Women’s History Month: Maria Montessori, Breaking Barriers

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March 20th, 2014

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A Montessori education focuses on the independence, observation, following, correcting, environment, and retention of children. The groundbreaking (and sometimes controversial) method could be described as a mix of science, medicine, and education—a reflection of its founder, Maria Montessori, whose own education began with a desire to be an engineer, then grew into a career as a doctor and an influential educator. Over 100 years after her first school opened in Rome in 1906, more than 22,000 Montessori schools currently exist in over 100 countries throughout the world.

Maria Montessori was born into a middle-class family who valued education and helped develop her thirst for knowledge. At an early age, Maria broke gender barriers and expectations when she enrolled in classes at an all-boys technical school, with hopes of becoming an engineer. She soon had a change of heart and began medical school at The University of Rome, where she graduated—with honors—in 1896.

Ms. MD
As the first female doctor in Italy, Montessori specialized in pediatric medicine and psychiatry, and took a special interest in the education of children with mental disabilities. This is when she started to question “traditional” teaching methods, and began researching other means while developing her own programs. During her tenure as the co-director of a special educators’ training institute, Maria took a scientific approach to learning by observing countless hours of teachers and students, and experimenting with different teaching practices. She used a lot of trial and error, adjusting lessons as needed. She was so successful that many of her mentally disabled students passed standardized tests designed for “normal” children.

Maria MontessoriMaria’s Heyday
After working with mentally disabled children, Montessori began applying her methods to teaching children without learning disabilities. Her first school was a day care for children of working, low-income parents called Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House). Maria created an environment for children to expand their creativity and reach their potential at their own pace, also known as the “follow the child” method, which is based on letting children’s natural interests guide them. The teacher follows the child to make sure (s)he has the materials needed to learn.

Montessori documented her findings and teaching methods in several books, describing the environment for optimal learning:

“Before elaborating any system of education, we must therefore create a favorable environment that will encourage the flowering of a child’s natural gifts. All that is needed is to remove the obstacles. And this should be the basis of, and point of departure for, all future education.

“The first thing to be done, therefore, is to discover the true nature of a child and then assist him in his normal development.” –The Secret of Childhood by Maria Montessori; translated by M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J.

Customizing Education
The methods of Maria Montessori grew to extreme popularity in the early 1900s. The first U.S. Montessori school was opened in Scarborough, New York, in 1911. By 1916, there were more than 100 schools in 22 states. However, because of limited travel after World War I, public criticism by U.S. educators, and language barriers, the Montessori hype declined dramatically by the 1920s. It was still thriving in other countries around the world as Maria traveled to teach her methods and promote the opening of new schools.

Around 1960, there was a U.S. resurgence, out of which a more American program developed. Today’s Montessori school methods are best described by MariaMontesorri.com:

“At its core, it simply is a way of being with children that allows each child to develop fully into the person he was destined to be…

“Instead of expecting that he pay attention to the teacher in front of a class of 30 children, it is the Montessori teacher who pays close attention to your child which fosters a trusting relationship—an education partnership of sorts—in which he will have faith that his teacher truly understands and respects him for the human being into which he is transforming.”

Montessori spent her later decades giving lectures and spreading the value of the Montessori method. By challenging the norm, Maria became a legacy in education, which continues throughout the world today.

Interesting Facts About Maria Montessori

  • Maria Montessori believed that education—not medicine—was the answer for retardation. She shared this idea at an 1899 pedagogical congress. As a result, she became the directress of a school for the mentally ill. [i]

  • In grade school, Montessori was a nominal student known for her kindness. She won awards for her needlework and crafts. [ii]

  • Maria’s father, Alessandro Montessori, worked as an official for the Ministry of Finance. [iii]

  • In 1949, 1950, and 1951, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. [iv]

  • In 1898, Maria gave birth to a boy named Mario, who was given to a family who lived in the countryside near Rome. She visited him often, but it was not until Mario was older that he found out Maria was his mother. A strong bond was created, and in later years he collaborated and travelled with his mother, continuing her work after her death. [v]

[i] DailyMonterssori.com
[ii] PRWeb. “Little Known but Interesting Facts about Maria Montessori.”

[iii] FamousBirthdays.com. “Maria Montessori Facts.”
[iv] Webster University. “Maria Montessori.”
[v] Montessori Australia. “A Biography of Dr Maria Montessori.”

Additional Sources
American Montessori Society
A+E Networks. “Maria Montessori Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, 2014.


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