Montessori VS Gibson: Education and Perception

Maria Montessori and Eleanor Gibson are two of the primary education theorists in the last 100 years.  Both are female, which was rare in their fields at the time, and both contributed to education and learning theories in ways that are still widely used today.  However, each has a different perspective on education, and a different and unique contribution to the field of educational research.  Overall, there are many significant similarities and differences in the educational theories created and implemented by Montessori and Gibson.
Montessori was born in Italy in 1870.  She attended medical school there despite protests about her gender, and was the first woman to ever become a doctor in Italy.  After medical school, Montessori went on to work with poor children.  She noticed that many of these children could not necessarily benefit from medical care, but could benefit from educational opportunities that they did not have.  After noticing this, Montessori went on to teach children and develop a system of education that is used throughout the world today.
Her early success in teaching was met with surprise, as even she had been skeptical that her methods would work.  The progress that these economically poor children showed was amazing to her, and to others who came to see what they could do.  In fact, efforts were so successful that Montessori went on to open up other ‘poor houses’ around Italy, and later, in other countries.  Towards the end of her life, she traveled around, teaching the ‘Montessori method’ to other teachers in countries throughout the world (Cossentino).

Gibson was born in America in 1910.  As a child, she was discouraged from attending school because of her gender, but persevered and attended anyway.  After secondary school, she attended Yale and eventually earned a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.  Gibson then began to work with children and animals, doing experiments to see what babies knew from birth and what was learned.
Her most famous experiment is the “visual cliff,” where a drop-off is set up and covered by glass.  Babies aged 6 to 14 months are placed at the edge and encouraged to crawl onto the clear glass.  However, all babies refused, suggesting that they could perceive depth from birth.  Gibson used the information she gathered from these experiments to investigate the way people learn and perceive their environment.  Gibson’s experiments are still being carried out by her students today (Gibson).
Maria Montessori created a method for teaching children that today is used to educate children from birth through age 18, although it is mostly commonly used for ages three to six.  The general principle is to allow a child his freedom to work at his own pace, on the activities he chooses.  Several age-appropriate activities are possible, and the child chooses what he is interested in and investigates it thoroughly.  Children at work are never interrupted, and individual work takes precedence over group work.  Additionally, all groups are multi-age, with three ages in one group.  The most common age group is the three to six year old ages.  These groupings exist so the older children will teach the younger children, advancing both of their learning (
Gibson’s approach to education is different.  Her studies focused on perceptual development and innate knowledge in babies rather than education later in life, although her theories had implications for education later in life.  Gibson is known for starting the field of perceptual development in psychology, as little was known about it at the time.  Most doctors and psychologists assumed that to babies, the world was nothing more than a confusing buzz of sounds and sights, and that they could not make any sense of it or perceive it at all in the way of adults.
These doctors assumed that babies learned to perceive as they aged and were taught about the world around them.  Gibson performed many experiments throughout her years as a researcher that disproved this view and brought about a brand-new view of perceptual development.  She wrote two books, one in 1967 on her research thus far, and one in 1991 that summed up what she had done in her lifetime (Gibson).
The major difference between Montessori and Gibson is that Montessori was a doctor who specialized in teaching children based on their individual needs throughout their lives, while Gibson primarily focused on what children already knew when they were born and was not overly concerned with later life, as older children had already been studied more.  Gibson does, however, focus some on the processes of education throughout life, although primarily in what children know at birth and how this affects the way they learn later in life.
They were similar, though, in their belief that children were different than others thought.  Children were not stupid, were not blank slates, and did not need help in learning everything.  Children were born with innate abilities to learn and to perceive.  Gibson and Montessori both furthered this idea through their work.  Both women also helped to show that children could work seriously, even from a young age; that their attention ps are long enough and their perceptions are good enough to learn on their own.
Gibson did further experiments, mostly with infants, and often with animals, as certain types of experiments are not ethical in humans.  One significant finding was in how human children learned to read and recognize letters.  Gibson theorized that children would learn by seeking out the features that are different about the letters, or “contrastive features.”  She came upon this theory based on experiments with animals that showed this was how they learned to recognize colors, patterns, and other objects.  It turned out that this was, indeed, how children learned, by recognizing different features in the letters to distinguish one from another (Spelke).
Also, Gibson was trying to focus on the ‘mechanisms which operate in all learning (Gibson).’  Her goal was to discover, through her research on perception, how exactly humans learned, and how figuring this out could benefit them in some way.  This research was crucial later to show how much people really knew and were capable of learning at all ages.
Montessori did not focus nearly as much on how children perceived, but on how they learned (which is, in general, what Montessori and Gibson have most in common).  Montessori emphasized that all children learned differently and needed an environment which nurtured this.  Children who are put in an environment and allowed to learn what they chose tended to choose to learn as much as possible.  Montessori also emphasizes creativity through learning to do a number of different things, and to learn them correctly.  For example, music lessons can be a part of Montessori if a child chooses; but the teachers encourage the students to learn to play an instrument correctly, not to use it for an unorthodox purposes, like using a violin as a hammer (
Additionally, Montessori focuses on work, rather than play in her education model.  Most preschools believe that children learn through random play, while Montessori emphasizes purposeful work even from the young ages in order to investigate and learn about the world (Cossentino 63).
Both methods are based on the premise that children know more than they are given credit for.  Gibson was sure that children could understand and perceive far more than psychologists thought they could, and her experiments showed that this was true.  In fact, Gibson did experiments on animals that proved even further what the experiments with babies began to show.  Gibson took newborn kids (baby goats) and placed them on the visual cliff, and even at birth they would not go over it.
She also placed kittens on the cliff once they were old enough to move and see, and they would not go over it.  Gibson reared some animals in complete darkness for awhile, and some would still not go over the cliff when they entered the light.  Kittens were an exception to this.  For a few days, they crawled across the whole surface and did not notice the cliff; after that, they, too, stopped going over the edge.  Gibson tried to place them on the cliff right away, so they would learn that crawling onto the glass was safe, but once kittens could see better, even though they knew the glass was safe from previous experience, they still would not go across it once they could see the cliff, suggesting that the perception of this drop is innate and not learned (Spelke).
Innate ability is the key to Gibson and Montessori.  Both believed that children had innate ability to learn, to recognize, and to know.  Montessori built her schools on this premise.  In fact, many schools have children who are discovering and understanding subjects that adults think are far beyond their capabilities at a young age.  Elementary age students may teach themselves advanced mathematics or science concepts, ideas that are usually taught in high school.  The Montessori method encourages children to use their innate curiosity and ability to investigate to find out about their world and learn as much as they can about it (
Children are unusually intelligent and have strong capabilities.  They are not born with no knowledge, no skills, and no ability to learn.  Both Gibson and Montessori’s research showed that this is true.  Children are born knowing things, and born with a thirst to know more things.  Children learn by perceiving the world around them and continuing to try things out until they figure out how it works, and why.
Montessori had an early idea about how children learned, and created a system to teach them in that natural way.  Today’s Montessori schools are all across the world, at every age group, public and private.  Montessori still means that children learn individually, even when they are in high school.  Students who study by the Montessori method tend to score above average on standardized tests (despite a complete lack of teaching to the test) and tend to get into good colleges and succeed well in life.
This is because students are given the opportunity to work individually from a young age, which leads to self-motivation.  Self-motivation is the most crucial part of the theory; children will learn far more if they are doing it on their own, based on intrinsic motivation, rather than extrinsic motivation.  The Montessori method promotes this intrinsic motivation from the beginning (
Gibson’s work, which came later, explained in psychological detail what Montessori seemed to ‘innately know,’ just as her students innately knew about the world around them.  Gibson’s experiments shed light on the way children perceived their world and how much they actually knew and understood before anyone taught them.
Today, many people are still a bit skeptical about the ideas put forth by these two women.  However, many of the major educational and psychological movements are based on the work that both women did in their individual fields.  Gibson’s experiments have given way to a plethora of research in cognitive and perceptual psychology, specifically aimed at trying to figure out how infants and animals really think and understand.
The result of all of these years of experiments and programs it that children are better prepared to learn about their world in a way that makes sense to them.  Children are better focused, better behaved, and learn more, better, and more quickly when their natural abilities are recognized and respected.   Children in Montessori classrooms or those with teachers who believe in their ability to think, learn, and perceive without explicit teaching thrive better than those who have teachers who think they are merely blank slates, empty vessels waiting to be taught to look, listen, think, and perceive.
The educational world has both Gibson and Montessori to thank for their new insights into teaching young children.  Both women made significant contributions to the field at a time when women were not welcomed into medical fields.  Both women had to fight for their right to an education, and both women were intelligent enough and savvy enough to get their degrees and conduct their programs despite opposition.  Without them, education would not be what it is today.
Cossentino, Jacqueline M. (2006).  “Big Work: Goodness, Vocation, and Engagement in the Montessori Method.”  Curriculum Inquiry.  36, 1, 63 – 92.
Gibson, Eleanor J. (1940). “A Systematic Application of the Concepts of Generalization and Differentiation to Verbal Learning.” Psychological Review.  47, 196 – 229.
Gibson, Eleanor J. (1934). “Retention and the Interpolated Task.” American Journal of Psychology.  46, 603 – 610.
“The International Montessori Index (2006).”  Accessed December 18, 2006.  Website: 
Spelke, Elizabeth (2003).  “Gibson’s Work: An Extended Reply to Helmholtz.”  Association for Psychological Science, 16, 4.

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