The Young Maria Montessori
was born on August 31, 1870 into an educated middle-class family near Ancona, Italy. As she followed the normal track through elementary school, she
discovered her own talent for academics and, in time, developed a passionate
interest in mathematics. Unusually, she continued schooling after age twelve;
even more unusual, she chose to enter a technical school. In the spring of 1886
she graduated with high marks and a final grade of 137 out of 150.
In a time when the
traditional careers for women were limited to teaching, child rearing, and the
nunnery, Maria--who for now refused to even consider teaching as a
career---enrolled in the University of Rome in the fall of 1890. Possibly due to
the suggestions of Pope Leo XIII himself, she was allowed to study physics,
mathematics and natural sciences in order to become a medical doctor. Despite
the expected prejudices from the male students, she persisted and presented her
thesis in the spring of 1896 on "A Clinical Contribution to the Study of
Delusions of Persecution (Paranoia)." The review board gave her 105 out of a
possible 110 points, a brilliant showing, and she became Italy’s first female
Dr. Montessori’s Early Career
After Maria Montessori was awarded her doctorate, she
continued to do research work at the psychiatric clinic at the University of
Rome, finally joining the staff of the clinic in 1897. It was here, in the asylums
for the insane and intellectually deficient, that she encountered a number of
"idiot children" kept like prisoners side-by-side with the adults. At the time,
sickness of the mind and sickness of the body were believed to go hand-in-hand;
thus, in pursuit of a way to treat these "deficient" children, Montessori
looked for a way to educate them.
Her search for information led her to the work of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard with the
"wild boy of Aveyron" who had survived from infancy outside any human contact, as well as
the Itard’s student Edouard Seguin, who argued for the division of a child’s
growth "into a sequence of stages of development from physical movement to intellect."
These researchers gave her the necessary background on teaching young children
through the aid of physical movements and objects.
During 1899 Montessori lectured
across Italy and became a well-known authority on "the nervous diseases of
children." In the spring of 1900 she was appointed director of a new Orthophrenic
School in Rome to train teachers in "the care and education of deficient
children." Here she developed a set of physical teaching materials based on
Itard’s and Seguin’s work--"teaching toys" specifically designed to challenge
and educate. To the surprise of many, several of her eight-year-old
"defectives" were soon able to pass the state examinations in reading and
writing with scores as good or better than "normal" children.
Montessori immediately began to
wonder: if her "defectives" could do so well using these methods, how much
better could "normal" children learn with them? By 1901 she had left the
School, abandoning her medical career for good, and pursued a study of how
"normal" children could be taught.
Montessori’s "Children’s Home"
approached the education of children scientifically, pursuing research and
observation before she developed her methods. She studied anthropology,
pedagogy, experimental psychology, educational philosophy, and observed the
rigid, disciplined elementary schools that were common throughout Italy.
In 1906, she
accepted an invitation to set up a school in a slum neighborhood of Rome in
order to put her theories into practice. Her instructions were to occupy the
children of the families while their parents worked during the day, and she was
given no money or resources to do so. Still, she obtained some tables, toys,
colored pencils and paper through donations, recruited women from the neighborhood
as teachers, and brought in a number of her special "teaching toys." The school
officially opened her school in January of 1907. This became Montessori’s first
Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s Home.
Unlike the retarded children she had worked with in the past, these children required
no coaxing to use the materials properly. They loved the challenge and dynamics
of her teaching materials to the exclusion of the other toys available to them.
Everyone moved about freely, but discipline was enforced when children were
aggressive or incorrigible. The only punishment was inactivity--the first
"timeout chair"--and it was remarkably effective.
A second school was
opened on April 7, 1907 in another slum; others quickly followed.
The Montessori Movement
In the summer of 1909, at the
urging of others, she wrote a book about her methods and ideas which was
eventually translated into English as The Montessori Method. In 1910 the first Montessori society was founded in
Rome; by 1911 her methods had spread as far as Australia and Argentina. By 1913
nearly one hundred Montessori schools existed throughout the United States.
Montessori now devoted herself full-time to promoting and advancing her
Near the end of
1913, she was invited by publisher Sam McClure to visit the United States and
give talks about her methods. It was during this time she met with Helen
Keller, who referred to herself as "a product of the Montessori method."
In 1915 she returned under the invitation of the National Education Association to demonstrate her school at the International Exposition near San Francisco.
popularity was already declining, partly due to her insistence that only she
could train teachers in her method and that only she should control the
manufacture and distribution of her teaching materials. In 1914 William Heard
Kilpatrick wrote a book harshly denouncing her methods as out-of-date an
ineffective. Many American teachers felt her methods took too much control of
the classroom away from them. By 1916 Montessori was rarely discussed in
In the decades to
come, Montessori continued to work and lecture throughout Europe, but political
events constantly interrupted. In 1934 the Fascist government closed the Montessori
schools in Italy, and the Third Reich ended her influence within the German empire
until after World War II. After spending many years in India and establishing a
new home in the Netherlands, a liberated Italy welcomed her back in 1949.
For her work,
Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Peace in 1949, 1950, and 1951.
However, she was now in her eighth decade of life, and on May 6, 1952 she died
of natural causes in the Netherlands.
Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.
"Montessori, Maria." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2003 ed.
"Montessori, Maria." Encyclopedia of Education. 2003 ed. Guthrie, James W., ed.
"Montessori, Maria." Current Biography: Who's News and Why. 1940. Block, Maxine, ed.
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