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While I trained as a Montessori teacher, one of our assignments was to write a biography of Maria Montessori.
Since my training, I keep reading about her life.
2 recommended biographies to read:
I am happy to share with you in this blog post who she was:
Watch the video or read the blog post below:
Who was Maria Montessori?
(note that it’s brief biography and not exhaustive!)
Maria Montessori was a truly exceptional woman. She revolutionised education and gave us a clear framework to understand our children and to nurture their development.
She founded the Montessori method of education. She started her first classroom “Casa dei Bambini”, or Children’s House in 1907.
The Montessori method of education stresses the importance of respecting children.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Dr Maria Montessori was born in Ancona, Italy on August 31, 1870.
She was an only child. Her parents wanted her to receive a good education, so they moved to Rome when Maria was 12.
Her parents tried to convince Maria to embrace a teaching career. She refused and famously said
“Anything but a teacher”!
She chose to enter a technical school to pursue her love of mathematics.
It was a very unusual choice at the time as she entered an all boy school.
She decided to study biology after she turned 18, and later decided to switch to medicine.
At the time, a woman studying medicine was unheard of. Her application was first rejected by the board of education, but eventually, she became the first woman medical student in Italy.
She graduated in 1896 and became Italy’s first female doctor.
In the same year, she represented the women of Italy in a feminist conference. She talked about the cause of working women.
After she graduated, Dr Maria Montessori worked in a psychiatric clinic for poor and disabled children.
These children were living in dire conditions, with no toys to play with.
She observed that children threw food on the floor after their meals and started to play with it. As they had no toys to manipulate, they played with crumbs of bread.
It was then that she decided that there had to be more than medicine to help those children. She started to research what was done to help disabled children at the time.
She discovered studies written by Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin.
They were two French doctors who believed in educating disabled children. Maria Montessori embraced their view. Medicine was not the answer. Education was.
She shared her thoughts at an 1899 pedagogical congress.
As a result, she became the co-directress of the first school for mentally disabled children from 1899 to 1901
Dr. Maria Montessori worked tirelessly, observing children, analysing results and developing new materials
Her knowledge of children mostly originated from those 2 years of closely observing children.
Montessori’s work with these children was so successful that they eventually passed public exams that were meant for non-disabled children.
It astonished her that these children in ordinary schools were equalled in intelligence by her ill students.
At the time, Maria had a love affair with a fellow doctor called Giuseppe Montesano.
The 31st of March 1898 saw the birth of her only child, a son named Mario.
Alongside Montessori, Montesano was the co-director of the Orthophrenic School of Rome. If Montessori married, she would be expected to cease working immediately. Furthermore, Giuseppe’s family strongly disagreed with their son’s choices and prevented him from marrying Maria.
They agreed to keep the relationship secret and have their child raised by a foster family in the countryside.
Nevertheless, Giuseppe fell in love with another woman less than a year later.
Montessori was heartbroken. She felt betrayed and decided to leave the University’s hospital. She gave up her work in the clinic and studied philosophical education and pedagogical pathology. She was also working as a lecturer in the University of Rome in 1904.
In 1906 she was given the opportunity to work with young children in a slum area in Rome. It was her task to take care of the children who were too young to go to school. Their parents were working in factories and were leaving them unsupervised in the nearby residential buildings.
She was given a room to take care of these children. She equipped the room with child-sized tables, chairs, armchairs and materials similar to the ones she used with mentally ill children.
She was given an assistant who had no teaching experience. As she was trying new methods, she was grateful that her assistant didn’t have a background in education. It would have been a hindrance to her experiment.
She did not give her assistant any limitation and only showed her how to present the materials.
The first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, opened officially on January 6, 1907, enrolling 50 or 60 children between the ages of two to seven.
In this first classroom, Montessori observed children’s behaviours which formed the foundation of her educational method. She noted episodes of deep attention and concentration, multiple repetitions of activity, and a sensitivity to order in the environment.
Given a free choice of activity, the children showed more interest in practical activities and Montessori’s materials than in toys.
Surprisingly, Montessori observed that children were not motivated by sweets and other rewards. Over time, she saw a spontaneous self-discipline emerging in children. It was something unheard of at the time.
Here is what Maria Montessori had to say about her experience at the Casa dei Bambini:
“we discovered that education is not something that the teacher does but a natural process which develop spontaneously in the human being”
Three more Case dei Bambini opened in 1908. In 1909, Italy and Switzerland began to implement her method in orphanages and kindergartens.
In 1909, Maria Montessori wrote “The Method of Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Infant Education and the Children’s Houses”.
That book was later published in America as the Montessori method.
She also started to train teachers in her method.
As early as 1909, Montessori’s work began to attract the attention of international observers and visitors. Her work was widely published internationally. It spread rapidly. By 1912, Montessori schools had opened in Paris and many other Western European cities.
In 1913, she is also reunited with her son. She was visiting him from time to time. Mario recalled later that he asked her if she was his mother. From then on, she took care of him.
In 1914 Montessori went to America.
She was welcomed by Thomas Edison who kickstarted 4 of the first Montessori schools in the United States.
The American Montessori Society was formed with Alexander Graham Bell as its president.
While in America, Montessori had a pupil, Helen Parkhurst, who devised a glass classroom that allowed observers to see her classrooms in action.
Maria Montessori’s writings were being translated in different languages, and schools were opening worldwide in countries such as Japan, China and Canada.
She was continually giving lectures around the world.
She also continued her research and application of her principles to school aged and preschool aged children as well as infants from birth.
In 1939 she flew to India where she met Mahatma Gandhi .
As they were Italian citizens, Maria and her son were house-bound in India until the end of the second world war.
In 1949, she published the Absorbent mind, a book that synthetizes her ideas about the first 6 years of the child. The title is chosen after that specific aspect of the child’s mind, a mind that absorbs unconsciously information from its surroundings.
It stresses out the importance of a carefully prepared environment. That book is the cornerstone of Montessori’s teachings.
It explains how the mind of the child under 6 works and how to best support your child’s development.
She was nominated 3 times for the Peace Nobel price, in 1949, 1950 and 1951.
She passed away on May 6, 1952, in Noordwijk aan Zee in the Netherlands. at the age of 81.
Her epitaph says:
“I beg the dear all powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in Man and in the World.”