Dr. Maria Montessori

Life and work

Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle (Ancona), Italy to Alessandro Montessori and Renilde Stoppani. Montessori was the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome La Sapienza Medical School. She was a member of the University’s Psychiatric Clinic and became intrigued with trying to educate the “mentally retarded” and the “uneducable” in Rome. In 1898, she gave a lecture at the Educational Congress in Torino about the training of the disabled. The Italian Minister of Education was in attendance, and was impressed by her arguments sufficiently to appoint her the same year as director of the Scuola Ortofrenica, an institution devoted to the care and education of the mentally retarded. She accepted, in order to put her theories to proof. Her first notable success was to have several of her 8 year old students apply to take the State examinations for reading and writing. The “defective” children not only passed, but had above-average scores, an achievement described as “the first Montessori miracle.” [1]
Because of her success with these children, she was asked to start a school for children in a housing project in Rome, which opened on January 6, 1907, and which she called “Casa dei Bambini” or Children’s House. The success of this school sparked the opening of many more, and a worldwide interest in Montessori’s methods of education.

Maria Montessori died in The Netherlands in 1952, after a lifetime devoted to the study of child development. Her early work centered on women’s rights and social reform and evolved to encompass a totally innovative approach to education. Her success in Italy led to international recognition, and for over 40 years she traveled all over the world, lecturing, writing and establishing training programs. In later years, ‘Educate for Peace’ became a guiding principle, which underpinned her work.

After the 1907 establishment of Montessori’s first school in Rome, by 1913 there was an  intense interest in her method in North America, which later waned. (Nancy McCormick Rambusch revived the method in America by establishing the American Montessori Society in 1960). Montessori was exiled by Mussolini mostly because she refused to compromise her principles and make the children into soldiers. She moved to Spain and lived there until 1936 when the Spanish Civil War broke out. She then moved to The Netherlands until 1939. During a teachers conference in India she was interned by the authorities and lived there for the duration of the war. Montessori lived out the remainder of her life in The Netherlands, which now hosts the headquarters of the AMI, or Association Montessori Internationale. She died in Noordwijk aan Zee. Her son Mario headed the AMI until his death in 1987.


Pedagogy

Aside from a new pedagogy, among the premier contributions to educational thought by Montessori are:

  • children as natural learners
  • instruction of children in 3-year age groups, corresponding to sensitive periods of development (example: Birth-3, 3-6, 6-9, and 9-12 year olds with an Erdkinder (German for “Children of the World”) program for early teens
  • children as competent beings, encouraged to make maximal decisions
  • observation of the child in the environment as the basis for ongoing curriculum development (presentation of subsequent exercises for skill development and information accumulation)
  • small, child sized furniture and creation of a small, child-sized environment (microcosm) in which each can be competent to produce overall a self-running small children’s world
  • creation of a scale of sensitive periods of development, which provides a focus for class work that is appropriate and uniquely stimulating and motivating to the child (including sensitive periods for language development, sensorial experimentation and refinement, and various levels of social interaction)
  • the importance of the “absorbent mind,” the limitless motivation of the young child to achieve competence over his or her environment and to perfect his or her skills and understandings as they occur within each sensitive period. The phenomenon is characterized by the young child’s capacity for repetition of activities within sensitive period categories (Example: exhaustive babbling as language practice leading to language competence).
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