Maria Montessori was, in many ways, ahead of her time. Born in the town of Chiaravalle, in the province of Ancona, Italy in 1870 she became the first female physician in Italy upon her graduation from medical school in 1896. Shortly afterwards, she was chosen to represent Italy at two different women’s conferences, in Berlin in 1896 and in London in 1900.
In her medical practice, her clinical observations led her to analyze how children learn and she concluded that they build themselves from what they find in their environment. Shifting her focus from the body to the mind she returned to the university in 1901, this time to study psychology and philosophy. In 1904, she was made a professor of anthropology at the University of Rome.
Her desire to help children was so strong, however, that in 1906 she gave up both her university chair and her medical practice to work with a group of sixty young children of working parents in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was there that she founded the first Casa dei Bambini, or “Children’s House.” What ultimately became the Montessori method of education developed there, based upon Montessori’s scientific observations of these children’s almost effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as their tireless interest in manipulating materials. Every piece of equipment, every exercise, every method Montessori developed was based on what she
observed children to do naturally by themselves unassisted by adults.
Children teach themselves. This simple but profound truth inspired Montessori’s lifelong pursuit of educational reform, methodology, psychology, teaching, and teacher training-all based on her dedication to furthering the self-creating process of the child.
Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States in 1913, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at their Washington, D.C. home. Among her other strong American supporters were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.
In 1915, she attracted world attention with her “glass house” schoolroom exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. On this second U.S. visit, she also conducted a teacher training course and addressed the annual conventions of both the National Education Association and the International Kindergarten Union. The committee that brought her to San Francisco included Margaret Wilson, daughter of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
The Spanish government invited her to open a research institute in 1917. In 1919, she began a series of teacher training courses in London. In 1922, she was appointed a government inspector of schools in her native Italy, but because of her opposition to Mussolini’s fascism, she was forced to leave Italy in 1934. She traveled to Barcelona, Spain, and was rescued there by a British cruiser in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. She opened the Montessori Training Centre in Laren, Netherlands in 1938, and founded a series of teacher training courses in India in 1939.
She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times-in 1949, 1950, and 1951.
Maria Montessori died in Noordwijk, Holland in 1952. Her work lives on through the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the organization she founded in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1929 to carry on her work.
Q. Where did Montessori come from?
A. Montessori (pronounced MON-tuh-SORE-ee) education was founded in 1907 by Dr. Maria Montessori, the first woman in Italy to become a physician. She based her educational methods on scientific observation of children’s learning processes. Guided by her discovery that children teach themselves, Dr. Montessori designed a “prepared environment” in which children could freely choose from a number of developmentally appropriate activities. Now, nearly a century after Maria Montessori’s first casa dei bambini (“children’s house”) in Rome, Montessori education is found all over the world, spanning ages from birth to adolescence.
Q. What is the difference between Montessori and traditional education?
A. Montessori emphasizes learning through all five senses, not just through listening, watching, or reading. Children in Montessori classes learn at their own, individual pace and according to their own choice of activities from hundreds of possibilities. Learning is an exciting process of discovery, leading to concentration, motivation, self-discipline, and a love of learning. Montessori classes place children in three-year age groups (3-6, 6-9, 9-12, and so on), forming communities in which the older children spontaneously share their knowledge with the younger ones. Montessori represents an entirely different approach to education.
Q. Are Montessori children successful later in life?
A. Research studies show that Montessori children are well prepared for later life academically, socially, and emotionally. In addition to scoring well on standardized tests, Montessori children are ranked above average on such criteria as following directions, turning in work on time, listening attentively, using basic skills, showing responsibility, asking provocative questions, showing enthusiasm for learning, and adapting to new situations.
Q. Why does Montessori have multi-age classrooms?
A. Multi-age classrooms afford us the luxury of adapting the curriculum to the individual child. Each child can work at his or her own pace, while remaining in community with his or her peers. In addition, the multi-age format allows all older children to be the leaders of the classroom community – even those children who may be shy or quiet.
Q. Are Montessori schools as academically rigorous as traditional schools?
A. Yes; Montessori classrooms encourage deep learning of the concepts behind academic skills rather than rote practice of abstract techniques. The success of our students appears in the experiences of our alumni, who compete successfully with traditionally educated students in a variety of high schools and universities.
The goal of both Montessori and Traditional schooling is the same: To provide learning experiences for the child. The biggest differences lie in the kind of learning experiences each school provides and the methods they use to accomplish this goal. Montessori educators believe both differences are important because they help shape what a child learns, his work habits, and his future attitudes toward himself and the world around him.
Emphasis on Cognitive and Social Development
Emphasis on Rote Learning and Social Behavior
Teacher has guiding role
Teacher controls classroom
Environment and method encourage self-discipline
Teacher acts as primary enforcer of discipline
Mainly individual instruction
Mainly group instruction
Mixed age groups
Same age groups
Grouping encourages children to teach and collaborate
Teaching is done by teacher; collaboration is discouraged
Child chooses own work
Curriculum structured for child
Child discovers own concepts from self-teaching materials
Child is guided to concepts by teacher
Child is allocated time to work on and complete lesson
Child generally allotted specific time for work
Child sets own learning pace
Instruction pace set by group
Child spots own errors from feedback of material
Errors in child’s work highlighted by teacher
Child reinforces own learning by repetition of work and internal feelings of success
Learning is reinforced externally by repetition, rewards and punishment
Child can work where he chooses, move about and talk at will (yet not disturb work of others), group work voluntary
Child usually assigned seat; required to participate during group lessons
Multi-sensory materials for physical exploration organizes program for learning care of self and environment
No organized program for self-care instruction – left primarily up to parents