The Life and Work of Maria Montessori

Biographical Highlights Maria Montessori (1870-1952) has been one of the most innovative childhood pedagogues of the 20th Century. An early feminist and advocate of women’s rights, she gave birth to a pioneering method of childhood education that has survived almost unchanged in its essential features – and despite a long period of obscurity in the USA — for more than ninety years. Montessori’s pedagogical methodology (deeply inspired by her background in pediatrics as well as by her psychological, anthropological, and philosophical research) has shown an amazing degree of resiliency.

Schools following the “Montessori method” have been growing virtually in every country in the world, as a remarkable testimony to the method’s adaptability to different historical, cultural, and socio-economic environments. The philosophy grounding Montessori’s pedagogy is based on a few basic principles. In Montessori’s view, each child has a unique potential for growth and development waiting to be expressed and revealed. Such potential is best developed by letting the child be free to explore and manipulate the surrounding environment.

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The role of the teacher in this process should be not that of directing the child’s activities, but rather that of continually adapting the environment in new and exciting ways in order to let the child fulfill her potentials — physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually – at growing degrees of complexity. The teacher is, therefore, more the “interpreter” of the child’s inner potentiality than the outside “controller” of the child’s behavior. Throughout her studies, Montessori became increasingly convinced of the vital role of education in building a more just and peaceful society.

Hence, towards the end of her life she tirelessly devoted her efforts to the rights of children: most notably, by becoming involved in the founding meetings of UNESCO and by advocating for peace education in her writings, lectures, and training courses. This repeatedly earned her the nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1949, 1950 and 1951). Historic Roots Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle (near Ancona), Italy, in 1870. She was the only child of a middle-class, devotedly Catholic, well-educated family.

Her mother came from an academic family, while her father, formerly a military man, worked as a financial officer in the tobacco industry. Allegedly, Maria’s father was a very conservative man and a firm authoritarian, while her mother held more liberal ideas and always supported Maria’s controversial and stubborn educational and career choices. In 1882, the Montessoris moved to Rome, where Maria soon began attending a technical school (at the time, a kind of institution mostly chosen by young boys).

After high school, Maria’s interests in mathematics led her to first seek a university degree in engineering, and then move to the medical sciences. This decision was strongly opposed by Maria’s father, who nonetheless ended up escorting her to and from class, since at the end of the 19th Century for a woman to go around unaccompanied was considered to be inappropriate. Maria’s university experience was a struggle on many respects. The only career that was believed suitable for a woman was that of a schoolteacher. At that time a woman in academia had to overcome many prejudices and obstacles.

For instance, women were not supposed to study the human body in the presence of men, to the point that Maria had to arrange for separate, solitary sessions to perform her assigned autopsies. Nevertheless, in 1896 Maria became the first woman in Italy to earn the degree of Doctor of Medicine (Hainstock 1997) . Montessori’s first job appointment was as an Assistant Doctor at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome. Her assignment was to visit psychiatric asylums to select qualifying patients to be treated at the clinic.

Her target was mostly “mentally deficient” children (what nowadays would be dubbed “special needs” children), and indeed she began a systematic series of observations on their behavior. Against the general belief, Montessori became convinced that their problem was not so much medical, but rather pedagogical: if adequately stimulated, those children seemed to be able to improve immensely. Hence, Montessori became interested in studying the work of two pioneers in the field of special education, Jean-Marc Itard and Edouard Seguin.

She traveled to London and Paris to document herself on their methods, and later she decided to go back to the university to attend courses in anthropology, philosophy, and psychology. In 1904, Montessori was appointed Lecturer in Pedagogical Anthropology. While working at the clinic, Montessori became involved with a colleague, with whom she had a son, Mario. The two, however, never got married, and Mario was sent to live with a foster family in the countryside, where Montessori – for fear of the social stigma attached to single mothers at the time — presented him as her nephew and would visit only once in a while.

This must have been an extremely painful experience for both Montessori and her child. The latter, however, was later acknowledged and grew, nonetheless, a great affection for his mother (in fact continuing to passionately promote her educational cause long after her death). In 1899, after having begun disseminating her innovative ideas on child pedagogy at the national level, Montessori was asked to direct the State Orthophrenic School in Rome, where she could continue her experiments and observations.

Through the refinement of her methodology, Montessori managed to lead some of her retarded children to pass state exams with the same performance as normal children. This led Montessori to question the validity of the conventional system of education for “normal” children as well. Indeed, in 1906, she gave up her work with the retarded and started organizing a school for the kids of indigent working mothers in the slums of Rome. In 1907 the first “Casa dei Bambini” (“Children’s House”) was founded, and soon became a model school to be visited by educators and researchers from all over the world.

International fame and recognition followed rapidly. The accomplishments of what came to be known as the “Montessori method” were popularized by the press as well as by the thousands of enthusiastic followers of the “Montessori movement,” which started spreading worldwide, with the founding of schools, associations, and societies in such different corners of the world as America, Russia, Japan, India. Montessori visited the USA several times, invited by such prominent scientists as Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison; she lectured at Carnegie Hall and was received at the White House in 1913.

However, while in the rest of the world Montessori’s influence grew steadily, her success in the USA faded almost immediately, only to be revamped forty years later. In Italy, Montessori had become a leading figure. In the 1920s, under the fascist government led by Mussolini, she was nominated Government Inspector of Schools for Italy. This appointment did not last long. Due to the rising political tension in Europe in the 1930s, Montessori first moved to Spain, then to Holland, until at the outburst of World War II she finally fled to India.

While in India, she kept cultivating her movement through publications (indeed, the majority of her books were published during this time of her life), lectures at teacher training centers, and conferences that had global resonance. After the war, she resumed her travels worldwide and was honored with many public and academic awards. Montessori died in Holland in 1952 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her fame, however, has never expired, due to the widely acknowledged insights of her pedagogical ideas as well as the charisma of her personality. Importance

The significance of Montessori’s teachings can be shown through both an illustration of the key concepts informing her pedagogical theories and methodology, and a chronicle of her reception throughout the world, and particularly in the USA. The first international teacher-training course held by Montessori dates back to 1913. Amongst the participants were Anne George (Montessori’s first American student, who opened the first US Montessori school in Terryton, New York) and Helen Parkhurst (who became the official translator of Montessori’s writings in the USA).

However, next to the many enthusiastic followers, Montessori also had very influential detractors in the USA. One of them was William Heard Kilkpatrick, a professor at Columbia University, who contended, contrary to Montessori’s view, that childhood education had to promote social development rather than cognitive learning, that the teacher had to be in control of the students rather than being a mere facilitator of their spontaneous learning, and that children needed to receive outside stimuli rather than being able to prompt their knowledge from an innate inner power.

Another authoritative resistance to Montessori’s method came from John Dewey (the father of a philosophical school known as “pragmatism,” which was very influential in the USA), who – though sharing some ideas with Montessori, e. g. , the emphasis on “practical life” activities – thought that education should aim at the implementation of secular, democratic values in society whereas Montessori always kept faithful to her Catholic heritage. Also, Dewey emphasized the importance of fantasy play with raw materials in contrast to Montessori’s structured play in a pre-prepared environment.

Overall, these criticisms contributed to the quick discharge of Montessori’s influence from the USA by the 1920s (Hainstock 1997). In Europe, however, the Montessori movement continued growing. In 1929 Montessori founded the Association Montessori International (AMI) in Amsterdam, Netherlands, whose aim was “to uphold, propagate and further the pedagogical principles and practice formulated by Dr. Maria Montessori for the full development of the human being” (AMI website). After the death of Montessori in 1952, the mission of the association was carried out by her son, Mario, up until his death in 1982.

In 1938, Maria Montessori opened a permanent Montessori Training Center in the Netherlands; one year later followed the first Montessori Training Center in India. In 1947 she founded the Montessori Center in London, directed by Margaret Homfray and Phoebe Child; the latter in turn founded in London the Montessori St. Nicholas Center (1954), still nowadays one of the leading Montessori teacher training institutions. Towards the end of the 1950s, thanks to the efforts of Nancy McCormick Rambush the Montessori method was reintroduced in the USA.

Since the whole cultural and educational climate had dramatically changed, this second Montessori revival was going to be much more radical and long lasting than the first one,. Traditional educational methods were being scrutinized, and many parents were willing to play an active role in decisions about their children’s education (in fact, it was not unusual for Montessori schools to be started by concerned parents to the benefit of their own children). The first American Teacher Training Center was opened in 1958 at the Whitby School in Connecticut, and in 1960 the American Montessori Society (AMS) was established.

The number of Montessori schools in the USA has since grown increasingly. Most of those schools target the pre-school and elementary levels, although Montessori had devised a complete theoretical framework encompassing education from birth to adulthood (more specifically, she had divided the developmental continuum into four levels: from birth to six, from six to twelve, from twelve to eighteen, and from eighteen to twenty-four years of age). By the mid 1990s, especially in the USA, the Montessori method has reached to the middle school and junior high school levels as well.

Today, it is estimated that Montessori schools in the USA number about 4,000 (with an estimated total of 7,000 around the world), not to consider those programs that incorporate some ideas and materials of the Montessori methodology without fully embracing it (and, sometimes, without even being aware that they are using the Montessori method). However, although both AMI and AMS have been carefully setting the standards to be followed by the newly formed schools in order to get and maintain their license, not always have those schools followed the true spirit of the Montessori method.

The goal of the Montessori method is to develop the child’s sensory and cognitive skills, while at the same time enhancing the child’s practical life skills and building his character. From a theoretical point of view, the method relies on a few basic concepts, the most important of which are presented below. Absorbent Mind: between birth and age six, the child has a unique ability to learn and assimilate anything surrounding him, without any effort and in a completely unconscious way. In Montessori’s words, “The child absorbs these impressions not with his mind but with his life itself. …] By absorbing what he finds about him, he forms his own personality. […] He constructs his mind step by step till he becomes possessed of memory, the power to understand, the ability to think” (Montessori 1949: 84-85) Discipline and Liberty: these are two dynamical poles of the Montessori method. Liberty equals activity, and is the most genuine expression of a child’s intelligence. Too much freedom, however, without channeling one’s energies towards a task, would be meaningless to the child.

At the same time, organization and discipline would be useless without the freedom to make use of them according to the child’s preferences and choices. The two principles, then, must mutually interplay. Independence: the ultimate goal of childhood education should be the formation of an autonomous, self-regulating, free individual. The child naturally strives for functional independence, and so he should be just supported in achieving higher and higher levels of it. Far from being spoon-fed, he should be helped to learn how to help himself.

Normalization: the normalized child is a child living in complete harmony with his surrounding environment. This goal is usually achieved through letting him work on a freely chosen task, in which he can concentrate and be fully absorbed. Even the most disorderly, stubborn, or disobedient children, when involved in constructive work, become normalized and start showing enthusiasm, generosity, and helpfulness towards the other children working with them. Observation: the key role of the teacher is that of observing the child and letting him express himself.

Montessori’s scientific background suggested to her that educational theory and practice should be first and foremost grounded in observation. Education to her is not so much the result of what the teacher does, but rather a spontaneous process that unfolds in every human being at its own pace. The teacher’s role is to create a joyful and stimulating classroom environment, encourage the children in all their efforts, and by so doing allow them to develop self-confidence and self-discipline. Hence, if at the beginning of each educational level the teacher has a more active role (e. . , by demonstrating the use of materials and presenting the available activities), she then has to become a “constructive observer”, i. e. , one who knows exactly when, and how much, to intervene, if at all. Preparation of the Environment: the typical Montessori classroom is carefully prepared by the teacher in all its details. It must include all the essential elements that can contribute to the children’s learning at each given stage of their development, and nothing superfluous or distracting.

Essential features of the prepared environment are: beauty, order, simplicity, and accessibility. All objects are colorful, shiny, and appealing to the senses; furniture is child-size and lightweight, so that the child can easily move it at his will around the classroom. A trained teacher and a large enough group of children are another vital aspect of the prepared environment (it is important for children to belong to slightly different age groups, since the age difference enhances mutual cooperation and learning according to Montessori) (AMI website; Hainstock 1997).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector Maria Montessori initiated a worldwide educational movement that is still very much alive and well today. This movement has given input to the creation of a wealth of nonprofit entities: schools, teacher training programs, research centers, accrediting agencies, and associations and coalitions of Montessorians at the international, national, regional, and local levels.

Since those entities range across countries that are so different from one another from an institutional, cultural, political, economic, religious, and geographical point of view, it is not always easy to make generalizations as to their specific role and influence within the philanthropic sector. If one focuses on the USA, however, one cannot help but acknowledge the vital role played by the Montessori movement in shaping the current educational system.

For instance, after its foundation in 1979 the International Montessori Society (IMS) has challenged in federal court the laws of some states, like Maryland, that were used to discriminate against Montessori teacher education. In 1988, the IMS joined with other organizations to create the Americans for Choice in Education (ACE) coalition, which has carried out many successful initiatives to promote the movement for “educational choice”. (Hainstock 1997) Nowadays, at the pre-school level, public Montessori schools have to usually rely on Head Start grants in order to survive.

As far as the public elementary school system, two kinds of programs have been instituted so far: “charter” schools (established under state charter laws, these schools are generally contracted by local school districts but operated independently by groups of teachers and parents following the Montessori method) and “magnet” schools (established and funded by school districts, they usually offer special programs that are so unique that they attract a very diverse population, either ethnically, geographically, or socio-economically) (Lillard 1996).

The majority of Montessori schools in the USA, however, are private schools, relying for their operations on fees and private donations. In this latter respect, it is not at all unusual for former Montessori students who have reached financial success to convincingly support Montessori education and opt for it for their own children (prominent former Montessori students among the generation which amassed great wealth thanks to the technological boom are Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of the Internet search engine Google. com).

A second contribution to the nonprofit sector consists in the fact that the Montessori method incorporates community service activities in the school curriculum. Montessori realized that children aged 10-12 usually show a natural compassion and sympathy for others, hence such emotions should be facilitated in order to help children build their self-confidence and their development as full-blown human beings. So, the typical Montessori elementary teacher has to arrange for community service programs feasible to children (towards the elderly, the handicapped, other needy children, animals, the environment, etc. and to let students freely choose where to get involved (sometimes parents, too, are involved in the activities) (Lillard 1996). Lastly, Montessori’s own contribution to the issue of world peace, and her strong belief that childhood education was the master route to build a more compassionate humankind, was one of the stepping-stones for the institution of UNESCO. Indeed, in 1932 Montessori was invited to give a lecture on “Peace and Education” (later incorporated into her book, Education and Peace) by the International Bureau of Education.

The Bureau became an integral part of UNESCO in 1969. Additionally, already a few years after the foundation of UNESCO (1945), Montessori was directly involved in it: in 1949 she addressed the UNESCO General Conference in Paris, in 1950 she was a member of the Italian delegation to the Conference in Florence, and in 1951 she was present at the first meeting of the UNESCO Governing Board in Wiesbaden, Germany (AMI website).

UNESCO currently maintains official relations with more than 350 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on various projects (peace education, children rights, sustainable development, poverty, etc. ). Bibliography Education and Peace. Oxford: Clio, 1992. ISBN: 1851091688. (First published 1972. ) Education for a New World. Oxford: Clio, 1989. ISBN: 18851090959. (First published 1946. ) From Childhood to Adolescence. New York: Schocken Books, 1976. ISBN: 0805205004. (First published 1973. ) The Absorbent Mind. New York: Owl Books, 1995.

ISBN: 0805041567. (First published 1949. ) The Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986. ISBN: 0345336569. (First published 1948. ) The Formation of Man. Oxford: Clio, 1989. ISBN: 1851090975. (First published 1955. ) The Montessori Method. New York: Schocken, 1988. ISBN: 0805209220. (First published 1912. ) The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982. ISBN: 0345305833. (First published 1936. ) To Educate the Human Potential. Oxford: Clio, 1989. ISBN: 1851090940. (First published 1948. )

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