A Celebration of Women Writers

"Chapter XII." by Maria Montessori (1870-1952), translated by Anne Everett George (1882-)
From: The Montessori Method (1912) by Maria Montessori, translated by Anne Everett George. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912. pp. 167-184.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 167] 



IN a pedagogical method which is experimental the education of the senses must undoubtedly assume the greatest importance. Experimental psychology also takes note of movements by means of sense measurements.

Pedagogy, however, although it may profit by psychometry is not designed to measure the sensations, but educate the senses. This is a point easily understood, yet one which is often confused. While the proceedings of esthesiometry are not to any great extent applicable to little children, the education of the senses is entirely possible.

We do not start from the conclusions of experimental psychology. That is, it is not the knowledge of the average sense conditions according to the age of the child which leads us to determine the educational applications we shall make. We start essentially from a method, and it is probable that psychology will be able to draw its conclusions from pedagogy so understood, and not vice versa.

The method used by me is that of making a pedagogical experiment with a didactic object and awaiting the spontaneous reaction of the child. This is a method in every way analogous to that of experimental psychology.

I make use of a material which, at first glance, may be confused with psychometric material. Teachers from [Page 168]  Milan who had followed the course in the Milan school of experimental psychology, seeing my material exposed, would recognise among it, measures of the perception of colour, hardness, and weight, and would conclude that, in truth, I brought no new contribution to pedagogy since these instruments were already known to them.

But the great difference between the two materials lies in this: The esthesiometer carries within itself the possibility of measuring; my objects on the contrary, often do not permit a measure, but are adapted to cause the child to exercise the senses.

In order that an instrument shall attain such a pedagogical end, it is necessary that it shall not weary but shall divert the child. Here lies the difficulty in the selection of didactic material. It is known that the psychometric instruments are great consumers of energy –for this reason, when Pizzoli wished to apply them to the education of the senses, he did not succeed because the child was annoyed by them, and became tired. Instead, the aim of education is to develop the energies.

Psychometric instruments, or better, the instruments of esthesiometry, are prepared in their differential gradations upon the laws of Weber, which were in truth drawn from experiments made upon adults.

With little children, we must proceed to the making of trials, and must select the didactic materials in which they show themselves to be interested.

This I did in the first year of the "Children's Houses" adopting a great variety of stimuli, with a number of which I had already experimented in the school for deficients.

Much of the material used for deficients is abandoned in the education of the normal child–and much that is [Page 169]  used has been greatly modified. I believe, however, that I have arrived at a selection of objects (which I do not here wish to speak of in the technical language of psychology as stimuli) representing the minimum necessary to a practical sense education.

These objects constitute the didactic system (or set of didactic materials) used by me. They are manufactured by the House of Labour of the Humanitarian Society at Milan.

A description of the objects will be given as the educational scope of each is explained. Here I shall limit myself to the setting forth of a few general considerations.

First. The difference in the reaction between deficient and normal children, in the presentation of didactic material made up of graded stimuli. This difference is plainly seen from the fact that the same didactic material used with deficients makes education possible, while with normal children it provokes auto-education.

This fact is one of the most interesting I have met with in all my experience, and it inspired and rendered possible the method of observation and liberty.

Let us suppose that we use our first object,–a block in which solid geometric forms are set. Into corresponding holes in the block are set ten little wooden cylinders, the bases diminishing gradually about ten millimetres. The game consists in taking the cylinders out of their places, putting them on the table, mixing them, and then putting each one back in its own place. The aim is to educate the eye to the differential perception of dimensions.

With the deficient child, it would be necessary to begin with exercises in which the stimuli were much more [Page 170]  strongly contrasted, and to arrive at this exercise only after many others had preceded it.

With normal children, this is, on the other hand, the first object which we may present, and out of all the didactic material this is the game preferred by the very little children of two and a half and three years. Once we arrived at this exercise with a deficient child, it was necessary continually and actively to recall his attention, inviting him to look at the block and showing him the various pieces. And if the child once succeeded in placing all the cylinders properly, he stopped, and the game was finished. Whenever the deficient child committed an error, it was necessary to correct it, or to urge him to correct it himself, and when he was able to correct an error he was usually quite indifferent.

Now the normal child, instead, takes spontaneously a lively interest in this game. He pushes away all who would interfere, or offer to help him, and wishes to be alone before his problem.

It had already been noted that little ones of two or three years take the greatest pleasure in arranging small objects, and this experiment in the "Children's Houses" demonstrates the truth of this assertion.

Now, and here is the important point, the normal child attentively observes the relation between the size of the opening and that of the object which he is to place in the mould, and is greatly interested in the game, as is clearly shown by the expression of attention on the little face.

If he mistakes, placing one of the objects in an opening that is small for it, he takes it away, and proceeds to make various trials, seeking the proper opening. If he makes a contrary error, letting the cylinder fall into [Page 171]  an opening that is a little too large for it, and then collects all the successive cylinders in openings just a little too large, he will find himself at the last with the big cylinder in his hand while only the smallest opening is empty. The didactic material controls every error. The child proceeds to correct himself, doing this in various ways. Most often he feels the cylinders or shakes them, in order to recognise which are the largest. Sometimes, he sees at a glance where his error lies, pulls the cylinders from the places where they should not be, and puts those left out where they belong, then replaces all the others. The normal child always repeats the exercise with growing interest.

Indeed, it is precisely in these errors that the educational importance of the didactic material lies, and when the child with evident security places each piece in its proper place, he has outgrown the exercise, and this piece of material becomes useless to him.

This self-correction leads the child to concentrate his attention upon the differences of dimensions, and to compare the various pieces. It is in just this comparison that the psycho-sensory exercise lies.

There is, therefore, no question here of teaching the child the knowledge of the dimensions, through the medium of these pieces. Neither is it our aim that the child shall know how to use, without an error, the material presented to him thus performing the exercises well.

That would place our material on the same basis as many others, for example that of Froebel, and would require again the active work of the teacher, who busies herself furnishing knowledge, and making haste to correct every error in order that the child may learn the use of the objects. [Page 172] 

Here instead it is the work of the child, the auto-correction, the auto-education which acts, for the teacher must not interfere in the slightest way. No teacher can furnish the child with the agility which he acquires through gymnastic exercises: it is necessary that the pupil perfect himself through his own efforts. It is very much the same with the education of the senses.

It might be said that the same thing is true of every form of education; a man is not what he is because of the teachers he has had, but because of what he has done.

One of the difficulties of putting this method into practice with teachers of the old school, lies in the difficulty of preventing them from intervening when the little child remains for some time puzzled before some error, and with his eyebrows drawn together and his lips puckered, makes repeated efforts to correct himself. When they see this, the old-time teachers are seized with pity, and long, with an almost irresistible force, to help the child. When we prevent this intervention, they burst into words of compassion for the little scholar, but he soon shows in his smiling face the joy of having surmounted an obstacle.

Normal children repeat such exercises many times. This repetition varies according to the individual. Some children after having completed the exercise five or six times are tired of it. Others will remove and replace the pieces at least twenty times, with an expression of evident interest. Once, after I had watched a little one of four years repeat this exercise sixteen times, I had the other children sing in order to distract her, but she continued unmoved to take out the cylinders, mix them up and put them back in their places.

An intelligent teacher ought to be able to make most interesting individual psychological observations, and, to [Page 173]  a certain point, should be able to measure the length of time for which the various stimuli held the attention.

In fact, when the child educates himself, and when the control and correction of errors is yielded to the didactic material, there remains for the teacher nothing but to observe. She must then be more of a psychologist than a teacher, and this shows the importance of a scientific preparation on the part of the teacher.

Indeed, with my methods, the teacher teaches little and observes much, and, above all, it is her function to direct the psychic activity of the children and their physiological development. For this reason I have changed the name of teacher into that of directress.

At first this name provoked many smiles, for everyone asked whom there was for this teacher to direct, since she had no assistants, and since she must leave her little scholars in liberty. But her direction is much more profound and important than that which is commonly understood, for this teacher directs the life and the soul.

Second. The education of the senses has, as its aim, the refinement of the differential perception of stimuli by means of repeated exercises.

There exists a sensory culture, which is not generally taken into consideration, but which is a factor in esthesiometry.

For example, in the mental tests which are used in France, or in a series of tests which De Sanctis has established for the diagnosis of the intellectual status, I have often seen used cubes of different sizes placed at varying distances. The child was to select the smallest and the largest, while the chronometer measured the time of reaction between the command and the execution of the act. Account was also taken of the errors. I repeat that [Page 174]  in such experiments the factor of culture is forgotten and by this I mean sensory culture.

Our children have, for example, among the didactic material for the education of the senses, a series of ten cubes. The first has a base of ten centimetres, and the others decrease, successively, one centimetre as to base, the smallest cube having a base of one centimetre. The exercise consists in throwing the blocks, which are pink in colour, down upon a green carpet, and then building them up into a little tower, placing the largest cube as the base, and then placing the others in order of size until the little cube of one centimetre is placed at the top.

The little one must each time select, from the blocks scattered upon the green carpet, "the largest" block. This game is most entertaining to the little ones of two years and a half, who, as soon as they have constructed the little tower, tumble it down with little blows of the hand, admiring the pink cubes as they lie scattered upon the green carpet. Then, they begin again the construction, building and destroying a definite number of times.

If we were to place before these tests one of my children from three to four years, and one of the children from the first elementary (six or seven years old), my pupil would undoubtedly manifest a shorter period of reaction, and would not commit errors. The same may be said for the tests of the chromatic sense, etc.

This educational method should therefore prove interesting to students of experimental psychology as well as to teachers.

In conclusion, let me summarize briefly: Our didactic material renders auto-education possible, permits a methodical education of the senses. Not upon the ability of the teacher does such education rest, but upon the [Page 175]  didactic system. This presents objects which, first, attract the spontaneous attention of the child, and, second, contain a rational gradation of stimuli.

We must not confuse the education of the senses, with the concrete ideas which may be gathered from our environment by means of the senses. Nor must this education of the senses be identical in our minds with the language through which is given the nomenclature corresponding to the concrete idea, nor with the acquisition of the abstract idea of the exercises.

Let us consider what the music master does in giving instruction in piano playing. He teaches the pupil the correct position of the body, gives him the idea of the notes, shows him the correspondence between the written notes and the touch and the position of the fingers, and then he leaves the child to perform the exercise by himself. If a pianist is to be made of this child, there must, between the ideas given by the teacher and the musical exercises, intervene long and patient application to those exercises which serve to give agility to the articulation of the fingers and of the tendons, in order that the coordination of special muscular movements shall become automatic, and that the muscles of the hand shall become strong through their repeated use.

The pianist must, therefore, act for himself, and the more his natural tendencies lead him to persist in these exercises the greater will be his success. However, without the direction of the master the exercise will not suffice to develop the scholar into a true pianist.

The directress of the "Children's House" must have a clear idea of the two factors which enter into her work–the guidance of the child, and the individual exercise.

Only after she has this concept clearly fixed in her [Page 176]  mind, may she proceed to the application of a method to guide the spontaneous education of the child and to impart necessary notions to him.

In the opportune quality and in the manner of this intervention lies the personal art of the educator.

For example, in the "Children's House" in the Prati di Castello, where the pupils belong to the middle-class, I found, a month after the opening of the school, a child of five years who already knew how to compose any word, as he knew the alphabet perfectly–he had learned it in two weeks. He knew how to write on the blackboard, and in the exercises in free design he showed himself not only to be an observer, but to have some intuitive idea of perspective, drawing a house and chair very cleverly. As for the exercises of the chromatic sense, he could mix together the eight gradations of the eight colours which we use, and from this mass of sixty-four tablets, each wound with silk of a different colour or shade, he could rapidly separate the eight groups. Having done this, he would proceed with ease to arrange each colour series in perfect gradation. In this game the child would almost cover one of the little tables with a carpet of finely-shaded colours. I made the experiment, taking him to the window and showing him in full daylight one of the coloured tablets, telling him to look at it well, so that he might be able to remember it. I then sent him to the table on which all the gradations were spread out, and asked him to find the tablet like the one at which he had looked. He committed only very slight errors, often choosing the exact shade but more often the one next it, rarely a tint two grades removed from the right one. This boy had then a power of discrimination and a colour memory which were almost prodigious. Like all the other children, he [Page 177]  was exceedingly fond of the colour exercises. But when I asked the name of the white colour spool, he hesitated for a long time before replying uncertainly "white." Now a child of such intelligence should have been able, even without the special intervention of the teacher, to learn the name of each colour.

The directress told me that having noticed that the child had great difficulty in retaining the nomenclature of the colours, she had up until that time left him to exercise himself freely with the games for the colour sense. At the same time he had developed rapidly a power over written language, which in my method is presented through a series of problems to be solved. These problems are presented as sense exercises. This child was, therefore, most intelligent. In him the discriminative sensory perceptions kept pace with great intellectual activities–attention and judgment. But his memory for names was inferior.

The directress had thought best not to interfere, as yet, in the teaching of the child. Certainly, the education of the child was a little disordered, and the directress had left the spontaneous explanation of his mental activities excessively free. However desirable it may be to furnish a sense education as a basis for intellectual ideas, it is nevertheless advisable at the same time to associate the language with these perceptions.

In this connection I have found excellent for use with normal children the three periods of which the lesson according to Séguin consists:

First Period. The association of the sensory perception with the name.

For example, we present to the child, two colours, red and blue. Presenting the red, we say simply, " This is [Page 178]  red," and presenting the blue, "This is blue." Then, we lay the spools upon the table under the eyes of the child.

Second Period. Recognition of the object corresponding to the name. We say to the child, "Give me the red," and then, "Give me the blue."

Third Period. The remembering of the name corresponding to the object. We ask the child, showing him the object, "What is this?" and he should respond, "Red."

Séguin insists strongly upon these three periods, and urges that the colours be left for several instants under the eyes of the child. He also advises us never to present the colour singly, but always two at a time, since the contrast helps the chromatic memory. Indeed, I have proved that there cannot be a better method for teaching colour to the deficients, who, with this method were able to learn the colours much more perfectly than normal children in the ordinary schools who have had a haphazard sense education. For normal children however there exists a period preceding the Three Periods of Séguin–a period which contains the real sense education. This is the acquisition of a fineness of differential perception, which can be obtained only through auto-education.

This, then, is an example of the great superiority of the normal child, and of the greater effect of education which such pedagogical methods may exercise upon the mental development of normal as compared with deficient children.

The association of the name with the stimulus is a source of great pleasure to the normal child. I remember, one day, I had taught a little girl, who was not yet three years old, and who was a little tardy in the development of language, the names of three colours. I had the children place one of their little tables near a window, and [Page 179]  seating myself in one of the little chairs, I seated the little girl in a similar chair at my right.

I had, on the table, six of the colour spools in pairs, that is two reds, two blues, two yellows. In the First Period, I placed one of the spools before the child, asking her to find the one like it. This I repeated for all three of the colours, showing her how to arrange them carefully in pairs. After this I passed to the Three Periods of Séguin. The little girl learned to recognise the three colours and to pronounce the name of each.

She was so happy that she looked at me for a long time, and then began to jump up and down. I, seeing her pleasure, said to her, laughing, "Do you know the colours?" and she replied, still jumping up and down, "Yes! YES!" Her delight was inexhaustible; she danced about me, waiting joyously for me to ask her the same question, that she might reply with the same enthusiasm, "Yes! Yes!"

Another important particular in the technique of sense education lies in isolating the sense, whenever this is possible. So, for example, the exercises on the sense of hearing can be given more successfully in an environment not only of silence, but even of darkness.

For the education of the senses in general, such as in the tactile, thermic, baric, and stereognostic exercises, we blindfold the child. The reasons for this particular technique have been fully set forth by psychology. Here, it is enough to note that in the case of normal children the blindfold greatly increases their interest, without making the exercises degenerate into noisy fun, and without having the child's attention attracted more to the bandage than to the sense-stimuli upon which we wish to focus the attention. [Page 180] 

For example, in order to test the acuteness of the child's sense of hearing (a most important thing for the teacher to know), I use an empiric test which is coming to be used almost universally by physicians in the making of medical examinations. This test is made by modulating the voice, reducing it to a whisper. The child is blindfolded, or the teacher may stand behind him, speaking his name, in a whisper and from varying distances. I establish a solemn silence in the schoolroom, darken the windows, have the children bow their heads upon their hands which they hold in front of their eyes. Then I call the children by name, one by one, in a whisper, lighter for those who are nearer me, and more clearly for those farther away. Each child awaits, in the darkness, the faint voice which calls him, listening intently, ready to run with keenest joy toward the mysterious and much desired call.

The normal child may be blindfolded in the games where, for example, he is to recognise various weights, for this does help him to intensify and concentrate his attention upon the baric stimuli which he is to test. The blindfold adds to his pleasure, since he is proud of having been able to guess.

The effect of these games upon deficient children is very different. When placed in darkness, they often go to sleep, or give themselves up to disordered acts. When the blindfold is used, they fix their attention upon the bandage itself, and change the exercise into a game, which does not fulfil the end we have in view with the exercise.

We speak, it is true, of games in education, but it must be made clear that we understand by this term a free activity, ordered to a definite end; not disorderly noise, which distracts the attention. [Page 181] 

The following pages of Itard give an idea of the patient experiments made by this pioneer in pedagogy. Their lack of success was due largely to errors which successive experiments have made it possible to correct, and in part to the mentality of his subject.

"IV: In this last experiment it was not necessary, as in the one preceding, to demand that the pupil repeat the sounds which he perceived. This double work, distributing his attention, was outside the plane of my purpose, which was to educate each organ separately. I, therefore, limited myself to following the simple perception of sounds. To be certain of this result, I placed my pupil in front of me with his eyes blinded, his fists closed, and had him extend a finger every time that I made a sound. He understood this arrangement, and as soon as the sound reached his ear, the finger was raised, with a species of impetuosity, and often with demonstrations of joy which left no doubt as to the pleasure the pupil took in these bizarre lessons. Indeed, whether it be that he found a real pleasure in the sound of the human voice, or that he had at last conquered the annoyance he at first felt on being deprived of the light for so long a time, the fact remains that more than once, during the intervals of rest, he came to me with his blindfold in his hand, holding it over his eyes, and jumping with joy when he felt my hands tying it about his head.

"V: Having thoroughly assured myself, through such experiments as the one described above, that all sounds of the voice, whatever their intensity, were perceived by Vittorio, I proceeded to the attempt of making him compare these sounds. It was no longer a case of simply noting the sounds of the voice, but of perceiving the differences and of appreciating all these modifications and [Page 182]  varieties of tone which go to make up the music of the word. Between this task and the preceding there stretched a prodigious difference, especially for a being whose development was dependent upon gradual effort, and who advanced toward civilisation only because I led thitherward so gently that he was unconscious of the progress. Facing the difficulty now presented, I had need to arm myself more strongly than ever with patience and gentleness, encouraged by the hope that once I had surmounted this obstacle all would have been done for the sense of hearing.

"We began with the comparison of the vowel sounds, and here, too, made use of the hand to assure ourselves as to the result of our experiments. Each one of the fingers was made the sign of one of the five vowels. Thus the thumb represented A and was to be raised whenever this vowel was pronounced; the index finger was the sign for E; the middle finger for I; and so on.

"VI: Not without fatigue, and not for a long time, was I able to give a distinct idea of the vowels. The first to be clearly distinguished was O, and then followed A. The three others presented much greater difficulty, and were for a long time confused. At last, however, the ear began to perceive distinctly, and, then, there returned in all their vivacity, those demonstrations of joy of which I have spoken. This continued until the pleasure taken in the lessons began to be boisterous, the sounds became confused, and the finger was raised indiscriminately. The outbursts of laughter became indeed so excessive that I lost patience! As soon as I placed the blindfold over his eyes the shouts of laughter began."

Itard, finding it impossible to continue his educational [Page 183]  work, decided to do away with the blindfold, and, indeed, the shouts ceased, but now the child's attention was distracted by the slightest movement about him. The blindfold was necessary, but the boy had to be made to understand that he must not laugh so much and that he was having a lesson. The corrective means of Itard and their touching results are worth reporting here!

"I wished to intimidate him with my manner, not being able to do so with my glance. I armed myself with a tambourine and struck it lightly whenever he made a mistake. But he mistook this correction for a joke, and his joy became more noisy than ever. I then felt that I must make the correction a little more severe. It was understood, and I saw, with a mixture of pain and pleasure, revealed in the darkened face of this boy the fact that the feeling of injury surpassed the unhappiness of the blow. Tears came from beneath the blindfold, he urged me to take it off, but, whether from embarrassment or fear, or from some inner preoccupation, when freed from the bandage he still kept his eyes tightly closed. I could not laugh at the doleful expression of his face, the closed eyelids from between which trickled an occasional tear! Oh, in this moment, as in many others, ready to renounce my task, and feeling that the time I had consecrated to it was lost, how I regretted ever having known this boy, and how severely I condemned the barren and inhuman curiosity of the men who in order to make scientific advancement had torn him away from a life, at least innocent and happy!"

Here also is demonstrated the great educative superiority of scientific pedagogy for normal children.

Finally, one particular of the technique consists in the [Page 184]  distribution of the stimuli. This will be treated more fully in the description of the didactic system (materials) and of the sense education. Here it is enough to say that one should proceed from few stimuli strongly contrasting, to many stimuli in gradual differentiation always more fine and imperceptible. So, for example, we first present, together, red and blue; the shortest rod beside the longest; the thinnest beside the thickest, etc., passing from these to the delicately differing tints, and to the discrimination of very slight differences in length and size.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
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Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteers
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom