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Audrey Watters

Notes and Highlights from Bringing Montessori to America

21 min read

Bringing Montessori to America: S. S. McClure, Maria Montessori, and the Campaign to Publicize Montessori Education by Gerald L. Gutek and Patricia A. Gutek

the individual child’s liberty to realize his or her own self-development.

She would distinguish her scientific method of education from what she called the traditional old “ordinary schools” that had their students assimilate “content digested by others.”

In these schools, Montessori said, “students learned by studying much—teachers explained much—the students’ only labor was to accept the content of labor of those before them.”

In contrast, Montessori told her trainees to use the “method of practical science” in their teaching. The new teacher “does not give ready made thoughts but allows the child to make his own.”

Contrary to the individualized learning that would characterize the Montessori Method,

The only individualized part of the school day was the recitation, when a child was called upon to recite a previously memorized passage—able students, standing at attention, correctly responded to the teacher’s questions with answers they had previously memorized from the textbook.

if children did not perform the activities needed in their developmental sequence at the right time, they suffered the consequences of continual and cumulative impairment.

Montessori, who saw his findings as “the first attempts at experimental psychology.”

The child needed to be free to demonstrate what he or she wanted to do. Child freedom or children’s liberty to choose their work became a compelling part of Montessori’s method.

Anne George, the first American trained by Montessori as a directress, informed her readers in Good Housekeeping Magazine that Seguin’s premise that sensory training was the necessary first step in children’s intellectual and moral development profoundly shaped Montessori’s educational theory.11 Montessori would use some of Seguin’s training materials as prototypes for her didactic apparatus.

individual child’s independent self-learning, which she called “auto-education.”

Seguin and Montessori anticipated the contemporary Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is part of the education of children with special needs.

sensory learning

didactic apparatus

These Montessori learning materials would play a key, and sometimes contentious, role in the introduction of the Montessori Method to the United States by McClure and others.

“I wish to transform education into the experimental sciences,” she said, and “make it a science in itself.”

Montessori regarded her directresses as disciples and why she regarded deviations or revisions of her method as heresies.

Montessori directresses were told to accurately record each child’s weight and height weekly. These measurements formed an individualized empirical record, “a biographical chart,” that the team of teacher, pediatrician, and psychologist maintained for each child and shared with parents.

she cautioned that the scientific observation of children, though necessary, was not the same as educating them; it was rather a necessary guide to their education.

clinical observation

For clinical observation to produce valid findings about children’s development and behavior, it needed to be free from unnecessary adult constraints so children could act to achieve their own growth and development.24 The educator could then prepare a structured learning space (the Montessori school) with the materials (the didactic apparatus), opportunities, occasions, and encouragement for children to interact with the environment in an educative way.

In the correct educational environment, the child has physical freedom to move that in turn nourishes “inner liberty.”

the five underlying principles of which would become the Montessori Method:

(1) each child, as an individual, needs to be free to work at her or his self-development; (2) children experience major stages of development for which there are appropriate educational activities; (3) the methods and materials used to train children with mental disabilities could be applied effectively to normal, indeed to all, children, throughout the world; (4) the clinical observation and diagnosis of children was a necessary prelude to planning their education; and (5) instruction needed to be calibrated carefully to the major developmental stage a child was undergoing at a particular time.

Neither the articles in McClure’s Magazine in 1911–1912 nor Montessori’s lecture tour in 1913 emphasized the role the Montessori school might play for working mothers. Neither did they emphasize the method as an educational strategy to improve the conditions of the working poor. Rather, the American interpreters of Montessori framed their message to correspond to the educational aspirations of progressive middle-class parents who read McClure’s Magazine.

She did not want the classroom furniture to limit the children’s freedom of movement as in traditional schools.

“Exercises of Practical Life,” which became a standard part of the Montessori school curriculum for all children.

the Montessori’s principle of child independence was implemented in practice.

Children who were independent could become their own moral agents. Furthermore, the skills of health, hygiene, and manners were the necessary features of a civilized society.

The children, eager to learn new skills, would stay with a task, repeating it, until they had mastered it. Montessori concluded that children did not have to be forced to learn; if permitted to choose between work and play, they would choose work. Montessori concluded that when a “child fixes intense attention” on an activity and “pursues and repeats [it] many times—this is [the] basis for auto-education.”

The apparatuses were self-correcting, in that the child could proceed only if she was using it correctly.

The self-correcting aspect of the apparatus was based on Montessori’s belief that children would acquire self-discipline and self-reliance by becoming aware of their own mistakes and repeating a particular task until they had mastered

Visitors to Montessori’s school were impressed with the sight of children working independently with a didactic apparatus. Some left thinking that the apparatus was the core of Montessori’s method.

Although Montessori was constructing a rather profound philosophy, the articles in McClure’s Magazine did not probe or analyze her philosophy of education. Written to attract the widest possible audience, they focused on the method’s more concrete features: the Montessori school as a structured environment; children’s freedom of movement and choice; the didactic apparatus; and especially the success in teaching very early reading and writing.

Montessori resented its popularization and often attempted to correct the more popular accounts.

Montessori. McClure, particularly McClure’s Magazine, played a key role in creating this climate, which he would use as a launching pad for his concerted campaign to promote Montessori from 1911 through 1914. The publication of an English translation of The Montessori Method in 1912 was also important.

“The principle . . . of the Montessori school is the ideal principle of democracy . . . that human beings reach their highest development (and hence are of most use to society) only when for the growth of their individuality they have the utmost possible liberty which can be granted them without interfering with the rights of others.”

meant freedom from any kind of despotism, including that of parents and teachers, that kept individuals dependent.

“Any attempt to use the Montessori apparatus or system by anyone who does not fully grasp or is not wholly in sympathy with its bed-rock idea, results inevitably in a grotesque, tragic, caricature of the method.”

Throughout the introduction of the Montessori Method in the United States, in books like Fisher’s and in the articles in McClure’s Magazine, didactic apparatus was prominently featured. This fascination with and promotion of the apparatus carried with it a contradiction.

Fisher fell into the contradiction, which would imperil her relationship with Montessori, when she advised her readers, “The first thing to do, if you can manage it, is to secure a set of the Montessori apparatus. It is the result of the ripest thought, ingenuity, and practical experience of a gifted specialist who has concentrated all her forces on the invention of the different devices of her apparatus.”

NOTE: You can see the class differences here -- US vs Italy -- wherein the former found Montessori pitched to affluent parents (in this case who were encouraged to buy the apparatus)

Fisher then entered a region that would cause severe consternation to Montessori. Might Americans adapt or add to the Montessori apparatus? Since Montessori said that her method was still incomplete, Fisher reasoned that others could add to the method. After all, Montessori, herself, had added to and revised the apparatus that Seguin had originally developed. Fisher, to her peril, misread Montessori. Only Montessori would complete her method and others, trained by her, were to replicate, not change it.

Books such as Fisher’s Manual and Tozier’s articles in McClure’s Magazine left Americans with the impression that the didactic apparatus was at the core of the Montessori Method.

Montessori wrote a letter that was published in the London Educational Times Supplement that pointedly disassociated her work from Fisher’s book:

Fisher had broken a fundamental Montessori rule: the method was not to be implemented by following instructions in a simple manual, like Fisher’s; it could be implemented only by directresses that Montessori herself had trained.

Montessori’s injunction that teachers should maintain a biological and anthropological record of each child’s mental and physical development.27

Although not obvious at the time, Montessori and Holmes, like other professors of education, held different conceptions of the scientific method applied to education. Believing her method of education to be scientifically rather than metaphysically based, Montessori meant that it was derived from her clinical observation of children at their work. These observations could be organized into a method much like one used by physicians in diagnosing and treating illness. Successful learning activities in children, like successful treatments in medicine, could be replicated if the teacher was properly trained. Holmes and many other professors of education saw observation as a first step in using the experimental method in education.

group games were highly imaginative and symbolic, the Montessori school’s activities were geared to performing the work of real life.34

A charge raised repeatedly against the Montessori Method was that it failed to encourage children’s imagination and creativity. Froebel’s kindergarten philosophy emphasized encouraging children to learn by freeing their imagination through play, stories, and arts and crafts. Rejecting fantasy for reality, Montessori stressed the need for children to learn the practical skills needed in real life.

While teachers in conventional elementary schools took center stage in their classrooms, Montessori’s directresses were to quietly guide children to teach themselves.47

Montessori’s relationship to her trainees was that of the mother-leader and her students were her disciples. The word disciple is deliberately used here since that is exactly what Montessori expected—directresses who would be devoted to her and to her method.

George, who gained notoriety as the pioneer American Montessori educator, established the country’s first Montessori school at the home of Edward Harden in Tarrytown, New York, in October 1911.50 Her school, supported by Frank A. Vanderlip, exemplified the patronage of Montessori schools by wealthy individuals who supported the method.

Montessori claimed that she had discovered the universal laws of childhood development. George had observed that cultural and socioeconomic differences also had an impact on how children learned.

McClure’s campaign to popularize Montessori was most unusual for an educator and an educational method. Articles about educational methods typically appeared in educational journals, not popular magazines. Written by professional educators and professors, these articles were descriptive, evaluative, and cautious, not rave reviews.

“For the first time, I believe, in the history of educational thought, a new movement has come to the front through the medium of a popular magazine, instead of by means of a scientific treatise by a specialist in education, which would naturally have a limited appeal.

NOTE: Lots of parallels here between how Montessori became popular and how ed-tech did

Tozier deliberately highlighted the principles that would most appeal to middle-class, educated, progressive American parents: auto-education, children’s liberty, the use of didactic apparatus, and the almost spontaneous development of reading and writing. Many parents wanted something better for their children than the rote recitations, drills, rules, regulations, and discipline that they themselves had experienced in late–Victorian era schools.

Presenting Montessori’s alternative to teacher-dominated learning, Tozier told her readers that auto-education meant that the children were their own instructors, with teachers present to guide but not control the learning process.

Children needed to be in a preorganized structured learning environment, a Montessori school, stocked with the apparatus and materials that motivated them to learn. Remembering their own education, the progressive parent saw auto-education as a way in which their children could learn without being prodded or coerced.

For Montessori, the movement to independence not only means that the child has acquired a skill but also develops the moral value of staying with a challenge until it is mastered.

While progressive parents wanted their children to enjoy their promised freedom to learn, they also wanted them to acquire the literacy synonymous with middle-class economic and social success, the mastery of reading and writing.

Tozier’s emphasis on the Montessori Method being based on empirical observations of children fit well with the scientific method’s growing credibility among the educated public.

The claim that Montessori education would improve the human condition resonated well with those readers who supported the Progressive ideology. These Progressives believed that the application of the scientific method to government, society, health care, and education could and would make life easier, more efficient, and better.

Some progressive and kindergarten educators criticized Montessori’s emphasis on the child’s individualized self-learning, which neglected participation and socialization in the group.

“collective education.”

The graded school, heralded as an educational innovation, had replaced the one-room multiage school where instruction tended to be by individual recitations. Group learning, according to educational administrators, was more efficient and effective in that a group, using standardized textbooks, could be taught the same skill or subject at the same time.

By individualizing learning, Montessori limited the group’s educational role.


For the orthodox kindergarten educators who followed Friedrich Froebel’s Idealist philosophy, Montessori had seriously minimized the educational potency of the child’s imagination.

By the time of McClure’s promotion of Montessori education, the kindergarten, a nineteenth-century import from Germany, was well established in many American public-school systems.

Montessori materials, the apparatus, itself, corrected the child who would repeat the task until it was mastered.64

the availability of purchasing Montessori’s didactic apparatus to be used at home without the supervision of a Montessori directress and Montessori’s injunction that only teachers trained by her in the use of the apparatus could correctly use the method.

Montessori materials and didactic apparatus were being manufactured and sold in the United States, as they were in other countries, on a for-profit basis. Included in their purchase was a handbook on how to use the materials. In addition to this pedagogical dichotomy, there was an entrepreneurial commercial issue, which would eventually lead to troubled relationships between Montessori and American business people.

critics decried its commercialism.

The Bells and the Montessori Educational Association played a significant but an often unclear role in the introduction of the Montessori Method in the United States. The centerpiece of the introduction of Montessori education was Maria Montessori’s lecture tour in 1913, which was officially sponsored by the association.

one may well have grave doubts, about how it will go with ‘auto-education’ when Maria Montessori’s personality is removed.”

her view of the school as a laboratory

as a community setting, with broad social implications.

misquoted her.

By 1913, the use of motion pictures to illustrate lectures had become highly popular.

While his statement was important in giving Montessori even greater national attention, the power of the US Commissioner of Education was very limited. In 1913, the commissioner of education headed a bureau within the Department of the Interior. Rather than a policy-making office for education at the national level, the Commissioner and the Bureau acted as a clearing house on educational statistics, enrollment trends, and state expenditures for schools.

one has to wonder what John Dewey thought

how some parents had misinterpreted her idea of liberty.

The House of Childhood, the company that manufactured and sold Montessori’s didactic apparatus in the United States, was a pivotal financial issue with unfortunate consequences for the business relationship between Montessori and McClure. Montessori had authorized similar companies to manufacture her didactic apparatus in Italy, England, Germany, and China, but the United States posed special problems for her.4 The original American franchise holder of the House of Childhood was Carl Byoir, a young man from Iowa who first learned about Montessori education in the pages of McClure’s Magazine. Sensing a profitable financial opportunity because of American parents’ enthusiastic response to Montessori’s method, he acquired the franchise for the House of Childhood from Montessori in 1911.

Two aspects of the Byoir-Montessori relationship were unusual. One, the usually suspicious Montessori was agreeable and open to the young American businessman; two, the beginnings of Montessori education in the United States, unlike most other educational movements, were marked by profit-making commercial motives as well as pedagogical ones.

He was a public relations pioneer who worked for the Hearst organization and served on the Creel Committee on Public Information in World War I.

Because of the extensive publicity in McClure’s Magazine about the Montessori Method, allegations were made that the magazine’s owners profited from the sale of Montessori’s books and educational apparatus. A Montessori enthusiast raised these concerns with the editor of McClure’s Magazine, “I take the liberty of asking you whether anything you could say or do to refute the false idea that has been such a drawback of this wonderful system of education,—that it is only a money making scheme because patents have been taken out and the price of the materials used having been so high that only the rich can possibly obtain them.”

“This Company will have to be renamed and the name “Montessori” must be left out of the new title. Dr. Montessori does not allow the use of her name without her consent. So please give another title to the Company without using the name Montessori.”136

At the very time that Montessori education was being introduced to an American audience, Progressive education was starting to dominate teacher education programs in colleges and universities. As public enthusiasm for her method waned, professional educators, especially Progressive professors of education who adhered to John Dewey’s pragmatic Experimentalism, grew more openly critical of Montessori and her method.

Walter Halsey, a professor at the University of Omaha, decried Montessori’s method as a “fad promoted and advertised by a shrewd commercial spirit” that had been foisted on an ill-informed “novelty loving American public.”1 Halsey was condemning the entrepreneurial efforts to manufacture and sell Montessori didactic apparatus.

Kilpatrick summarily dismissed Montessori’s assertion that her method was based on scientific findings. Kilpatrick found her method was deeply flawed by her limited knowledge of contemporary educational psychology.

professor, the Montessori Method was definitely not innovative, modern, nor experimentally scientific.

The Montessori Educational Association, which had been organized in 1913 by McClure, Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell, and Anne George, was still functioning. McClure, a key mover in the association’s founding, was no longer active but continued as the association’s second vice president and as a member of the Board of Trustees. The Montessori Educational Association, with nearly seven hundred members including a number of prominent individuals, had functioned throughout 1914 and remained a presence on the country’s educational scene in 1915.

The ending of the uneasy relationship between Montessori and the Montessori Educational Association closes the curtain on the first phase of Montessori education in the United States.

She wanted it understood that as the Montessori Method’s originator and patent-holder, the method was legally hers alone. No local society would be allowed to use the name “Montessori” in its title without her expressed authorization.

and in April 1916, the Montessori Educational Association officially voted to dissolve.

Instead of acting as Montessori’s American surrogate, Parkhurst’s attention shifted to developing and promoting her own version of Progressive education, the Dalton Laboratory Plan.

Parkhurst, as a teacher educator, developed a plan for a reorganized school in which pupils, between eight and twelve, worked on a unit in a particular subject in educational laboratories. In this new type of school, pupils “would enjoy more freedom” and “their studies” would be organized into sections, or laboratories, in which “each instructor” would be a specialist.

Although Parkhurst’s aim to reorganize the school “so that it can function like a community whose essential condition is freedom for the individual to develop himself” had a Montessori-like resonance, she positioned herself as a Progressive educator rather than a Montessorian.

1920. In practice, the subjects in the curriculum were divided into units, or “jobs.” The student, who signed a contract to complete a particular job within a month, worked cooperatively with other students who had made similar commitments in an educational space, called a laboratory. Each student worked from a “job-book,” a guide with instructions, suggestions, questions, and activities related to the monthly contract.

Though taught according to Parkhurst’s Progressive method, the standard secondary curriculum—mathematics, history, science, English, geography, and foreign languages—required in most high schools and tested on college entrance examinations— remained in place.62 However, the co-relationship of subjects, such as literature to history and science to mathematics, was emphasized as integrated, not isolated, areas of teaching and learning. Based on her work at the Massachusetts school, Parkhurst renamed her method the Dalton Laboratory Plan.

Parkhurst’s ideas gained considerable popularity in the United Kingdom where they were implemented in several British schools.

Deciding that she would no longer delegate authority for Montessori education to others, Montessori, with her son, Mario, as her agent, established the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) in 1929 as the official organization to control and supervise all Montessori activities, including training programs, throughout the world.

The Montessori school would be located at the periphery of the public educational system but in the 1950s would gain a strong presence in private early childhood education.

By the mid-1950s, Progressive education, which had eclipsed the first attempt to introduce the Montessori Method in 1910–1920, was itself declining.

Gentile arranged a meeting between Mussolini and Montessori in 1924 at which the Duce expressed an interest in establishing Montessori schools. Mussolini was impressed by a method that instilled discipline and order and in which children learned to read and write at age four. He also wanted to use Montessori’s name and her associations and societies in other countries to promote his Fascist ideology.

In 1926, Montessori was recognized by the Tessera Fascista, the Fascist women’s organization, and made an honorary party member.

Mussolini, whose slogan was “Everything in the State, nothing against the State, nothing outside the State,” was determined to instill the Fascist ideology throughout Italy, including its schools and youth organizations.24 The Fascist regime was also tightening its control of Italy’s schools with all teachers required to take a loyalty oath.25

government responded to Montessori’s intransigence by closing Montessori schools and suppressing Montessori education.26 Maria Montessori left her native Italy as an exile.