History of Dr. Maria Montessori

Montessori Education

Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was the first female physician in turn-of-the-century Italy. Through her deep respect for children and her outstanding skills of observation, she created a child-centered method of education that was years before its time. The traditional view of the child was as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the superior knowledge of adults. Montessori’s belief was that “education is not something a teacher does, but it is a natural process which develops spontaneously in the human being. It is not acquired by listening to words, but by virtue of experience in which the child acts on his environment.”

Historical Overview

As a young doctor, Montessori worked in psychiatric clinics, where she became interested in helping children with mental retardation. She adapted a set of sensory stimuli for the education of these children, creating what in Montessori terminology are called the Sensorial Materials. In 1901, these children with whom Dr. Montessori had worked passed state educational tests designed for “normal” children, an event that aroused international attention. Newspaper articles the world over marveled at the amazing Italian physician who had brought “defectives” (as they were then called) to this feat. Dr. Montessori had a different reaction. Rather than marveling at what these children had done, she instead marveled at the fact that “normal” children were not doing better on such tests, given their obvious advantages. Dr. Montessori turned her studies to the process of normal development in order to discover how human beings could reach their potential more fully than they did in traditional schools.

A few years later, Dr. Montessori took an opportunity that arose to work with young children. A housing project was undergoing renovation in a poor section of Rome, and children who were old enough to run about unsupervised but were not yet of the age for school were causing problems in the renovated buildings. The project developers decided to intervene. Knowing Dr. Montessori was interested in working with children, they offered her a space in one of the projects and the care of 50 or 60 children aged 3 to 6. A young woman served as teacher, and Dr. Montessori began her education “experiment” in January 1907. From the start, she viewed her schools as laboratories in which to study how children learn best (Montessori, 1917/1965, p. 125). By testing new approaches and materials and noting children’s reactions, over the next 50 years Dr. Montessori developed a radically different system of education.

Dr. Montessori left the legacy of a broad, field-tested curriculum covering all the major subject areas—math, music, art, grammar, science, history, and so on—for children ages 3 to 12. This system was developed by trial and error over her lifetime, with children in places as diverse as Rome, India, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States. Dr. Montessori gave many lectures and wrote several books about her system, and she founded the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) to carry on her work including the training of Montessori teachers.