The child, instead of being a burden, shows himself to us as the greatest and most consoling of nature's wonders! We find ourselves confronted by a being no longer thought of as helpless...but one whose dignity increases in the measure to which we see in him the builder of our own minds; [he is] the greatest marvel of the Universe, the human being.
Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Maria Montessori made a great contribution to the world in drawing attention to the importance of children as humanity's future. She emphasized the need to understand our way of relating to children and the environments that we provide for them. As a teacher, she articulated the importance of spiritual values for children and of looking at the child as a miracle of creation.
Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870, in the province of Ancona in Italy. Her father was employed by the government, and he came from a noble family. Her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was unusually well-educated for a woman of the times. She was described as a lady of piety and charm, and Maria and her mother had profound love and understanding between them.
When Maria was five years old, her parents moved to Rome to be able to provide her with a better education. Maria was very interested in mathematics and science, which were not considered usual interests for a girl. The local girls' school did not even offer courses for her to pursue her expanding interest in math and science; consequently, she attended classes at a technical school for boys. At this time she voiced the desire to pursue a career as an engineer, but this was especially unheard-of work for women. Her parents encouraged her to become a teacher because it was generally the only career open to women at that time. But Maria refused to even consider that option. Her interests grew, and she developed an overriding interest in biology, deciding to study medicine. This decision distressed her parents greatly–women simply did not attend medical school.
But Maria was determined to fulfill her goal, and her determination moved her mother, who eventually became her biggest source of support. At first–not surprisingly–she was refused admittance to the medical school, but after much struggle and with an appeal to the Pope himself, she was admitted as the first woman medical student in Italy. She won scholarships throughout her years of study and also augmented her income by giving private tutoring. She largely paid her own way through the university.
Maria confronted many difficulties during her student days, primarily from male students who resented her presence in a school that had always been all-male. She was not allowed to dissect dead bodies in the presence of male students as it was considered improper and, thus, had to do her dissecting work in the evenings, alone. She also had to deal with the overt opposition of her own father to her decision to study medicine. She became discouraged under the oppression of this compounded opposition and at one point reached the decision to drop out of medical school and seek a less controversial career.
But Maria experienced an unusual occurrence that strengthened her resolve. One day, as she left the school, determined to quit, she came upon a poor woman begging in the streets, accompanied by her two-year-old child who was playing with some colored paper on the ground. Something came over Maria as she looked into the face of this poor child. The child seemed totally unaware of the harsh realities of the life of poverty that surrounded her; she seemed transfixed into an inner state of peace and wonder. This look of inner peace and happiness, independent of external circumstances, touched and inspired Maria on such a deep level that she turned around and went straight back to the dissecting room. From that moment on she was determined to persevere and continue on with her chosen work. She never again doubted that she had a vocation. Her life was to demonstrate the principle she was to preach in later years: "The preparations of life are indirect." Her father's feelings of opposition to her choice of career changed after he heard her deliver a lecture at the university. She did such a brilliant job in delivering her topic that her father was extremely proud of her.
In 1896 Maria became the first woman in Italy to take the degree of Doctor of Medicine. In that same year she also was chosen to represent the women of Italy at a feminist congress held in Berlin at which she gave a speech supporting the cause of working women. A few years later she attended a similar congress in London where she attacked the practice of exploiting child labor.
In terms of her professional career, after graduation Dr. Montessori was appointed assistant doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic in the University of Rome. During this period she became interested in mentally retarded children. She came to see that mental deficiency was a pedagogical problem rather than a medical one. Through her interest in disabled children, she came in contact with the work and ideas of innovative educators, such as Jean Itard and Eduard Sequin, who devoted their lives to the education of the handicapped. In 1899, at a pedagogical congress, she delivered an address on "Moral Education" in which she advocated that retarded children needed and were entitled to the benefits of education as much as normal children. Because of this lecture, she was asked to give a series of lectures in Rome on the education of the feeble-minded. She compiled a great deal of information on this subject and, when a state orthophrenic school was opened, Dr. Montessori was named the director, a position she held for two years, from 1899 to 1901. She also participated in the actual teaching of these retarded children herself; and through her work with these children, she became interested in the teaching of normal children.
After a time, Maria resigned from the orthophrenic school and began to feel the need for further study and meditation. She registered as a student again to study philosophy and psychology. It was an important time of retreat for her, of re-evaluation, and of expanding her knowledge. She returned to her studies with children with new perspectives and insights.
During these years, in addition to her work with retarded children and her general study, she also studied nervous diseases of children and published the results. From 1896 to 1906, she occupied the Chair of Hygiene at the Magistero Femmile in Rome and was one of the examiners in the Faculty of Pedagogy. In 1904, Dr. Montessori was made a Professor at the University of Rome where for four years she occupied the chair of Anthropology. Her major publication was a large volume entitled Pedagogical Anthropology.
In addition to her work as a lecturer at the University of Rome and the Women's Training College, she also practiced in the clinics and hospitals of Rome and had a private practice. She was concerned about all aspects of her work and further developed her thinking on the philosophy and methods of education.
She also continued to be very interested in the education of normal children, but this field was closed to anyone not part of the state school system. Her chance to work with educating normal children came when she was asked in 1906 to direct a facility that would care for the young children not yet in a state school who lived in a poor area of San Lorenzo. In her work with these children, she used the materials she had developed in her work with retarded children. She found that these materials captured the children's attention in a very profound manner; thus, she developed more and varied materials, and the overall classroom environment developed further as the focus of her method.
The specific discoveries that she made concerning the nature and education of children are varied. She found that children have an amazing ability for concentration, they learn by and love repetition, they love order, and they learn best when given "free choice of activity." To the amazement of many, she discovered that children preferred work to play, that they had no need for rewards and punishments, and that they actually loved silence. In providing these children with an orderly but free environment, she discovered that they had a spontaneous self-discipline coming from within.
By giving these children a nurturing, free, ordered, and supportive environment, they became eager for learning of all kinds. They learned reading, writing, math, and general life and science principles. The role of the teacher is very different in a Montessori School from traditional schools. The teachers do not tell the children about reality but rather provide the materials for them to learn through their senses.
From her discovery that children love order, she incorporated in her educational method teaching children to clean up after themselves and to always return things to their proper place. She also observed that children love work and to engage in truly constructive activities.
Maria also saw that young children had the ability to engage in what she calls "spontaneous concentration." This concentration needs to be respected and not interrupted with activities directed by adults. In her schools she thus advocated that children be allowed to freely work within the environment and that their love of silence and working alone be respected. She also saw that children had the ability to make real choices and to respond with more than curiosity. She advocated that children should be encouraged to be as independent as possible. She saw that in her schools the children helped each other and were not competitive or jealous.
Dr. Montessori also became aware that young children are truly fascinated with external reality. She felt that fairy tales and other fantasy activities were not necessary for stimulating young children. Reality is itself magical and mystical for them and the external reality imposes the discipline and limits on the intellect that are necessary for healthy development. She also saw that children who had been "normalized" through relating to the prepared environment were not possessive in their activities. They reached the stage where the knowledge of the object is more important than the object itself. Dr. Montessori once said that members of religious orders and these normalized children seemed to have the same nonpossessive attitude toward property. The idea, "to use and not to possess," guided them. In the prepared environment, normalized children were very obedient, which springs from "spontaneous self-discipline." This self-discipline takes place naturally within an environment of liberty and respect for the child. Children participating in these prepared environments emulate a sense of joy and happiness.
Maria Montessori's work had such scope and depth because it encompassed all aspects of a child's life. She also discovered certain concepts that are a foundation for her method. One such concept is that of the child being in stages of metamorphosis. The child's stages of development are distinct one from another. She compared these stages to the metamorphosis of a butterfly. She felt that the child's mind actually functioned differently depending on the stage of development. She also felt that each individual child goes into differing stages at their own different times. In her schools she had materials for these different stages, and children were free to use them whenever the time was right.
She also did work with articulating the importance and character of certain "sensitive periods" that children go through. During these periods they seem to have an ability to simply absorb from the environment whatever is needed. She pointed out sensitive periods for language, order, small objects, refinement of the senses, good manners, and more.
Throughout her time of working with these poor children, she continuously observed children with the love and wonder of a mother but also with the objective eye of a scientist. The work that was done in the name of these children was truly amazing. Word began to spread about the accomplishments of Maria Montessori and these children. People from many countries and positions in life became interested in her approach to educating the young.
Maria began to realize that education was indeed her mission in life. She resigned from her university position and from her practice as a physician and completely dedicated her time and energy to working with children and developing their education.
Her fame spread, and she was asked to come to speak in various countries. She came to the United States and gave a speech at Carnegie Hall to more than 5,000 people, while many more who wanted to be there were turned away. The welcome from the Americans was enthusiastic. While in the United States she stayed as a guest with Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, who had a great admiration for her work. An American Montessori Society existed under the presidency of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. The honorary secretary of this society was Miss Margaret Wilson, daughter of the President of the United States. Dr. Montessori gave courses for teachers in California, and she had a Montessori class operating as an exhibition at the San Francisco World Exhibition where it received two gold medals. The prospect of a large Montessori World Headquarters established in America was offered to her, but she felt her ties with Europe too strongly.
She made many trips to all parts of the world to give lectures and set up training courses for teachers. But, she felt her main work was with children directly–to work with them in discovering what was the best method of education. She always had a penetrating insight into the soul of the child. With her scientific outlook, combined with her maternal tenderness and sympathy, she was able to establish a truly respectful and always expanding method of educating children.
In 1943, she was in India giving training courses when World War II broke out. Because she was Italian, she was regarded officially as an enemy alien; however, an exception was made in her case, and she was allowed to continue with her work. During her stay in India, she spent time with Mahatma Gandhi, Mr. Nehru, and Tagore.
In 1946, when the War was over, she returned to Europe and directed an international training course in London. She was asked to return to Italy in 1947 to reestablish the Opera Montessori which had been discontinued during the Fascist regime. Then in 1948, at the age of 78, she returned to India to give more training courses.
Maria Montessori died at the age of 81, on May 6, in Holland. Her contribution to humanity has long outlived the immense work she did in her lifetime. The spirit of her work continues today by many educators in many countries around the world.
References and Recommended Readings
Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Wilson, 1967.
_______. The Discovery of the Child. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.
_______. Education and Peace. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.
_______. The Secret of Childhood. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1936.
Standing, E.M. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. Fresno, CA: Library Guild, 1957.
“Maria Montessori: Through the Eyes of the Child” is reprinted from Walking with Contemplation.