodology that would allow for the realization of that theory. Rather, she observed a phenomenon that repeated itself in children in countries and socioeconomic settings from all over the world, and then she worked to find explanations and theories that accurately accounted for what she had seen. She did not want children to "work" or "labor" because of any affinity with socialism. She simply recognized the period in which the hand and the eye refines their connection, the need of intentional motor control for inhibiting primitive reflexes (which plays a role in learning disorders), etc. However, in her personal notes, she often wrote that her observations deepened her religious belief in the principles of free will.
So, while similarities between Dewey and Montessori may exist in word, they are largely incidental. It is one thing to talk about the independence of the individual, but it is quite another to invent a way to bring this about. Dewey did not test and refine experiments for more than 50 years, creating a system of education that: is not dependent on the talent or authority of any given teacher, responds to the precise stages of the individual developing human being ...and that also provides a rich multidisciplinary curriculum with absolutely NO GAPS in instruction, that can be replicated under any conditions because its based on our own innate biology, and a profound respect for life.
Maria Montessori was a woman ahead of her time. Rather than associating her with failed methodologies, her brilliant observations and contributions to the science of pedagogy deserve serious consideration on their own terms.