Article abstract: The first woman to earn a medical degree and to practice medicine in Italy, Montessori became a spokesperson for human liberation and a pioneer in “scientific pedagogy.” She developed an educational theory based upon children’s spontaneous desire to learn in a prepared, free, child-centered environment that won international acclaim during her lifetime and enjoyed continued success after her death.
Maria Montessori was born in the town of Chiaravalle, Italy, on August 31, 1870, the year of Italian unification. She was the only child of Renilde Stoppani Montessori, an educated, patriotic daughter of a landed family, and Alessandro Montessori, a conservative civil servant. The family moved to Rome in 1875. There Montessori attended a public elementary school and, at age thirteen, elected to study mathematics at a technical school. After graduating from technical school with high marks, Montessori attended a technical institute from 1886 to 1890. Then, to the shock of her father and the Italian academic community, she decided to study medicine and to become Italy’s first female medical doctor. Montessori’s ultimate graduation from the Medical College in Rome as a doctor of medicine and surgery in 1896 was a triumph of self-discipline, persistence, and courage.
Upon graduation, Montessori was chosen to represent Italian women at an international women’s congress in Berlin, where her speeches on behalf of educational opportunity and equal pay for women won much praise. In November, 1896, Montessori was appointed a surgical assistant at a hospital for men, a medical assistant at the university hospital, and a visiting doctor at a women’s and a children’s hospital, all in Rome; in addition, she opened a private practice. She also continued her research at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome. As a voluntary assistant there, Montessori visited mental asylums to select patients for treatment at the clinic. Sorely troubled by the neglect of retarded children in the city’s asylums, Montessori increasingly directed her research toward possible treatment of these children. Her determination that the best treatment was not medical, but pedagogical, turned Montessori’s gaze to the study of educational theory and method.
Montessori undertook this new project with her customary energy and thoroughness, auditing education and physical anthropology courses at the university in 1897-1898 and reading all the pedagogical theory advanced over the last two hundred years. Ultimately, Montessori combined the century-old pedagogical ideas of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel (both of whom stressed the interrelationship of sensory, intellectual, and moral education and the need to move from the concrete to the abstract) with the early nineteenth century reformer Édouard Séguin’s graduated exercises in sensory and motor development for retarded children and the new measurement techniques of physiology and anthropology. She tested her ideas about special education for retarded children at the psychiatric clinic, at national medical and teachers’ conferences, on public lecture tours around Italy, and finally, in 1900, as the director of a new Roman medical-pedagogical institute for teachers of retarded children. In the demonstration school attached to this institute, Montessori experimented with new teaching methods and materials to foster sensory, motor, and intellectual skills in retarded kindergarten and primary students. The results were impressive: Under Montessori’s care, many of the supposedly unteachable children mastered basic skills, learned to read and write, and even passed the examinations given to all Italian elementary-school students. In two short years, Montessori had become the most successful and famous educator of retarded children in Rome. At last she was ready to devote her attention to the education of all children.
In 1901, at the age of thirty-one, Montessori resigned her directorship of the medical-pedagogical institute, gave up her medical practice, and launched a new career. She reasoned that if her classes of retarded children could outperform normal children on standard tests, there had to be something dreadfully wrong with normal elementary education. Simultaneously reading voraciously in educational philosophy and observing in local primary schools, Montessori was struck by the disjunction between the two: While educational theorists preached the need for individual development and freedom to learn, educators practiced a deadening rote instruction, physical restraint and silence, and reliance on external rewards and punishments. Montessori became convinced that her new methods and materials, if “applied to normal children, would develop or set free their personality in a marvelous and surprising way.” As a lecturer in the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome from 1904 to 1908, she refined her view that education should develop from the nature of the child rather than the other way around, as in traditional elementary education. She called this innovative approach “scientific pedagogy,” but it was at least as concerned with spiritual/moral development and human autonomy as with scientific observation and prediction. Montessori was increasingly certain that her scientific/mystical pedagogy could reform not only the schools but also all of society.
Montessori won the opportunity to prove her theory’s worth in 1907. A group of bankers had recently renovated a tenement house in a poor section of Rome and wished to establish a day-care center in the building, to keep the children of working parents from destroying the property. They turned to Montessori to direct the children’s center. To the surprise and dismay of her faculty colleagues, she accepted the challenge with alacrity and transformed the empty room...
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