Dr. Maria Montessori is the founder of the Montessori method of education. She started her first classroom “Casa dei Bambini” or Children’s House in 1907. Montessori method of education stresses the importance of respecting children - “Help me to help myself”. Montessori education celebrates its 100th year in 2007.
Dr. Maria Montessori was born in Anacona, Italy on August 31, 1870. Maria Montessori had a childhood in which her mother believed in discipline. Her childhood had key moment that was prophetic of her future career. As a child Maria Montessori had already showed interest in the poor by doing some knitting for them daily. And one incident at home was that as her parents were having a heated argument, she dragged a chair in between them, stood on it and held their hands together as tightly as she could. This is foreseen as to the beginning of her peacemaking efforts of bringing the adult and the child together. When she was young she had overheard a teacher of her mention about her eyes and as a protest never raised her eyes at that teacher. It is here that Montessori principle of not talking about children in front of them and thus giving respect even to the youngest child.
At the age of 12 her family moved to Rome to give her better educational opportunities. Her parents suggested Maria Montessori a teaching career, like for many women of her time, which she refused and chose engineering to pursue her love of mathematics. To be able to study this she had to study in a school for boys. Maria Montessori later decided to change her career and switched to medicine. A woman studying medicine was unheard of in her time and thus she was first rejected by the board of education to study medicine but eventually triumphed. She became the first woman medical student in Italy. She was able to finish and pay for her studies by obtaining scholarships.
Maria Montessori’s determination to become a doctor was proven on two occasions. One was that there was one lecture that most of her classmates did not attend due to the severe weather but her professor was deeply impressed with her and continued to give the lecture to just her. And another was the countless hours that she had to sacrifice to be able to dissect a body at night alone. During her time it was not allowed for a woman to dissect cadavers in the presence of men.
As she was not doing what women were expected of her time, her father disapproved of her career choice. This though ended with a lecture Maria Montessori so eloquently delivered as a new graduate. His father attended it and was given multitudes of congratulatory remarks for having such a remarkable daughter.
Maria Montessori became the first woman doctor in Italy in 1896. In the same year she represented the women of Italy in a feminist conference. She talked about the cause of working women. In similar seminar she talked about child labor. This was a sign of her deep connection to children, though unknown to her.
After graduating, Dr. Maria Montessori worked in a psychiatric clinic for unfortunate children. The children were placed in a bare room. It was observed that children after their meals would throw food on the floor and play with them. It was through Montessori’s compassion and intelligence that she sought a solution to help the children. She observed that these children had no toys to manipulate or use their hands on. It was then that she decided that there had to be more than medicine to be able to these children.
Dr. Maria Montessori then discovered the studies of Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin. They were two French doctors who believed in the education of deviated children. Maria Montessori shared the conviction that medicine was not the answer for retardation but education. She shared this idea at an 1899 pedagogical congress. As a result he became the directress of an Orthophrenic clinic (school for the mentally ill) in 1899-1901.
Dr. Maria Montessori worked tirelessly observing children, analyzing results and developing new materials. Her knowledge of children mostly originated form this 2 years of closely observing children.
Montessori’s work with these children was so successful that her children eventually passed a public examination given to ‘normal children’. It bothered her “how these normal children in ordinary schools could have been equaled in intelligence by her ill students.”
In 1901 she gave up her work in the clinic and studied philosophical education and pedagogical pathology. She was also a lecturer in the University of Rome in 1904. At this period she also continued her study of Itard and Seguin’s work. In a lecture she talked about schools which had two main points. One was that teachers should help rather than judge. She believed the teacher should be there to direct, guide and help children to learn with the attitude of love and acceptance. Secondly, she believed that true mental work is not exhausting but gives nourishment for the soul. Montessori believed in the ‘secret of childhood’ that all are born with potentials and the adult should help that potential. The adult is there to create the environment to stimulate the child and fulfill their needs.
In 1906, there opened a housing project in the district of San Lorenzo, a slum area. In Montessori’s desire to work with normal children she was given the task of taking care of the young children of this area. The parents of this area were not able to take care of their young as they had to work during the day.
Maria Montessori was given a room to take care of these children. She equipped the room with child sized tables, chairs, armchairs and materials similar to those she used in her work with the mentally ill children. She was given an assistant who had no teaching experience, which she appreciated as she tried her new methods for which a background in education would have hindered. She did not give her assistant limitations, but only showed her how to present the materials. This opened in January 1906.
In this room Maria Montessori observed children and formed her principles. She observed child concentrating on graded wooden cylinders with such concentration that efforts to distract her were useless. And when the child had finished she seemed rested and happy. The child’s ability for deep concentration was phenomenal. She also observed the child’s need for repetition which fulfilled a child’s need. She then decided to give children the liberty to be able to accomplish their task.
Maria Montessori also observed that children had a great sense of order. Children put things back to where it belonged. Maria Montessori respected this and allowed them to do it by placing the materials in an open cupboard rather than locked cupboards as it was initially done. This paved the way for the freedom of choice for the child to choose their work. When Montessori gave a lesson on blowing the nose she received great cheer from the children. Children are always being rebuked about keeping their nose clean but no one has calmly taught them how to do it. This made her realize that even small children had a sense on personal dignity. Montessori always emphasized the respect for even the youngest child.
After all these observation and changes over 12 months that in January 1907, the room can be called “Casa dei Bambini” (Children’s House) as a classroom that we see in Montessori schools today. The fame of Maria Montessori, her children’s house and method quickly spread. Many visitors even form overseas were coming to observe these children. The Casa dei Bambini classrooms were getting attention form educators who were amazed and astonished at what the children could do.
In 1909, Montessori wrote “The Method of Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Infant Education and the Children’s Houses”.
As the fame of Maria Montessori and her method grew Montessori was plunged into the responsibility to further teach others of her method. She saw it as a duty on behalf of all the children in the world as a way to promote their rights and liberation. She left lecturing at the university and supported herself by training teachers and royalties form her books.
In Rome a Montessori society was started called ‘Opera Montessori’ and other similar movements began in Europe and America.
In 1914 Montessori went to America. She was welcomed by Thomas Edison and an American Montessori Society was formed with Alexander Graham Bell as its president. While in America she had a pupil, Helen Parkhurst, who arranged a glass classroom for observers to see her classrooms.
Maria Montessori’s writings were also being translated to different languages and schools were opening up worldwide in countries such as Japan, China and Canada. She was continually giving lectures around the world where she is always welcomed. She also continued her research and application of her principles to school aged and preschool aged children as well as infants from birth. Her research about the child’s early years is written in “Absorbent Mind” (1949). Alternatively she also took notice of the social possibilities based on the idea that “true education is an armament of peace”.
In 1939 she flew to India where she met Mahatma Gandhi. She was detained in India until the war finished in 1946.
Maria Montessori continued to give lectures around the world with her son Mario. He followed her footsteps and had the task of protecting the sincerity of the Montessori movement. With the spread of the Montessori Method there was a danger of her principles being misunderstood and not practiced purely according to her beliefs. She then started Association Montessori Internationale in 1929.
In 1949 she addressed UNESCO where she received an ovation. She was honored with the Legione d’Honneur and received an honorary of Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam
On May 6, 1952 in Noordwijk aan Zee in Netherlands, she passes away at the age of 81. In her tomb writes “I beg the dear all powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in Man and in the World.”