María Montessori

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Biography of María Montessori educator, pedagogue, scientist, doctor, psychiatrist, philosopher, anthropologist, biologist, psychologist, feminist and humanist.

At age 14 she had studied engineering, then studied biology;  finally, in 1896, at the age of 26, she graduated from the Faculty of Medicine of the “La Sapienza” University of Rome.

She was the first Italian woman to graduate as a doctor.

María Montessori 1880
María Montessori in 1880, at the age of 10. Credit: Wikimedia

Childhood and family of María Montessori

María Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy.

Maria’s family belonged to the city’s bourgeoisie.

Her father, Alessandro Montessori, was a military man.

Her mother, Renilde Stoppani, also agreed with her husband in the conviction that it was necessary to give all children the best possible education.

Casa natal
Maria Montessori’s birth house, in the Mazzini di Chiaravalle Square, in Ancona. Credit: Wikimedia

Maria Montessori University Studies

After graduating in medicine, Maria studied anthropology and obtained a doctorate in philosophy.

She attended one of the first experimental psychology courses and developed her own classification of mental illness.

As soon as she finished her formal vocational training, she devoted herself fully to returning to society part of the benefits she had received from it.

1896: she participated in the International Congress for Women, in Berlin. She presented her ideas about the repercussions that living conditions have on women and children; especially if they are clearly unfavorable.

1898: at a congress in Turin she explained the importance of education and care for children with mental disabilities. She released the data she already had regarding the relationship between child abandonment and the subsequent development of crime.

1900: she returned to participate in the International Congress for Women, this time in London.

Maria Montessori
Portrait of María Montessori. Credit: Wikimedia, National Archive of the Netherlands

María Montessori as mother

On March 31, 1898, her son Mario was born.

She had not married the father, Giuseppe Montesano, who was a professor of psychiatry and her co-worker.

The social and family pressure made Giuseppe take his son to the Montesano family’s house, in the countryside, near Rome.

Mario did not find out who his mother was until he was 15 years old.

María Montessori’s work with children

Between 1898 and 1900, María Montessori worked with children considered mentally disturbed and not educable.

She observed that many of these children began to play with the crumbs of the food; they did not eat them, but simply played with them.

She noticed that there were no other objects on the tables. She thought that children needed objects to touch.

Could it be that they needed to do some activity, any type of activity It occurred to her that maybe that would help cultivate their mind.

Reflecting more deeply on these ideas, she made the decision to help children for the rest of her live.

Maria Montessori contacts with specialists

María Montessori was intellectually very disciplined.

She started looking for a bibliography of people who had already done similar work.

Investigations of the doctor Jean Marc Itard

She found documentation referring to Jean Marc Itard, a French medical pedagogue, born in Provence, in 1774.

Portrait of Jean Marc Itard, which is kept at the National Institute for Young Deaf People in Paris. Credit: Wikimedia. Paris National Institute for Young Deaf People.Archives Charmet French, out of copyright

This doctor had worked in a military hospital, where he became passionate about Medicine. He studied the race and received his doctorate in 1801.

In those years, the discovery of a wild child in the town of Aveyron had generated great publicity and expectation in Paris.

Dr. Itard had proposed to the French government a plan to seek the rehabilitation of this child, whom they called David.

The government accepted the plan and subsidized it for the next five years, so that he could devote himself intensively to this task.

During this time, Dr. Itard produced two important reports, which are a model of methodological rigor and clarity of exposition.

They were published, one in 1801; and the other in 1806.

Dr. Itard devoted the rest of his life to the education of the deaf and dumb; promoted the creation of specialized centers for the care of those affected by these and other disabilities; laid the foundation for the Braille reading method for the blind; and he was a pioneer of special education.

María Montessori deeply assimilated two of the ideas put forward by Dr. Itard almost 100 years earlier: a) the importance of observation in children; b) that children cannot be imposed on them.

Experiences of the doctor Eduard Séguin

She also found out about the experiences of one of Dr. Itard’s disciples: Eduard Séguin, a French doctor born in Clamecy, in 1812.

This doctor had worked with mentally disabled children, in France and in the United States.

He created exercises and materials to help these children develop their faculties.

In 1839, he founded the first school dedicated to the education of disabled children.

Seven years later, he published a fundamental treatise to explain the special needs of children with mental disabilities.

It was a text to help develop the independence of these children, by combining small and progressive physical and intellectual challenges.

Edouard Seguin
Edouard Seguin. Credit: Wikipedia

Works of the pedagogue Johann Pestalozzi

The work of the Swiss pedagogue Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) also influenced the intellectual formation of María Montessori.

This well-known pedagogue placed emphasis on teacher preparation; which, he said, must have love for his work.

Pestalozzi insisted that a good educational result is based on establishing a bond of affection between the child and the teacher.

Oil portrait of the influential Swiss pedagogue, Johann Pestalozzi, probably done by F.G.A. Schöner. Credit: Wikipedia

Foundations of the Maria Montessori method

With these antecedents, María Montessori deduced that education is based on a triangle formed by a) Environment; b) Love; c) relationship of the Child with the Environment.

She said that moral strength and personality strength are already present in children, although they must be developed; that the child’s right to protest and express an opinion must be respected; this increases their abilities of observation, analysis and synthesis.

Based on the materials of Dr. Séguin, María Montessori elaborated her own materials.

She selected two assistants who had no teacher training, without prejudice or preconceived ideas.

The experience acquired in the years 1898 and 1900, laid the foundation for her knowledge.

She managed to get the children entrusted to her care to take the state exam: they obtained results similar to those of normal children. She came to the curious conclusion that “the normal child is underdeveloped“.

Starting from observation and the scientific method, she elaborated her materials and her philosophy.

The Italian Minister of Education asked Maria Montessori to continue educating disadvantaged children.

María Montessori founded the Children’s House

To do so, she facilitated the founding of the “Children’s House” in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Rome. This house was inaugurated on January 6, 1907.

The best description of this event was given by María Montessori herself.

Casa de Niños
Children’s House designed by María Montessori. Credit: Montessori Guide Blog

It was on January 6, 1907, when the first school for children from three to six years old was inaugurated; not with my method, because then it didn’t exist yet; but that school was inaugurated where my method had to be born a little later.

On that day, the students were made up of only fifty very poor children, rustic and shy in appearance; some were crying, almost all of them, children of illiterates and subjected to my care.

The initial project was to reunite the children of the tenants of a block of flats, in a working-class neighborhood, to prevent them from being abandoned by the street and the stairs, dirtying the walls and spreading the mess.

A room for this object was arranged in the same house, and I was in charge of this institution, which could have an excellent future.

By an indefinable sensation, I felt confusedly inside me that a great work was beginning that everyone would talk about.

So the inauguration was announced with emphasis. Everyone who attended the inauguration was amazed and said: why does Montessori so exaggerate the importance of a home for poor children?

I began my work as a peasant who would have kept the good seed separately and offered him a fertile field where to sow it freely.

But it was not like that; as soon as I removed the clods from that virgin land, I found gold instead of grain. The earth concealed a precious treasure. It was no longer the villager I had imagined: it was like the talisman that Aladdin was unknowingly holding in his hands, a key capable of uncovering immense hidden treasures.

The only possible expenses were the ordinary ones in a company with few resources, that is, the furniture and objects absolutely necessary. For that reason, it began by making furniture and acquiring some objects.

The Children’s House was not a real school: it was a kind of counting machine, reset to zero when work began.

With no means to create the children’s environment, with benches and school tables, with the furniture commonly used in schools, simple furniture was prepared like that of any room in a house.

At the same time, I had a scientific material made exactly the same as the one I used in an institution for children with mental disabilities, which because it had been used for that purpose, no one thought could be a school material.

It is not necessary to imagine that the atmosphere of the first Children’s House was kind and funny like the one that these schools present today.

 It began by creating the practical life area (hygiene and manners) restoring dignity to the child.

The children concentrated and repeated the exercise, the toys did not appeal to them, they were for leisure time. Rejecting rewards and punishments, children obtained the satisfaction of doing their work alone.

Little by little the rebellious children normalized, became friendly, respectful, learned with interest and enthusiasm.

There were 60 children. Instead of imposing arbitrary rules on them and filling their heads with data, their spirit was left free.

When at age four and five they learned to read and write as a natural process, the world was shocked.

Thus, San Lorenzo ceased to be a child control center and became a research center where the child was developed with dignity, freedom and independence. They had the freedom to be active and the responsibility to know how to use this freedom”.

Teaching the methods of María Montessori

In 1909, the first Montessori guide course was given.

People from all walks of life attended this first course.

At the end of the course, María Montessori wrote her first book “The method of scientific pedagogy“.

There she related the development of the materials and the foundation of her method.

A student at a Montessori Center in 1911. Credit: Eric Blocher

María Montessori invited to the United States

In 1912, the excellent results of the Montessori method and the extraordinary personality of its promoter, led to Alexander Graham Bell (an American scientist and speech therapist of Scottish origin, inventor of the telephone and who had supported the education of Helen Keller, a blind and deaf girl) and her daughter, will invite María Montessori to the United States.

Before long, the first Children’s House was opened in that country.

María Montessori in 1913
María Montessori in 1913. Credit: Wikimedia

Very soon, in the United States, Montessori schools began to proliferate.

Foundation of the American Montessori Association

And the “American Montessori Association” was founded, headed by Graham Bell and Margaret Wilson, the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson.

In 1915, her son Mario went to the USA to meet his mother, and since then the union between them was permanent and intense, both personally and professionally.

Maria Montessori’s action in Italy

That year, Dr. Montessori gave an International Conference in Rome, which was attended by many people who were impressed by the age at which the students of the Casa de los Niños, in the San Lorenzo neighborhood, learned to read and write.

In 1926, with the support of Benito Mussolini, she founded the “Royal School of the Montessori Method“.

She already had the firm and faithful support of her son Mario, who accompanied her on all her tours. Mario had married Helen Christie in 1917, and they had 4 children.

María Montessori founded, in 1929, the International Montessori Association (AMI), which currently has its headquarters in Amsterdam (Netherlands).

In Italy, schools and teacher training centers multiplied.

But, when the Duce Mussolini wanted the children to be indoctrinated, Montessori preferred to give up state aid; she was convinced that indoctrination is radically incompatible with freedom, the foundation of her educational method.

The Duce ordered to close all Montessori schools.

Hitler did the same in Germany, where several schools had already been installed.

The last years of María Montessori’s work

1934: María Montessori left Italy and went to live in Barcelona.

1936: she was living in Barcelona when the Spanish civil war began.

She immediately fled to Holland, where she again began her educational work.

1938: she published her book “The boy, the secret of childhood“.

In 1939, the Theosophical Society of India invited her to give courses in it country. She was accompanied by her son Mario.

Before long, World War II broke out; the English, who dominated India, allowed her to continue working, but they did not let her leave the country.

Mario was sent to a labor camp, and she dedicated herself to applying her educational method with the children, developing workshop work with them and starting Montessori primary courses.

At this time her interest in children from 0 to 3 years old was born, saying that education should start from birth. She developed the Children’s Communities as a proposal to replace nurseries.

The legacy of the great pedagogue María Montessori

At the end of the war she returned to Holland and resumed the spread of her ideas. More Montessori schools were opened worldwide.

At the moment it is difficult to understand well the impact that Maria Montessori had on the renewal of the pedagogical methods of the early twentieth century, since most of her ideas seem evident today.

But, at the time, they were radical innovations.

The fundamental principles of the method devised by María Montessori are that:

  • Children learn everything unconsciously, gradually moving from unconscious to consciousness.
  • They can be compared to a sponge; the difference is that the sponge has a limited absorption capacity, while the child’s mind is infinite.
  • There are sensitive periods, in which children can acquire a skill very easily. These moments are temporary.
  • One way to motivate children and awaken their desire to learn is summarized in the formula: “help me to do it myself“.
  • The adult should only intervene when the child asks for help; In this way, autonomy is favored from the first years.
  • The role of the adult is to guide the child, provide a good and comfortable environment; and be a good observer.
  • A true educator is at the service of the educating child and must cultivate in him humility, responsibility and love.
  • When the child has a question, consult his parents first, then an older partner, then a book; in this way the child gains independence and often manages to solve his problem without going to the adult.
  • Play is the main activity through which the child observes and investigates everything related to his environment, in a free and spontaneous way.

María Montessori lived the rest of her life in the Netherlands, where the headquarters of the International Montessori Association (AMI) was.

From there she actively participated in UNESCO’s educational programs.

In those years, around 1949, in Spain, a teacher named Angela Ruiz Robles, made a sensational invention.

It was the equivalent of current electronic books. It is a pity that both did not get to know each other, as they would have coincided in many of their teaching methods.

On May 6, 1952, María Montessori suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and died at the age of 81, in the city of Noordwijk (Netherlands).

She received the French Legion of Honor for her outstanding work in the field of education; as well as the Honoris Causa award from the University of Amsterdam; She was proposed three times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

She lived and worked on her convictions that the boy had to be helped to develop. All her life she studied, worked and spread these ideas.

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