Brain Research Supports Montessori Method

September 29, 2009
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“Spotlight the good and the good will grow”

According to Phyllis Wallbank, this was one of Maria Montessori’s most profound ideas. Children need positive remarks and attention and if parents are too busy to provide these in sufficient quantities, they will resort to behaving badly in order to get the attention that they need.

Founder of the first Montessori school in England in 1948, Mrs Wallbank says that brain research has shown that it is the frontal lobes that are active when a person is happy, thinking or speaking positively—the left side—and also when the person is depressed—the right side.

The frontal lobes are also that part of the brain that is active from the time we are born to the time we turn six. During this first stage of development as defined by Montessori, there are more brain cells there, than at any other time in our lives.

These cells absorb the child’s surroundings like a sponge, ensuring that he becomes part of his larger nationality and culture. They also mould him into the man that he will become, in accordance to the messages of love and attention, or neglect, that he receives as a result of his personal circumstances.

Children learn what they live. And later on in life, live what they have learnt.

Mrs Wallbank was speaking in Kuala Lumpur two years ago as part of her Montessori Centenary Lecture World Tour.  She was already in her nineties at the time but decided to go on the tour to pass along her first-hand knowledge about the Montessori method of education in light of recent brain research.

The Montessori method is based on Maria Montessori’s observation that there are four very distinct stages of development that we all go through:

•    Stage 1: from fertilisation to six years
•    Stage 2: from seven to 12 years
•    Stage 3: from 12 to 18
•    Stage 4: from 18 to 24

Movement plays a critical role in brain development during the first stage—the absorbent mind stage. Intelligence is developed through movement and children need to have freedom of movement at this age.

Sitting down to lessons just won’t do; rather, young children should be allowed to move around freely, on their own volition, and explore the objects and the world around them. Montessori suggests providing them with a variety of sensorial materials.

When children are between seven and 12 years of age, many of the brain cells in their frontal lobes die off as the early absorbent way of learning diminishes. Suddenly a larger world than their immediate environment opens up.

This is the age when children consciously want to learn and to have their questions answered. They thrive on the opportunity for occasional talks with people who are experts in their fields.

Repetition is very important at this age and the materials used should incorporate the childrens’ own interests. At Mrs Wallbank’s Gatehouse Learning Centre, subjects were not separated but were linked so that they became part of the whole.

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Stage 2 is also the action age for children, in terms of gaining physical skills and playing team games. They enjoy making up secret languages, laughing at jokes and telling riddles.

Adolescents from 12 to 18—Montessori’s Stage 3—struggle to cope with the intense emotional, behavioural and physical changes that are going on in their lives. This is a time when they feel especially vulnerable.

Latest brain research shows that the circuits that coordinate our behaviours are being remodelled during the teen years in preparation for adulthood. This is a period of great adjustment, with many of the cells that were active during the earlier years now dead, which explains why these previously polite and delightful children no longer seem to be so.

Montessori believes that children this age should do practical tasks for money and have plenty of opportunities for self-expression in occupations. They should study literature, have choral singing and play instruments, among other things.

This is the time that adolescents have to ask questions and discover for themselves what they really believe and who they really are. The main stages of development during this period are divided into two halves: 12, 13 and 14; 15, 16 and 17.

In these later years of the child, language is no longer learnt by absorbing but rather by conscious work in parts of the brain other than the frontal lobes.

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