Dr. Maria Montessori

The Montessori system of education was originated in the early 1900′s by the Italian physician Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952).  Her work inspired a movement that has carried the approach into more than 80 countries of the world and influenced the development of childcare and educational practices through the whole range of child growth, from infancy through secondary school. The number of Montessori programs operating in both private and public schools in the United States is estimated today at more than 5,000, aside from religious schools, the largest group to identify with a single educational approach.

As a girl, Montessori had sworn never to become a teacher, although at the time that was the one career outside of marriage considered suitable for a woman. Her decision to be a doctor led to struggle, first to gain admission to the University of Rome medical school, and then to overcome the prejudices of both professors and fellow students. Despite the disapproval of her own father, moments of self-doubt, and the tremendous amount of energy required to succeed, she graduated with honors to become Italy’s first female physician. In the years that followed, “the Dottoressa” physician, feminist, social reformer, and educator became one of the most admired, influential, and controversial women of the century.

During her residency at the University psychiatric clinic, Montessori’s duties and her interest in children brought to her awareness the plight of those who were considered uneducable, the “idiot children”, as they were called at the time.  In Italy these unfortunate little ones were placed in insane asylums alongside the adult patients, with little stimulation and no attempt to teach them even how to take care of themselves, Montessori’s efforts to remedy this situation led to the establishment of a state-supported school, with the Dottoressa herself as co-director.

Out of her visits to similar institutions in other parts of Europe, her study of the work of French physicians Itard and Seguin in their earlier attempts to educate children with special needs, and her daily interactions with these children came, a new approach to education. After a year of its use, Montessori’s students were able to perform as well as normal children on the Italian school examinations. The newspapers reported this accomplishment as a stunning success, but Montessori was moving on to other issues: “While everyone was admiring the progress of my idiots, I was searching for the reasons which could keep the happy healthy children of the common schools on so low a plane that they could be equaled in tests of intelligence by my unfortunate pupils. “If these new methods were used with normal children, she wondered, what would happen? Would they be able to move farther toward realizing their full potential?

Her opportunity to find out came soon after. The backers of a housing project in Rome were alarmed that the new buildings were so quickly becoming defaced like the slums they had replaced.  When investigation revealed that the source of this disrepair was the small children left at home, unattended while the parents went out to work, the backers decided to allot some space for an attendant to look after the children.  Dr. Montessori was invited to organize this project–in effect, the world’s first daycare center.

In its first year, the Casa dei Bambini or House of Children developed into a revolutionary new kind of school that gained immediate worldwide fame for the Montessori system. Its tiny “students” realized a potential that no one, even Montessori herself, had ever dreamed of. In an environment tailored to their needs, with adults whose profound respect for the spiritual child and pedagogical techniques resembled guidance more than direct teaching, and an atmosphere of liberty within limits, these “disadvantaged” children flourished in their development of independence, self-discipline, social grace and cognitive accomplishment.

Montessori’s most recent biographer states that many of the ideas she either invented or used in a new way have become part of education’s common language of discourse about the subject of educating the young–so much so, that their source is neither recognized nor credited (Kramer, 1976). Among these ideas we find:

  • Child-scaled furniture
  • The concept that children learn through play
  • The idea of developmentally appropriate educational materials
  • The “ungraded” class, which groups children by interest and ability rather than age, provides individually paced instruction, and gives each child freedom to proceed at his/her own rate
  • The idea of the child as different from adults, not just a smaller edition
  • The observation that infants are learning from birth onward, that age six is late to start thinking of a child’s education and three is not too early to begin schooling of the right kind
  • The importance of the environment in which learning is to take place
  • The significance of early stimulation for later learning and its implications for the education of the culturally impoverished child
  • The observation that children take a natural pleasure in learning to master their environment and that this mastery is the basis of the sense of competence necessary for independence
  • The judgment that real learning involves the ability to do things for oneself, not the passive reception of a body of knowledge
  • That the child benefits from learning materials that are intrinsically interesting, reality oriented, and designed to facilitate self-correcting and the refinement of sensory perceptions
  • That imposing immobility and silence hampers children’s learning and that, given interesting work to do, children will establish their own order
  • The concept of “sensitive periods,” phases of development appropriate to the learning of specific motor and cognitive skills
  • The right of every child to develop his or her own fullest potential and the idea that the school exists to implement that right
  • The idea that the school must be part of the community and involve the parents if education is to be effective

In many respects Montessori has been the starting place for all of early childhood education. Her influence may also have made itself felt through the contributions of others respected today in the fields of education, child development, and psychology: Jean Piaget, who made many of his early observations in Montessori schools and served as president of the Swiss Montessori Society; Erick Erikson and Helen Parkhurst, who held Montessori teaching credentials.

Montessori advocated special preparation for the teacher: a course of study promoting self-knowledge and spirituality along with knowledge of child development and techniques for implementing individualized learning, curriculum, and educational environment. For those who have made the effort to understand her concept of “freedom within limits” is as valid today as ever; good Montessori environments still offer the child an experience that builds competence and confidence with unsurpassed effectiveness–a timeless gift from one of the world’s great educators.