by Emerson Sandow
One-hundred-forty years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy. She grew to found an educational philosophy and institution that has been consistent and remained intact all over the globe! Throughout her life, Dr. Montessori was an iconoclast, breaking the traditional bonds that were imposed on women and she lived her life on her terms.
Maria Montessori was born August 31, 1870. Her father was a civil servant and her mother was an avid reader and highly educated for her time. Maria was precocious and strong-willed, with plenty of confidence and she had a thirst for knowledge and education. This allowed her to excel in school.
Seeing Maria’s passion, her family moved to Rome, where better educational opportunities existed. Here, Maria became interested in engineering and she entered an all-boys tech school at 13 years of age. Her grades were so high that upon graduation, she was accepted into the prestigious Regio Instituto Technico Leonardo da Vinci. Maria excelled once more in her studies of math, science and languages. For the next few years, Maria brilliantly prevailed against the anti-woman sentiments of the times, to become Italy’s first woman physician.
Maria, now “Doctor” Montessori performed her internship at the University of Rome’s Psychiatric Clinic, where she became interested in psychology and human behavior. Her internship included regular work in insane asylums, with mentally deficient children. Maria felt strongly that this mental deficiency was less a medical issue and more of a pedagogical problem. She developed methods to treat these children and over time, she was proven correct.
While directing an institution for the poor children under five years of age, Maria developed a revolutionary kind of school and her methods became the Montessori system. The basis for her method was that children absorb knowledge from their physical environment and that the ideal environment should not shape the child, but reveal him/her. Soon parents and teachers were striving to learn Dr. Montessori’s methods.
In 1909, Maria published her Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in the Children’s Houses. Prior to Montessori’s time, it was assumed that children could only learn through instruction — being lectured by an adult.
Her “discovery of the child” startled the early education field. She believed that learning begins at birth and that the first few years of life are the most important. She also believed that children pass through various phases of development that correspond to specific motor skills and cognition. During such times, children have spontaneous interests in gaining knowledge and should be free to learn as much as they can, following their interests.
In her observations of the children in her charge, Dr. Montessori found that younger children work better together in small groups, also assisting each other. Older children could learn teaching and nurturing and the function of the teacher was to provide materials and guide from the background. She believed that a child’s natural curiosity would provide the motivation for gaining knowledge if s/he were in an environment that provided the necessary materials and equipment and hands-on freedom to work. Maria found that young children were very hand-oriented, so their school rooms should be furnished with bright colors, pleasing textures and the children should be free to touch and pick up anything in the room.
Today, Dr. Montessori’s belief that with the right environment and the freedom to explore it, children learn academic subjects as easily as they learn to walk and talk, has provided much groundwork for homeschooling and intelligent parenting. Her philosophy has influenced parents and teachers throughout the world and Montessori Schools can be found in any developed country. E.S.