Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was born in Italy on 31st August, 1870. After graduating from medical school in 1896 Montessori became the first woman in Italy to become a doctor.

Montessori returned to university in 1901 to study psychology and philosophy. Three years later she became professor of anthropology at the University of Rome.

In 1906 Montessori left the university in order to work with sixty young working class children in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. Soon afterwards she founded the Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) where she developed what became known as the Montessori method of education. This method of teaching was based on spontaneity of expression and freedom from restraint.

In 1913 Montessori went to the United States where with the help of Alexander G. Bell founded the Montessori Educational Association in Washington. She also joined with Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Mabel Vernon, Olympia Brown, Mary Ritter Beard, Belle LaFollette, Helen Keller, Dorothy Day and Crystal Eastman to form the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS).

Montessori established a research institute in Spain and in 1919 she began a series of teacher training courses in London. In 1922 she was appointed a government inspector of schools in Italy.

An opponent of Benito Mussolini, Montessori was forced to leave Italy in 1934. She moved to Spain until General Francisco Franco and his nationalist forces defeated the republicans in the Spanish Civil War.

Montessori established training centres in the Netherlands (1938), India (1939) and England (1947). Maria Montessori, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950 and 1951, died in Noordwijk, Holland, on 6th May, 1952.

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori
Italian Physician and Educator
1870 – 1952 A.D.

Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator, founder of the Montessori System of teaching children. She studied at the University of Rome and was the first woman in Italy to secure the degree of Doctor of Medicine.

She became interested in the training of feeble-minded children, and at the request of the Minister of Education delivered a series of lectures to teachers in Rome. The success of her work led her to turn her attention to the education of normal children, and in 1907 the first House of Childhood was opened, and was soon followed by others.

Dr. Montessori maintained her connection with these schools until 1911, when she turned her attention to experiments for extending her methods and applying them to older children. Her work attracted wide attention among laymen as well as among professional educators. The central principle of her system is the doctrine that the pupils should be allowed freedom to unfold themselves. The teacher ceases to be a dictator and becomes a supervisor and guide the pupils have no other incentive to work than the joy of work without the stimulus of rewards and punishments the impelling force comes from within and is no longer imposed from without and concentration on attractive occupations leads to self-control without the intervention of restrictive discipline.

Reference: Famous Women An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.

Early influences

While Montessori was conducting research into the treatment of special needs children, she was particularly influenced by two French doctors, Jean ltard and Edouard Seguin. ltard first made his name studying deaf mutes, but he’s more famous for his attempts to educate and socialise an abandoned boy who was found in the forest of Aveyron. His book, The Wild Boy of Aveyron, documents his approach, which involved stimulating the boy’s mind systematically through the senses.

Edouard Seguin was one of ltard’s students and went on to establish his own school for special needs children in Paris. His approach was to devise a sequence of muscular exercises to bring about a change in behaviour and so educate the child through a physiological method.

ltard and Seguin inspired Montessori to take a new direction in her life. She continued her research by reading some of the foremost educational thinkers and reformers of the time, including Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. She took the principal ideas of ‘education of the senses’ and the ‘education of movement’ and thoughts of the great writers and moulded them into a system that was soon to become her own.

Maria Montessori: History And Her Life

Dr. Maria Montessori, born in 1870 in a little town in Italy, became a barrier-busting force of nature long before she developed the Montessori Method of Education for which she is most famous.

Raised in a middle-class family during the Victorian era, Maria attended classes at a technical institute for boys at the age of fourteen, despite her father’s disapproval. By twenty, she’d graduated with a degree in physics and mathematics. By twenty-six, she’d gone on to medical school in Rome and became one of the first female doctors in Italy. Two years later, she became a single mother who chose not to marry so that she would not have to give up her career.

As a working physician, Dr. Montessori’s interest in childhood education was piqued by her experiences in the free clinic of her medical school. In opposition to the common prejudices of the era, she observed the natural intelligence that existed in children of all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Four years after graduating, she became the co-director of a new school that trained special education teachers. The school included a classroom laboratory for developmentally disabled children.

Embracing her philosophy of lifelong learning, Dr. Montessori later left that institute as well as her private practice so she could return to the University of Rome for further studies. She spent the next half-decade developing what she called the “scientific pedagogy” that would form the heart of the Montessori Method. In 1906 she put this pedagogy to work in the first Casa dei Bambini in a poor district in Rome, determined to see how her new methods would work with children who may bear the burden of poverty, but not the burden of developmental disabilities.

Casa dei Bambini was the laboratory in which the Montessori Method was refined to the point that we know it today. About fifty children were enrolled from the ages of two to seven. Dr. Montessori observed the classroom but did not teach. Over time, using those personal observations, she made some significant physical changes to make the classroom more inviting, such as:

• Bringing in child-sized desks, tables, and lightweight chairs
• Making low, accessible shelves to hold the learning materials
• Increasing practical activities like self-care, pet care, and cooking
• Expanding open areas and allowed for free roaming

She also observed the benefits that came with giving the children freedom to self-direct their own activities. She acknowledged that each individual child learned better when encouraged, rather than directed, in their personal and academic growth. Children allowed to follow their own natural curiosity also tended to self-discipline, an unexpected benefit. Developing independence, she concluded, should be the core goal of education.

Soon, journalists, pundits, and educators began to take notice. Over the next few years, several new schools opened in Italy and in Switzerland. In 1909, she wrote a book about her method. By 1919, she had given up her medical practice and resigned from her position at the University of Rome in order to focus on spreading her educational philosophy and promote teacher training.

To aid life, leaving it free, however, to unfold itself, that is the basic task of the educator.

My experiments, conducted in many different countries, have not been going on for forty years (ed. now eighty-five years), and as the children grew up parents kept asking me to extend my methods to the later ages. We then found that individual activity is the one factor that stimulates and produces development, and that this is not more true for the little ones of preschool age than it is for the junior, middle, and upper school children.

Ours was a house for children, rather than a real school. We had prepared a place for children where a diffused culture could be assimilated, without any need for direct instruction…Yet these children learned to read and write before they were five, and no one had given them any lessons. At that time it seemed miraculous that children of four and a half should be able to write, and that they should have learned without the feeling of having been taught.

We puzzled over it for a long time. Only after repeated experiments did we conclude with certainty that all children are endowed with this capacity to ‘absorb’ culture. If this be true – we then argued – if culture can be acquired without effort, let us provide the children with other elements of culture. And then we saw them ‘absorb’ far more than reading and writing: botany, zoology, mathematics, geography, and all with the same ease, spontaneously and without getting tired.

And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment. The teacher’s task is not to talk, but to prepare and arrange a series of motives for cultural activity in a special environment made for the child. – Dr. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

M aria Montessori is as controversial a figure in education today as she was a half century ago. Alternately heralded as the century’s leading advocate for early childhood education, or dismissed as outdated and irrelevant, her research and the studies that she inspired helped change the course of education.

Those who studied under her and went on to make their own contributions to education and child psychology include Anna Freud, Jean Piaget, Alfred Adler, and Erik Erikson. Many elements of modern education have been adapted from Montessori’s theories. She is credited with the development of the open classroom, individualized education, manipulative learning materials, teaching toys, and programmed instruction. In the last thirty-five years educators in Europe and North America begun to recognize the consistency between of the Montessori approach with what we have learned from research into child development.

Maria Montessori was an individual ahead of her time. She was born in 1870 in Ancona, Italy, to an educated but not affluent middle class family. She grew up in a country considered most conservative in its attitude toward women, yet even against the considerable opposition of her father and teachers, Montessori pursued a scientific education and was the first woman to become a physician in Italy.

As a practicing physician associated with the University of Rome, she was a scientist, not a teacher. It is ironic that she became famous for her contributions in a field that she had rejected as the traditional refuge for women at a time when few professions were open to them other than home-making or the convent. The method evolved almost by accident from a small experiment that Dr. Montessori carried out on the side. Her genius stems not from her teaching ability, but from her recognition of the importance of what she stumbled upon.

As a physician, Dr. Montessori specialized in pediatrics and psychiatry. She taught at the medical school of the University of Rome, and through its free clinics she came into frequent contact with the children of the working class and poor. These experiences convinced her that intelligence is not rare and that most newborns come into the world with a human potential that will be barely revealed.

Her work reinforced her humanistic ideals, and she made time in her busy schedule to actively support various social reform movements. Early in her career she began to accept speaking engagements throughout Europe on behalf of the women’s movement, peace efforts, and child labor law reform. Montessori become well known and highly regarded throughout Europe, which undoubtedly contributed to the publicity that surrounded her schools.

In 1901 Montessori was appointed Director of the new orthophrenic school attached to the University of Rome, formerly used as the asylum for the “deficient and insane” children of the city, most of whom were probably retarded or autistic. She initiated a wave of reform in a system that formerly had served merely to confine mentally handicapped youngsters in empty rooms. Recognizing her patients’ need for stimulation, purposeful activity, and self-esteem, Montessori insisted that the staff speak to the inmates with the highest respect. She set up a program to teach her young charges how to care for themselves and their environment.

At the same time, she began a meticulous study of all research previously done on the education of the mentally handicapped. Her studies led Montessori to the work of two almost forgotten French physicians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin. Itard is most famous for his work with the “Wild Boy Of Aveyron”, a youth who had been found wandering naked in the forest, having spent ten years living alone. The boy could not speak and lacked almost all the skills of everyday life. Here apparently was a natural man – a human being who had developed without the benefit of culture and socialization with his own kind. Itard hoped from this study to shed light on the age-old debate about what proportion of human intelligence and personality is hereditary and what proportion stems from learned behavior.

The experiment was a limited success, for Itard found the wild boy uncooperative and unwilling or unable to learn most things. This led Itard to postulate the existence of developmental periods in normal human growth. During these sensitive periods a child must experience stimulation or grow up forever lacking adult skills and intellectual concepts that he missed at the stage when they can be readily learned!

Although Itard’s efforts to teach the wild boy were barely successful, he followed a methodical approach in designing a process, arguing that all education would benefit from the use of careful observation and experimentation. This idea had tremendous appeal to the scientifically trained Montessori, and later became the cornerstone of her method. From Edouard Seguin, Montessori drew further confirmation of Itard’s work, along with a far more specific and organized system for applying it to the everyday education of the handi-capped. Today Seguin is recognized as the father of our modern techniques of special education for the retarded.

From these two predecessors, Montessori took the idea of a scientific approach to education, based on observation and experimentation. She belongs to the Child Study school of thought, and she pursued her work with the careful training and objectivity of the biologist studying the natural behavior of an animal in the forest. She studied her retarded youngsters, listening and carefully noting every-thing that they did and said. Slowly she began to get a sense of who they really were and what methods worked best. Her success was given widespread notice when, two years after she began, many of the “deficient” adolescents were able to pass the standard sixth grade tests of the Italian public schools. Acclaimed for this “miracle”, Montessori responded by suggesting that her results proved only that public schools should be able to get dramatically better results with normal children.

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The Italian Ministry of Education did not welcome this idea, and she was denied access to school-aged children. Frustrated in her efforts to carry the experiment on with public school students, in 1907 Montessori jumped at the chance to coordinate a day-care center for working-class children who were too young to attend public school.

This first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, was located in the worst slum district of Rome, and the conditions Montessori faced were appalling. Her first class consisted of fifty children from two through five years of age, taught by one untrained caregiver.

The children remained at the center from dawn to dusk while their parents worked. They had to be fed two meals a day, bathed regularly, and given a program of medical care. The children themselves were typical of extreme inner-city poverty conditions. They entered the Children’s House on the first day crying and pushing, exhibiting generally aggressive and impatient behavior. Montessori, not knowing whether her experiment would work under such conditions, began by teaching the older children how to help out with the everyday tasks that needed to be done. She also introduced the manipulative perceptual puzzles that she had used with the retarded.

The results surprised her, for unlike the “retarded” children who had to be prodded to use the materials, these little ones were drawn to the work she introduced. Children who had wandered aimlessly the week before began to settle down to long periods of constructive activity. They were fascinated with the puzzles and perceptual training devices. To her amazement, children three and four years-old took the greatest delight in learning practical everyday living skills that reinforced their independence and self-respect.

Each day they begged her to show them more, even applauding with delight when Montessori taught them the correct use of a handkerchief. Soon the older children were taking care of the school, assisting their teacher with the preparation and serving of meals and the maintenance of a spotless environment. Their behavior as a group changed dramatically from street urchins running wild to models of grace, and courtesy. It was little wonder that the press found such a human interest story appealing and promptly broadcast it to the world.

Montessori education is sometimes criticized for being too structured and academically demanding of young children. Montessori would have laughed at this suggestion. She often said, “I studied my children, and they taught me how to teach them.”’

Montessori made a practice of paying close attention to the their spontaneous behavior, arguing that only in this way could a teacher know how to teach. Traditionally, schools pay little attention to children as individuals, other than to demand that they adapt to our standards. Montessori argued that the educator’s job is to serve the child determining what each one needs to make the greatest progress. To her, a child who fails in school should not be blamed, any more than a doctor should blame a patient who does not get well fast enough. After all, it is the job of the physician to help us find the way to cure ourselves, and the educator’s job to facilitate the natural process of learning.

Montessori’s children exploded into academics. Too young to go to public school, they begged to be taught how to read and write. They learned to do so quickly and enthusiastically, using special manipulative materials that Montessori designed for maximum appeal and effectiveness.

The children were fascinated by numbers to meet this interest, the mathematically inclined Montessori developed a series of concrete Math learning materials that has never been surpassed. Soon her four- and five year-olds were performing four-digit addition and subtraction operations, and in many cases pushing on even farther.

Their interests blossomed in other areas as well, compelling an over-worked physician to spend night after night designing new materials to keep pace with the children in geometry, geography, history, and natural science.

The final proof of the children’s interest came shortly after her first school became famous when a group of well-intentioned women gave them a marvelous collection of lovely and expensive toys. The new gifts held the children’s attention for a few days, but they soon returned to the more interesting learning materials. To Montessori’s surprise, most of the time children who had experienced both preferred work over play. If she were here today, Montessori would probably add: Children read and do advanced Mathematics in Montessori schools not because we push them, but because this is what they do when given the correct setting and opportunity. To deny them the right to learn because we, as adults, think that they shouldn’t is illogical and typical of the way schools have been run before.

Montessori evolved her method through trial and error, making educated guesses about the under-lying meaning of the children’s actions. She was quick to pick up on their cues, and constantly experimented with the class. For example, Montessori tells of the morning when the teacher arrived late to find that the children had crawled through a window and gone right to work. At the beginning, the learning materials, having cost so much to make, were locked away in a tall cabinet. Only the teacher had a key and would open it and hand the materials to the children upon request. In this instance the teacher had neglected to lock the cabinet the night before. Finding it open, the children had selected one activity each and were quietly working. As Montessori arrived the teacher was scolding the children for taking them out with-out permission. She recognized that the children’s behavior showed that they were capable of select-ing their own work, and replaced the cabinet with low open shelves on which the activities were always available to the children. Today this may sound like a minor change, but it contradicted all educational practice and theory of that period.

One discovery followed another, giving Montessori an increasingly clear view of the inner mind of the child. She found that little children were capable of long periods of quiet concentration, even though they rarely show signs of it in everyday settings. Although they are often careless and sloppy, they respond positively to an atmosphere of calm and order. Montessori noticed that the logical extension of the young child’s love for a consistent and often-repeated routine is an environment in which everything has a place. Her children took tremendous delight in carefully carrying their work to and from the shelves, taking great pains not to bump into anything or spill the smallest piece.

They walked carefully through the rooms, instead of running wildly as they did on the streets. Montessori discovered that the environment itself was all important in obtaining the results that she had observed. Not wanting to use school desks, she had carpenters build child-sized tables and chairs. She was the first to do so, recognizing the frustration that a little child experiences in an adult sized world.

Eventually she learned to design entire schools around the size of the children. She had miniature pitchers and bowls prepared, and found knives that fit a child’s tiny hand. The tables were light-weight, allowing two children to move them alone. The children learned to control their movements, disliking the way the calm was disturbed when they knocked into things.

Montessori studied the traffic pattern of the rooms as well, arranging the furnishings and the activity area to minimize congestion and tripping. The children loved to sit on the floor, so she bought little rugs to define their work areas and the children quickly learned to walk around them. Through the years, Montessori schools carried this environ-mental engineering throughout the entire building and outside environment, designing child-sized toilets and low sinks, windows low to the ground, low shelves, and miniature hand and garden tools of all sorts.

Some of these ideas were eventually adapted by the larger educational community, particularly at the nursery and kindergarten levels. Many of the puzzles and educational devices now in use at the pre-school and elementary levels are direct copies of Montessori’s original ideas. There is far more of her work that never entered the main-stream, and educators who are searching for new, more effective answers are finding the accumulated experience of the Montessori community to be of great interest.

Maria Montessori’s first Children’s House received overnight attention. Thousands of visitors came away amazed and enthusiastic. Worldwide interest surged as she duplicated her first school in other settings with the same results. Montessori captured the interest and imagination of national leaders and scientists, mothers and teachers, labor leaders and factory owners. As an internationally respected scientist, Montessori had a rare credibility in a field where many others had promoted opinions, philosophies, and models that have not been readily duplicated.

The Montessori method offered a systematic approach that translates very well to new settings. In the first thirty years of this century, the Montessori method seemed to offer something for everyone.

Conservatives appreciated the calm, responsible behavior of the little children, along with their love for work. Liberals applauded the freedom and spontaneity. Many political leaders saw it as a practical way to reform the outmoded school systems of Europe and North America, as well as an approach that they hoped would lead to a more productive and law-abiding populace. Scientists of all disciplines heralded its empirical foundation, along with the accelerated achievement of the little children. Montessori rode a wave of enthusiastic support that should have changed the face of education far more dramatically than it has.

Montessori’s prime productive period lasted from the opening of the first Children’s House in 1907 until the 1930s. During this time, she continued her study of children, and developed a vastly expanded curriculum and methodology for the elementary level as well. Montessori schools were set up throughout Europe and North America. Dr. Montessori gave up her medical practice to devote all of her energies to advocating the rights and intellectual potential of all children.

During her lifetime, Dr. Montessori was acknowledged as one of the world’s leading educators. Education moved beyond Maria Montessori, adapting only those elements of her work that fit into existing theories and methods.

Ironically, the Montessori approach cannot be implemented as a series of piecemeal reforms. It requires a complete restructuring of the school and the teacher’s role. Only recently as our under-standing of child development has grown have we rediscovered how clear and sensible was her insight.

Today there is a growing consensus among educators and developmental psychologists that many of her ideas were decades ahead of their time. As the movement gains support and begins to spread into the American public school sector, and gains official recognition internationally, one can readily say that Montessori, begun a century ago, is a remarkably modern approach.

Maria Montessori - History

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Maria Montessori: A Little History

Light years ahead of her time, Maria Montessori developed a theory of education that continues to thrive more than a century after she opened her first school. Perhaps your children attend a Montessori school, or maybe you home school with inspiration from her method. Noticing how children were challenged by the expectation to behave as adults in a world created for grown-ups, this amazing woman is responsible for, among other things, the revolutionary introduction of child-size furniture.

• Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy in 1870. Encouraged by her mother to continue with her education, she became the first woman to receive a medical degree from the University of Rome in 1896.

• She began developing her teaching methods when she worked as a pediatrician in a psychiatric hospital for "deficient" children. With inspiration from the research of Seguin, Itard, and Froebel, she began creating educational equipment for children who were considered unteachable. The results were unbelievable!

• Dr. Montessori used the term "scientific pedagogy" to explain her continued study, research, and observations of young children. She designed lessons and equipment to help children develop their muscles, care for the environment (Practical Life), and educate the senses (Sensorial Materials). She also created innovative materials for language, math, history, geography and science. These didactic materials remain relevant to this day, helping children learn skills from the simple to complicated, and from the concrete to abstract.

Following her success with special-needs children, Dr. Montessori was asked to create a school for "normal" children. Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) opened in the poverty-stricken San Lorenzo district of Rome in 1907. As a result of her teachings, the children dramatically changed. They learned to take care of themselves as well as their school while being exposed to lessons and tools that taught them how to succeed in life.

• Dr. Montessori's careful observations also led her to develop theories on how children learn best. Her ground-breaking discoveries of a young child's naturally absorbent mind and innate love of purposeful work and learning led her to give students freedom within a carefully prepared environment equipped with what they needed to grow and learn. Most important was her belief in cultivating a respectful attitude toward the child. For more, see About Montessori.

• Word of her work spread as she gave lectures about her discoveries. Other schools were opened in Italy and she held her first training course for teachers in 1909. That year her first book, The Montessori Method, was published.

• By 1911, the Montessori system of education had spread around the world - to the United States, Argentina, England, Switzerland, Mexico, and Korea, to name a few.

• During her trip to the United States in 1915, Dr. Montessori's "glass classroom" allowed attendees at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco to see children at work. During this visit, she also trained teachers and addressed the National Educational Association (NEA).

• Dr. Montessori continued to teach courses throughout Europe and expand her influence over the next 20 years. As political situations changed before and during World War II, she moved from Italy to Spain, then to the Netherlands. While giving a three-month course in India in the summer of 1939, Italy entered the war with Germany as an ally. Montessori and her son were held in India by the English as "alien enemies" until the war was over. Fortunately, she was allowed to continue her work in India, training those who came from around the world to learn her ground-breaking educational system.

• In 1946 Dr. Montessori moved back to Amsterdam, which enabled her to help re-establish her schools throughout Europe. She expanded her theories to include adolescents and infants, stressing that children are the future and our hope for peace.

• Having lived through two world wars, Montessori continued to lecture and write about the importance of education in promoting peace. With interest and support from Gandhi, Freud, Edison, Graham Bell, among others, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. She continued to lecture and give training courses until her death in 1952. At the last International Montessori Congress in May, 1951, Dr. Montessori closed the session by stating, "The highest honor and the deepest gratitude you can pay me is to turn your attention from me in the direction in which I am pointing - to The Child."

Hainstock, Elizabeth G., The Essential Montessori, An Introduction to the Woman, the Writings, the Method and the Movement, Penguin Books, 1978 (revised 1997).

Kramer, Rita, Maria Montessori: A Biography, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.

North American Montessori Teachers' Association, A Montessori Journey: 1907-2007 - The Centenary Exhibit. The NAMTA Journal, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer, 2007.

Pollard, Michael, Maria Montessori, Gareth Stevens Children's Books, 1990.

Standing, E.M., Maria Montessori, Her Life and Work, Penguin Books, 1957.

—by Jane M. Jacobs, M.A., Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She is a trained primary Montessori directress and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has taught children aged 2 to 7 years in Montessori schools, Headstart, and also in a preschool for children with developmental challenges. In her counseling practice, she helps individuals, couples, and families.

—Originally Published 2016

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A Brief History of Montessori Education

The principles of Montessori education inform daily life at Bluffview Montessori School. While those principles are discussed in more detail elsewhere (see What is Montessori education?), the story of the origins of Montessori education offers unique insights into the method practiced at our school. For instance, did you know that the very first students to benefit from Montessori education were children living in a Rome housing project, as well as so-called “idiots”—mentally disabled children relegated to state institutions? Or that Maria Montessori not only believed in educating for peace, but put that belief into action by refusing to let Mussolini turn her students into soldiers?

Maria Montessori, the founder of Montessori education, was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, on August 31, 1870. Both of her parents were well-educated, and Montessori proved to be an excellent student with a strong independent spirit. At the age of thirteen, she entered the first of two technical schools—generally considered off-limits to girls—where she studied math, science, and languages, excelling in all her studies.

Her technical school experience whetted her appetite for the biological sciences, and in 1890, she applied to medical school at the University of Rome but was denied entrance because she was a woman. She enrolled in the university anyway, studying physics, math, and science, and eventually—perhaps because of her amazing academic performance—she was allowed to study medicine. When she was awarded her medical degree in 1896, she became the first female doctor in Italy.

As a member of the University of Rome’s psychiatry clinic, she began visiting the city’s insane asylums, where she took a particular interest in the plight of mentally disabled children, who were typically kept in bare rooms devoid of any sensory stimulation. She began to study them, reading everything she could find on the subject and attending additional university courses in anthropology, philosophy, and pedagogy. She also studied the work of two early eighteenth century French education reformers, Jean-Marc Itard and Edouard Séguin. Itard had developed a method of sensory-based education, which Séguin later elaborated, emphasizing respect for the child and creating educational materials designed to develop sensory perceptions and fine motor skills in young children.

In 1898, Montessori was appointed co-director of the Orthophrenic School, an experimental institution for children with a wide range of mental disorders. She worked with the children during the day and wrote notes and observations by night, and began developing the hands-on learning materials that would become icons of her method. Her unconventional approach was put to the test when she had several of her eight-year-old “defective” students take the state reading exam. They not only passed, but scored above average, shocking the education establishment.

Her growing reputation led a group of wealthy bankers to invite her to open a school in a low-income housing development in Rome. The bankers wanted to keep the housing project’s children from destroying the property while their parents were at work during the day, but Montessori had other ideas—namely, seeing whether her ideas could improve the situation of children living in poverty. She saw herself not just as an educator, but as part of a larger movement of social reform.

The first “Casa dei Bambini,” or Children’s House, was opened in the San Lorenzo district of Rome in January 1907. By this time, Montessori’s unique philosophy of education was beginning to take a coherent shape, influenced by Itard and Séguin, her experience at the Orthophrenic School, and her studies in philosophy, pedagogy, and anthropology. At the center of her approach was respect for the child. “What really makes a teacher is love for the human child,” she said.

The prevailing wisdom of the day was that children were “blank slates” who could only learn through direct instruction from an adult or older child. Montessori, by contrast, believed that children had an inner capacity to learn and explore—and, in fact, were driven to do so. The task of the educator, then, was to nurture this inner potential, carefully observing each child and providing him or her with tasks that would help him or her to acquire knowledge and skills appropriate for his or her developmental stage. Montessori said that when children are provided with appropriate materials in a calm, orderly environment, they do not need to be forced to learn indeed, they are eager to learn.

In contrast to a typical classroom, in which all the students must pay close attention to the teacher, Montessori asserted that it is the teacher who must pay close attention to each of the students. And that is just what she did at her newly opened Children’s House, as she continued to develop her understanding of the way children learn. She offered her students a wide range of carefully designed activities and materials, keeping only those that engaged the children’s interest and proved helpful in teaching a particular concept or skill.

The materials—wooden counting rods, sandpaper letters, wooden geometric shapes, and so on—were designed to be self-correcting. For instance, a child might be asked to build a tower from wooden blocks of varying sizes, placing the largest on the bottom and the smallest on the top. The activity challenges the young child to discriminate objects of different sizes, and is self-correcting by virtue of the fact that placing the blocks in the wrong order creates a visual interruption of the smooth line that is created when the task is completed successfully.

Montessori described activity in the Children’s House in this way:

There are forty little beings—from three to seven years old, each one intent on his own work. One is going through the exercises for the senses one is doing an arithmetical exercise one is handling the letters, one is drawing, one is fastening and unfastening the pieces of cloth on one of our little wooden frames, still another is dusting. Some are seated at tables, some on rugs on the floor. There are muffled sounds of objects lightly moved about, of children tiptoeing. Once in a while comes a cry of joy only partly repressed, “Teacher! Teacher!” and eager call, “Look! See what I’ve done.” But as a rule there is entire absorption in the work in hand.

The teacher moves quietly about, goes to any child who calls her, supervising operations in such a way that anyone who needs her finds her at his elbow, and whoever does not need her is not reminded of her existence.

Once again, her work met with phenomenal success within a few short years, new Children’s Houses were popping up all over Italy and the Italian-speaking portion of Switzerland. A 1911 article in McClure’s magazine (at the time one of the leading magazines in the United States) hailed her Montessori as an educational “wonder-worker” and her students as “miracle children.” The article sparked intense interest among progressive social reformers of the era, including such luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, and soon Montessori schools were taking root across the United States, with more than one hundred established by 1917.

By 1929, Montessori had established an organization to help promote her method, the Association Montessori Internationale, based in Barcelona, Spain. However, the rise of fascism across Europe disrupted her work. In 1933, the Nazis closed all German Montessori schools and burned her books. Italian Montessori schools were also shuttered after she refused to allow them to participate in Mussolini’s fascist youth movement. When civil war broke out in Spain, Montessori and her son (and his family) fled to England, then the Netherlands.

In 1939, Montessori and her son were on a three-month trip to India for the purpose of training teachers however, with the onset of World War II, they were detained by the Indian government because of their Italian citizenship. While under house arrest, Montessori had the opportunity to meet leading Indian intellectuals, including Ghandi. Her wartime experience in India led her to incorporate into her philosophy of education an emphasis on peace and the connections between all living things. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. “Averting war is the work of politicians establishing peace is the work of educators,” she said, speaking to the United Nations on the topic of “Education and Peace.”

Montessori died on May 6, 1952. At the time, the movement she had founded in 1907 had fallen out of favor, and was virtually nonexistent in the United States. However, the Montessori method experienced a revival in the United States after Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch, an expert in early childhood education, began to advocate for it. She opened two Montessori schools, helped found the American Montessori Society, and wrote a book, Learning How to Learn: An American Approach to Montessori. Those efforts, profiled in a May 1961 article in Time magazine, sparked renewed interest in the Montessori method on a scale similar to the response to the 1911 McClure’s magazine article.

Bluffview Montessori School, which opened as a private preschool in 1967, was one of the many new Montessori schools that opened in the wake of the renaissance in American Montessori education. It expanded to include elementary school students in 1987, and became the first Montessori charter school in the United States in 1993. It expanded to serve middle school students in 1998.

Today, there are more than four thousand Montessori schools in the United States, with thousands more worldwide. The exact number is difficult to quantify “Montessori” is not a trademark, and can be used by any institution, regardless of whether it actually follows the principles of Montessori education. But the impact of Montessori’s ideas is not limited to the schools that bear her name. Many of her ideas have been incorporated into the educational mainstream. As the Washington Post wrote in a recent article, “a strong body of evidence in developmental psychology supports Montessori’s major conclusions—among them, that there is a close relationship between movement and cognition, that the best learning is active and that order is beneficial for children” (“Montessori, Now 100, Goes Mainstream”).

Several recent studies have provided more solid evidence of the effectiveness of Montessori education, prompting leaders in the field of business innovation to tout it in publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to the Harvard Business Review.

You can find those articles, plus links to recent studies, on our Links to Montessori Resources page. Or, read about the history of Montessori at the links provided below.

The Montessori Method, by Maria Montessori.
A Biography of Dr. Maria Montessori

Time Travel with The History Chicks


By Rita Kramer, the one we both agree: If you’re only going to read one, pick this one.

“The Green Book”, Free with purchase of a Montessori education (the schools give this one to parents.) By E.M. Standing

We only touched on her learning methods, The Montessori Method (as well as versions in many languages) is available everywhere, including this link online MONTESSORI METHOD MARIA MONTESSORI.Many of the books that Maria wrote are still in print, and many of her lectures are now available in book form. The Montessori Method is the best place to start, then tumble down the Montessori rabbit hole.


The big mama overseeing organization is the one that Maria and Mario began, Association Montessori Internationale (Headquartered in her last home in Amsterdam, you can make an appointment to see Maria’s study!) In the US, the governing body is the American Montessori Society where you can find all sorts of resources like how to become a Montessori educator and finding a Montessori school near you.

Not all schools that are called “Montessori” are true Montessori schools. That is not saying they aren’t good schools or that they don’t use some of Maria’s methods and materials, it’s simply saying that they are not recognized by the governing bodies as Montessori schools. What’s the difference in Montessori education vs Conventional education and how do you find a real Montessori school? It’s simple and tricky. Here are some resources: Five Clues That Might Not Be a Montessori School Slate article, same subject

Click this to get to our Pinterest boards!

Beckett has created Pinterest boards for every episode, here is Maria’s!

The difference between Montessori and traditional education:

Susan got access to the documentary, Maria Montessori: Her life and legacy through her library, but here is a link to it via Amazon. There is no free version that we can find online (but…LIBRARY!)

The movie that neither of us could figure out how to turn the subtitles on, but has great production value and is in Italian:

Netflix has a Montessori adjacent series about child development that Beckett really liked (and thought Maria would, too.) The Beginning of Life

Death of Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori ended her life sitting in the garden of a house owned by friends in Noordwijk an Zee, a village on the Dutch coast, discussing with her faithful son and chief assistant Mario whether or not to go to Africa. She had been told that at eighty-one she was too frail to travel so far and that someone else could go and deliver her lectures for her. ‘Am I no longer of any use then?’ she asked him. An hour later she was dead of a cerebral haemorrhage. She was interred in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Noordwijk, having always wanted to be buried wherever she happened to die.

So ended a life that started in Italy in 1870 and a career that began after she was the first woman to graduate in medicine from Rome University. Ironically, she had always hated the idea of being a teacher, but after joining the staff of the university’s psychiatric clinic, she found herself fascinated by the challenge of educating mentally subnormal children.

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The History of the Montessori Method

Welcome! I’m glad you’re back. We’re just beginning a year-long series called Montessori 101: Your Introduction to Montessori Education. We’re going to be looking at the basics of the Montessori method.

But before we dive in, I think it’s important we learn about the woman the name Montessori and how the Montessori method came to be.

Who was Maria Montessori?

Maria Montessori is best known as the founder of the Montessori Method. A woman ahead of her time, determined and unflinching against society’s conventions.

Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. As a young child, Maria was eager to learn and was encouraged by her mother to pursue her scholastic endeavors, even though her father didn’t want her educated beyond secondary schooling.

At 13, Montessori entered an all-boys technical school in preparation for becoming an engineer. After technical school she continued pursuing her dream of becoming an engineer. Later she entered the University of Rome La Sapienza Medical School in pursuit of a medical degree.

Montessori’s greatest challenge in medical school was being in a male-dominated field regularly disrespected by her peers and forced to dissect cadavers on her own at night (due to university policy). Montessori persevered and became the first female doctor in Italy. She would work in various positions that would shape her future: pediatrics, psychiatric clinics, and hospitals (one for children).

After graduating from the University of Rome, Maria worked at the university’s psychiatric clinic, often visiting children in the general insane asylums of Rome. During these visits, she was convinced even these children, who were considered “mentally deficient” and cast aside by society, could be educated.

Montessori went to London and Paris to study the works of Jean Itard and Edouard Ségun, both who became great early influencers of the Method, in hopes of finding a better way to care and teach these children. (Itard & Segun studied and researched the cognitive processes in children with intellectual disabilities.)

How was the Montessori Method developed?

In 1896, Maria gave a speech at the Educational Congress in Torino on her findings from working with these children. The Minister of Education was in attendance and intrigued by Montessori’s discoveries appointed her as director of Scuola Ortofrenica, an institution devoted to the care and education of the mentally disabled. Her two years there Montessori considered her real training, observing the children, testing hypotheses, and building materials. She came to this conclusion,

“I felt that the methods which I used had in them nothing peculiarly limited to the instruction of idiots. I believed that they contained educational principles more rational than in use, so much more so, indeed, that through their means an inferior mentality would be able to grow and develop. Thus feeling, so deep as to be in the nature of an intuition, became my controlling idea after I had left the school for deficients, and, little by little, I became convinced that similar methods applied to normal children would develop or set free their personality in a marvelous and surprising way.”

-Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method, 33

Success came when a few of her students took the state examinations for reading and writing and passed with above-average scores. Montessori saw this and thought that if these methods brought mentally disabled children to the level of normal children, then, she wondered, how it would increase the potential of normal children. She would soon have her chance to find out.

Not long after this discovery became known, Montessori was asked to start a school in a housing project in Rome. The children ran free and, oftentimes, were destructive while their parents were at work. The developers saw Montessori as an opportunity to reign in the unruly children and save their housing project.

The school opened in San Lorenzo on January 1907 and was called Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House. Montessori gave the children an opportunity to learn by teaching them everyday chores to puzzles and other interesting constructive activities. Montessori’s time at Casa dei Bambini also allowed her to further observe and develop her method.

Montessori built a natural environment for the children, one in which “everything is suitable for his age and growth, where possible obstacles to his development are removed, and where he is provided means to exercise his growing faculties” (Lillard, Montessori: A Modern Approach, 4).

Montessori was surprised by how happy and satisfied the children where when concentrating on a task of interest, even repeating it over and over. Children learned by doing things themselves, correcting their own mistakes, having freedom to chose their work and materials, as well as not receiving a reward or punishment for their efforts. She found the students didn’t care about rewards and if they were rewarded often ignored the prize or gave it away. She believed the children were searching for a sense of personal dignity and found it in work.

She also learned that children prefer order, responsibility in regard to their environment, doing real-life work with real materials, working in quiet, and learning socially acceptable personal care. She respected the child and believed in his or her capability.

As news of Montessori’s school and its results spread, people became more and more interested in Montessori and her method. So Montessori began giving lectures, writing pamphlets and later books, and even going on to give teacher training courses in the method.

Montessori continued experimenting with her philosophy, discovering children’s needs and abilities, and creating an environment and materials to bring about the child’s full potential.

In her later years, Montessori traveled extensively throughout Europe, India, and even to America giving lectures, teaching training courses, visiting schools, and displaying her classroom’s at exhibitions. She received many honors and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. She also received numerous honors and titles throughout Europe. In the year before her death, she taught her last teacher-training course and spoke at the International Montessori Council (IMC), having lived through two world wars many of her talks focused on educating children to live peaceably.

Montessori gave the world a new way to educate children, a way that brought life and discovery to learning.

Are you new here? Welcome! We’ve just started a year-long series—Montessori 101! Sign up for the Our Montessori Home Newsletter and you won’t miss a post! Find out more about the series.

Thank you so much for doing this series! I wondered if you might comment on some ways for me to help my 2.5 year old girl extend her focus. It seems like she pays attention and is engaged in what she’s doing for about 2 minutes and then is “all done!” And wants to move on to the next thing. She is also adverse to playing or doing activists by herself. I don’t know if I just don’t give her interesting things or if it’s just her age, but I wonder if I’m not doing something right and setting her up for a short attention span forever. Any thoughts are greatly appreciated!

Watch the video: The Remarkable Life Story of Maria Montessori