Montessori, Maria (1870–1952)

views updated May 09 2018


Physician Maria Montessori is recognized as one of the pioneers in the development of early childhood education. She is also credited with promoting a substantial number of important educational reforms that have worked their way over the course of the twentieth century into the mainstream of education. These include the recognition of multiple pathways to learning, the importance of concrete or hands-on learning, the stages of cognitive development in children, and the link between children's emotional development and their ability to learn at an optimal rate. Her ideas about the importance of the first six years of life and the boundless potential of childrenregardless of race, gender, or social classmade a significant contribution to human rights as societies around the world began to rede-fine the rights and roles of women and children.


Montessori was born in 1870 to an educated middle-class family in Ancona, Italy. Growing up in a country that was, at the time, very conservative in its attitude toward and treatment of women, Montessori pursued a medical and scientific education. In 1896, despite many years of opposition from her father, teachers, and male fellow students, she graduated with highest honors from the Medical School of the University of Rome, becoming the first woman physician in Italy.

Work with Disabled Children

As a physician, Montessori specialized in pediatrics and the newly evolving field of psychiatry. Her approach was that of a well-trained scientist, rather than the familiar philosophical exploration and intuitive approach followed by many of the educational innovators who came before and after. Montessori found it ironic that she became best known for her contributions in education, a field that she had been unwilling to enter as it was one of the three traditional roles open to women at the time: working with children, homemaking, or the convent.

Montessori taught at the medical school of the University of Rome, and through its free clinics she came into frequent contact with the children of the working class and poor. Her experience with the children of poverty convinced Montessori that intelligence is not rare, although it seemed to present itself in many forms other than those recognized by traditional schools.

In 1900 Montessori was appointed director of the new Orthophrenic School attached to the University of Rome, formerly a municipal asylum for the "deficient and insane" children of the city, most of whom would be diagnosed in the twenty-first century as autistic or mentally disabled. She and her colleagues initiated a wave of reform in an institution that formerly had merely confined these mentally challenged youngsters in barren settings. Recognizing her young patients' need for stimulation, purposeful activity, and self-esteem, Montessori dismissed the caretakers who treated the inmates with contempt. Facing a desperate lack of staff to care for so many children in a residential setting, she set out to teach as many as possible of the less-disturbed children to care for themselves and their fellow inmates.

Links to Itard and Séguin

From 1900 to 1901, Montessori combed the medical libraries of western Europe seeking successful work previously done with the education of children with disabilities. Her studies led Montessori to the work of two almost forgotten French physicians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin. Itard is well known in the twenty-first century for his work with the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," a youth who had been found wandering naked in the forest, presumably abandoned as a very young child and thus spending many years living alone. The boy could not speak and lacked almost all of the skills of everyday life. Here apparently was a "natural" man, a human being who had grown up outside of human society without the influence of interaction with his own kind. Itard hoped from this study to shed some light on the age-old debate about what proportion of human intelligence and personality is hereditary and what proportion stems from learned behavior.

This experiment was a limited success, although it captured the attention and imagination of many of his contemporaries. Itard found his wild boy uncooperative and unwilling or unable to learn most things. This led him to postulate the existence of developmental periods in normal human growth. He formed the hypothesis that, during these "sensitive periods," a child must experience stimulation to develop normally, or grow up, forever lacking the skills and intellectual concepts not developed at the stage when nature expects them to be readily absorbed.

Although Itard's efforts to teach the wild boy were barely successful, he followed a methodical approach in designing the process, arguing that all education would benefit from the use of careful observation and experimentation. This idea had tremendous appeal to the scientifically trained Montessori, and later became the cornerstone of her method.

From the work of Édouard Séguin, a French psychologist who studied with Itard and carried on his research, Montessori drew further confirmation of Itard's ideas, along with a far more specific and organized system for applying it to the everyday education of children with disabilities. Working primarily with the blind, Séguin developed a methodical approach to breaking skills down into small steps, and was highly successful with a carefully developed collection of hands-on educational materials. In the early twenty-first century, Séguin is recognized as the founder of the modern approach to special education.

The Orthophrenic School

From these two predecessors, Montessori took the idea of a scientific approach to education, based on observation and experimentation. She belongs to the child study school of thought and pursued her work with the careful training and objectivity of the biolo-gist studying the natural behavior of an animal in the forest. Montessori studied her mentally disabled patients, listening and carefully noting their response to her attempts to implement Séguin's educational methods, as well as their progress in becoming increasingly independent and verbal.

Slowly the children learned to perform most of the everyday tasks involved in preparing the meals and maintaining the environment of the residential school. Her success with these mentally disabled children received international attention when, after two years, many of Montessori's such adolescents were able to pass the standard exams given by the Italian public schools.

Acclaimed for this miracle, Montessori responded by suggesting that newborn human beings normally enter the world with an intellectual potential that was barely being developed by schools in the early years of the twentieth century. She challenged that if she could attain such results with children who were disabled, schools should be able to get dramatically better results with normal children.

Montessori's work reinforced her humanistic ideals, and she actively supported various social re-form movements. She was a highly regarded guest speaker throughout Europe on behalf of children's rights, the women's movement, peace education, and the importance of a league of nations. Montessori become well known and highly regarded throughout Europe, which contributed to the publicity that surrounded her schools.

The Children's House

Unfortunately, the Italian Ministry of Education did not welcome Montessori's ideas, and she was denied access to school-aged children. Frustrated in her efforts to conduct the experiment with public school students, in 1907 she welcomed the opportunity to serve as the medical director for a day-care center that was being organized for working-class children who were too young to attend public school.

This first Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) was located in the worst slum district of Rome, and the conditions Montessori faced were appalling. Her first class consisted of fifty children, from two through five years of age, taught by one untrained caregiver. The children remained at the center from dawn to dusk while their parents worked, and had to be fed two meals per day, bathed regularly, and given a program of medical care. The children themselves were typical of extreme inner-city poverty conditions. They entered the Children's House on the first day crying and pushing, exhibiting generally aggressive and impatient behavior. Montessori, not knowing whether her experiment would work under such conditions, began by teaching the older children how to help out with the everyday tasks that needed to be done. She also introduced the manipulative perceptual discrimination and puzzles and eye-hand manipulative exercises that she had used with mentally disabled children.

The results surprised her, for unlike her mentally disabled children who had to be prodded to use her apparatus, these very small children were drawn to the work she introduced. Children who had wandered aimlessly the week before began to settle down to long periods of constructive activity. They were fascinated with the puzzles and perceptual training devices.

To Montessori's amazement, children three and four years old took the greatest delight in learning practical everyday living skills that reinforced their independence and self-respect. Each day they begged her to show them more, even applauding with delight when Montessori taught them the correct use of a handkerchief to blow one's own nose. Soon the older children were taking care of the school, assisting their teacher with the preparation and serving of meals and the maintenance of a spotless environment. Their behavior as a group changed dramatically from that of street urchins running wild to models of grace and courtesy. It was little wonder that the press found such a human-interest story appealing and promptly broadcast it to the world.

Montessori education is sometimes criticized for being too structured and academically demanding of young children. Montessori would have laughed at this suggestion. She often said, "I followed these children, studying them, studied them closely, and they taught me how to teach them."

Montessori made a practice of paying close attention to the children's spontaneous behavior, arguing that only in this way could a teacher know how to teach. Traditionally schools at this time paid little attention to children as individuals, other than to demand that they adapt to external standards. Montessori argued that the educator's job is to serve the child, determining what each student needs to make the greatest progress. To her, a child who fails in school should not be blamed, any more than a doctor should blame a patient who does not get well fast enough. Just as it is the job of the physician to help people find the way to cure themselves, it is the educator's job to facilitate the natural process of learning.

Montessori's children exploded into academics. Too young to go to public school, they begged to be taught how to read and write. They learned to do so quickly and enthusiastically, using special manipulative materials that Montessori designed for maximum appeal and effectiveness. The children were fascinated by numbers. To respond to their interest, the mathematically inclined doctor developed a series of concrete math learning materials that still fascinates many mathematicians and educators to this day. Soon her four- and five-year-olds were adding and subtracting four-digit numbers, soon progressing on to multiplication, division, skip counting, and increasingly advanced and abstract concepts.

Their interests blossomed in other areas as well, compelling the overworked physician to spend night after night designing new materials to keep pace with the children in geometry, geography, history, and natural science. Further proof of the children's academic interests came shortly after her first school opened, when a group of well-intentioned women gave the children a collection of lovely and expensive toys. The new gifts held the children's attention for a few days, but they soon returned to the more interesting learning materials. To Montessori's surprise, she found that children who had experienced both generally preferred work over play, at least during the school day. Of the early twenty-first century classroom, Montessori would probably add: "Children read and do advanced mathematics in Montessori schools not because we push them, but because this is what they do when given the correct setting and opportunity. To deny them the right to learn because we, as adults, think that they should not is illogical and typical of the way schools have been run before."

Montessori evolved her method through trial and error, making educated guesses about the underlying meaning of the children's actions. She was quick to pick up on their cues, and constantly experimented with the class. For example, Montessori tells of the morning when the teacher arrived late, only to find that the children had crawled through a window and gone right to work. At the beginning, the learning materials, having cost so much to make, were locked away in a tall cabinet. Only the teacher had a key and would open it and hand the materials to the children upon request. In this instance the teacher had neglected to lock the cabinet the night before. Finding it open, the children had selected one material apiece and were working quietly. As Montessori arrived the teacher was scolding the children for taking them out without permission. She recognized that the children's behavior showed that they were capable of selecting their own work, and removed the cabinet and replaced it with low open shelves on which the activities were always available to the children. This may sound like a minor change, but it contradicted all educational practice and theory of that period.

The Discovery of the Child

One discovery followed another, giving Montessori an increasingly clear view of the inner mind of the child. She found that little children were capable of long periods of quiet concentration, even though they rarely show signs of it in everyday settings. Although they are often careless and sloppy, they respond positively to an atmosphere of calm and order.

Montessori noticed that the logical extension of the young child's love for a consistent and often repeated routine is an environment in which everything has a place. Her children took tremendous delight in carefully carrying their work to and from the shelves, taking great pains not to bump into anything or spill the smallest piece. They walked carefully through the rooms, instead of running wildly as they did on the streets.

Montessori discovered that the environment itself was all-important in obtaining the results that she had observed. Not wanting to use heavy school desks, she had carpenters build child-sized tables and chairs. She was the first to do so, recognizing the frustration that a little child experiences in an adult-sized world. Eventually she learned to design entire schools around the size of the children. She had miniature pitchers and bowls prepared and found knives that fit a child's tiny hand. The tables were lightweight, allowing two children to move them alone. The children learned to control their movements, disliking the way the calm atmosphere was disturbed when they knocked into the furniture. Montessori studied the traffic pattern of the rooms, arranging the furnishings and the activity area to minimize congestion and tripping. The children loved to sit on the floor, so she bought little rugs to define their work areas and the children quickly learned to walk around work that other children had laid out on their rugs.

Montessori carried this environmental engineering throughout the entire school building and outside environment, designing child-sized toilets and low sinks, windows low to the ground, low shelves, and miniature hand and garden tools of all sorts. Many of these ideas were eventually adapted by the larger educational community, particularly at the nursery and kindergarten levels. Many of the puzzles and educational devices in use at the pre-school and elementary levels in the early twenty-first century are direct copies of Montessori's original ideas. However, there is far more of her work that never entered the mainstream, and twenty-first-century educators who are searching for new, more effective answers are finding the accumulated experience of the Montessori community to be of great interest.

Worldwide Response

Maria Montessori's first Children's House received overnight attention, and thousands of visitors came away amazed and enthusiastic. Worldwide interest surged as she duplicated her first school in other settings with the same results. Montessori captured the interest and imagination of leaders and scientists around the world. In America, leading figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford enthusiastically supported her. Through books and countless articles written about and by Montessori, she also became a well-known authority to parents and teachers.

As an internationally respected scientist, Montessori had a rare credibility in a field where many others had promoted opinions, philosophies, and models that have not been readily duplicated. The Montessori method offers a systematic approach that translates very well to new settings. In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the Montessori method seemed to offer something for everyone. Conservatives appreciated the calm, responsible behavior of the little children, along with their love for work. Liberals applauded the freedom and spontaneity. Many political leaders saw it as a practical way to reform the outmoded school systems of Europe, North America, and Asia, as well as an approach that they hoped would lead to a more productive and law-abiding populace. Scientists of all disciplines heralded its empirical foundation, along with the accelerated achievement of the little children. Montessori rode a wave of enthusiastic support that many felt should have changed the face of education far more dramatically than it did.

The Decline and Resurgence of Interest in Montessori Education in America

By 1925 there were more than 1,000 Montessori schools in the United States and many tens of thousands more around the world. But by 1940 the movement had virtually disappeared from the American scene. Only a handful of schools remained that openly advertised that they followed the Montessori approach, although many continued to operate without using the name. Education textbooks failed to mention her at all except as an obscure footnote, and her work was virtually forgotten until it was "rediscovered" and brought back to North America in the 1960s by Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambush and the newly formed and rapidly expanding American Montessori Society. During this period, Montessori schools continued to expand in most of the rest of the world.

The question is often asked about what led to the decline of Montessori education in the United States. Several reasons can be reasonably postulated, including the disruption in trans-Atlantic travel during and after World War I and World War II. Many would agree that a highly influential book published in 1922 by Professor William Kilpatrick of Columbia University, Montessori Reexamined, may have led many American educators to dismiss Montessori unfairly as being an intellectual holdover from the outdated and no longer accepted theories of faculty psychology. Kilpatrick pronounced that Montessori was rigid, outdated, and mistaken in her attempt to educate the senses, suggesting that she was under the misapprehension that the brain and senses could be strengthened, like a muscle, by exercises in sensory training and memorization. Unfortunately, this and many other criticisms were unfounded, primarily based on a lack of accurate information and under-standing, along with perhaps some bias against Montessori's popularity as she was a doctor and not a trained educator. Others have suggested that her being a highly articulate and outspoken woman who was openly critical of the schools of her day may have also played a substantial role.

In the early twenty-first century there are almost six thousand Montessori schools in the United States, and their number continues to expand in virtually every country around the world. In America, most Montessori schools are nonpublic and primarily serve early childhood students between the age of two and six. However, the number of public school districts implementing the Montessori approach has grown substantially since the 1980s, with more than 300 districts running more than 500 magnet Montessori schools. As charter schools have developed, Montessori schools are among the most popular and successful models.

Also since the 1980s, Montessori schools have tended to expand in both enrollment and the age levels served, with the majority of schools offering elementary programs as well as early childhood. Secondary Montessori programs are less common, but are beginning to appear in substantial numbers, initially as middle school programs and gradually as high school programs as well.

The largest professional society in the United States is the American Montessori Society in New York City. It accredits Montessori schools and more than fifty university-sponsored and independent Montessori teacher education centers around the United States. Several dozen smaller professional Montessori associations can also be found in the United States. They include the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the society founded by Montessori herself in 1929, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands and a national office in Rochester, New York; and the more recently founded umbrella organization for Montessori schools, the International Montessori Council (IMC), which has its American offices in Rockville, Maryland, and Sarasota, Florida. The Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE) also accredits Montessori teacher education programs and is recognized ognized by the United States Department of Education.

Montessori's prime productive period lasted from the opening of the first Children's House in 1907 until the 1930s. During this time, she continued her study of children, and developed a vastly expanded curriculum and methodology for the elementary level as well. Montessori schools were set up throughout Europe and North America, and Montessori gave up her medical practice to devote all of her energies to advocating the rights and intellectual potential of all children.

During her lifetime, Montessori was acknowledged as one of the world's leading educators. As with all innovators, the educational community moved on beyond Montessori, adapting many elements of her work that fit into existing theories and methods. It can be fairly suggested that every classroom in America reflects Montessori's ideas to a fairly substantial degree. Certainly the contemporary attitudes about multiple intelligences, the importance of mental health and emotional literacy, the attractiveness of the modern classroom, the use of manipulative materials in instruction, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, and multiage classrooms as a desirable model for classroom groupings are just a few examples of ideas generally attributed to Maria Montessori.

Ironically, schools are beginning to recognize that the Montessori approach has much more to offer, primarily because to obtain the results that Montessori made world famous, schools must implement her model as a complete restructuring of the school and the teacher's role, rather than as a series of piecemeal reforms.

As understanding of child development has grown, many contemporary American educators and those who would reform education have rediscovered how clear and sensible her insight was. In the early twenty-first century, there is a growing consensus among many psychologists and develop-mental educators that her ideas and educational model were decades ahead of their time. As the movement gains support and continues to spread into the American public school sector, one can readily say that Montessori, begun at the dawn of the twentieth century, is a remarkably modern approach.

See also: Early Childhood Education; Instructional Strategies.


Kramer, Rita Maria. 1988. Maria Montessori: A Biography. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Lillard, Paula. 1972. Montessori, a Modern Approach. New York: Schocken.

Montessori, Maria. 1992. The Secret of Childhood (1940). London: Sangam.

Montessori, Maria. 1995. The Absorbent Mind (1949). New York: Holt.

Montessori, Maria. 2002. The Montessori Method (1912). Mineola, NY: Dover.

Standing, E. Mormiter. 1998. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Plume.

Timothy David Seldin

Montessori, Maria (1870–1952)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Montessori, Maria (18701952)

Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, on August 31, 1870. She was one of the most famous figures in the diverse and frequently contradictory formation known as the Progressive education movement. As was the case in other fields at the time, it was a male-dominated movement and Montessori was its most prominent woman leader. A first-wave feminist who, when young, had spoken at women's conferences, she overcame many social obstacles to become an internationally renowned public figure. Among the potential barriers to her success was the fact that she was a single parent. Throughout her life she managed to conceal from the general public the fact that she had a son. She was driven by an unshakable belief in the correctness of her educational opinions and beliefs and was highly skilled in communicating them to international audiences. The strength of her convictions about the efficacy of her methods, while adding to her persuasiveness, paradoxically undermined her ambition to see her practices widely adopted. This failure was also partly due to the necessity to generate income from her method and apparatus in order to live. Unable to sanction any version or representation of her methods other than those over which she had complete control, the movement she inspired repeatedly split when she disowned it.

Although Montessori's impact was perhaps greatest in the field of early childhood education, where Progressive education was at its most coherent, as she outlined in her The Advanced Montessori Method (1917), she hoped that her method would be implemented in schools for older children. Like other child-centered educators, such as Johann Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, and John Dewey, she made a unique contribution to the formulation of the general principles and practices that currently inform the field of early childhood education.

In 1896 Montessori became the first woman graduate of a medical school in Italy. In 1897 she joined the staff of the psychiatric clinic attached to the University of Rome and as part of her work she visited mental asylums and came into contact with children who at that time were referred to as "feebleminded." This encounter led her to an examination of the work of the French physicians Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin who, earlier in the nineteenth century, had written about children with physical and mental disabilities. Having formed the opinion that the problems encountered by such children required a pedagogical rather than a medical solution, Montessori then embarked on a study of the work of the Romantic educationalists Pestalozzi, Froebel, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as well as other less well known educational theorists. In addition, she studied anthropology, particularly the versions taught by Cesare Lombroso and Giuseppe Sergi. From this mix of study and experience she concluded that, given the right scientific approach, the children of the poor, including the disabled, were all educable and that by this means social reform could be achieved.

For two years, from 1900 to 1902, she held a position at the Orthophrenic School, an institute responsible for the training of teachers in schools for physically and mentally disabled children. During this time, she developed her own apparatus based on that of Itard and Seguin to assist children's learning. From 1904 until 1908 she lectured at the University of Rome in anthropology and education. Her lectures were published in a book entitled Pedagogical Anthropology (1913). While the content of this book is dated it contains ample evidence of Montessori's social reforming impulses, and her commitment to "scientific pedagogy" and social regeneration. Overall, her work is characterized by a combination of positivism and spirituality or even mysticism, mixed with Roman Catholicism, feminism, and theosophy.

During this period, the focus of her work changed from a concern with the physical condition of individuals to their social condition. In this respect the trajectory of her thinking was similar to that of social reforming women in many countries such as Kate Douglas Wiggin of the free kindergarten movement in the United States and Margaret McMillan, the pioneer of nursery schools in England.

Montessori's involvement in attempts at social reform intensified in 1907 when her Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) was opened in a model dwelling in a slum in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. There she was able to experiment with the educational methods and apparatus that she had developed with children with disabilities. Many visitors to the Casa dei Bambini, and to the other schools she opened subsequently, were astonished by the success of her approach.

In 1912, an English edition of her book on her work at the Casa dei Bambini was published. Entitled The Montessori Method, this book made her internationally famous. In it she outlined the origin of her pedagogical apparatus which was used for sense training and which, she claimed made possible, "the method of observation and liberty. " Observation by the teacher, individualism, and autoeducation were the watchwords of the Montessori method. The latter meant that by means of carefully graded apparatus the children would educate themselves in a prepared environment with little help from a teacher.

By 1913, the year of her first trip to the United States, Montessori's fame had spread widely and both the educational and mainstream press were full of reports of her work. From then until the end of the 1920s, Montessori occupied a prominent place in education debate and policy. Although many schools adopted some of her ideas, few implemented them in their entirety. During this period Montessori travelled widely and provided training courses for teachers in many countries.

In 1924, she accepted government support for her methods in Italy from the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Ten years later when she refused to concede further to the demands made by Mussolini, he ordered that all the Montessori schools in Italy be closed. The same fate befell her schools in Germany, Austria and Spain as Nazi and fascist governments came to power. As the threat of war intensified, Montessori began to devote her efforts to a campaign for world peace.

During World War II, Montessori was stranded in India when the British authorities in India interned her son, Mario, as an enemy alien. They had gone there at the invitation of the Theosophical Society just as the war broke out. When the war ended, Montessori resumed her work of training teachers, lecturing and publication. Her later books, which include The Absorbent Mind, consist mainly of notes of her lectures. Montessori died in 1952 near The Hague in the Netherlands. Her ideas still attract followers in education and the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), founded in 1929 continues to promote them.

See also: Age and Development; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Education, Europe.


Beatty, Barbara. 1995. Preschool Education in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Brehony, Kevin J. 2000. "Montessori, Individual Work and Individuality in the Elementary School Classroom." History of Education 29, no. 2: 115128.

Chattin-McNichols, John. 1992. The Montessori Controversy. Albany, NY: Delmar.

Cohen, Sol. 1968. "Educating the Children of the Urban Poor: Maria Montessori and her Method." Education and Urban Society 1, no. 1: 6179.

Cohen, Sol. 1969. "Maria Montessori: Priestess or Pedagogue?" Teachers College Record 71, no. 2: 313326.

Cunningham, Peter. 2000. "The Montessori Phenomenon: Gender and Internationalism in Early Twentieth-Century Innovation." In Practical Visionaries: Women, Education and Social Progress, 17901930, ed. Mary Hilton and Pam Hirsch. New York: Long-man.

Kramer, Rita. 1968. Maria Montessori: A Biography. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Martin, Jane Roland. 1994. Changing the Educational Landscape: Philosophy, Women, and Curriculum. New York: Routledge.

Montessori, Maria. 1912. The Montessori Method. Trans. Anne E. George. New York: Frederick Stokes.

Montessori, Maria. 1913. Pedagogical Anthropology. Trans. Frederic Taber Cooper. London: Heinemann.

Montessori, Maria. 1914. Dr Montessori's Own Handbook. London: Heinemann.

Montessori, Maria. 1917. The Advanced Montessori Method. Trans. Arthur Livingston. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.

Montessori, Maria. 1967. The Absorbent Mind. Trans. Claude A. Claremont. New York: Holt.

Rohrs, Hermann. 1982. "Montessori, Maria." Prospects 12, no. 4: 524530.

internet resource

Association Montessori Internationale. 2002. Available from <>.

Kevin J. Brehony

Montessori, Maria (1870–1952)

views updated May 29 2018

Montessori, Maria (1870–1952)

Italian doctor, scientist and pioneer children's educator. Pronunciation: Mont-ES-OR-ee. Born Maria Montessori on August 31, 1870, in Chiaravalle, near Ancona, Italy; died on May 6, 1952, at Noordwijkon-Sea, Holland; only child of Alessandro Montessori (a soldier and civil servant) and Renilde Stoppani; educated at state schools and the University of Rome, graduated Doctor of Medicine, 1890; never married; children: one son, Mario (b. 1898 or 1901).


Honorary fellowship from the Educational Institute of Scotland (1946); Legion d'Honneur from the French government (1949).

Selected writings:

The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the "Children's Houses" (1912); The Advanced Montessori Method (1913); Pedagogical Anthropology (1913); Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook (1914); The Child in the Church (1930); The Mass Explained to Children (1932); The Secret of Childhood (1936); The Reform of Education During and After Adolescence (1939); What You Should Know About Your Child (1940); Education for a New World (1946); The Discovery of the Child (1948); The Absorbent Mind (1949); To Educate the Human Potential (1950).

On a warm evening in early summer, 1914, over 5,000 enthusiasts crammed into Carnegie Hall in New York City. Drawn from all walks of life, they held a common interest: to solve the many difficulties associated with children's education. The principal speaker was Maria Montessori, whose thoughts on that subject were then widely regarded as the most perceptive and influential of their kind anywhere in the world.

Maria was born on August 31, 1870, in the small town of Chiaravalle, near Ancona on the Adriatic coast of Italy. Her father Alessandro, who was descended from one of the numerous petty noble families of the area, had earlier established a distinguished record as a soldier. Following his retirement from the army, he had become a civil servant in Ancona, earning himself a reputation as an implacable bureaucrat and stolid defender of traditional conservative values. Maria's mother Renilde was primarily known for her piety and her lifelong commitment to and encouragement of charitable works among the poor. She seems to have developed a particularly close rapport with her only child. In fact, until Renilde's death in 1912, she and Maria maintained a faithful correspondence.

At the local state schools in Ancona, which she attended from an early age, Montessori displayed no special aptitudes or talents in any particular field of study. Neither did she appear to be an ambitious child, preferring, rather, to spend most of her time helping her mother in charitable endeavors. This situation changed in 1882, following her parents' decision to move to Rome. The standard of education there was far better, and Maria quickly blossomed into an accomplished scholar. At age 14, for example, she displayed an understanding of mathematical principles that was well in advance of her peers.

It was in these circumstances that her parents attempted to encourage her to become a teacher, then a well-regarded career path for women. Ironically, given her later interests, Montessori flatly refused to consider such an option. Rather, she expressed a keen desire to study engineering and to this end enrolled in a small technical school. This desire did not last; shortly thereafter, Montessori's interests turned, first to biology and then to medicine.

Alessandro strongly disapproved of this latter development and tried to discourage his daughter. He pointed out that medicine was an all-male profession and that Montessori would find it impossible to gain admittance to university. Despite this, and with Renilde's covert support, Maria persevered and won a scholarship to enter the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Rome. Though she was faced throughout her student years with many instances of discrimination, petty jealousy and persecution, Montessori never wavered in her determination. In 1896, she qualified as the first female M.D. to be licensed in Italy.

Later the same year, she spoke at a feminist congress in Berlin, Germany. Her experiences as a medical student had given her a unique insight into the plight of women attempting to enter the work force. Montessori's impressive speech, which was widely reported and commented on in the left-wing European press, led to further invitations to similar gatherings. For instance, in London in 1900, she spoke out in a similarly rousing manner against the exploitation of child labor in industry.

From 1896 on, however, Montessori was principally immersed in her medical career. Shortly after her graduation, she was appointed an assistant doctor in Rome University's psychiatric clinic. One of her duties was to visit the various asylums in the city to select patients to be brought to the clinic for treatment. Montessori was shocked to discover the many children who at the time were confined alongside adults in these asylums. Noting that the children's rooms were bare of any form of stimulation, such as toys, she quickly came to the conclusion that their problem was primarily educational and not medical. In 1899, Montessori laid out this view, in an address entitled "Moral Education," before a distinguished educational conference in Turin. As a result, Dr. Guido Bacelli, then minister of education in the Italian government, invited her to give a series of lectures further exploring this issue. This in turn led to the establishment of the first Orthophrenic school in the country, which provided facilities to train teachers in the special needs of retarded children.

Montessori served as the first director of this school and, during her term of office, traveled widely, studying new educational developments in the field. Soon, she was thinking of expanding what she had learned into other areas of children's education. She had a conviction, "so deep as to be of the nature of an intuition," she said, and it "became my controlling idea. I became convinced that similar methods applied to normal children would develop and set free their personality in a marvelous and surprising way."

In 1901, she resigned as director in order to re-register as a student at Rome University. Montessori believed that before she could set about developing new educational principles, she had to understand a great deal more about the methods and arguments of other disciplines, particularly psychology and philosophy. There may also have been a more personal reason. Around this time (some sources cite 1898, the majority favor 1901), Montessori gave birth to a son, Mario. The child's father was a colleague of Montessori's named Dr. Montesano. For reasons unclear, both families opposed the idea of marriage, and Montessori had little choice but to give up her son to a wet nurse. Indeed, until her mother's death in 1912, Montessori had very little contact with the child.

It was not long after these events that the directors of the Institutio Romano Dei Beni Stabili, one of the most prominent building societies in Rome, began formulating plans to build two large blocks of apartments in the city. These apartments were to be erected in the San Lorenzo quarter then infamous for its squalor, poverty, crime, and overcrowding. The new buildings, however, were of high quality and were open to any current resident of the quarter on the condition that he or she would keep the property in good condition, refrain from all manner of social vices, and engage in a positive attempt to reform his or her life.

This project was largely successful but ran into one difficulty. With parents at work and the older children at the local state school, many younger children (aged 3 to 6) were left to fend for themselves. The local authorities moved to rectify this situation and decided to open a small school where these children could receive proper attention. Thanks to her already established reputation, they asked Montessori to assume responsibility for this center. Although she had many other duties and obligations at this time (since 1904 she had held the chair of anthropology at Rome University, and was continuing her medical practice in various clinics and hospitals throughout the city), she had no doubts about the importance of this school and enthusiastically agreed. Montessori later recalled that, during the opening ceremony of the school early in 1906, she "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."

Over the next three years, her frequent visits to the school led her to a number of what can only be described as revolutionary insights into the methods of children's education. She became convinced that there were certain important and identifiable characteristics of childhood which were hidden or denied by traditional educational methods. All children, she thought, possessed a range of personal qualities quite different from those normally attributed to them. The purpose

of education, therefore, must be to release these qualities in order to create a new and higher form of personality. It is the principles engaged in this effort to uncover the "New Child" which form the basis of what is still known today as the "Montessori Method."

The Montessori Method is not easily summarized. Montessori always insisted that its foundational principles could only properly be applied by teachers who had undergone a long process of training. In other words, they cannot be read as a simple list applicable anywhere but, rather, as a methodology which must be creatively engaged in specially selected environments with the special needs of each particular child in mind. With that proviso, the following represents the main elements of Montessori's vision.

(1) The mainspring of all children's efforts is their spontaneous interest in their surroundings and so there is no need for adults to use force or persuasion; (2) children have a psychological need to engage in repetitive behavior (no matter how meaningless this might appear); (3) small children have an innate sense of order; (4) all children should be permitted a free choice of activity in order to promote their personal independence; (5) children prefer work to play; (6) no child sets any store by a system of rewards and punishments; (7) each child has a love and need for occasional periods of silence; (8) all children enjoy a profound sense of personal dignity; (9) all children engage in spontaneous self-discipline.

She knew that she had discovered a key which could unlock immeasurable constructive energies for human development.

—E.M. Standing

In a series of books first published in Italian in 1909, Montessori sought to explain the apparent success of her methods. These books were translated into over 20 foreign languages and Montessori found herself acclaimed as an international celebrity. Many teachers traveled to Rome in search of instruction in her methods, and she received numerous requests to tour abroad and lecture. In these circumstances, Montessori realized that she had to resign all her academic and medical positions in order to concentrate completely on spreading her educational principles to all corners of the globe.

In 1911, the first school run on the Montessori Method opened in Tarrytown, New York. The following year, Montessori's book, The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the "Children's Houses," was published in the United States attracting widespread interest and becoming a bestseller. This eventually prompted Edward McClure, the wealthy publisher of McClure's Magazine, to invite Montessori to the United States with the promise that he would fund an institute dedicated to investigating and promoting her work. Though greatly tempted by this offer, she eventually declined, but she did agree to come in 1914 to conduct a cross-country series of lectures. So successful was this tour that Montessori returned the following year to California to organize the first special training courses for teachers. On this occasion, she was accompanied by her son Mario who remained in Hollywood to open his own Montessori school.

Montessori's ideas found increasingly enthusiastic support throughout the world. In Germany, Austria, Holland, Russia, India, China, Japan, and Chile special "Children's Houses" were built, often with Montessori's direct collaboration. In 1916, she traveled to Barcelona, Spain, where she founded a "Children's Chapel," thereby extending her principles to the specific field of religious education. Throughout this period, however, Montessori was consistently worried that her principles were being misunderstood and misapplied by well-meaning but unqualified individuals. She firmly believed that only she was qualified to interpret her theories in a proper fashion. As a result, she began to spend more of her time organizing and developing a new type of rigorous training course for specially selected groups of teachers. The first of these courses were held in England and Holland between 1918 and 1920.

Throughout the 1920s, however, enthusiasm for Montessori's methods, particularly in Europe, began to wane. As interest in child education developed, new theories evolved which made the Montessori Method appear rigid and inflexible. This situation was not helped by Montessori's own increasingly autocratic manner and her continued insistence that her theories could only be understood by the few who had received her direct instruction.

The only apparent exception to this trend was in Italy. In 1924, Montessori met the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini whom she persuaded into supporting her methods. As a result, she received a great deal of financial backing from the government, which was poured into the funding of schools and training centers. This success, however, was only short lived. In 1934, the state issued a decree requiring all children to wear a special uniform to school and to give the fascist salute each morning. When Montessori refused to countenance these measures, all the Montessori schools and centers were immediately closed.

As Europe drifted closer to war in the 1930s, Montessori's projects in other countries were similarly affected. The Nazi regime in Germany and Austria proscribed her work and the left-wing government that came to power in Barcelona at the beginning of the Spanish civil war in 1936 banned her religious schools. Since Montessori was in Barcelona at the time, she was apparently in some danger before British authorities arranged her escape to London.

In 1939, Montessori organized a training course at Benares University in Madras, India. She had long believed that the Indian sub-continent, with its mass illiteracy and appalling rates of poverty, was a fertile area for the reception of her ideas. When she was there, however, World War II began which meant that she, an Italian citizen, found herself trapped in a part of the British empire. The usual result in these cases would have been for the enemy alien to be interned for the duration of the conflict. Wisely, the British authorities decided that a 70-year-old woman of distinguished international reputation lent no threat to their war effort, and they allowed her to continue to travel and teach throughout India until 1945.

Following the end of the war, Montessori returned to Italy, where the newly formed government asked her to re-establish a system of Montessori schools. Shortly thereafter, she was offered a chair at the University of Berlin but declined the honor in order to return to India to complete her work training a new generation of teachers. For three years running (1949–51), she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1950, after her return from India, she served for a short period as the director of the International Center for Educational Studies at the University of Perugia in Italy.

Increasing ill health, however, eventually caused Montessori to resign from all her public positions and retire to Holland (where the international headquarters of the Montessori movement had been established). She continued to receive a variety of honors, such as an honorary Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam, but was more pleased to realize that her method was once again beginning to receive widespread and serious attention from educational theorists. Maria Montessori, aged 81, died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage at her home in Holland on May 6, 1952.


Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Montessori, Maria. The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the "Children's Houses." NY: Schocken Books, 1964.

Standing, E.M. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. NY: Mentor Books, 1954.

suggested reading:

Standing, E.M. The Montessori Method: A Revolution in Education. Fresno, CA: Academy Guild Press, 1962.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Montessori, Maria

views updated May 14 2018

Montessori, Maria

The Montessori method




Maria Montessori (1870-1952), Italian educator, was born in the provincial town of Chiaravalle. Her father, a conservative army officer, had little sympathy with his daughter’s desire for a career, but she received encouragement from her mother. Montessori attended a lay state school until she was 12, when the family moved to Rome for better educational opportunities. At 14, because of an interest in mathematics and engineering, she went to classes at the technical institute; this interest gave way to an interest in biology, which led ultimately to her decision to study medicine. She be-came the first woman graduate of a medical school in Italy, despite difficulties which surely enhanced her strong feminist leanings. (She attended several international feminist congresses.)

As an assistant doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Rome, she had her first encounter with defective children, and this early experience convinced her that the problem of handicapped children is a pedagogical as well as a medical one. Previous advocates of this approach were Jean Itard, who worked with deaf-mutes as well as with “the wild boy of Aveyron,” and Itard’s student Edouard Séguin, who founded a school for defectives in Rome; their work reinforced her conviction that the difficulties of the handicapped could be ameliorated by special educational treatment.

In 1899 Montessori became the directress of the State Orthophrenic School in Rome, which served the “hopelessly deficient” children of the city, and later also the “idiot” children. There she taught the children and trained other teachers to work with them. She visited London and Paris to exchange ideas on methods of treatment with others in this field. The mentality of the children in the institution developed so remarkably and unexpectedly that she received considerable attention. Her success made her want to try the same methods and techniques with normal children, and the opportunity came when in 1906 the Italian government gave her the responsibility for 60 children aged three to six from the slums of the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome—the beginning of her famous Casa dei Bambini.

Meanwhile, in 1901 she had left the Orthophrenic School to resume studies at the University of Rome; she sought “further study and meditation” in psychology and philosophy. She was then holding the chair of hygiene at the Scuola di Magistero Femminile in Rome and was a permanent external examiner in the faculty of pedagogy. In 1904 she became a professor at the University of Rome, and from 1904 until 1908 held a chair of anthropology there. In addition to lecturing (some of her published works were based on her auditors’ lecture notes), she was practicing not only in hospitals and clinics but also privately, and it was through this extensive practical application of her methods and principles that she came to formulate her conception of the nature of the child that underlay the program of the Casa dei Bambini.

The Montessori method

It was in the early years of the Casa dei Bambini that the fundamentals of what we now know as the Montessori method were developed. This “Children’s House,” as well as subsequent ones, proved to be an excellent way of dealing with cultural deprivation. The “prepared environment” set a basic atmosphere for learning, with room for “the liberty of the pupils in their spontaneous manifestations.” In keeping with her belief that the teacher must be kept in the background, guiding and disciplining minimally, the entire staff consisted of herself and two untrained young women. The activity materials provided an opportunity for the child to acquire important percepts through sensory-motor means. Each “game” was designed to teach a skill or a fact. There were no benches, desks, or stationary chairs (standard equipment in schools prior to Montessori) but, rather, small chairs and tables, a low washstand, and low blackboards, all making the daily routine easy for the child. Long low cupboards contained the didactic materials, the care of which was entrusted to the children: these materials included counting beads in blocks of ten; two-dimensional geometric puzzles; graduated prisms, rods, and cubes; letters of the alphabet made of sandpaper, cardboard, and wood, for obtaining direct sensory impression of the letters; and series of tuned bells. In this “prepared environment” the child practiced the education of his senses, reading, metrics, grammar, music, manual training, and gymnastics, and he also learned cleanliness, order, poise, absorption, and patience. The pleasure the children took in silently concentrating on the materials was remarkable. Montessori had the ability to learn from observing the children at work on the apparatus and constantly made constructive changes in the “work situation.”

Montessori made certain generalizations on the basis of her observations: that children go through a series of “sensitive periods” with their “creative moments,” when they show spontaneous interest in learning and have maximal ability to do so; that children prefer “work” with creative materials to “play” with objects defined as toys; that they have an extraordinary capacity for mental concentration, a desire to repeat activities over and over, and a love of order, for which witness their concern that materials be returned where they “belong”; that “work is its own reward” and there is no need for external reward; and that since spontaneous self-discipline is created by the liberty and independence of the school situation, there is no need for punishment (other than isolation). Indeed, Montessori became quite mystical about this notion of self-discipline: she saw it as a continuation of the cosmic discipline that orders the stars. A further general pattern that she identified was the existence of spontaneous “advanced interests,” for example, “the burst into writing,” which precedes by several months the “burst into reading”; by virtue of these “advanced interests,” three- and four-year-old children begin to read and write with the materials available to them in the classroom.


Montessori’s work grew out of a dedication to individual self-expression that goes back to the eighteenth century; she belongs in the tradition of Rousseau, Froebel, and Pestalozzi. Also, her work is related to that strain in evolutionary thought which stresses development. But the hereditarian stress in Darwin’s theory runs counter to her own emphasis on the importance of early experience, and her work was not in harmony with other strong intellectual trends of the first half of the twentieth century: behaviorism, with its emphasis on stimulus-response learning; the notion of fixed intelligence, based on intelligence testing; and the psychoanalytic emphasis on instinctual, and especially psychosexual, determination of personality and behavior. “Progressive education,” as conceived primarily by John Dewey, was more in keeping with these trends, and as it came to dominate education, the Montessori system was all but forgotten.

Although the Montessori method did spread abroad from Rome after 1918—Montessori’s publications were translated into 20 languages, and training courses were set up in England, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Ceylon, and Argentina—there was only a brief flurry of interest in it in the United States when Montessori visited there in 1913. Recently, beginning in the 1950s, there has been a resurgence of interest, related perhaps to such developments as reforms in the mathematics and science curricula in the schools and new concern for handicapped children—handicapped genetically or environmentally. This renewed interest has produced many new Montessori schools and training centers. It may well be that the Montessori method is more than a fad, that it deals, instead, with fundamental aspects of learning.

Jacqueline Y. Sutton

[See also Developmental psychology; Educational psychology; Intellectual development;and the biographies of ClaparÈde; Dewey; Gesell.]


(1909) 1964 The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in “The Children’s Houses.” Cambridge, Mass.: Bentley. → First published as II metodo della pedagogia scientifica. . . . A paperback edition was published by Schocken with an Introduction by J. McV. Hunt.

(1910) 1913 Pedagogical Anthropology. New York: Stokes. → First published as Antropologia pedagogica.

(1914) 1966 A Montessori Handbook: “Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook.” Edited by R. C. Orem. New York: Putnam.

(1916-1917) 1964 The Advanced Montessori Method. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Bentley. Volume 1: SpontaneousActivity in Education. Volume 2:Montessori Elementary Material. First published in Italian.

(1924) 1965 Child in the Church: Essays on the Religious Education of Children and the Training of Character. 2d ed. Edited by Edward M. Standing. St. Paul (Minn.) Catechetical Guild. → A collection of essays, excerpts, and conversations first published in Italian.

1936 The Secret of Childhood. London: Longmans. → A second edition was published in 1950 in Italian as II segreto dell’ infanzia.

1946 Education for a New World. Asundale Montessori Training Center, Adyar, Madras Publication Series, No. 1. Madras (India): Kalakshetra.

(1949 a) 1964 The Absorbent Mind. 5th ed. Madras (India): Theosophical Publishing House.

(1949 b) 1955The Formation of Man. Madras (India): Theosophical Publishing House. → First published in Italian.


Bruner, Jerome S. 1960 The Process of Education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Donahue, Gilbert E. 1962 Dr. Maria Montessori and the Montessori Movement: A General Bibliography of Materials in the English Language, 1909-1961. Pages 141-175 in Nancy M. Rambusch, Learning How to Learn: An American Approach to Montessori. Baltimore and Dublin: Helicon.

Itard, Jean M. G. (1801) 1932 Wild Boy of Aveyron. New York: Century. → First published as De I’education d’un homme sauvage, ou des premiers developpements physiques et moraux du jeune sauvage de VAveyron.

Lewin, Kurt (1931) 1935 Education for Reality. Pages 171-179 in Kurt Lewin, A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Piaget, Jean (1923) 1959 The Language and Thought of the Child. 3d ed., rev. New York: Humanities Press. → First published as Le langage et la pensee chez l’enfant.

Rambusch, Nancy M. 1962 Learning How to Learn: An American Approach to Montessori. Baltimore and Dublin: Helicon.

SÉguin, Edouard 1846 Traitement moral, hygiène et éducation des idiots. Paris: Baillière.

Standing, Edward M. 1959 Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. Fresno, Calif.: Academy Library Guild.

Standing, Edward M. 1962 The Montessori Method: A Revolution in Education. Fresno, Calif.: Academy Library Guild.

Montessori, Maria

views updated Jun 27 2018


MONTESSORI, MARIA (1870–1952), one of the most influential contributors to western educational thought.

Initially trained as a scientist and doctor, Maria Montessori is best known for developing a child-centered educational approach using instructional toys. A tough, inspired woman with irrepressible enthusiasm, and a remarkable strength of character and capacity to work, Montessori was a complex and controversial figure. For a few years before the outbreak of World War I, she was one of the most famous women in the world.

Maria, the only child of educated, middle-class parents, was born in a small Italian town and grew up in Rome. In an age when girls aspired to be wives, nuns, or teachers, she decided to become an engineer and successfully completed preparatory technical and scientific studies. By the time she enrolled at the University of Rome, Montessori switched from one male-dominated profession to another. Enthusiastically supported by her mother and grudgingly tolerated by her father, she over came the opposition of male professors and students to study medicine. At the age of twenty-six, Montessori graduated with outstanding results to become one of the first women doctors in Italy. Over the next decade, she began private practice, held a number of part-time clinical positions, wrote specialist scientific papers, continued her own studies, and taught natural sciences in university teacher training courses.

To many contemporaries, the young woman doctor embodied the ideal of modern femininity. As a delegate to the 1896 international women's congress in Berlin and later in public lectures, Montessori argued that science had the power to liberate women from domestic drudgery and provide effective education for their children, all without robbing mothers of feminine charm. Throughout her life, she delighted in displaying competence in ladylike virtues; in the press, she was described as combining the delicacy of a talented, graceful young woman with the strength of a man.

In her early clinical work, Montessori developed an interest in the way sensory exercises with specially designed objects improved the treatment of "idiot children." By 1898 she assumed a prominent public role in the newly formed National League for the Education of Retarded Children. "Moral imbeciles," "intellectual idiots," and "congenital delinquents," she argued as the League's representative, should be removed from ordinary schools, provided with scientifically designed training, and transformed from potential burdens and parasites into productive members of society. When, in 1900, the League opened a model school, Montessori and a colleague were appointed codirectors. "I was with the children from early morning till evening as if I were a real teacher," she later recalled, "not a physician conducting an experiment." Through close observation of the children and trial and error with educational toys, Montessori became convinced that the handling of increasingly complicated objects, and sensory exercises more generally, help improve intellectual capacities; self-education through self-directed activity could transform the "unteachable" into literate children. Montessori's association with her codirector also produced an illegitimate son, who later became her closest professional associate.

In 1906 Montessori tried out her approach on "normal" toddlers in an experimental preschool in a slum district of Rome. To the disgust of her learned colleagues, the thirty-six-year-old doctor and professor became involved in the day-to-day care of fifty grubby urchins. Children, she confirmed, thrived on graduated challenges presented to them by self-correcting materials. Motivated by the enjoyment of a sense of mastery, they calmed down and taught themselves. Montessori insisted that such an instructional environment needed to be expertly guided and prepared; she did not hesitate to suppress what she saw as inappropriate behavior and rudeness. The ideal child for her was independent, self-controlled, and courteous, in turn exerting a civilizing influence on parents and, beyond them, the whole society.

Modern states, social theorists note, need self-policing, diligent workers and citizens. Montessori's system, relying on guided self-development rather than external coercion, promised to supply them. Within a year, the slum school and its successors became famous, attracting visitors, patrons, and helpers. Montessori schools and societies were established around the world. In 1910, annoyed by public distortions and commercial exploitation of her ideas, Montessori gave up all professional appointments to focus on the widening international network of schools and societies, the training of teachers, and the production and sale of instructional materials. Montessori's determined attempts to control the dissemination and application of her ideas proved controversial. In a period when children of different social groups experienced vastly different childhoods, and scientists put forward incommensurate theories about people's nature and learning, they blunted the impact of her work.

Montessori lectured, traveled, and taught to the end of her long life. Her ideas helped transform theories of human development; over time, they became part of everyday understandings and experiences of childhood.

See alsoChildhood and Children; Education.


Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York, 1976.

Martin, Jane Roland. The Schoolhome: Rethinking Schools for Changing Families. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Montessori, Maria. Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook. Edited by Reginald Calvert Orem. New York, 1965.

——. The Montessori Method: The Origins of An Educational Innovation, Including an Abridged and Annotated Edition of Maria Montessori's The Montessori Method. Edited by Gerald Lee Gutek. Lanham, Md., 2004.

Walkerdine, Valerie. "Developmental Psychology and the Child-Centered Pedagogy: The Insertion of Piaget into Early Education." In Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity, by Julian Henriques et al. London, 1984.

——. "Progressive Pedagogy and Political Struggle." In Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, edited by Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore. New York, 1992. A shorter version of much the same argument as above.

Pavla Miller

Montessori, Maria

views updated May 17 2018

Maria Montessori

Born: August 31, 1870
Chiaravalle, Italy
Died: May 6, 1952
Noordwijk, Netherlands

Italian physician and educator

The Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori was the first Italian woman to receive a medical degree. She was the originator of the Montessori method of education for children.

Early life

On August 31, 1870, Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father, Allessandro Montessori, a retired army officer, was very traditional. Her mother, Renilde Stoppani Montessori, was an intelligent, modern-thinking woman from a wealthy family. Maria's mother taught her daughter how to be compassionate by giving her the task of knitting for the poor every day. Maria herself chose to scrub a portion of the tile floor every day. Much later, as a teacher, Montessori included such work in her studies for children, calling them "exercises of practical life."

As an elementary school student Montessori blossomed. She was average in intelligence, but good at exams, and she lead her classmates in many games. She found the classroom set-up and repetitions very boring, yet she learned. When it came time to leave elementary school she had to ask her parents if she could continue. Women in her time were not encouraged to get more than an elementary school education.

Montessori's father discouraged her interest in a professional career. With the encouragement and support of her mother, however, she prepared herself for her later career. When she was twelve, the family moved to Rome, Italy, to take advantage of the better educational facilities. An interest in engineering technology and mathematics led her to enroll in classes at a technical institute at the age of fourteen. Later an interest in biology led to her decision to study medicine. This decision required some courage, because of society's views on women's education.

Professional life

In 1894 Montessori became the first woman to receive a medical degree in Italy. Her experiences in the pursuit of this degree reinforced her already well-developed feminist (in support of equality of the sexes) ideas. Throughout her life she was a frequent participant in international feminist events.

Montessori's first appointment was as an assistant doctor in the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome, where she had her first contact with learning disabled children. She became convinced that the problem of handling these children was as much one of teaching method as of medical treatment. In 1898 she was appointed director of the State Orthophrenic School in Rome, whose function was to care for the "hopelessly deficient" and "idiot" children of the city. She enjoyed tremendous success in teaching the children herself, while refining and applying her unique methods. In 1901 Montessori left the school to pursue further studies and research.

In 1906 the Italian government put Montessori in charge of a state-supported school in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome, which had sixty children, aged three to six, from poverty-stricken families. By this time her early successes with learning disabled children suggested to her the idea of trying the same educational methods with normal children. She used what she termed a "prepared environment" to provide an atmosphere for learningthat is, small chairs and tables instead of rows of desks. The basic features of the method are development of the child's natural curiosity through responsible and individual freedom of behavior, improvement of the sharpness of the five senses (hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling) through training, and development of body coordination through games and exercise. The function of the teacher is to provide educational material, such as counting beads or geometric puzzles, and act as an adviser and guide, staying as much as possible in the background.

The Montessori method

Montessori's view of the nature of the child, on which the Montessori method is based, is that children go through a series of "sensitive periods" with "creative moments," when they show spur-of-the-moment interest in learning. It is then that the children have the greatest ability to learn, and these periods should be utilized to the fullest so that the children learn as much as possible. They should not be held back by forced, rigid curricula (plans of study) or classes. Work, she believed, is its own reward to the child, and there is no necessity for other rewards. Self-discipline (controlling oneself) emerges out of the freedom of the learning environment.

Montessori's method was basically at odds with other major twentieth-century trends. Thus it was used only by a relatively few private schools. Since the early 1950s, however, her system has enjoyed a revival and a renewed interest in learning disabled children. Her works have been translated into at least twenty languages, and training schools for Montessori teachers have been established in several nations.

For More Information

Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1976. Reprint, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.

Shephard, Marie Tennant. Maria Montessori: Teacher of Teachers. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1996.

Standing, E. M. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. London: Hollis & Carter, 1957. Reprint, New York: New American Library, 1984.

Montessori, Maria

views updated May 18 2018


Educator and originator of the Montessori Method;b. Chiaravalle, near Ancona, Italy, Aug. 31, 1870; d. Noordwijk, Netherlands, May 8, 1952. The first woman to receive a medical degree in 1894 at the University of Rome, Maria Montessori lectured on anthropology at the University and practiced as assistant physician at its psychiatric clinic where she came into contact with retarded children.

While working at the State Orthophrenic School in Rome (18991901), she turned her attention to the education of the feebleminded. She was conversant with E. Seguin's educational methods, which were the forerunner of much of the pedagogical treatment allied with medicine, later known as therapy. In her work at Bicêtre, in Paris, she noted Seguin's use of didactic apparatus rather than teacherdominated methods. Utilizing this experience she devised a great variety of didactic materials and trained a corps of teachers who were encouraged and stimulated by her dynamic personality.

While lecturing on pedagogy at the University of Rome (190107), she became interested in the education of normal children. In 1907 she opened the Casa dei Bambini, the first Montessori school for normal children, and within three years she had established three similar classes. Until 1911 she directed these schools, situated for the most part in the poorer sections of Rome and Milan.

From 1911 until her death she traveled the world Europe, India, the U.S.lecturing to teachers and interested persons, writing prodigiously, and instituting teachertraining centers. She introduced her method in Spain when she took charge of the Montessori Institute in Barcelona in 1917, and in London in 1919. On returning to Italy in 1922, she was appointed government inspector of Italian schools but was obliged to leave in 1934, during Mussolini's regime, because of her alleged pacifist ideas. She returned to the Barcelona Institute but again withdrew in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War and established an educational center at Laren near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In 1939 she went to India to conduct a training course in Adyar, Madras, where, although interned as an enemy alien with her son, Mario Montessori, she continued her courses at Ahmadabad. After World War II, Montessori made the Netherlands her permanent home.

Montessori's major educational contribution was her method, which thrived in the U.S. and abroad in the early 20th century but later waned. Its early demise in the U.S. is attributed to the rising progressive movement and the work of J. Dewey and W. H. Kilpatrick. Her progressive ideas, especially her views on liberty, were often equated with Dewey's, while Kilpatrick, in his brief text The Montessori Method Examined (1914), dealt a severe blow to her infant beginnings in the United States. The restrained description of her work by such educational historians as R. Freeman Butts and Louella Cole contributed to its ineffectiveness. A Montessori society formed in the U.S. in 1913 by a group of socially prominent individuals lacked adequate leadership and quickly disappeared. Since the 1950s, however, there has been a Montessori revival, and interested parents have formed study groups preparatory to opening classes for their children. Leading Catholic universities, such as DePaul University, Chicago, Ill.; Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wis.; and Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.; have inaugurated centers of research and teacher training. Boston College is also engaged in a modified practice of the method.

Among her published works is The Montessori Method (1912), in which she expounds her philosophy, influenced by the English empiricist, J. locke; the Spanish teacher of deaf mutes, J. R. Pereira; and the two French pioneers in the education of the retarded, E. Seguin and J. E. Itard. The heavy emphasis of the work in anthropology and biology stems from her medical background. Other publications include Pedagogical Anthropology (1913), The Secret of Childhood (1936), and The Discovery of the Child (1948).

Bibliography: e. m. standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (Fresno, Calif. 1959).

[j. concannon]

Montessori, Maria

views updated May 08 2018

Maria Montessori

Innovative Italian educator.

Maria Montessori is best known for the progressive method of education that bears her name. She earned her medical degree from the University of Rome in 1894, the first Italian woman to do so. A psychiatrist by training, Montessorri worked with deprived and retarded children at the Orthophrenic School in Rome starting in 1899. Her observations of the educational challenges facing these children lead to the formulation of her theories of cognitive development and early childhood education. As she observed the progress of pupils previously considered to be uneducable, Montessori pondered the poor performance of normal children in regular schools. These schools, she concluded, were unable to address the individual educational needs of children and therefore stifled, rather than encouraged, learning. She described children in standard classrooms as butterflies mounted on pins, wings motionless with useless knowledge. To see whether her ideas could be adapted to the education of normal children, Montessori opened her own school in 1907, the Casa dei Bambini, for 3-7-year-olds living in the tenements of Rome.

Montessori believed that children learn what they are ready to learn, and that there may be considerable differences among children in what phase they might be going through and to what materials they might be receptive at any given time. Therefore, Montessori individualized her educational method. Children were free to work at their own pace and to choose what they would like to do and where they would like to do it without competition with others. The materials in Montessori's classrooms reflected her value in self selected and pursued activity, training of the senses through the manipulation of physical objects, and individualized cognitive growth facilitated by items that allowed the child to monitor and correct his or her own errorsboards in which pegs of various shapes were to be fitted into corresponding holes, lacing boards, and sandpaper alphabets so that children could feel the letters as they worked with them while beginning to read and write, for example. While other schools at the beginning of the 20th century emphasized rote learning and "toeing the line," self absorption in discovery and mastery tasks was the trademark of Montessori classrooms. Still, her classrooms combined this seemingly playful self direction with Montessori self discipline and respect for authority. Continued effort and progress was sustained by the satisfaction and enjoyment children received from mastering tasks and from engaging in activities they themselves have chosen. Montessori believed that these methods would lead to maximal independence for each child from dressing him or herself to organizing his or her day.

Interestingly, Montessori's educational approach also reflected the Darwinian notion that the development of each individual is a microcosm of the development of the entire species, or that "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." She therefore advocated that even young children be taught to grow plants and tend animals so that, like their agrarian ancestors, they would ultimately achieve the highest level of civilization.

In 1922 Montessori became the government inspector of schools in Italy. She left Italy in 1934, traveled, and

eventually moved to the Netherlands where she died in 1952. Maria Montessori left behind a rich legacy. Her educational approach to young and special needs children quickly became a popular progressive alternative to traditional classrooms. Today Montessori schools are common in many communities, and even traditional approaches to education embrace many of Montessori's ideas.

Doreen Arcus Ph.D.

Further Reading

Britton, L. Montessori Play and Learn. New York: Crown, 1992.

Hainstock, E.G. Teaching Montessori in the Home: The Preschool Years. New York: NAL-Dutto, 1976.

Hainstock, E.G. Teaching Montessori in the Home: The School Years. New York: NAL-Dutton, 1989.

Montessori, M. The Montessori Method. 1939

Montessori, M. The Secret of Childhood. New York: Ballantine, 1982.

Montessori, M. Spontaneous Activity in Education. Cambridge, MA: Robert Bentley, 1964.

Further Information

American Montessori Society. 150 Fifth Avenue, Suite 203, New York, NY 10011, (212) 9243209.

Maria Montessori

views updated May 11 2018

Maria Montessori

The Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was the originator of the Montessori method of education for children.

On Aug. 31, 1870, Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle. Her father, a tradition-bound army officer, discouraged her interest in a professional career; however, with the encouragement and support of her mother, she prepared herself for her later career. When she was 12, the family moved to Rome to take advantage of the better educational facilities. An interest in engineering technology and mathematics led her to enroll in classes at a technical institute at the age of 14. Later an interest in biology led to her decision to study medicine. This decision required some courage and tenacity, as it was in utter defiance of the customs of a society which excluded women from such endeavors.

In 1894 Maria Montessori became the first woman to receive a medical degree in Italy. Her experiences in the pursuit of this degree reinforced her already well-developed feminist ideas. Throughout her life she was a frequent participant in international feminist congresses.

Maria Montessori's first appointment was as an assistant doctor in the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome, where she had her first prolonged contact with mentally challanged children. She became convinced that the problem of handling these defectives was as much one of instructional method as of medical treatment. In 1898 she was appointed director of the State Orthophrenic School in Rome, whose function was to care for the "hopelessly deficient" and "idiot" children of the city. She enjoyed tremendous success in teaching the children herself, while refining and applying her innovative methods and training other teachers to work with the children.

In 1901 Dr. Montessori left the school to pursue further studies and research. At the same time she was holding the chair of hygiene at the Scuola di Magistero Femminile in Rome, where she was also a permanent external examiner in the faculty of pedagogy. In 1904 she became a full professor at the University of Rome and from 1904 to 1908 held the chair of anthropology there. She was also a government inspector of schools, a lecturer, and a practicing physician.

In 1906 the Italian government put Dr. Montessori in charge of a state-supported slum school in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome which had 60 children aged 3 to 6 from poverty-stricken families. By this time her early successes with mentally challanged children suggested to her the idea of trying the same educational methods with normal children. Dealing with culturally deprived children, she used what she termed a "prepared environment" to provide an atmosphere for learning, that is, small chairs and tables instead of rows of desks. The basic features of the method are development of the child's initiative through responsible individual freedom of behavior, improvement of sense perception through training, and development of bodily coordination through games and exercise. The function of the teacher is to provide didactic material, such as counting beads or geometric puzzles, and act as an adviser and guide, staying as much as possible in the background.

Dr. Montessori's view of the nature of the child, on which the Montessori method is based, is that children go through a series of "sensitive periods" with "creative moments," when they show spontaneous interest in learning. It is then that the children have the greatest ability to learn, and these periods should be utilized to the fullest so that the children learn as much as possible; and they should not be held back by nonnatural curricula or classes. Work, she believed, is its own reward to the child, and there is no necessity for other rewards. Self-discipline emerges out of the independence of the atmosphere of learning. Influenced by astrology, she saw self-discipline as something that emerges as a result of a natural law, if all restraints are removed, and as a continuation of the cosmic discipline that governs the movements of the stars.

Dr. Montessori's method was basically at odds with behaviorism, Freudianism, and other major 20th-century trends. Thus it was used only by a relatively few private schools. Since the early 1950s, however, her system has enjoyed a revival, related to curricula reforms and a renewed interest in handicapped children. Her works have been translated into at least 20 languages, and training schools for Montessori teachers have been established in several nations.

Further Reading

Maria Montessori's Spontaneous Activity in Education, translated by F. Simmonds (1917; repr. 1965), is particularly useful for beginning students. A recent biography of her life is Edward M. Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (1957). Among the works on her system are Nancy McCormick Rambusch, Learning How to Learn: An American Approach to Montessori (1962), and Edward M. Standing, The Montessori Method: A Revolution in Education (1962). For other works see Gilbert E. Donahue, Dr. Maria Montessori and the Montessori Movement: A General Bibliography of Materials in the English Language (1962). □

Maria Montessori

views updated May 18 2018

Maria Montessori


Educator and physician


Groundbreaker. Maria Montessori was born into a middleclass, well-educated family in Chiaravalle, Italy, and she lived most of her life in Rome. Her parents, specially her mother, supported her educational goals, and she attended a technical school primarily designed for students planning careers in the sciences. Most nineteenth-century career women were teachers or nurses, but Montessori wanted to become a scientist and entered the University of Rome. She eventually turned to medicine, and in 1896 she became the first modern Italian woman to receive a doctorate in medicine at the University of Rome. During the late 1890s she worked in Rome at institutions for the mentally disabled. During her work with the disabled she became interested in how children learn and respond to their environments.

A New Woman Having defied the traditional path of most bourgeois women of her day, Montessori was one of a new generation of middle-class women who challenged the traditional gender roles established during the nineteenth century. By the final years of that century these “new women” were rejecting domesticity and motherhood as their only occupations. They dressed differently than bourgeois women, rode bicycles, studied subjects considered improper for them, and tried to embark on careers few other women had entered before. In 1899 Montessori traveled throughout Italy for two weeks, delivering a lecture called “The New Woman” in order to raise money to fund shelters for the poor.In her lectures, attended by capacity crowds of admirers, she criticized the male scientific perception of women.

The Montessori Method By the turn of the century, Montessori had become well known for her work with the mentally handicapped. Over the next few years, she changed course and focused on the education of healthy children. In 1907 she opened her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) for young children in a poor, working-class neighborhood of Rome. She went on to publish educational treatises based on her work and research with her students, beginning with II metodo della pedagogia scientifica (The Montessori Method) in 1909. In it she provided a new model for education, rejecting the systems of rote memorization popular at the time and arguing that children learn best when they are allowed to develop their skills freely through useful activities. Montessori wrote that the teacher should not devise tasks for the children to complete but instead should allow them to develop their own tasks and own methods of learning. Rather than guiding children from one activity or subject to the next, teachers should provide materials for various learning activities and allow students to experiment with the ones that interest them until they felt satisfied that they understood them. Spontaneity was crucial to her method, and teachers had to be prepared to adapt to the children’s interests at a given moment. By 1912 stories about her work were being featured in magazines and newspapers throughout Europe and the United States. Before the outbreak of World War I in 1914 hundreds of admirers had established schools in which they employed her methods.


Elizabeth Hainstock, ed., The Essential Montessori (New York: Plume, 1997).

Rita Kramer, Maria Montessori: A Biography (New York: Putnam, 1977).

E. Mortimer Standing, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957).

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