She was born in 1870. Maria was a sterling student, confident, ambitious, and unwilling to be limited by traditional expectations for women. She broke gender barriers at 13 by entering an all-boys technical institute to prepare for a career in engineering.
Children everywhere can thank her for her belief in their creative potential and drive to learn. My mom picked up a book about her method when I was born – so I’m first in line with the “mille grazie.”
“Joy, feeling one’s own value, being appreciated and loved by others, feeling useful and capable of production are all factors of enormous value for the human soul.”Maria Montessori
The Montessori system advocates for the right of each child to be treated as an individual.
Breaking rules early, and often
However, she did not become an engineer. And despite her father’s resistance, enrolled in medical school at The University of Rome with the help of her mother. Montessori graduated with honors in 1896 and became the first female doctor in Italy.
Pediatrics and psychiatry were her specialties. While teaching at her medical-school alma mater, Montessori treated many poor and working-class children who attended the free clinics. This gave her the chance to observed that intrinsic intelligence was present in all children.
The insight led to more research. Her hands-on experience with disabled children later led her to learning more about early childhood development and education. She began testing existing educational theories and observing results. This was her scientific approach. It worked.
She and young physician Giuseppe Ferruccio Montesano fell in love and she got pregnant. Montesano’s mother, a very severe dowager, refused to consider marriage. It could have spelt disaster. Montesano agreed to give his name to the child and promised he would not marry someone else. He would break both promises. In turn, Maria had to send her son to a wet nurse.
Instead of crumbling under the strain of her personal crisis, Montessori retired to meditate in the seclusion of a convent Her early triumphs had lulled her into a sense of invincibility. But the desperate circumstances she was in forced her to reappraise her situation.
Maria emerged from seclusion determined to reinvent herself completely. After resigning from medical practice, she enrolled at the University of Rome to master totally new areas of study. Her coursework included anthropology, educational philosophy, and experimental psychology.
Environment helps, so we should change it
Montessori had found that students’ development showed remarkable improvement after her applications. She talked about her research findings all over Europe, using her platform to advocate for women’s and children’s rights.
After her crisis and armed with new knowledge, Maria decided to refocus her work on the capabilities of “normal” children. In 1907 the Italian government afforded her that opportunity. Montessori had 60 students from the slums, ranging in age from 1 to 6 in her charge.
The school, called Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), enabled Montessori to create the “prepared learning” environment conducive to sense learning and creative exploration.
Utilizing scientific observation and experience gained from her earlier work with young children, Maria designed learning materials and a classroom environment that fostered the children’s natural desire to learn.
It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method… I have studied the child; I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method.
Starting a movement
Montessori encouraged teachers to stand back and “follow the child”— let children’s natural interests take the lead. She tweaked her methods over time through experimenting and kept publishing her results to spread her ideas in Europe and the U.S.
She continued writing and speaking frequently on the need for greater opportunities for women and was recognized in Italy and beyond as a leading feminist voice.
By 1925 more than 1,000 of her schools had opened in America. Then Montessori schools fell out of favor. In 1929, Mario Montessori co-founded the Association Montessori Internationale with his mother.
In 1940, only a few schools remained. When World War II began, Montessori had to remain in India with her son. While there, she developed a program called Education for Peace, which earned her two Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
She died in 1952, in Amsterdam. In the 1960s Montessori schools had a Renaissance, led by Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambusch. Today, Montessori’s teaching methods continue to “follow the child” all over the globe. Modern research continues to validate her findings.