This year, Italian educator Maria Montessori had finally the chance to test her program and ideas with the establishment of the first children’s school, the Casa dei Bambini, which opened in one of the poorest districts of Rome.
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) devised a method of early childhood education, whose approach has been refined in countless schools throughout the world. She developed the principle that was also to inform her general educational program: first the education of the senses, then the education of the intellect.
Montessori had studied philosophy and psychology and graduated in 1896 from Rome University Medical School. She was the first Italian woman to qualify as a physician, and was first appointed assistant doctor at the Rome University Psychiatric Clinic. She developed an interest in the diseases of children. In 1901, she became Director of the new orthophrenic school, attached to the University of Rome. The school was formerly used as the asylum for the “deficient and insane” children of the working class and poor, most of whom were probably retarded or autistic. She insisted that the staff recognize her patients’ need for stimulation, purposeful activity, and self-esteem.
Her experiences convinced her that children were capable of sustained concentration. They enjoyed order and prefer work to play. She set up a program to teach the young children how to care for themselves and their environment. She initiated a wave of reform in a system that formerly had served merely to confine mentally handicapped youngsters in empty rooms.
Maria Montessori rapidly became well known. She began to accept speaking engagements throughout Europe on behalf of the women’s movement, peace efforts, and child labor law reform. In 1904 she became a professor, and occupied the chair of Anthropology and the Chair of Hygiene at the Magistero Femminile in Rome, one of the women’s colleges in Italy.
The Ministry of Education invited her to give a series of lectures at Rome University on the education of exceptional children. In these lectures, she set down the foundations of scientific pedagogy and was subsequently asked by the state to found and head a school for exceptional children. Montessori’s curriculum included three major types of activity and experience: practical, sensory, and formal skills and studies. She designed the special materials and scientifically-prepared environment she deemed essential for her pupils.
She developed a teaching program that enabled ‘defective’ or ‘ineducable’ children to read and write. In the case of the latter she argued for the development of training for teachers along Froebelian lines (although she also drew on Rousseau and Pestalozzi) She sought to teach skills not by having children repeatedly try it, but by developing exercises that would prepare them for success. These exercises would then be expanded: looking becomes reading; touching becomes writing.
In the Casa Dei Bambini, the students came from the slums of Rome and were generally described as disadvantaged. This Children’s House and those that followed were designed to provide a stimulating environment for children to live and learn, and take responsibility for themselves. An emphasis was placed on self-determination and self-realization. This entailed developing a concern for others and discipline and to do this children engaged in exercises in daily living. These and other exercises were to function like a ladder – allowing the child to pick up the challenge and to judge their progress. ‘The essential thing is for the task to arouse such an interest that it engages the child’s whole personality’ (Maria Montessori – The Absorbent Mind).
In the Casa dei Bambini, the educator served as a director of activities rather than as a teacher in the conventional sense. Montessori argued that the educator’s job is to serve the child; determining what each one needs to make the greatest progress, to facilitate the natural process of learning. The teacher was the ‘keeper’ of the environment. He or she was to be a trained observer of children. The activities of the director are geared to each child rather than to group-centered teaching and learning (here there are a number of parallels with Dewey). The success of her method then caused her to ask questions of ‘normal’ education. She believed she could apply her revolutionary ideas to the education of the normal child, and to this end she embarked on a program of intensive studies at Rome University. Dr. Montessori succeeded brilliantly and received world acclaim.
Many elements of modern education have been adapted from Montessori’s theories. She is credited with the development of the open classroom, individualized education, manipulative learning materials, teaching toys, and programmed instruction. In the last thirty-five years educators in Europe and North America begun to recognize the consistency between the Montessori approach with what we have learned from research into child development.
Since 1907, Montessori Schools have been established in over fifty countries. After her death in 1952, her works have achieved greater popularity than ever before, and the growth of Montessori schools in North America is reaching phenomenal proportions. Ottawa Montessori Schools have retained the purity of Dr. Montessori’s principles of education. More and more, psychological research is confirming Montessori’s observations about the unfolding of learning in the child. Her method of instruction was a carefully organized one that followed her discovery of the patterns of human growth and development.
Between 1912 and the end of her life, she put her ideas into twenty-five books and pamphlets on various aspects of her educational theory and practice. Of particular note are Dr. Montessori’s writings on Education for Peace that led to her nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1948. It was Dr. Montessori’s belief that if worldwide peace and harmony were ever to occur, we must start with the young child. One has only to observe a Montessori class of mixed religions and ethnic backgrounds all working and socializing in harmony to know this is true. Today there is a growing consensus among psychologists and developmental educators that many of her ideas were decades ahead of their time.
Dr. Montessori died and was buried in her adopted country, Holland, in 1952, at the age of eighty-two. Holland embraced a love of freedom and concern for education which she particularly valued. Dr. Montessori had a son, Mario Montessori Sr.
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Prepared by Alfred Meidow (OISE/UT) Summer 2000