I know that I usually choose women who are relatively unknown and that the name of Montessori is always synonymous with child-centered education. But, as I read about the life of Maria Montessori, I found that along with being a strong woman, she was a catalyst—she challenged the established educational norms of her time. Consequently, her actions sent ripples around the world, eventually reaching almost every continent on Earth.
Born in 1870 in a small provincial town in Italy, Maria was blessed to have a family where reading and education were highly prized. When the family moved to Rome, Maria’s mother took her to libraries, museums, and cultural events, and enrolled her in a school known for excellence in education.
By the time Maria was thirteen she was attending a previously all-boys technical school, where she could further her education in the sciences. The goal was for her to become an engineer, highly unusual in Italy at that time. At the technical school, she received lessons in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, accounting, history, and geography, in addition to the sciences. Her records indicated that she was particularly adept in mathematics and science. Three years later she enrolled in the technical institute Regio Instituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci, adding physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, and two foreign languages to her intellectual repertoire.
When she graduated in 1890 with a certificate in physics, she decided she wanted to go on to study medicine. She applied for a spot at the University of Rome’s medical program, but even with a record of stellar grades, she was rejected. Not one to easily quit, she began to take classes at the university that would prepare her for entrance to medical school. Eventually, she was admitted. Being the only female in her class, her professors deemed it inappropriate for her to dissect human cadavers in mixed company. She was relegated to that activity after hours, solo in the lab. When she graduated in 1896, she was among Italy’s first cadre of female physicians.
She focused her early medical practice in psychiatry and then began to take additional classes in pedagogy – the study of education. During this time, she began to question the methods used in Italy to teach children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In 1898, she gave birth to her son, Mario Montessori, whose father was a fellow doctor. Maria was given the choice of marrying with the knowledge that she would have to stop working—or continue her life’s work, but remain single. She chose to remain single.
In 1900, she was appointed as the co-director for an institute that trained special education teachers. Maria decided to have the teachers engage in a variety of instructional techniques and then record which ones led the students to further gains. By her own observations, she saw how the children learned from play and investigating nature.
By 1907, she armed herself with the research from her previous jobs and opened a childcare center in a poor inner-city neighborhood. The instruction here would be geared towards those techniques which had proved so successful at the institute. She called the school Casa Dei Bambini, which touted a child-centered environment for learning. Children were encouraged to work with puzzles, help to prepare the meals at the school, and were given various manipulatives to make mathematics a more concrete concept. They were also given ample time to spend outdoors in nature and play. Believing that children learned best by absorbing knowledge from their surroundings, Maria began to design specific learning materials to be used in all of her classrooms.
The school became an immediate success, and by 1910, Montessori schools (as they were now called) had spread throughout Italy.
For the rest of her life, Maria dedicated herself to studying the child-centered approach to learning. She lectured, wrote books, and designed curriculum – all with the young child in mind. Exiled in India during WWII, she took the opportunity to establish a training method for teachers interested in pursuing the Montessori Method.
In 1952, at the age of eighty-one Maria Montessori was sitting in a friend’s garden in Holland. Her life had been full and her efforts had transformed primary education more than she would realize. She closed her eyes and surrounded by the nature she loved, she peacefully passed away.
It is estimated that the number of Montessori schools worldwide is now approximately 20,000.
Thank you to the Broad Branch Children’s House Montessori School of Washington D.C. for allowing me to participate in their visitors’ programs and witness firsthand young children immersed in the joy of learning.
Did you have one particular teacher who stands out in your life? Who was that person!
~ Linda ~
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