Maria Montessori was a woman not to be trifled with. She was born in Chiaravelle, Italy, on the 31st of August, 1870 and was educated in Rome. One imagines she must have been quite a colourful child but it was when she decided to study medicine at the University of Rome that her rebellious streak became really apparent. Her persistence paid off when she became the first Italian woman to graduate as a Doctor in Medicine.
The University was so impressed with her work that they offered her a position as Assistant Doctor at its psychiatric clinic. It was here, working with discarded special needs children, that she began to develop her groundbreaking theories.
In the late 1890s, anyone with special needs was dismissed as a lost cause, but the children weren't lost to Montessori. She believed that the children needed proper mental stimulation so that they could develop and grow to their full potential. Hours of patient care and work later, Montessori was rewarded when the children started responding to her in ways that they'd never responded to anyone or anything before.
While Montessori was conducting research into the treatment of special needs children, she was particularly influenced by two French doctors, Jean ltard and Edouard Seguin. ltard first made his name studying deaf mutes, but he's more famous for his attempts to educate and socialise an abandoned boy who was found in the forest of Aveyron. His book, The Wild Boy of Aveyron, documents his approach, which involved stimulating the boy's mind systematically through the senses.
Edouard Seguin was one of ltard's students and went on to establish his own school for special needs children in Paris. His approach was to devise a sequence of muscular exercises to bring about a change in behaviour and so educate the child through a physiological method.
ltard and Seguin inspired Montessori to take a new direction in her life. She continued her research by reading some of the foremost educational thinkers and reformers of the time, including Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. She took the principal ideas of 'education of the senses' and the 'education of movement' and thoughts of the great writers and moulded them into a system that was soon to become her own.
The method takes shape
In 1899, she was involved in the establishment of the Orthophrenic School in Rome, where she spent two years training teachers in her methods of observation and education for those with special needs. She spent this time observing and experimenting with different materials and methods and using all the ideas she had gleaned from her studies.
Under her guidance, some of the children who had been labelled 'uneducable' learned to read and write and some even sat the State primary examinations and passed with higher grades than so-called 'normal' children. These events, together with the many public lectures she gave in Italy and other European countries, brought her international acclaim and she started to become known as an educator as well as a doctor.
In 1901, Maria Montessori retired from the Orthophrenic School and once again enrolled at the University of Rome.
In 1904, she was appointed Professor of Pedagogic Anthropology at the University, yet she still found time to continue with her work in childhood education.
In 1906, Montessori was asked to organise the infant schools that were being built in a slum clearance and re-housing programme in San Lorenzo, Italy. The first school was established for children aged three to six years old, which Montessori called 'Casa dei Bambini', the Children's House.
Other schools followed, giving Montessori the opportunity to apply her methods to normal children. This was a very exciting time because it allowed her to prove her system's far-reaching capabilities. After all, if she could achieve near miraculous results working with special needs children, what would the results be with normal children.
The children in her first two schools were often neglected by their parents and they were definitely under-stimulated. In any case, during that period the illiteracy level among adults was still quite high, so the children may not have received the encouragement and support they needed. However, the children in Montessori's school soon started to show marked academic and social improvements.
The third school was set aside for children who could be considered privileged. As with the deprived children, the privileged children showed a marked improvement in their learning. Montessori's methods, which showed that all children flourish when given the proper stimulation and the right environment, started to gain credibility.
Montessori goes global
News of her success spread rapidly and education experts came from all four corners of the globe to see the method in action. It didn't take long before trained Montessori teachers were required for all the new Montessori schools that were being established across Europe.
To this end, the first Montessori Training Course was held in 1909. Montessori found herself travelling across Europe, Australia and the USA as demand for her lectures and training courses grew. Her cause was further aided by the fact that she was endorsed by some of the other great minds of the time, from inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison to psychologists Sigmund and Anna Freud and Jean Piaget. Even Ghandi backed Montessori's method.
In the early 1920s, Montessori's efforts were recognised by the Italian government, which appointed her Government Inspector of Schools. In 1934, friction arose between Montessori and Mussolini and all her schools in Germany and Italy were closed by 1936. She headed for Spain where she founded a special Teacher Training Institute in Barcelona. With the growing political tensions in that part of Europe in the thirties, she left Spain to live in Holland. She was in India when 1939 rolled round, where she was interned throughout the war. This gave her the chance to spread the movement in the sub-continent. She was so successful in this that today India is one of the greatest centres for Montessori teaching.
The war years caused Montessori to embark on a passionate quest for lasting peace through education. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times and in 1950 she became the Italian delegate to UNESCO.
When she left India in 1946, she visited England and renewed interest in the Montessori Method. She dedicated the last few years of her life to giving teaching and lecture tours around the world and occasionally found time to accept the honours bestowed on her by several international governments and education bodies.
She died at Noordwijk, Netherlands, on the 6th of May, 1952 at 81 years of age.
Even without its fearless leader, the Montessori Method has continued to grow and now, over 100 years since Maria Montessori first began, it is still recognised as one of the most holistic education methods ever devised.
" Love is a gift to mankind, which must be treasured and developed to the fullest possible extent, for it is this that unites each and every one of us, and only in this way can we bring about a good, caring, peaceful world. " - Maria Montessori