A Historical Perspective
Maria Montessori

Dr. Maria Montessori is extremely important to the historical development of experiential education because she was the first person to bring it to a model. In fact, she can be considered one of the founding mothers of experiential education. She was born in Chiaravalle, Italy in 1870. Her father, Alessandro, was a very successful government official. Her mother was a well-educated, patriotic, and wealthy woman (Smith & Knapp, 2011, p. 197). When Maria was five years old her family moved to Rome. This enabled her to have a better education and access to the museums and libraries throughout the city. As a child, she was considered optimistic, self-confident, and unafraid to interfere in her parents arguments. She was extremely intelligent and at the age of thirteen, enrolled in an all-boy technical school to prepare for a career as an engineer.

When she was ready to graduate from college with a degree in engineering, Maria had the idea that she wanted to study medicine at the University of Rome. However, at that time, medical schools in Italy, in particular the University of Rome did not admit women. Unwilling to give up on her dream, Maria decided to enroll at the University of Rome to study physics, math and natural sciences. By graduating with a Diploma di Licenza, she was eligible to enroll in the University of Rome’s medical program. Despite the fact that it was unprecedented for women to be accepted into the program, Maria persisted until she was accepted. Her research in medicine sparked her interest in studying special needs children and this interest set her forth on a lifelong journey in the field of education.

Her research in special education generated her theories that challenged the commonly held practice in education that children were ignorant and the teachers were the authority in the classroom. Montessori formulated her theories of how education needed to differentiate from this tradition by applying a learn-by-doing philosophy. In many ways, learn-by-doing served as precursor to contemporary experiential education. As noted in The Sourcebook of Experiential Education Smith and Knapp (2011), the Montessori method "is not unlike today where the ropes course facilitator encourages the student to immerse themselves in an unconventional educational learning environment, where emotional challenge, personal development and self-exploration abounds" (p. 206)? With an understanding that the traditional methods of education, in which the teacher was a supplier of knowledge to ignorant students was failing, Montessori was one of the first educators to realize that a holistic approach combining the use of the bodily movements and thoughtful learning activities served as a vehicle by which students could best learn.

One of the most important lessons that can be learned from Montessori is that individuals possess a desire to learn. Like Plato, Montessori believed that people have an inclination to want to understand their surroundings. While visiting an insane asylum, she noticed that the children didn’t have any toys or materials to play. She was troubled that these children lacked a path toward knowledge and understanding. The observations she made while watching these children made her realize that they had an affinity to want to learn. She believed that children not only have a desire to learn, but that on their own they are capable of acquiring vast amounts of knowledge about their surrounding environments. Montessori believed that children learned best when there were in a loose, hands-on environment (Smith and Knapp, 2011). According to Montessori, when children are engaged in learning they provide meaningful contributions to help the learning of others. By paying attention and observing their students, teachers could design learning to meet the needs of each student. This approach differed from traditional practices in that the teacher studied and observed the students rather than the other way around.

Also similar to Plato, she believed in "...the concept of mind, body and spirit were interconnected and that hands-on experience, learning and personal development were interconnected as well" (Smith & Knapp, 2011, p. 206). Learning has to be designed to enable children to explore their natural learning tendencies. Furthermore, she shared Plato’s belief that each child was born with a unique potential waiting to be revealed rather than being a blank slate for teachers to write.

Similar to how Plato’s learning theory required a skilled teacher to help students further understand theories and ideas, the Montessori method "...required a skilled teacher to put children in touch with the learning environment, encourage them to explore their own learning, challenge them to step beyond their self-perceived limitations, inspire them to make intelligent choices..." (Smith & Knapp, 2011, p. 206). Her philosophies centered on the notion that the teacher was the keeper of the learning environment, but not the center of it. She believed in the powers of group learning and group experiences echoed by Lewin and designed leanings so that when students studied math, reading and other academic subjects, the students taught each other in groups. It is worth noting that she believed students should work on whatever material they wanted to at any time and shouldn’t be restricted to working on math in math class. Thus, the importance of the learner is a common theme echoed throughout the establishment of experiential education as a learning methodology.

Montessori also shared Plato’s holistic views of education. Her methods promoted growth in a child’s physical, social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development by concentrating on a nurturing environment that lacked the rigors and demands of a traditional classroom setting (Smith & Knapp, 2011). Montessori put her developmental theories to work by designing school environments in a way that were most conducive to learning. One way in which she accomplished this was by establishing classrooms for cooking, art, gardening, and caring for animals. Children weren’t restricted to desks but rather could move freely from these different areas scattered in different classrooms and learn what they wanted to learn (Smith & Knapp, 2011). One way in which she promoted social development was by having multi-age group lessons and activities. Often times, older children taught lessons to the younger children. This process enabled the children to learn how to interact with others outside of their age cohort. Montessori’s classrooms for younger children had small furniture for children that made the learning environment less intimidating.

Montessori’s theories tie directly with the AEE definition of experiential education. Her teaching philosophies provided students with "direct experiences" through her learn-by-doing style. Montessori’s educational model required a skilled teacher to interact directly with the students and shape their experiences. Her methods enabled learners to gain knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values through hands on experiences.