Monday, August 18, 2014

Maria Montessori, the Italian physician who revolutionized education for young children

“To influence society we must turn our attention to childhood. Out of this truth comes the importance of nursery schools, for it is the little ones who are building our future.”
Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was the first woman to become a physician in Italy, a journey that had not been free of hurdles and challenges. 
   Maria Montessori pursued a career in medicine against her father’s wishes.  At the medical school the authorities were   appalled at the idea of a young lady becoming a doctor.
  The other medical students shut her out of conversations and even made fun of her in the corridors. With much grace Maria replied to them: “Blow away, my friends; the harder you blow, the higher up I shall go.”
 Once she graduated from medical school she was invited to  Berlin to give a conference on why women should be given the same pay as men for doing the same work. At that time, women in factories and and on farms were paid considerably less than men. (Interestingly, equal pay continues to be an issue these days).
  In addition to being an outstanding physician, she became interested in the education of young children. As she had not been trained as a teacher, she did not have the fixed ideas that teachers were taught in those days.
 Inspired by the work of Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin, who refused to believe that mentally retarded kids could not be educated, she worked with kids that had disabilities. Instead of using the usual teaching methods, Dr. Montessori encouraged them to learn by exercising their senses of touch, sight, smell, and sound. She developed special materials to accomplish her goals.
  Thanks to her work, some kids with disabilities were able to reach the same standards and pass the same exams as those without disabilities.
The next step for her was to work with kids who did not have disabilities, so she tried her methods with children from the slums. These kids were poorly fed and miserable.
 Maria Montessori welcomed these children in The Casa dei Bambini (The Children’s House). Up until then education had been based on rigid principles. Kids had to memorize facts and repeat them like parrots. They were not supposed to ask questions. Children who did not learn this way were labeled as “lazy”.
 The opening of the first Children’s House in San Lorenzo, Italy, was the starting point of a revolution in education. In 1907, when Dr. Montessori was well known in Italy as a physician and a campaigner for women’s rights, she began to work intensely on education, and she would later spread her methods all over the world by giving conferences in different countries. She also wrote books on this subject. Her methods became popular.
In her private life, things did not go  well. She fell in love with Dr Giuseppe Montessano and she became pregnant. Single pregnant women were a shame (interestingly, women—not men— can still be fired for conceiving a baby out of wedlock these days). It is not clear why they never married, but she had to hide her son away. Her child had to be raised by some relatives that lived in the countryside. Her work would have been discredited if she had acknowledged him publicly. Making a living as a single mother would have been difficult.
   Maria Montessori channeled her frustration and pain into her work by devoting more of her energy to the study of children’s development and to their education.
 Maria Montessori was able to show the world that kids are motivated to learn. She observed children and studied their behaviors. One thing she learned was that although there were plenty of toys in The Children’s House, kids preferred to work with the sensory materials. 
            What she noted was that when kids were in an environment that was conducive to learning they would be motivated to learn. The sullen and crying children became happily involved in their learning experiences. There were also plants and pets to care for.
 Maria Montessori thought it was important to allow the children to decide what to do. Children had the opportunity to work at their own pace in a peaceful, non-competitive environment.
Working outdoors on purposeful activities was also encouraged.
 Maria Montessori believed that teachers should follow the      child. She believed that children taught the teachers, not the other way    around.
 The true Montessori philosophy  contemplates the emotional and social aspects of education. It fosters peace and understanding at every level.
 Dr. Montessori believed that each child is born with a unique potential to be revealed, rather than as a "blank slate" waiting to be written upon.
 During World War II Dr Montessori was forced to leave Italy due to her antifascist views.  Mussolini closed all Montessori schools. Maria lived in Spain for a couple of years, and then she moved to Holland. In 1947 she  undertook a lecture tour in  India, which lasted two years. There she developed her work Education for Peace.
  Dr. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times (1949, 1950 and 1951). 
 Peace education is about developing skills to resolve conflicts peacefully. It  provides opportunities and experiences for the children to learn to live in harmony with other people and the environment. 
 "Establishing lasting peace is the work of education."
Dr. Maria Montessori
 Regarding prizes and punishments she said, "The prize and the punishment are incentives toward unnatural or forced effort... the jockey offers a piece of sugar to his horse before jumping into the saddle. The coachman beats his horse that he may respond to the signs given by the reins. And yet, neither of these runs so superbly as the free horse of the plains."
All in all, Maria Montessori believed in the kids' motivation to learn and discover. She was convinced that kids have a world of their own, and that adults should not interfere. 
 Now, do kids still have that world of their own? Or do we violate it through the images and messages imparted by television screens?
 Do we respect kids' vulnerabilities these days? Something to think about.

 Maria Montessori liked to tell the story of a little girl who came to a Montessori school for the first time. The little girl asked the first child she met, "Is it true that in this school you're allowed to do what you like?"
 "I don't know about that," replied the child, "but I do know that we like what we do."


Maria Montessori. The Italian doctor who revolutionized education for young children. Michael Pollard

Maria Montessori. Her Life and Work. E.M. Standing


  1. What a remarkable woman! She made an outstanding contribution to the world!

    1. Thank you, Nellie. She did.
      I volunteered at a Montessori preschool and was very impressed by the children's concentration and self-discipline.

  2. Hi Julia - what an amazing story - I know about the Montessori schools - but had no idea about Maria and the background to those schools .. fascinating woman.

    She certainly gave us a new way at looking at education and helping people through difficulties starting with the child.

    Brilliantly interesting post - thanks for writing about her .. it's really opened my eyes. Cheers Hilary

    1. Good point, Hilary.
      And thank you so much for reading my long post. I appreciate your feedback.

  3. Dear Julia
    Sorry I almost missed this post. What an interesting account of this woman's life. The Montessori schools were very popular during the 50's when my kids were young. Many of my friends sent their kids to Montessori schools but although I was very familiar with the schools, mine did not go there. I knew nothing about Maria Montessori and it is enlightening to read about her life. It is sad that her own child was deprived of her excellent teaching as a mother. With her great love for children I imagine sending her child away to be raised by others was an extremely difficult thing for her. Did you ever find any info on what became of her son?
    Autumn is already in the air and I'm buying hay to cover plants and adding insulation to the chicken coop as I get ready for winter. The summer flew by but I'm ready to set aside my garden tools until the next season. I hope this finds you well and leading the parade. :)

    1. Dear Manzanita,
      Her son worked to spread her legacy. They had a great relationship even though she did not raise him. I forgot to mention that she did acknowledge her son publicly when she was older.
      Autumn is not here yet, but enjoy the new season, my friend. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Julia: I do know of these schools, but never actually witnessed one in progress. Do you think they would be effective today? She was, indeed, a remarkable woman.

    1. Hi JJ.
      It would be arrogant of me to say that Montessori schools would work for every single kid. However, there is research done in the last few years that shows the advantages of Montessori schools as compared with traditional education.
      Studies have shown that Montessori students perform as well or better than their Montessori peers.
      One study showed that after preschool and elementary Montessori education children earned higher scores in high school on standardized maths and science tests.
      Another study found that the essays of 12-year old Montessori students were more creative and used more complex sentence structure than those produced by non-Montessori students. They also found that Montessori students show a greater sense of justice and social and behavioral skills.
      Here's a link:
      On a personal level, I can say that I know students in a Montessori public school and they are doing well. And now I am off to a Montessori school. There is an open house.
      Thank you for your question.

  5. What an interesting post! I learned lots of new things here. Thank you. I didn't realize Montessori's earliest work in education was with special needs children, but I believe her method for educating children is sound, I think. I believe children are naturally curious and have the capacity to soak up knowledge like a thirsty sponge, but a rigid learn-by-rote system can stifle that curiosity, and put a damper on the desire to learn. Learning should be a joyous thing.

    1. I agree with you, Susan.
      Let's hope that Maria Montessori's story becomes an inspiration for educators to open their minds to new creative ideas and to foster the development of innovative perspectives.

  6. Being a recovering victim of the Sexist School of Societal Brainwashing ─ try and say that a couple of times, I had always assumed Montessori was a guy. (Blue, be ashamed of yourself... I know. And why am I talking to myself?) But I did know it's good to go against your father's wishes. Been there myself. Yeah, how come women doing the same job as men still earn less? It's ridiculous. Also... we should always ask questions. Again and again. We should also always question our own world views and beliefs. I contemplate the emotional and social aspects of education on a daily basis being a teacher myself. I just didn't know that would mean agreeing with Mr. ─ now Ms. ─ Montessori. Great post.

    1. Hi Blue Grumpster,
      I'm thrilled to learn that you are a teacher. What a precious gift to your students: an open-minded, creative teacher.
      I'm also a recovering victim of the Sexist School of Societal Brainwashing, so I appreciate your honesty. It is not something I encounter very often these days.
      The remnants of sexism still exist and they pervade the minds and actions of many people.
      Thank you for reading my post on Maria Montessori's life and work.

  7. Such an interesting post! I thought I knew the main things about Montessori and her educational methods, but I learned a lot from this post.

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth.
      I had fun writing it!


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