Social Reform Montessori Partnerships Montessori UNESCO Montessori Montessori and UNESCO Article

Victoria Barres, AMI Board member, and one of our representatives to UNESCO, highlights some of the educational objectives of UNESCO. She encourages support for UNESCO's Associated Schools Project Network Programme.

Maria Montessori and UNESCO

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed.” Archibald MacLeish1

In 1950, still energetic despite her eighty years, Maria Montessori participated in founding meetings of UNESCO institutions. One task was to create the International Institute of Education to promote international peace through education. Discussions abounded about reconstructing Europe, linked to educating the ‘new man’. Finally Maria Montessori, politely but firmly, told members that for decades many others, including herself, had devoted enormous energy to raising such issues as the links between education, peace and world reconstruction—the very issues under discussion. Yet war continued to be viewed as a response to violence, with little analysis of the consequences of war. War not only weakened the population’s health and welfare but also planted the seeds of future discord.

Maria Montessori insisted that if humanity wished to succeed in establishing solid foundations for world peace, it had to focus on the prevention of war. She believed that helping the young child develop into a healthy adult was crucial to this endeavour. “When children are accustomed, from earliest childhood onwards, to considering those who surround them as a source of help to explore the world, they are not tempted to adopt a wary or hostile attitude towards men who belong to different races or religions. At a later date, children raised according to these principles will be of great help in the construction of a peaceful society and the encouragement of this understanding among nations that UNESCO has set as its ideal.”2

The commission members listened politely—and then returned to their governments’ concerns. They were not ready to grasp the significance of her remarks or able to convince their governments.

About fifty years later at the "Education for All" (EFA) meeting in Dakar, ten years after the initial EFA meeting in Thailand, UN member governments discussed priority issues in education. This time, concerns beyond “basic education”, linked to primary education completion rates, became priority issues. Finally, the education of young children was formally integrated into the “Education for All” Plan of Action. It will take several decades to establish feasible policies in all countries, but early childhood education is now a priority item on the world’s agenda.

Is the UN responsible for this fifty-year gap? Member governments decide policies of international institutions. However, their decisions are also influenced by national and world public opinion. Only recently have early childhood education advocates successfully joined efforts with large NGOs, foundations and international institutions, to shift this issue closer to the centre stage of public decision-making.

A recent response by Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, to the high school students among the 28,000 children at the City Montessori School in Lucknow, India is enlightening. The students wrote to him complaining that he and the UN were not doing enough to solve the world’s problems. Kofi Annan responded that the UN was an organisation of member governments who vote in the General Assembly and Security Council. If the students were serious about changing the world, they needed to advocate their own government to promote peace, and encourage it to collaborate with other member countries.

The high school students acted on their ideas. They decided to create an international congress on world government, inviting judges, high level diplomats and interested people. Despite ideological and religious strife in northern India, Lucknow has remained calm. Some think that the city’s ability to surpass discord and strife by peaceful means has been influenced by the community that works hard to live together peacefully. In 2002, the City Montessori School was awarded the UNESCO Peace Prize.

These students are learning about UN institutions. But more so, they have begun to understand that change requires massive efforts, not just of a few, but of many individuals collaborating to build, sustain and strengthen partnerships and institutions. Some think that by eliminating the UN, the world’s problems will disappear. History reveals what occurs when international institutions are not used to debate differences and attempt to resolve conflict.  Sometimes governments refuse to implement international treaties. Nevertheless, today’s complex issues cannot be solved in a reductionist, simplistic fashion. They require profound understanding by people, young and old, motivated to learn about other peoples and cultures, world views and perspectives as well sharing their own. They also require people willing to explore ways to resolve or reduce crises, without losing one’s own identity or sense of belonging. Such a complex task needs many people’s commitment over decades so that a culture of peace can become “incarnated”, a term Maria Montessori preferred to education.

A Movement of Social Reform for the Child

Many of you know Dr. Montessori’s work and use her principles successfully in your families and schools. Fewer people, however, are aware that Montessori realised the massive need to advocate for a movement of social reform for children, the "forgotten citizens".  Schools were a means to reach her goal of helping children develop harmoniously in healthy environments; they were never an end in themselves. If families and communities did not become more understanding of the child’s developmental needs, then the goals of helping humanity develop its potential would not be reached. From the outset, Montessori used her lectures, training courses, and publications as a means to reach the general public and shape opinion. Many others joined her in this immense endeavour. Today, one way is to join together with others who also wish to build solid foundations of peace based on justice, respect and understanding—not on foundations of domination.

UNESCO's Four Pillars of Learning

UNESCO, the UN agency whose mandate includes education, culture and science, is coordinating efforts to reach the Millennium Development Goals related to education. Several years ago, after decades of struggle with the problems of education worldwide, UNESCO created a commission of fifteen wise people from all continents, led by Jacques Delors.  UNESCO published a report presenting the universal aspects of education that the commission agreed should be included in all countries’ educational systems, Education: A Treasure Within. This commission formulated these universal aspects as four "pillars" of learning:

learning to know

learning to do

learning to be

learning to live with others.

These four points are considered essential to improve educational quality worldwide. Sigrid Niedermayer, programme co-chair of the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network, told the Paris Montessori Congress audience (2001) that these pillars closely resemble the goals of Montessori education. She encouraged Montessori children to participate in the programme as they would have much to offer as well as to learn.

UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network (AspNet): 50 Years

It was created in 1953 to provide an opportunity to share experiences, promote innovative approaches to education based on UN themes, and UNESCO in particular. Today UNESCO’s AspNet programme includes 7,500 schools from kindergarten to teacher-training institutes worldwide in programmes related to UNESCO and UN, a special opportunity for Montessori children and adults. Within one network, many ways of creating links with others are proposed, e.g. for promoting peace, understanding of cultural diversity, environmental solutions related to peace, world heritage, the scientific advances, themes such as those intrinsically embedded in Montessori education.

“Education as an aid to life”, particularly for the 6-12 year-old child and older, requires “going out”, both mentally and physically, to learn about the community, the nation, and the world. How else will children become cultivated, nuanced adults who are concerned with issues beyond their own culture and survival. The children not only learn intellectually about the UN, its history and the obstacles preventing peace from becoming “normal” for millions in the world, they participate actively in a “hands on” collaboration with children worldwide.

This programme is surely one that Maria Montessori would have encouraged. Her writings are full of examples in which she “goes out” to the larger community of international institutions, organisations and governments advocating for the child to “act” —not just to talk. Let’s help Montessori children become world citizens by collaborating in the UNESCO AspNet programme during their formative years. Several years from now, perhaps some will become partners in other forms of international collaboration, based on their childhood experience. 3

Last May, the World Federation of United Nations Associations held a world plenary in Barcelona, and out of that came a boost for youth programmes.

"The U.N. is going to have to make sure that there are young people coming along — that not all of us have gray hair and that there are younger people taking an interest in the U.N. all over the world," said Donald Blinken, Secretary General of the World Federation of United Nations Associations. "They're not only the best representatives of civil society, but they also are in some cases future government civil servants themselves." 4

© Victoria Barres, 2004



1. Lacoste, Michel Conil, The Story of a Grand Design, UNESCO 1946-1993, Unesco Reference Books, Unesco Publishing, 1994, p. 21

2. UNESCO Features (a bi-monthly press service), Paris, November 1952, Special Edition of a Selection of Articles: 1949 – 1952

3. For information, see: UNESCO ASPNet website. To join the AspNet programme, contact the National Commission to UNESCO of your country. Addresses of National Commissions: For other questions, contact:

4. World Federation of United Nations Associations, Spring 2004 bulletin