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Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was an Italian educator and physician who founded the Montessori preschool method of teaching. She was also the first Italian woman to earn a medical degree. In 1900 Montessori pioneered teaching methods to develop sensory, motor, and intellectual skills in mentally challenged kindergarten and primary school students. Under her direction these previously "unteachable" pupils mastered basic skills such as reading and writing and were able to pass the standard education tests given to all Italian grade school students.

Montessori based her theories on her observations of standard educational practices. She felt that traditional methods—teaching by rote (repetition and memory), restraining and silencing students, and relying on reward and punishment—were detrimental to child development. In its place she developed an alternative system called "scientific pedagogy." Based on noncoercive methods, it utilized materials such as blocks, cylinders, scaled bells, and color spectrums, which Montessori felt yielded better results in students. She believed that all children possess an innate desire and ability to learn and that they simply needed an encouraging environment in which "spontaneous activity" could also be an educational tool. She advocated hands-on activities rather than lecturing and believed strongly in parent and community participation in the school system. These ideas yielded highly positive results when put into practice.

In 1909 Montessori published The Montessori Method, which was reprinted in English three years later and became an instant bestseller in the United States. She continued to promote her method, which she believed would "develop and set free a child's personality in a marvelous and surprising way" for the rest of her life. When she died in the Netherlands at the age of eighty-one, her method had been successfully instituted throughout the Western world. Montessori programs also had an impact on public education.

Further Information: Montessori. [Online] Available http://www.creativeprocess.net/gp/mont.html, October 23, 2000; Standing, E. M. The Montessori Revolution. New York: Schocken Books, 1966; Standing, Mortimer. Maria Montessori. London: Sands and Company, 1929.

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