Maria Montessori: The Mother of Modern Education

By Jaime Seltzer

Maria Montessori’s history is a bit mysterious, perhaps because the public fell so in love with her story that they couldn’t help but embellish it a little. Still – there are so many incredible stories that it becomes difficult to believe that at least a handful of them are not true.

It is certainly the case that Maria was born in 1870 on the last day of August in Chiaravalle, Italy to Renilde Stoppani and Alessandro Montessori. It is also quite clear that at some point she and her family moved to Rome, though sources seem unclear as to when.

Maria excelled in school in spite of rather than because of the quality of her education. She attended primary school in conditions that would make Jean Valjean blush: children were forbidden from leaving their chairs; the lighting was poor and the only available materials were books, slate, and chalk; learning was by drilling and rote memorization: repeat after me, with no discussion whatsoever. Girls especially were encouraged to be silent in the classroom. After all, they were to stop attending around what would now be junior high.

She wrote [the Pope] a letter that read something like, listen, I’d really like to do this medical stuff, and God doesn’t have a problem with that, does He? To which the Pope replied, I don’t see why He would, and suddenly Maria Montessori was the first ever Italian female medical student.

Maria thought differently and entered first a school of mathematics in 1882 and then a technical school to study engineering in 1886 – both schools considered exclusively for boys, with only Maria and one other young woman in attendance. It helped that Maria was both gorgeous and convincing, figuring at one point she might be an actress. Then she found her passion in mathematics and science and proceeded to stomp on everyone else’s expectations with both fashionably-clad feet.

If Maria and her friend going to the school of engineering with the boys was something that got the town buzzing, Maria’s decision to switch to medicine was entirely unprecedented. Her conservative father threw a fit. ‘A teacher,’ he said, ‘that’s what a girl can be. They’ll never let you in.’

So Maria did what one naturally does when confronted by the trials and tribulations of being a brilliant young lady in need of a powerful advocate: she asked the Pope for help.

She wrote him a letter that read something like, listen, I’d really like to do this medical stuff, and God doesn’t have a problem with that, does He? To which the Pope replied, I don’t see why He would, and suddenly Maria Montessori was the first ever Italian female medical student.

While the other medical students were cutting up cadavers, she was forced to depart – imagine, a young lady looking at naked people while in the company of men! – and return late in the evening when everyone else had gone home. This also meant that she was doing her work without any professor standing at her shoulder or any friends at her side. She must have noticed that she still managed to do far better having to figure things out without explicit direction, however, because that idea of hands-on, uninterrupted learning would stay with her.

The real Maria Montessori, and her card in the Women in Science game.

The real Maria Montessori, and her card in the Women in Science game.

At age twenty-six, she sat her medical exams, which in the late 1800s was stand-and-deliver in the most literal sense. Maria must have known her presentation had to be flawless or people would always wonder if the school had gone a bit easy on her due to her special status. To add to that anxiety, her father had finally relented at the advice of a friend and stood in the audience to see if his daughter would be a doctor after all. Maria answered brilliantly and charmingly as the medical examiners shot question after question at her until even they had to admit that she had passed with distinction. The audience of her classmates and their families gave her a standing ovation and thunderous applause. One presumes after she had secreted herself away, she either vomited or fainted or both, but you have to imagine at that moment, she must’ve felt pretty awesome.

A flood of honors rapidly came her way after people had heard her speak so eloquently in public. Though she only graduated from medical school in July, by September she was representing all of Italy in the International Congress for Women’s Rights in Berlin to debate the prospect of equal pay for equal work.

Her proposal was adopted.

Can I just add that this was 1896? Maria was so charming and so brilliant (and so very correct) that she apparently just made people want to agree with her and Get Things Done.

When she returned from the conference – presumably to roses strewn in the streets and lots of hearty handshakes from her old school friends – she was immediately appointed to a psychiatric clinic in Rome, which was where her real life’s work began. She ended up in charge of a group of children who were presumed to be mentally disabled. She noted that they were basically imprisoned, with nothing to think about and nothing to do.

Seeking to help these children, she created a far more accessible environment where they could practice social and intellectual skills, and began campaigning on their behalf, lecturing on the treatment of disabled children and their potential. To everyone’s amazement, when Montessori’s ‘disabled’ children took a skills test given to the average Italian child in the average Italian classroom, they all passed.

This shocked other Italian educators, who had viewed these children as beyond all help, and kicked off a series of lectures Maria gave to the public on child labor laws and the treatment of the mentally disabled. Despite Maria’s success in this arena, personal problems chased her from the school she had begun: she’d had an affair with Giuseppe Montesano and had conceived a child of her own. When Giuseppe informed her of his intent to marry someone else, she disappeared from public life in order to have the child, Mario, and left him to be raised in the countryside.

Maria seemed to feel the need to start fresh. She went back to school to study psychology and philosophy, and the University of Rome, her alma mater, appointed her chair of their Department of Anthropology in 1904.

Maria’s focus turned from mentally disabled children to children in poverty when she was asked to educate a group of children in the slums of San Lorenzo. A banker had produced low-income housing for the poor and homeless, but the people who lived there would go to work and leave their children unattended. They were too poor to afford childcare, and the sweat shops of the time did not welcome children below the age of seven. The banker in question had put together what we would now recognize as a daycare facility, and he wanted Maria to run the place.

Thus, Casa dei Bambini was born, or The Children’s House. On any given day, the room had fifty or more children ages 1-6 who had barely known an adult’s supervision.

She was of the stance that external punishments and rewards were both useless. If you gave a child a sweet for doing well, it became the sweet, not the accomplishment, that had value. If you punished a child for doing poorly, this could make him afraid of trying again, or begin to associate learning itself with pain or embarrassment.

Maria unearthed the hands-on materials she’d created for her disabled children, and to her amazement, the children didn’t even need to be directed in order to start learning from them. Maria invented the flashcard to teach words and numbers, and the children would automatically go through the cards. She had a dozen different puzzles, too, that the children spontaneously grabbed to play with. She also noted that the children had a profound sense of order, and needed to feel in control of their environment. They liked things having a specific place; they liked to clean up; they liked to take out and put away again. Whenever they learned a new skill, Maria saw increased confidence and pride in the children. She was amazed at their patience: a child could repeat a task forty or more times to get it ‘right’ the way they saw things. After Maria saw how respectful the children were of the materials, she created low shelving so that they could access them whenever they liked.

She came to believe that learning should be student-directed and not teacher-directed: that teachers should be on the lookout for a student’s particular interest in a toy, game, idea, or topic, and provide materials that related to that idea in order to allow the student to learn when they were most avidly interested. She also firmly believed in children being able to move around the classroom and outside for a good proportion of the day rather than simply for an hour. Last but definitively not least, she was of the stance that external punishments and rewards were both useless. If you gave a child a sweet for doing well, it became the sweet, not the accomplishment, that had value. If you punished a child for doing poorly, this could make him afraid of trying again, or begin to associate learning itself with pain or embarrassment.

In an age where the ruler and the switch were still used in the classroom every day, saying such a thing was completely revolutionary.

But no one could argue with the school’s incredible success. Montessori had taken low-income, disadvantaged children into this special environment, and they were learning more swiftly than their wealthier peers. Photographs of these children at intellectual play, looking serious but engaged, were almost too idyllic to be believed, so people visited. And wept. Yes, teachers literally saw Montessori’s well-behaved, self-sufficient, happy children with their intellectual toys, saw what they could actually do and at what age, and burst into tears. Even by today’s standards, the handwriting of Maria’s most skilled kindergartener looks like not just an adult’s work, but the work of an adult who specializes in calligraphy. Her children’s vocabulary and skill-set was far beyond that of their peers at other schools.

People came from all over the world to observe her methods at Casa dei Bambini, and a second school opened before the first had been in existence for a year. Several years later, dozens of Montessori schools had popped up all over Italy, Europe, and in the United States.

War forced Maria to abandon her homeland when Mussolini stated that, for the Montessori schools to be funded in Italy, Maria and the other teachers would have to sign a document saying they supported fascism. Perhaps it is not surprising to learn that every Montessori teacher refused, as the idea of fascism was antithetical to everything Maria had learned and taught. She scooped up her then-teenaged son and fled to India, where she began to write about and give lectures on peace. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on three separate occasions.

Today, there are over 7,000 Montessori schools worldwide, but you can see Maria’s hand in every kindergarten’s child-sized chairs and tables, low, brightly-colored shelves, and stock of blocks, flashcards, and manipulatives. Her work shifted the educational environment from a near-prison geared to the child’s obedience to one geared towards student comfort and understanding.

References:
Dasbach, M. T. (2011, December 26). Maria Montessori, 1870-1952. In History 135. Retrieved August 16, 2015, from novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/evans/his135/evenst/montessori52/montessori52.html
Maria Montessori. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved Aug 16, 2015, from http://www.biography.com/people/maria-montessori-9412528.
Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. Retrieved August 16, 2015, from http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/montessori/method/method.html (Original work published 1909)

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