Dr Maria Montessori
Maria Montessori was born on the 31st August 1870 in the town of Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father, Alessandro, was an accountant in the civil service, and her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was a well-educated woman who loved to read. In 1875 the Montessori family moved to Rome and in 1876 Maria was enrolled in the local state school on the Via di San Nicolo da Tolentino. As her education progressed, she began to break through the barriers which constrained women’s careers.
From 1886 to 1890 she studied at the Regio Instituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci, which she entered with the intention of becoming an engineer. This was unusual at the time as most girls studied the classics rather than going to technical school.
Upon her graduation, Maria’s parents encouraged her to take up a career in teaching, one of the few occupations open to women at the time, but she was determined to enter medical school and become a doctor. Her father opposed this course, as medical school was, at that time, an all-male domain and initially Maria was refused entry.
However, she was undeterred and in 1890, with the help of Pope Leo XIII, she enrolled at the University of Rome to study physics, maths and natural sciences — receiving her diploma two years later. Maria then entered the Faculty of Medicine, and became the first woman to enter medical school in Italy. She stood out not only because of her gender, but because of how hard she worked at her studies. She even managed to pay for most of her medical education herself through a series of scholarships she was awarded at medical school and the money she earned through private tuition.
“Although medical school was not easy due to the prejudice from her male colleagues, she was a deciated student and on the 10th July 1896 became the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Italy, and became known across the country.”
She was immediately employed in the San Giovanni Hospital attached to the University. Later that year she was asked to represent Italy at the International Congress for Women’s Rights in Berlin, and in her speech to the Congress she developed a thesis for social reform, arguing that women should be entitled to equal wages with men. A reporter covering the event asked her how her patients responded to a female doctor. She replied, “They know intuitively when someone really cares about them.… It is only the upper classes that have a prejudice against women leading a useful existence.”
In November 1896, Maria was employed as a surgical assistant at Santo Spirito Hospital in Rome, where she worked with the poor and their children — making sure they were warm and properly fed as well as diagnosing and treating their illnesses. In 1897 she volunteered to join a research programme at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome.
As part of her work at the clinic she would visit Rome’s asylums, seeking patients for treatment at the clinic. On one visit, the caretaker of a children’s asylum told her with disgust how the children grabbed crumbs off the floor after their meal. Maria realised that in such a bare, unfurnished room the children were desperate for sensorial stimulation and activities for their hands, and depriving them of it worsened the children’s abilities.
She began to read about the subject of children with intellectual disabilities and translated the ground-breaking work of two early 19th century Frenchmen (Jean-Marc Itard and Edouard Séguin) into Italian so she could properly understand it. Itard had developed a technique of education through the senses, which Séguin later tried to adapt to mainstream education. Séguin, who was highly critical of the regimented schooling system, emphasised respect and understanding for each individual child. He created practical apparatus and equipment to help develop the child’s sensory perceptions and motor skills, which Montessori would later use in new ways.
During 1897-98, Maria extended her knowledge of teaching methods — studying the works of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. In 1898, a 28-year-old Maria was asked to address the National Medical Congress, in Turin, about her work in the field of children with intellectual disabilities. Here she explained her controversial theory that the lack of adequate provision for these children was a cause of their disabilities. The following year, she addressed the National Pedagogical Congress and presented a vision of social progress and political economy rooted in educational measures. This notion of social reform through education was an idea that was to develop and mature in Montessori’s thinking throughout her life.
Maria became co-director of a new institution called the Orthophrenic School — which took children with a broad spectrum of disorders. Here she was able to put her theories into practice and her professional identity shifted from physician to educator. Montessori spent 2 years at the school, bringing a scientific, analytical attitude to the work; teaching and observing the children by day and writing up her notes by night. In 1901 Montessori left the Orthophrenic School and studied educational philosophy and anthropology.
In 1904 she took up a post as a lecturer at the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome, which she held until 1908. In one lecture she told her students:
“The subject of our study is humanity; our purpose is to become teachers, Now, what really makes a teacher is love for the human child; for it is love that transforms the social duty of the educator into the higher consciousness of a mission.”
During this period Rome was growing very rapidly and in the haste of speculative development some construction companies went bankrupt, leaving unfinished building projects behind. One such development, in the San Lorenzo district, was rescued by a group of wealthy bankers who reformed it into small units for impoverished working families. With their parents out at work all day, the younger children wreaked havoc on the newly-completed buildings and this prompted the developers to approach Dr Montessori to provide ways of occupying the children during the day to prevent further damage to the premises.
Montessori grasped the opportunity of working with the children, and she soon established her first Casa dei Bambini or ‘Children’s House’, which opened on the 6th January 1907.
There was only a small opening ceremony and not many had high expectations for the project. However, Montessori felt differently: “I had a strange feeling which made me announce emphatically that here was the opening of an undertaking of which the whole world would one day speak.”
She put many different activities and materials into the children’s environment but kept only those that engaged them. She then realised that children who were placed in an environment where activities were designed to support their natural development had the power to educate themselves. This was referred to later on as ‘auto-education’. In 1914 she wrote, “I did not invent a method of education, I simply gave some little children a chance to live”.
By 1908 there were five Casa dei Bambini operating, four in Rome and one in Milan. The children made extraordinary progress and news of Montessori’s new approach spread rapidly. Within a year the Italian speaking part of Switzerland began transforming its kindergartens into Casa dei Bambini, and the spread of the new educational approach began.
In 1909 Dr Montessori gave the first training course in her approach to around 100 students and published her first book in Italy. This was translated in the United States in 1912 as ‘The Montessori Method’, and reached second place on the U.S. non-fiction bestseller list. Soon afterwards it was translated into 20 different languages and has become a major influence in the field of education.
The Montessori approach expanded with Montessori societies, training programmes and schools appearing worldwide and Dr Montessori travelled to America, the UK and throughout Europe speaking and lecturing. Montessori devoted herself entirely to spreading the approach she had developed, however, much of this was disrupted by the events of the First World War.
On returning from the USA in 1917, Maria based herself in Barcelona, Spain, where a Seminari-Laboratori de Pedagogiá had been created for her. Her son and his new wife joined her, and her four grandchildren were born there: Mario Jr, Rolando, Marilena and Renilde. Her youngest grandchild, Renilde, was the General Secretary and then President of the ‘Association Montessori Internationale’, the organisation set up by Maria Montessori in 1929 to continue her work.
Maria’s ambition to create a permanent centre for research and development into her approach to early-years education, was thwarted by the rise of fascism in Europe. By 1933 all Montessori schools in Germany had been closed and an effigy of her was burned above a bonfire of her books in Berlin. In the same year, after Montessori refused to cooperate with Mussolini’s plans to incorporate Italian Montessori schools into the fascist youth movement, he closed them all down. The outbreak of civil war in Spain forced the family to abandon their home in Barcelona, and they sailed to England in the summer of 1936. From England the refugees travelled to the Netherlands to stay in the family home of Ada Pierson, the daughter of a Dutch banker.
In 1939 Maria and her son Mario, embarked on a journey to India to give a 3-month training course in Madras followed by a lecture tour; they were not to return for nearly 7 years. As they were Italian citizens, when the war broke out Mario was interned and Maria put under house arrest. Maria spent the summer in the rural hill station of Kodaikanal, and this experience guided her thinking towards the nature of the relationships among all living things, a theme she was to develop until the end of her life and which became known as ‘cosmic education’ — an approach for children aged 6 to 12. While in India, Montessori met Gandhi, Nehru and Tagore. Her 70th birthday request to the Indian government — that Mario should be released and restored to her — was granted, and together they trained over a thousand Indian teachers.
In 1946 they returned to the Netherlands and to the grandchildren who had spent the war years in the care of Mario’s second wife, Ada Pierson. In 1947 Montessori, now 76, addressed UNESCO on the theme ‘Education and Peace’. In 1949 she received the first of three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her last public engagement was in London in 1951 when she attended the 9th International Montessori Congress. On 6th May 1952, at the holiday home of the Pierson family in the Netherlands, she died in the company of her son, Mario, to whom she bequeathed the legacy of her work.