By Linda K. Foster
A century ago, Dr. Maria Montessori founded an educational movement that has been remarkably consistent, despite time and location. Throughout her life, Dr. Montessori broke the traditional roles between male and female, teacher and student and lived her life as though she could and would affect it.
Maria Montessori was born August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy, to a civil servant father and a mother who was an avid reader and unusually educated for her time. A precocious, confident and strong-willed girl, Maria followed in her mother’s footsteps in her quest for education, excelling in school and often proving herself a leader in games and conversation. When she was a young child, her family moved to Rome, to take advantage of better educational facilities. Maria decided to venture into the field of engineering technology, enrolling in a boys’ technical school at age 13. In this school, she received such high marks that when she graduated, she was able to enter the Regio Instituto Technico Leonardo da Vinci where she studied math, natural sciences, and languages again, excelling beyond all expectations. At the Regio Instituto, she developed a love for biological sciences and tried to pursue a career in medicine. When she was denied entrance to the medical program of the University of Rome because of her gender, Montessori enrolled at the University to study physics, mathematics and natural sciences. Again, she excelled at the University and earned her Diploma di Licenza two years later. Her educational success could not be overlooked and she was allowed to study medicine. In 1886, the brilliance of her thesis impressed the all-male board of review and they awarded her a full medical degree, making her Italy’s first woman doctor.
Next, Dr. Montessori interned at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Rome where she became interested in psychology and human behavior. This included regular work in insane asylums, with mentally deficient children. Montessori felt strongly that mental deficiency was more of a pedagogical problem than a medical one and that with special treatment, these children could be helped. In time, her methods resulted in improvement in their ability.
In 1907, Dr. Montessori took charge of fifty poor children of the streets of the San Lorenzo slum on the outskirts of Rome and opened the first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) for children under five years of age.
She described the child’s mind as the “absorbent mind” because of its ability to learn and assimilate effortlessly and unconsciously from the surrounding environment. Based on her belief that a child absorbs learning from the physical environment in which s/he lives, she created the prepared environment of Casa dei Bambini at the same time being quick to point out that the “environment should reveal the child, not mold him/her. Casa dei Bambini developed in its first year into a revolutionary new kind of school that gained immediate worldwide fame for the Montessori system. Even Dr. Montessori herself could never have imagined the potential realized by the tiny students of Casa dei Bambini. The astonishing success of Montessori’s early efforts generated a large following, not only of parents desperate for her help, but of teachers desperate to learn her methods.
In 1909, she published her Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the Children’s Houses. Ironically, she did not derive her methods from any extant pedagogical wisdom. She had sidestepped the more traditional education path for women — teacher’s training — to pursue a career in science. Montessori believed in respecting children and their abilities to learn and her methods promoted her belief that children have an innate drive to learn. Prior to Montessori’s time, it was assumed that children could only learn through instruction — being lectured by an adult.
Her “discovery of the child” was an awakening in the advancement of early education. Dr. Montessori believed that education begins at birth and that the first few years of life (the formative years) are the most important. She believed that children pass through sensitive periods, phases of development appropriate to the learning of specific motor and cognitive skills. During these periods, children show their spontaneous interest in learning and should be allowed to learn as much as possible.
Montessori discovered that children grouped with other children in a small range of ages, i.e., birth – 3, 3-6, 6-9, 9-11, etc. would work together and also help teach each other. Older children would learn teaching and nurturing skills; younger children would see new ways of learning and playing. The function of the teacher is to provide didactic material, such as counting beads or geometric puzzles, and act as an adviser and guide, remaining in the background as much as possible.
Dr. Montessori believed that a child’s innate power for learning worked when the child was turned loose in a safe, hands-on learning environment. Montessori found that given small, child-sized furniture, equipment, and supplies, children are naturally self-motivated to explore, experiment, and understand their environment. Young children are very hand-minded and materials should be geared accordingly. Dr. Montessori stressed the importance of beauty in the classroom and stressed the importance of well-made and well-maintained materials. She believed that everything in the classroom had a specific use and there should not be anything in the classroom that the child could see and touch.
Over sixty years of experience with children around the world proved Dr. Montessori’s theory that, given the right environment and the freedom to explore that environment, children can learn to read, write and calculate as easily and naturally as they learn to walk and talk. For those who have made the effort to understand, her concept of “freedom within limits” is as valid today as ever; good Montessori environments still offer the child an experience that builds competence and confidence with unsurpassed effectiveness—a timeless gift from one of the world’s great educators, Dr. Maria Montessori. L.F.