Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. A natural aptitude for mathematics led her to consider  becoming an engineer but her studies turned to a decision to study medicine, a goal she achieved by single-minded persistence in the face of both the disapproval of her family and the prejudices towards women of the society of the time. Her first historical milestone was to qualify (as top graduate, with double honours) as the first woman Doctor of Medicine in Italy.

She held several positions simultaneously for the next ten years, as a medical practitioner and consultant, as lecturer at the medical school and in due course as Professor of Pedagogic Anthropology at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome.

gen8Working with mentally retarded children brought her to consider that education might be more constructive than medical treatment in helping these children and she conducted extensive research to gain ideas from others and try out different methods.

In 1906 Montessori took up the Directorship of a new project, part of a slum clearance programme on the outskirts of Rome, which was a house for street children too young for formal schooling.

It was named ‘La Casa dei Bambini’ (‘The Children’s House’). It was here that Montessori could apply her approach, and the methods she had developed over the past few years, to children who were not mentally delayed or damaged. The children – of assorted ages, unkempt, from uneducated backgrounds – responded with joy and energy and began to learn at an astonishing pace. A second Children’s House followed, and Montessori’s name travelled swiftly through the press, attracting visitors from all over the world.

By 1908 a third Children’s House had opened, this time for more middle-class children, but with the same results: children working and learning spontaneously, resulting in independence, literacy, numeracy, dignity and self-motivation.

In 1909 Montessori published ‘The Method of Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Infant Education’ and shortly afterwards ran the first international training course. Visitors to the schools, and those who read her book and attended her courses, took their experiences and her ideas back to their countries, and schools and courses sprang up in many parts of the world.

For the next 30 years Montessori spent her time travelling, lecturing, training teachers and visiting schools in numerous countries, accompanied by her son, Mario, who interpreted for her.

During these years, Europe saw the rise of tyrranies in the guises of Fascism and Communism, as well as the appalling effects of the first World War: unprecedented slaughter, oppression and misery staining the European political picture. Montessori had to flee first Italy under Mussolini, then Spain under Franco, and finally settled in Holland, where in 1930, she founded the Association Montessori Internationale, the international association which flourishes to this day representing her ideas and embodying the highest levels of her philosophy.

1939 saw Montessori in India on a lecture tour when the second World War was declared.  She was able to continue her work, travelling and lecturing, and meeting many great teachers and spiritual visionaries, such as Ghandi. It was as a result of these years in India that her vision of Cosmic Education, and the spiritual significance of the human potential, evolved and gave final shape to her view.

gen10On her return in 1945, she continued to give numerous courses of inspirational lectures and in 1946 published the book which contains the essence of her philosophy, ‘The Absorbent Mind’.

She was awarded numerous honorary degrees and civic awards in recognition of the extraordinary value of her work worldwide, and was three times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She died in 1952.

Quoting from John Chattin-McNichols, President of the American Montessori Society, from his foreword to ‘The Absorbent Mind’, Holt Paperbacks edition, NY 1995:

‘… Montessori’s thought outpaced that of her contemporaries in the fields of education and psychology, for example –

“And so we discovered that education is not something which the teacher does, but that it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but in virtue of experiences in which the child acts on his environment.” (Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)

… [this] could be a quote from any of the current constructivist educators … whose works are having such a profound effect on education. Like Montessori’s influence, constructivist education has had the strongest effect in the preschool classroom, and only now has begun to make an impact on primary grades in a significant way. Whether or not the intermediate grades and secondary education will ever give up their content-centred focus and their exclusive use of direct, whole-group instruction remains to be seen.

 If anything is more central to Montessori’s ideas than the focus on the child and his activities (rather than on the teacher’s talk) it is Montessori’s idea that education must march to the tune of development….’

“Resting no longer on a curriculum or a timetable, education must conform to the facts of human life.”
Montessori, The Absorbent Mind)

Maria Montessori: guru for a new generation of business innovators – The Globe and Mail
(11 Apr 2012)


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