Dr. Maria Montessori (August 31, 1870 – May 6, 1952), the first female physician in Italy was an Italian educator, scientist, physician, philosopher, devout Catholic, feminist, and humanitarian, best known for developing the Montessori method of teaching young children. She introduced the method in Rome in 1907, and it has since spread throughout the world.
The Montessori method stresses the development of initiative and self-reliance by permitting children to do by themselves the things that interest them, within strictly disciplined limits.
Montessori was born in Chiaravalle in the Ancona a province of Italy. She was educated at the University of Rome, and in 1894 she became the first woman in Italy to receive a medical degree. She joined the medical staff at the university’s psychiatric clinic and soon became interested in the education of children with mental retardation. She gradually became convinced that children with mental retardation were much more capable of learning than experts of that time believed.
In 1901 Montessori was appointed director of the Orthophrenic School of Rome, which had been used as an asylum to confine children with mental retardation. Drawing largely on the ideas of French educators Jean Itard and Edouard Séguin, Montessori provided the children with mental stimulation, meaningful activities, and opportunities to develop self-esteem. She received widespread recognition for her work when many of the adolescents at the school passed standard tests for sixth-grade students in the Italian public schools.
Montessori believed that her methods would prove even more effective with children of normal intelligence. In 1907 she opened the first Montessori school, or Children’s House, in a slum district of Rome.
Within a year, observers came from around the world to see the progress made by Montessori’s students. Before the age of five the children learned to read and write, they preferred work to play, and they displayed sustained mental concentration without fatigue.
Montessori based her educational method on giving children freedom in a specially prepared environment, under the guidance of a trained director. She stressed that leaders of the classroom be called directors rather than teachers because their main work was to direct the interests of children and advance their development. According to Montessori, when a child is ready to learn new and more difficult tasks, the director should guide the child from the outset so that the child does not waste effort or learn wrong habits.
Maria Montessori with Children
The success of the Children’s House led to the founding of other Montessori schools and teacher-training programs throughout Europe and the United States. In 1934 Montessori fled fascist rule in Italy and settled in Barcelona, Spain. She worked there until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 forced her to move to The Netherlands. There she established an influential teacher-training school at Laren, near Amsterdam. From 1939 to 1947 Montessori lived in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), founding more schools and training programs before returning to The Netherlands.
Montessori was convinced that universal adoption of her teaching method would be of immense value in bringing about world peace, and she stressed the importance of education as the ‘armament of peace.’ A Roman Catholic, she also worked extensively to apply her principles to the teaching of religion. Among her published works are Il metodo della pedagogia scientifica applicato all’educazione infantile nelle case dei bambini (1909; translated as The Montessori Method, 1912); Antropologia pedagogica (1911; Pedagogical Anthropology, 1913); Mente del bambino (1949; The Absorbent Mind, 1949); and Il bambino in famiglia (1956; The Child in the Family, 1970).