Dr Maria Montessori
By any standard, Dr Maria Montessori was an extraordinary woman. Italy’s first female doctor, Dr Montessori exhibited considerable tenacity and resilience to overcome the prejudices of her time. She exhibited such qualities many times during her lifetime.
Much has been written on her life. The following is a synopsis. However, for those interested in learning more about her life and work there is a wealth of information the literature.
The link at the end of this document will take you to a brief biography on the Montessori Australia Foundation website.
We encourage you to conduct your own search for more information on-line, in the library, or in the book store.
Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in the small town Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father was an accountant in the civil service, while her mother was well educated by the standards of the day and had a passion for reading. Italy at this time was a relatively new country, having only achieved unification and a national government in the mid-nineteenth century. It also had regional governments and was characterized by an industrialized, affluent north and a rural, agricultural south. Schools were not normally attended by the poor (who comprised the bulk of the population), as the children were required to work, contributing to the support of the family. They were the domain of the middle class.
Maria had originally intended to study engineering which was unusual in itself, but instead decided to study medicine. This was despite the opposition of her father and the Dean of Medicine. Having been eventually admitted to the University of Rome medical program, she was ostracised and ridiculed by her fellow students. As it was considered inappropriate for dissections to occur in mixed classes, Maria was often forced to study alone.
Upon her graduation in 1896, she was immediately offered a position with the San Giovanni Hospital attached to the University. Later she was to join a research programme within the psychiatric clinic at the University of Rome. Here, she met Giuseppe Montesano the father of her son, Mario (born 1898).
Her position at the clinic involved visiting Rome’s asylums for the insane, seeking patients for treatment at the clinic. A key event occurred when a caretaker at the children’s asylum described how the patients ran to any crumbs on the floor after their meal. Dr Montessori realized that as the children were kept in a bare, unfurnished room with no sensory stimulation, this was contributing to their condition.
She was subsequently appointed co-director with Giuseppe Montesano of a new institution called the Orthophrenic School. The school took children with a variety of disorders. It proved pivotal in Dr Montessori’s professional identity shifting from a physician to an educator.
Initially using the materials developed by the Frenchman Edouard Seguin to improve the child’s sensory perceptions and motor skills, Dr Montessori was to use them in new ways. Over the two-year period she spent at the Orthophrenic School, Dr Montessori experimented and refined the materials, analysing them and her patients from a scientific viewpoint.
Dr Montessori was passionate in her desire to improve the quality of the children’s’ lives, learning all that she could about education by studying pedagogy. She subsequently took up the post of lecturer at the Pedagogic School at the University of Rome.
Rome was developing rapidly by 1907. New developments were being constructed for people to live in. However, while the parents went to work the children were left to ‘run wild’, often vandalizing the buildings. The wealthy developers of one such development invited Dr Montessori to open a school for these children. She accepted this invitation eagerly as it was her first opportunity to test her theories on normal children. This was despite the popular view that such children were essentially unteachable.
On 6 January 1907 Dr Montessori opened her Casa dei Bambini or Children’s House. She introduced to her pupils the methods and materials she had been working with at the Orthophrenic School, only keeping those that engaged the children. Over time she experimented with new materials too, again only keeping those the children responded to. She introduced child-sized furniture and equipment, accessible from low level shelves. The equipment was brightly coloured or polished wood or metal, to capture and attract the child’s attention and touch. Within a short time the older children were learning and helping to take care of the classroom and the younger children. A second school opened in April 1907. Dr Montessori’s methods subsequently spread across the world.
While we may think of bright colours and child-sized equipment as standard practice in today’s schools, these changes were quite radical for 1907. Classrooms then were rigid, drab and colourless. Children were required to sit for considerable periods at a desk with few resources other than a small slate and either chalk or a slate pencil – if that was available. Paper was expensive so the slate was erased once work was completed and examined by the teacher. There was a heavy reliance on rote learning and memorization.
In contrast, the Children’s House allowed the children to move freely around a light filled attractive room, freely choosing from a variety of enticing materials. The materials were designed to be tactile and self-correcting, the teacher (called a director/ess or guide) involved when the child required their intervention or to instruct them on a new concept or how to use a new piece of equipment. Dr Montessori felt that children learn through engaging the hands and the mind together.
She came to name the classroom the ‘prepared environment’. This was because a primary role of the director/ess in a Montessori classroom is to observe the developmental needs of each individual child. The environment is then prepared and customized to meet the needs of those individual children. The children were also encouraged to be independent learners who acquired knowledge outside the classroom, exploring external resources such as galleries, museums and skilled adults. This is called ‘going out’ and is one of the many defining characteristics of a Montessori school.
The curriculum was divided into six main areas: Practical Life (i.e. how to live in the real world), Sensorial, Mathematics, Language and Literacy, Cultural (including geography, history, natural sciences, experimental sciences) and Creative subjects (art and craft, music and movement, drama). Today, the Montessori curriculum allows students to extend their learning in a particular subject area as far as their interest takes them. It extends beyond the requirements of the NSW Board of Studies syllabuses.
Classes were divided into mixed age groupings over a three-year period. Dr Montessori identified six main stages of development: 0-3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-12, 12-15 and 15-18. She observed the characteristics of each, including the physical, psychological and social aspects inherent within them. The materials and the pedagogy were customized to meet each age group’s needs and stage of development.
Obviously these things did not happen overnight. Dr Montessori spent many years developing her pedagogy. She wrote numerous books, lectured and travelled widely. The ‘Montessori Method’ that our children benefit from today is the result of an adaptive, highly scientific process refined by a tenacious, assiduous and highly intelligent woman. This same woman utterly refused to accept the social and educational precepts of her time in order to introduce fundamental changes to the method and environment in which children learn.
The extraordinary Maria Montessori was also someone who simply loved to learn and wanted that to extend to all children regardless of their class, race or cultural background.