Innovative Italian educator.
Maria Montessori is best known for the progressive method of education that bears her name. She earned her medical degree from the University of Rome in 1894, the first Italian woman to do so. A psychiatrist by training, Montessorri worked with deprived and retarded children at the Orthophrenic School in Rome starting in 1899. Her observations of the educational challenges facing these children lead to the formulation of her theories of cognitive development and early childhood education. As she observed the progress of pupils previously considered to be uneducable, Montessori pondered the poor performance of normal children in regular schools. These schools, she concluded, were unable to address the individual educational needs of children and therefore stifled, rather than encouraged, learning. She described children in standard classrooms as butterflies mounted on pins, wings motionless with useless knowledge. To see whether her ideas could be adapted to the education of normal children, Montessori opened her own school in 1907, the Casa dei Bambini, for 3-7-year-olds living in the tenements of Rome.
Montessori believed that children learn what they are ready to learn, and that there may be considerable differences among children in what phase they might be going through and to what materials they might be receptive at any given time. Therefore, Montessori individualized her educational method. Children were free to work at their own pace and to choose what they would like to do and where they would like to do it without competition with others. The materials in Montessori's classrooms reflected her value in self selected and pursued activity, training of the senses through the manipulation of physical objects, and individualized cognitive growth facilitated by items that allowed the child to monitor and correct his or her own errors—boards in which pegs of various shapes were to be fitted into corresponding holes, lacing boards, and sandpaper alphabets so that children could feel the letters as they worked with them while beginning to read and write, for example. While other schools at the beginning of the 20th century emphasized rote learning and "toeing the line," self absorption in discovery and mastery tasks was the trademark of Montessori classrooms. Still, her classrooms combined this seemingly playful self direction with Montessori self discipline and respect for authority. Continued effort and progress was sustained by the satisfaction and enjoyment children received from mastering tasks and from engaging in activities they themselves have chosen. Montessori believed that these methods would lead to maximal independence for each child from dressing him or herself to organizing his or her day.
Interestingly, Montessori's educational approach also reflected the Darwinian notion that the development of each individual is a microcosm of the development of the entire species, or that "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." She therefore advocated that even young children be taught to grow plants and tend animals so that, like their agrarian ancestors, they would ultimately achieve the highest level of civilization.
In 1922 Montessori became the government inspector of schools in Italy. She left Italy in 1934, traveled, and
eventually moved to the Netherlands where she died in 1952. Maria Montessori left behind a rich legacy. Her educational approach to young and special needs children quickly became a popular progressive alternative to traditional classrooms. Today Montessori schools are common in many communities, and even traditional approaches to education embrace many of Montessori's ideas.
Doreen Arcus Ph.D.
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American Montessori Society. 150 Fifth Avenue, Suite 203, New York, NY 10011, (212) 924–3209.