Born 1870 -Died 1952

Italian educator and physician. She won international recognition and acclaim for designing an educational system to aid children in the development of intelligence and independence. Her approach became known as the Montessori Method. Today, Montessori schools exist worldwide.

She was born in Chiaravalle, Italy. She also became the first Italian women to gain a medical degree when she graduated from the University of Rome in 1896. Early in her career she worked with children who were confined to mental asylums. In 1899 she became the codirector of the State Orthophrenic School for underdeveloped children. The educational methods she devised were so successful that her learning disabled students passed reading and writing examinations for "normal" children.

In 1907, she opened her first school where she taught the normal children of underpriviledged families. She then when on a world wide lecturing tour describing her methods of education. She also authored several books on the subject, among them, The Montessori Method (1912) and The Absorbant Mind, 1949.

The Young Maria Montessori

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 doctor.

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"

Montessori 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 methods.

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.

However, her 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 American education.

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.

Sources used:

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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