Maria Montessori 1870-1952
Italian educator and physician.
Montessori developed a revolutionary method of early childhood education that continues to influence many school programs around the world. The first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree, Montessori was a practicing physician working with developmentally disabled children when she discovered that these children were educable—a discovery that was in direct contrast to the prevailing notion that mentally retarded children should be confined to institutions for life. Further research with nondisabled children showed that Montessori's theories were applicable across the curriculum. A well-known pacifist, Montessori believed that a link existed between world peace and proper childhood education and regularly addressed international organizations on the subject. Her work in this area led to nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951.
Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Ancona, Italy, in 1870. She graduated from Regia Scuola Tecnica Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1886 and Regia istituto tecnico Leonardo da Vinci in 1890. The first woman ever admitted to the school of medicine at the University of Rome, in 1896 Montessori became the first woman in Italy to graduate with a medical degree. She practiced medicine from 1896 to 1910, at the same time lecturing regularly at the Regio istituto superiore di Magistero Femminile, the Scuola magistrale Ortofrenica, and the University of Rome. An early feminist, Montessori began representing Italian women at women's conferences around the world shortly after obtaining her medical degree. She also began to treat mentally retarded children. She soon came to believe that, with proper instruction, they could be successfully educated according to their individual abilities, rather than spending their entire lives committed to mental institutions, as was the standard of the time. As she further developed her theories, Montessori decided to test her method on nondisabled children. Focusing on the children of the poor, she opened her Case dei Bambini (“children's houses”) in Rome—nursery schools in which “self education” was the central approach. By 1907 Montessori's schools were considered so successful that educators around the world began to adopt her methods and open Montessori-style schools in their own countries. Montessori societies arose, and Montessori herself led congresses throughout Europe, India, and the United States to teach her method. Already an internationally respected figure, Montessori earned further acclaim in the 1930s, when she began to address organizations such as the League of Nations, the International Peace Congress, the World Fellowship of Faiths, and UNESCO about the connection between education that focused on individual social and psychological needs and the development of a society based on peace and justice. For her work in the peace movement, Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. She died in the Netherlands in 1952, while at a conference teaching her method.
Montessori's theories about child education are most thoroughly detailed in her book Metodo della pedagogica scientifica applicata all' educazione infantile nelle case dei bambini (The Montessori Method; 1909), in which she discussed the teaching method used first at her Case dei Bambini and later at Montessori schools around the world. The Montessori method is based on the notion that the “work” of children is not to behave as small versions of adults, but to learn through the sensory exploration of their environments. Accordingly, Montessori advocated classrooms with child-sized furniture and teachers who provided the basic tools for learning and little discipline, with the goal of encouraging children to be self-guiding and self-disciplined. In 1917 and1918 Montessori published the two volume The Advanced Montessori Method, based on her further research into the subject. The Secret of Childhood (1936) is a practical guidebook to understanding the educational needs of children aimed primarily at parents. La mente del bambino (The Absorbent Mind; 1949) is a collection of lectures Montessori delivered at a conference in Ahmedabad, India, exploring her theory that children move through certain periods where they are particularly open to learning certain things. Educazione e Pace (Education and Peace; 1949) is a collection of Montessori's lectures on the “science of peace,” which held that world peace and justice were possible through education, starting at birth, aimed at fostering each individual's potential for spiritual liberation.
By the time she published The Montessori Method, Montessori had become a revered figure in the field of education, and her theories are still employed at Montessori schools around the world. She was not, however, without detractors. On her first visit to the United States in 1913, she was very well received. But interest in her method diminished after a few years and was not revived until the 1960s. Some critics speculate that, in the United States, Montessori and her ideas fell victim to the then-popular eugenics movement, which held that certain qualities such as mental illness and criminality were dependent on genetic rather than environmental factors, and that undesirable traits were far more common in certain ethnic groups, particularly southern Europeans. As an Italian—and an unmarried professional woman with a child—Montessori, commentators charge, may have appeared to pose a threat to the established belief that most women, immigrants, and especially the disabled could not and should not be educated. But as attitudes evolved, the Montessori method was increasingly adopted in the United States, and, although debate over its efficacy continues, it is widely considered a valid and successful educational theory.