Maria Montessori

The Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was the originator of the Montessori method of education for children.

On Aug. 31, 1870, Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle. Her father, a tradition-bound army officer, discouraged her interest in a professional career; however, with the encouragement and support of her mother, she prepared herself for her later career. When she was 12, the family moved to Rome to take advantage of the better educational facilities. An interest in engineering technology and mathematics led her to enroll in classes at a technical institute at the age of 14. Later an interest in biology led to her decision to study medicine. This decision required some courage and tenacity, as it was in utter defiance of the customs of a society which excluded women from such endeavors.

In 1894 Maria Montessori became the first woman to receive a medical degree in Italy. Her experiences in the pursuit of this degree reinforced her already well-developed feminist ideas. Throughout her life she was a frequent participant in international feminist congresses.

Maria Montessori's first appointment was as an assistant doctor in the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome, where she had her first prolonged contact with mentally challanged children. She became convinced that the problem of handling these defectives was as much one of instructional method as of medical treatment. In 1898 she was appointed director of the State Orthophrenic School in Rome, whose function was to care for the "hopelessly deficient" and "idiot" children of the city. She enjoyed tremendous success in teaching the children herself, while refining and applying her innovative methods and training other teachers to work with the children.

In 1901 Dr. Montessori left the school to pursue further studies and research. At the same time she was holding the chair of hygiene at the Scuola di Magistero Femminile in Rome, where she was also a permanent external examiner in the faculty of pedagogy. In 1904 she became a full professor at the University of Rome and from 1904 to 1908 held the chair of anthropology there. She was also a government inspector of schools, a lecturer, and a practicing physician.

In 1906 the Italian government put Dr. Montessori in charge of a state-supported slum school in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome which had 60 children aged 3 to 6 from poverty-stricken families. By this time her early successes with mentally challanged children suggested to her the idea of trying the same educational methods with normal children. Dealing with culturally deprived children, she used what she termed a "prepared environment" to provide an atmosphere for learning, that is, small chairs and tables instead of rows of desks. The basic features of the method are development of the child's initiative through responsible individual freedom of behavior, improvement of sense perception through training, and development of bodily coordination through games and exercise. The function of the teacher is to provide didactic material, such as counting beads or geometric puzzles, and act as an adviser and guide, staying as much as possible in the background.

Dr. Montessori's view of the nature of the child, on which the Montessori method is based, is that children go through a series of "sensitive periods" with "creative moments," when they show spontaneous interest in learning. It is then that the children have the greatest ability to learn, and these periods should be utilized to the fullest so that the children learn as much as possible; and they should not be held back by nonnatural curricula or classes. Work, she believed, is its own reward to the child, and there is no necessity for other rewards. Self-discipline emerges out of the independence of the atmosphere of learning. Influenced by astrology, she saw self-discipline as something that emerges as a result of a natural law, if all restraints are removed, and as a continuation of the cosmic discipline that governs the movements of the stars.

Dr. Montessori's method was basically at odds with behaviorism, Freudianism, and other major 20th-century trends. Thus it was used only by a relatively few private schools. Since the early 1950s, however, her system has enjoyed a revival, related to curricula reforms and a renewed interest in handicapped children. Her works have been translated into at least 20 languages, and training schools for Montessori teachers have been established in several nations.


Further Reading on Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori's Spontaneous Activity in Education, translated by F. Simmonds (1917; repr. 1965), is particularly useful for beginning students. A recent biography of her life is Edward M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (1957). Among the works on her system are Nancy McCormick Rambusch, Learning How to Learn: An American Approach to Montessori (1962), and Edward M. Standing, The Montessori Method: A Revolution in Education (1962). For other works see Gilbert E. Donahue, Dr. Maria Montessori and the Montessori Movement: A General Bibliography of Materials in the English Language (1962).