Dr Maria Montessori – a brief history

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Dr Maria Montessori, was a pioneer of early childhood education. She was one of the first women in Italy to attend medical school. Montessori Method founder.
Dr Maria MontessoriMethod Child Education, 1936

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Who is Dr Maria Montessori?

Dr Maria Montessori is regarded as a pioneer of early childhood education. She was one of the first women in Italy to attend medical school and the Montessori Method founder.

After she graduated from high school, Maria was encouraged to pursue teaching as a more ‘acceptable’ profession for a woman. Instead, she decided to forge a career in medicine. Although she was initially refused entry to the University of Rome, Maria persevered and commenced her studies in 1890. She graduated almost a decade later in 1889.

Maria Montessori’s Early career

Following graduation, Maria volunteered in a research program at the University’s psychiatric clinic. Here, her interest in educational philosophy grew and she found the work of Jean-Marc Itard (author of Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron) and Edouard Séguin. She was inspired by their ideas about educating children with intellectual disabilities using physical and sensory activities.

Four years after graduating from the University of Rome, Maria was appointed as the co-director of the University’s Orthophrenic School. She had started to be recognised as an advocate for both women’s rights and the education of children with a cognitive delay or disability.

Her theories were controversial for the times and were based on responding to a child’s need for stimulation and purposeful activity to build self-esteem.

She continued to research the notion that children’s education would benefit from observation and experimentation, an idea drawn from Itard’s work. She overlaid this idea with the systems for practical application in educating children with disabilities from Séguin’s work.

While working at the Orthophrenic School, Maria applied this notion of observation and experimentation, monitoring the disabled children’s responses to various educational methods and their developmental changes.

She found that, over time, the children were able to undertake everyday tasks that they had previously struggled to complete.

After two years of being cared for in this way, many of the children were able to pass the mainstream/standard exams. This success put Maria, and her work, in the spotlight. 

Montessori education at Casa Dei Bambini (Children’s House)

Early Children’s Houses in Italy. Photo supplied by Montessori Centenary.

Following her time at the Orthophrenic School, Maria undertook further studies in philosophy and continued her independent studies in education. She began to consider how her findings of working with disabled children could be adapted to the mainstream.

This body of work, which she referred to as ‘scientific pedagogy’ led to her publishing several articles and her eventual appointment as a lecturer at the University of Rome’s Pedagogic School.

Two years after her appointment, in 1906, Maria was invited to validate her ideas with a group of children who did not have mental disabilities.

It was through the Casa Dei Bambini (Children’s House) that she oversaw the education of approximately 60 children in Rome’s San Lorenzo district, aged two to seven. 

Her classroom at Casa Dei Bambini featured a blackboard and teacher’s table, as to be expected, but also a stove, armchairs and grouped tables with small chairs for the children to sit at.

Example of a historical Montessori classroom. Photo supplied by Montessori Centenary.

The children were shown the materials Maria had developed at the Orthophrenic School and engaged in activities such as personal care and upkeep of their environment including dusting, sweeping and gardening.

Observing behaviour of the children

Maria observed the children, taking note of their responses to activities, when they were concentrating deeply when their attention was being held, and so on. She found that the children were more engaged when undertaking the practical tasks outlined in her materials. They showed more motivation towards these activities than toys, treats and other rewards.

She gradually expanded the range of activities on offer and observed that allowing the children to have independence, freedom of choice and freedom of movement (within the limits of the environment) aided their ability to learn and fulfil their potential. 

When placed in an environment that encouraged their natural development, the children were able to self-educate effectively.

Self-directed play and learning. Photo supplied by Montessori Centenary.

The observations she made during this time resulted in many practices that are now seen as hallmarks of her methods, like using furniture suitable for children (think small, light chairs and low, accessible shelving).

In 1909, Maria published her first book. In The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in ‘The Childhood Houses’, Maria provides a sample day of lessons, including activities such as cooking, personal care, looking after pets, clay modelling, conversation and open-air exercise. Her book was translated to English in 1912, and eventually was published in 20 languages.

The rise of Montessori education

By 1911, Maria’s models were in used by many Swiss and Italian public schools. The French followed suit, with Montessori schools opening in Paris during 1912.  Soon after, Montessori foundations were established in the United States and United Kingdom and the first international training course was held in Rome. The Montessori educational boom was well underway, with Montessori schools popping up all around the world.

Dr Maria Montessori, 1933

This momentum continued until 1933, when the rise of fascism in Europe saw the schools close. Maria and her son Mario permanently left Spain soon after, escaping the civil war and relocating to the Netherlands.

Maria was invited by the Theosophical Society to give a training course in India, where she travelled with her son and collaborator Mario. While they were in India, Italy entered WWII on Germany’s side in.

The British Government detailed Italians in the UK and its colonies. Mario was interned, while Maria was confined to the Theosophical Society. Just two months later, Mario was released to be with his mother, and the pair were granted permission to travel for their work. Their three-month tour turned into a seven year stint.

Cosmic Education

Maria used her time in house arrest to develop her approach to educating primary school children (6-12 years), known as Cosmic Education. Mario was later released, and together they trained thousands of Indian teachers in their methods.

Maria Montessori’s Later life

They finally returned to the Netherlands in 1946, some 13 years after leaving for their three-month tour. Maria was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, leading up to her last public appearance at the International Montessori Congress in London in 1951. She passed away in 1952, leaving her son Mario to continue her work’s legacy.

Dr Maria Montessori in 1951. Photo supplied by Montessori Centenary.

Montessori methods and education today

According to SupplyDesk, the Montessori Method is used in more than 22,000 schools globally, making it one of the most well-known alternative education models, especially in early childhood education, and primary schools. 

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