'There exists only one real biological manifestation: the living individual, and it is toward single individuals that education must direct itself.'
Maria Montessori is one of the 20th century’s greatest champions of the well-being of children. Her ideas have directly and indirectly impacted the lives of countless children, and her influence on parents and educators is only growing.
If you read Maria Montessori, however, you’ll notice that she does not talk much about “children.” Rather, she speaks of “the child.” Not “children” as an aggregate, but “the child,” in the singular.
This usage is not accidental or insignificant but reveals something fundamental and deliberate about Montessori’s approach. It indicates a perspective that is both abstract—oriented toward that which is common and universal to the human child—and specific—oriented to the particular reality of each particular, individual human child.
Montessori is an abstract thinker and system builder. She has a deep emphasis on common developmental stages and isn’t shy about stipulating that such stages are universal to the (normal) human child. The power of her pedagogy arises in large part in its broad, sweeping integrations and far-reaching explanatory power.
And yet, Montessori is adamant that those stages of development are to be empirically observed, not imposed, and that they are valid precisely because they manifest over time, discovered in the actual experience of observing each unique child. However sweeping her theoretical framework, she champions foremost the observations that makes them possible, both for her and anew for each person who engages with her ideas. She points repeatedly to the data and invites her readers to look for themselves. In this way, in proposing a theoretical account of human development, she is neither losing the forest for the trees nor losing the trees by reifying the forest. The forest matters a lot, but it matters as a valuable perspective on the particular, individual trees that make it up.
Her advice to educators is not, at root, the advice to explore and adopt her theories. It is not a call to embrace wholesale her complex, integrated framework about the nature of human growth. Rather, it is a call to observe particular, individual children in all their uniqueness, and to discover for ourselves that which is common to the human child. Her pedagogy aids us in that discovery, but it is not and should not become the object of discovery. The object is the child—each particular child we observe, study, and love—and the successive stages of growth we see occurring over and over as we conduct our guided exploration.
Here is the point in her own words:
“The educator must be as one inspired by a deep worship of life, and must, through this reverence, respect, while he observes with human interest, the development of the child’s life. Now, the child’s life is not an abstraction; it is the life of individual children. There exists only one real biological manifestation: the living individual; and it is toward single individuals, one by one observed, education must direct itself.
“Education must be understood as the active help given to the normal expansion of the life of the child. The child is a body which grows, and a soul which develops. These two forms, physiological and psychological, have one eternal font, life itself. We must neither mar nor stifle the mysterious powers which lie within these two forms of growth, but we must await from them the manifestations which we know will succeed one another.”