The basic idea in the Montessori philosophy of education is that every child carries, unseen within them, the man/woman they will become. In order to develop his physical, intellectual and spiritual powers to the fullest, he must have freedom - a freedom to be achieved through order and self-discipline. The world of the child is full of sights and sounds that at first appear chaotic. From this chaos, the child must gradually create order, and learn to distinguish among the impressions that assail his senses, slowly but surely gaining mastery of himself and his environment.
Dr. Maria Montessori developed what she called the "prepared environment" which already possesses a certain order and disposes the child to develop at his own speed, according to his own capacities, and in a non-competitive atmosphere in his first school years. "Never let a child risk failure, until he has a reasonable chance of success," said Dr. Montessori, understanding the necessity for the acquisition of a basic skill before its use in a competitive learning situation. The years between three and six are the years that a child most easily learns the ground rules of human behavior. These years can be constructively devoted to "civilizing" the child - freeing him, through the acquisition of good manners and habits, to take his place in his culture.
The child who has had the benefit of a Montessori environment is freer at a later age to devote himself more exclusively to the development of his intellectual faculties. The method by which children are taught in the Montessori school might well be called "programmed learning." The structure of Montessori learning involves the use of many materials with which the child may work individually. At every step of his learning, the teaching material is designed to test his understanding and to correct his errors.
Dr. Montessori recognized that the only valid impulse to learning is the self-motivation of the child. Children move themselves toward learning. The teacher prepares the environment, programs the activity, functions as the reference person and exemplar, offers the child stimulations; but it is the child who learns, who is motivated through the work itself (not solely by the teacher's personality) to persist in his chosen task. If the Montessori child is free to learn, it is because he has acquired from his exposure to both the physical and mental order, an "inner discipline." This is the core of Dr. Montessori's education philosophy. Social adjustment, though it is a necessary condition for learning in a schoolroom, is not the purpose of education. Patterns of concentration, stick-to-itiveness, and thoroughness established in early childhood, produce a confident and competent learner in later years. Schools have existed historically to teach children to observe, to think, to judge. Montessori introduces children to the joy of learning at an early age and provides a framework in which intellectual and social discipline go hand in hand.
The American Montessori Society has emphasized the importance of Montessori insights for children and adults of all ages. Although children traditionally begin Montessori education at age three, the principles of self-motivated learning apply to all learning experiences. Modern learning research has confirmed the validity of the Montessori principles of programmed learning and the non-teacher (who does not distort or inhibit the learning experience). Many public, private, and parochial elementary and secondary schools are now utilizing this approach.