Maria Montessori Essay - Critical Essays

Montessori, Maria


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Metodo della pedagogica scientifica applicata all' educazione infantile nelle case dei bambini [The Montessori Method] (essay) 1909

Antropologia pedagogica [Pedagogical Antropology] (essay) 1910

Dr. Maria Montessori's Own Handbook (essay) 1914

The Advanced Montessori Method. 2 vols. (essay) 1917-1918

Peace in Education (essay) 1932

The Secret of Childhood (essay) 1936

Education for a New World (essay) 1946

Educazione e Pace [Education and Peace] (essay) 1949

La mente del bambino [The Absorbent Mind] (essay) 1949


John Edgar (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: A review of Pedagogical Anthropology, in Mind, No. 91, July, 1914, pp. 433-34.

[In the following essay, Edgar reviews Montessori's Pedagogical Anthropology, noting that although there is little new in the collection of lectures, Montessori's enthusiasm for her subject is admirable.]

This volume [Pedagogical Anthropology] comprises the lectures delivered by Dr. Montessori during a period of four years in the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome.

In view of the great fame which her method of educating young children has won for the author, we opened the book with high expectations which have only partly been fulfilled. There is really little that is new in the volume, yet it glows with the enthusiasm of a teacher whose aim is not merely truth, but the betterment of society through its influence. Detailed technical discussions of such subjects as the principles of General Biology, Craniology, the Thorax, etc., are interspersed with digressions in which some social or pedagogical moral is pointed. Perhaps this is natural considering the fact that the lectures were intended to show the bearings of anthropology upon pedagogy. The plan at any rate was deliberately chosen. “The first chapter,” writes the author in the preface, “contains an outline of general biology, and at the same time biological and social generalisations concerning man considered from our point of view as educators.”

She would have education based upon and guided by the anatomical or anthropological characteristics of each child, and so safeguard and allow free development for individuality.

By this means she hopes on the one hand to deliver normal individuals from the blight and curse of uniformity and conventional commonplaceness, and on the other largely to do away with the need for prisons and hospitals. Schools for the abnormal and the subnormal, who would be early recognised from their family records and biometric charts, would be so multiplied and perfected that in time prisons and hospitals would practically cease to be required.

“If criminal anthropology has been able to revolutionise the penalty in modern civilisation, it is our duty to undertake, in the school of the future, to...

(The entire section is 957 words.)

Robert John Fynne (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: “Maria Montessori (1870- ),” in Montessori and Her Inspirers, Longmans, Green and Co., 1924, pp. 213-85.

[In the following essay, Fynne provides a detailed explanation of Montessori's theories and methods and traces major influences in the development of her thought.]

“The Montessori Method” is now so well known to students of education, and so many excellent works have already been written in detailed exposition and criticism of its principles and practice, that for the purposes of this chapter it will suffice to consider in broad outline its history, fundamental conceptions, didactic apparatus and procedure, in order that its relations to, and the...

(The entire section is 16903 words.)

Mandel Sherman (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: A review of The Secret of Childhood, in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, July, 1940, pp. 117-18.

[In the following essay, Sherman reviews Montessori's The Secret of Childhood, noting that the book presents “many good, common-sense deductions and suggestions” and is recommended reading for parents but may be rather simplistic for educators and theorists.]

This book [The Secret of Childhood] presents an extremely well-written, clear description of those educational problems of the young child which have always been of interest to Miss Montessori. Although the material is not new and might well have been written years...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

J. McV. Hunt (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Montessori Method, by Maria Montessori, Schocken Books, 1964, pp. xi-xxxix.

[In the following introduction to a later English translation of Montessori's The Montessori Method, Hunt remarks on the relevance of Montessori's theories in schools of the second half of the twentieth century and reviews her elemental beliefs.]

The enlightened self-interest that provided the first Casa dei Bambini in the slum tenements of Rome will find a responsive note today. Modern administrators and educators are faced with vandalism and aimless violence among economically and culturally deprived children who reject and are rejected by the...

(The entire section is 10620 words.)

Joan N. Burstyn (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: A review of Maria Montessori, in History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 143-49.

[In the following essay, Burstyn reviews Rita Kramer's biography Maria Montessori, finding that while Kramer provides a thorough account of her life, she fails to fully study or evaluate Montessori's career in its historical context, ultimately failing to address Montessori's revolutionary lifestyle and work in late-nineteenth-century Italy.]

The Montessori movement is thriving in the United States today. The local public library has a shelf of books on Montessori education, and within a five mile radius of my house are more than five...

(The entire section is 3115 words.)

Stelio Cro (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Education and Utopia in Maria Montessori,” in Canadian Journal of Italian Studies, Vol. 10, No. 34, 1987, pp. 23-42.

[In the following essay, Cro analyzes the place of Montessori's Absorbent Mind in the philosophical notion of utopia, from the ideal of the Renaissance Man to the dystopic visions of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.]

Sforzinda by Filarte, Leonardo's project for Milan in the sixteenth-century and the other architectural projects of the Renaissance belong, for chronological reasons as well as for philosophical ones, to a traditional, classical view of education. That view, which prevailed until the end of the Second World War, states...

(The entire section is 8173 words.)

David Gettman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Montessori and Her Theories,” in Basic Montessori: Learning Activities for Under-Fives, St. Martin's Press, 1987, pp. 1-35.

[In the following essay, Gettman provides an overview of Montessori's theories and methods.]


Maria Montessori, who lived from 1870 to 1952, was a brilliant and original educator, scientist, healer, humanitarian and philosopher.

In Montessori's time, a woman in Italy was not given the same educational opportunities as a man. But even as a child, Maria won special opportunities because of her intellect. She attended an all-boys' technical school, and there expressed an ambition to...

(The entire section is 15814 words.)

Deborah L. Cohen (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Montessori Methods in Public Schools,” in The Education Digest, Vol. 56, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 63-6.

[In the following essay, Cohen discusses reasons for the failure of American public schools to adopt Montessori methods.]

Although private schools remain the primary settings for Montessori instruction in the United States, the philosophy and methods identified with the movement have spread rapidly in the public system in the 1980s. First embraced by public educators in the mid-1970s as a theme for magnet programs designed to spur desegregation, the approach is now being used in about 110 public schools in 60 districts. Some 14,000 pupils were...

(The entire section is 1515 words.)

Dennis Schapiro (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “What if Montessori Education Is Part of the Answer?” in The Education Digest, Vol. 58, No. 7, March, 1993, pp. 40-3.

[In the following essay, Schapiro argues that Montessori's methods should be carefully reviewed and considered valid educational options for children in the United States.]

You need not think the Montessori Method holds the cure for all that ails American education to regret it has never been given a fair chance to prove just how much it can do.

We talk about needing systematic rather than piecemeal reform. The Montessori approach is integrated across the curriculum and through the ages from preschool through elementary....

(The entire section is 1448 words.)

Further Reading


Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1976, 410 p.

Biography that seeks to dispel myths about Montessori and centers on concrete facts about her life, work, and achievements. The volume includes a foreword by Anna Freud.

Standing, E. M. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. Fresno, Calif.: Academy Library Guild, 1957, 354 p.

Focuses on Montessori's career and her major influences.


Baber, Ray E. A review of The Secret of Childhood, by Maria Montessori. American Sociological Review 5, No. 4 (August...

(The entire section is 257 words.)