Dr. Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy on August 31, 1870. She was an Italian physician and educator and a pioneer for her time. She was met with a lot of opposition because of her sex, but she continued to pursue her interests in medicine and education subsequently creating a method of teaching that is practiced with great results today. Her vision of profound respect for the child as an individual who is capable of learning autonomously and with little restriction is being fulfilled today in public and private schools across America, as well as internationally.
Although she was strongly discouraged in her original intention of studying medicine at the University of Rome, she excelled nonetheless by pursuing a degree course in natural sciences. She passed the examinations in botany, zoology, experimental physics, histology, anatomy, and general and organic chemistry and earned her diploma in 1892. This route then qualified her for entrance into the medical program in 1893.
Although she was still met with hostility and harassment from academic peers and professors, she continued her education at the medical school. She won an academic prize in her first year, and in 1895 she secured a position as a hospital assistant, gaining an early internship. In her last two years, she studied pediatrics and psychiatry and worked in the pediatric consulting room and emergency service, and became an expert in pediatric medicine. Maria Montessori earned her M.D. from the University of Rome in 1896 and her thesis was published in 1897 in the journal Policlinico. She then found employment as an assistant at the University hospital and started a private practice.
From 1896 to 1901, Dr. Maria Montessori worked with and researched “phrenasthenic” children—currently defined as children experiencing some form of mental retardation, illness, or disability. She also began to travel, study, speak, and publish nationally and internationally, and came to prominence as an advocate for women’s rights and for the education of mentally disabled children.
Also during this time, Dr. Montessori educated herself in all the major works of educational theory for her preceding two hundred years. As she continued her research at the University of Rome’s psychiatric clinic, she also performed an in depth study of the works of 19th-century physicians and educators Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin. It was Itard and Séguin who greatly influenced her work. Dr. Montessori was intrigued with Itard’s ideas and created a far more specific and organized system for applying them to the everyday education of children with disabilities. From her studies, she discovered a new direction in thinking as she focused on children with learning difficulties.
In 1900, Dr. Montessori became co-director of the Orthophrenic School, which trained teachers in the education of mentally disabled children. During her two years at the school, Montessori developed methods and materials which she would later adapt for use with mainstream children. At this school, Dr. Montessori made achievements with children that were termed “uneducable” due to their deficiencies, and had them pass exams that were deemed for “normal” children. The school was a success and attracted the attention of prominent figures in the fields of education, psychiatry and anthropology at the University of Rome, as well as government officials from the departments of education and health, and civic leaders.
In 1901, Montessori continued her education at the University of Rome, and enrolled in a philosophy program studying theoretical and moral philosophy, the history of philosophy, educational philosophy, and psychology. Although she did not graduate, it was during this time that she began adapting her methods of educating mentally disable children to mainstream education.
In 1906 Montessori was invited to oversee the care and education of a group of children of working parents in a new apartment building for low-income families in Rome. She was interested in applying her work and methods to mentally normal children, and she accepted. It was here at the Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, that Dr. Montessori began her work in transforming the educational system in the public sector. The first Casa opened on January 6, 1907, with an enrollment of 50 to 60 children between the ages of two and seven.
This lead to the eventual transformation of the classroom as it was. At first, the classroom was equipped with a teacher’s table and blackboard, a stove, small chairs, armchairs, a group tables for the children, and a locked cabinet that contained the materials that Dr. Montessori had developed at the Orthophrenic School. Activities for the children included personal care such as dressing and undressing, care for the environment such as dusting and sweeping, as well as caring for the garden. The children were also shown the use of the materials that Dr. Montessori had developed. She watched as the “wild and unruly” children learned to read, write, and gain self-respect as a direct result of her methods.
In this first classroom, Dr. Montessori observed behaviors in these young children which formed the foundation of her educational method. She noted episodes of deep attention and concentration, multiple repetitions of activity, and a sensitivity to order in the environment. Given free choice of his or her activity, the children showed more interest in practical activities and Dr. Montessori’s materials than in the toys that were provided for them. Over time, she saw a spontaneous self-discipline emerge.
Based on her observations, Dr. Montessori implemented a number of practices that became hallmarks of her educational philosophy and method practiced today. She replaced the heavy furniture with child-sized tables and chairs light enough for the children to move, and placed child-sized materials on low, accessible shelves making a child oriented classroom. She expanded the range of practical activities such as sweeping and personal care to include a wide variety of exercises for the care of the environment and self, including flower arranging, hand washing, gymnastics, care of pets, and cooking. She also included large open-air sections in the classroom which encouraged children to come and go as they please in the room’s different areas and lesson designs.
She felt by working independently, children could reach new levels of autonomy and would become self-motivated to reach new levels of understanding. Dr. Montessori also came to believe that by acknowledging all children as individuals, and treating them as such, would yield better learning and fulfilled potential in each particular child. Also based on her observations, Dr. Montessori experimented with allowing children free choice of the materials, uninterrupted work time, and freedom of movement set by an environment conducive to these goals.
She began to see independence as the aim of education and the role of the teacher as an observer and director of children’s innate psychological development.
The first Casa dei Bambini was a success, and a second was opened on April 7, 1907. The children in her programs continued to exhibit concentration, attention, and spontaneous self-discipline. The classrooms began to attract the attention of prominent educators, journalists, and public figures. In the fall of 1907, Dr. Montessori began to experiment with teaching materials for writing and reading, including letters cut from sandpaper and mounted on boards, moveable cutout letters, and picture cards with labels. Four and five year old children engaged spontaneously with the materials and quickly gained a proficiency in writing and reading far beyond what was expected for their age. This attracted further public attention to Dr. Montessori’s work. Three more Casa dei Bambini opened in 1908, and in 1909 Italy and Switzerland began to replace their traditional methods with Montessori ones in orphanages and kindergartens.
Dr. Montessori’s work then began to attract the attention of international observers and visitors. Her work was widely published internationally and spread rapidly. From 1907 to the mid-1930s, she devoted her life to developing schools throughout Europe and North America. From then until 1947, she traveled to India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), training thousands of teachers in the Montessori Method. She opened schools in the United Kingdom, Paris and many other Western European cities, with more in Argentina, Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Switzerland, Syria, the United States, and New Zealand. Public programs in London, Johannesburg, Rome, and Stockholm had adopted the method in their school systems. Montessori societies were founded in the United States (the Montessori American Committee) and in the United Kingdom (the Montessori Society for the United Kingdom).
In 1913, the first International Training Course was held in Rome with the second in 1914. Montessori’s work was widely translated and published during this period and one publication became a best seller in the United States. In 1911 and 1912, Montessori’s work was popular and widely publicized in the United States. The first North American Montessori School was opened in October 1911, in Tarrytown, New York. The inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife became advocates of the method and a second school was opened in their Canadian home.
Maria created over 4,000 Montessori classrooms across the world in her lifetime and her books were translated in many different languages for the training of new educators. Her methods are installed in hundreds of public and private schools across the United States today.
Dr. Maria Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. She was also awarded the French Legion of Honor, Officer of the Dutch Order of Orange Nassau, and received an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Amsterdam. She wrote a total of 15 books and many articles and her face graced the 1,000 Lire banknote, by some considered to be the most iconic Italian banknote of all time. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 6, 1952 at the age of 81 in Noordwijk aan Zee, the Netherlands. Her son, Mario Montessori, carried on her legacy before passing away in 1982.