Maria Montessori was born in a little town of Chiaravalle in the province of Ancona in Italy on the 31st of August 1870.
Her father, Allesandro, was an accountant. He was very traditional in his ways of thinking. Maria’s mother, Renilde Stoppani, on the other hand, was very modern. She came from a wealthy family and was very well-read. She taught Maria to be compassionate by getting Maria to knit with her and contribute to the poor.
The Montessori family moved to Rome in 1875. Against her father’s wishes, Maria Montessori broke out of the traditional gender limitations and attended a boy’s technical school to follow her passion for math and engineering. After being appointed as co-director of a school, Maria Montessori got in a relationship with her co-director, Giuseppe Montesano, and in 1898 Maria gave birth to her son Mario Montesano Montessori (1898 – 1982). She then further developed her interest in sciences – particularly Biology and aspired to become a doctor instead. It was unheard of for a woman to get into a medical college and aspire to become a doctor, and she was initially refused admission to medical school.
With the endorsement of Pope Leo XIII, Maria entered the University of Rome in 1890 to study medicine. It was not easy for Maria to be the only woman amongst men at university… but she was committed and persisted, and she became the FIRST woman doctor in Italy, graduating with honors in 1896.
Maria took an interest in pediatrics and psychiatry and specialized in them as a doctor. She treated many poor children and children of working-class families at the free clinics. She had the opportunity to observe the intrinsic intelligence of children of various socio-economic backgrounds.
In 1900, Maria Montessori became the director of the Orthophrenic School for developmentally disabled children.
It was there that she began her research on early childhood development and education. She read the works of Fredrich Froebel, the inventor of Kindergarten and also by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed that children learn through activities. She also took a deep interest in the works of 18th and 19th century French physicians Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin, who had researched and experimented with disabled children and were the first to believe that intellectually disable children CAN be educated. Maria then started observing some intellectually disable children and applying some of their educational theories. Not long after, she started developing her own concepts and methods along with them. Through hands-on scientific approach and observations, she found these kids developing exceptionally well. She was able to get these intellectually disable children to read and write and also sit through an exam where they passed. This made her wonder, if these children could do so well, then why aren’t other normal children doing well in their school? This lead her to develop her teaching methodology for ‘normal’ children whom she believed had no reason to fail when kids seen as mentally retarded could pass with flying colors.
In 1901 Maria Montessori started studying educational philosophy and anthropology. She was lecturing students from 1904-1908 in her old university as a lecturer of Pedagogy. There was rapid development in Rome at this time, which also lead the market to bankruptcies and the rise of the ghetto districts. One such district was San Lorenzo where children in this area were running around, all day aimlessly, while their parents were at work. Maria was offered an opportunity to work with these children and introduce her teaching methodology and materials to these ‘normal’ children.
On the 6th of January 1907, Maria Montessori started her first school ‘Casa Dei Bambini’ (Italian for ‘Children’s House’) for the children of San Lorenzo district.
She introduced her methodology and materials that she created when she was at the Orthophrenic School. It was here, with these children, that Maria Montessori further developed her methodology and created more teaching materials. Through working hands-on with these children and observing them, she made many discoveries.
Some of her discoveries included:
- Children are able to concentrate without easily being distracted
- Children loved order in their environment
- They had the ability to make choices and act independently
- They were not keen with normal toys but were happier with working
- Children do not need rewards or punishments
- Children loved silence and were capable of being silent
- They had a personal sense of Dignity
- They were capable of teaching themselves
- Children instinctively knew what to work with to support their natural development.
- Children go through sensitive periods to learn different aspects of their lives.
- Children had the desire to become independent
- They were responsible and had a sense of community
Maria Montessori wrote her first book from the observations she made in Casa Dei Bambini. In 1909 Maria gave her first training session to around 100 International students on her methodology in Italy. In 1912, she published her book ‘The Montessori Method’ that was later translated into 20 languages.
Montessori schools started emerging around Western Europe and around the World from 1910, and Maria’s Montessori popularity saw a big growth. Some of her supporters were: Margaret Wilson, Ayn Rand, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Helen Keller.
Maria Montessori returned to the US in 1915 to set up a ‘Glass Classroom’ at the Panama-Pacific International exposition in San Francisco and to train more teachers. This classroom had glass on three sides where spectators could observe the children at work using her methodology. The children worked with full concentration and focus and were oblivious to the spectators. The success of this Glass Classroom attracted the Press and Montessori was all over the news in America. By 1916, there were over 100 Montessori schools in America.
Dr. Montessori was described as ‘an educational wonder-worker’ by the press.
Over many years after that, Maria Montessori traveled around many countries: Europe, US, UK and India giving lectures and training teachers. This resulted in many Montessori training courses and schools sprouting in these countries. Maria moved back to Spain in 1917 and was joined by his son Mario, his wife Helen Christy and their four children. The rise of fascism in Europe highly affected the Montessori movement. The Nazis shut down all the Montessori schools in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. They did not want to raise independent thinkers.
Maria and Mario fled the civil war in 1936 and traveled back to England and then to the Netherlands. On the way they stopped in India in 1939 and stayed there for 7 years. It was during this time that Maria began the development of the ‘Cosmic Education’ to support children’s learning from 6-12 years. Maria and Mario together trained thousands of teachers in India. They returned to the Netherlands in 1946. Maria attended and addressed at the UNESCO during that year. She spoke about ‘Education and Peace’. Maria Montessori was nominated thrice over three consecutive years for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950 and 1951.
Maria passed away on the 6th of May 1952 at the age of 81. He passed the legacy of her work to her son Mario. Engraved on her tombstone is her message to the world:
“I beg dear all-powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in man and in the world.”