by Rosalinda Siciliano, Certified Montessori Education Teacher
Maria Montessori’s learning methods became one of the most revolutionary and profoundly positive influences on the development of children that the world has ever seen.
Her Early Life
Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy on August 31, 1870. When a young girl of three, she rebelled against authority at her new convent school in Rome. She was an independent spirit who refused to be “normalized” and she glorified in being at the bottom of class.
In high school she developed into an outstanding student. At 16 she went on to mathematics and to engineering but her father did not approve. Then she choose medical school as the only women allowed to attend. The male students were rude to her and her father refused to help her or to speak to her throughout her training. But, even through this adversity, she graduated with a degree in medicine, having the highest grade of all the students.
The Beginning of Her Vision: Montessori Education
Soon after graduating, Dr. Montessori was appointed assistant doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic at the University of Rome. It was her experiences here where her vision of Montessori Education began.
Part of her duties at the Clinic were to visit the insane asylum, where she was led to meet the “idiot children” who, at the time, were classified together with the insane. The warden took her to the cafeteria where she saw these children picking up food and rolling it in balls like clay. She saw then that these children were “craving bread for the mind” and came to believe that with special educational treatment, their mental conditions could be helped.
Her Work Begins
Maria delivered an address on Moral Education at the Pedagogical Conference in Turin where she expressed her belief that “defective children were not extra social beings but were entitled to the benefits of education as, if not more than, normal ones.” Such an interest was aroused that she was invited to lecture on the education of the feeble minded. As a result of these lectures, the Foundation for the Italian Orthophrenic School was begun and was placed under Dr. Montessori’s direction from 1899-1901.
All the hopeless and “idiot children” were brought to these Schools. During these two years, she prepared a group of teachers in a special method of observation and in accelerated learning education. By the creation of her now-famous sensorial materials and exercises of practical life, she helped these children to develop a spirit of self-confidence, independence and self-discipline (which is the foundation of the Montessori Learning Method used around the world today.) Her accelerated learning methods were so successful that her so-called “idiot children” were able to present themselves at public exams with normal children and pass. This caused an uproar. The public thought this was a miracle.
Preparing for Her First Full Montessori Educational Learning Environment
In 1901, she resigned from the Orthophrenic School, went back to school and took courses in philosophy and psychology. Her hope was to work with mentally balanced children using her sensorial materials and exercises.
In 1904, she was made a professor at the University of Rome where for four years she occupied the chair of anthropology and during this time wrote her first major publication entitled, “Pedagogical Anthropology”.
Also during this time a group of people, backed by the principle bank in Italy, constructed two large apartment houses in the heart of San Lorenzo quarter. These apartments were to house the poor on the condition that they would observe certain rules of decency and clean living. Because most of the residents were factory workers, very soon there arose a problem: Parents were working all day leaving the children at home. The children started vandalizing the buildings. The authorities recognized that it would be cheaper to have day care for the children rather than repairing the buildings so they created a large room in the apartment complex and entrusted Maria to care for them.
Dr. Montessori finally saw the fulfillment of her long-cherished hope. Before opening the child care/school, she changed all the furniture to small tables and chairs, little arm chairs and precise scientific learning materials prepared by her. She used the learning resources from her previous work including long rods, number rods, Sequin (math) boards and geometric shapes. Her first Montessori education school opened Jan. 6, 1906 with 60 children and a chance to create another miracle.
She could not take care of all these children all the time so showed the porter’s daughter and later the seamstress how to use the different materials so they could present them accurately to the children. The children also wanted to get involved in daily chores like dusting, cleaning and sweeping. Soon the classroom was transformed from a dark, dreary room to a child-sized colorful environment. The first “Casa de Bambini” was born in 1907 and is the signature of the true Montessori education environment we see all over the world today.
She taught her teachers that the first priority was to care for your environment. When the child sees you caring for the materials, have them help you. She taught how to do things quietly and correctly without disturbing your neighbor. Simple manners, habits and customs needed to be demonstrated with great patience, kindness and love.