Dr. Maria Montessori, physician, psychologist and noted humanitarian studied children of many racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds for over fifty years, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
Her intense scientific observation of the human being from birth to maturity allowed her to distill a body of philosophical, psychological and pedagogical principles. These, together with a vast range of autodidactic materials, came to be known as the Montessori Method of Education.
Maria was born in 1870 in Ancona, Italy. When her family moved to Rome she persuaded her parents to send her to a boys’ school that had an emphasis on science and engineering. Despite her father’s protests, she first studied engineering, then medicine, and in 1896 was the first woman to graduate as a doctor from the University of Rome.
In her work as a voluntary researcher at the University’s psychiatric clinic, she visited insane asylums to select patients for treatment, and there she observed ‘mentally retarded’ children.
It became clear to her that none of these children had any hope of improvement in asylum conditions and she became interested in the work done by Itard and Seguin on the education of ‘defectives’. She began to study, and eventually to work with, mentally retarded children, becoming convinced that the key to their education lay in the release of their individual potential.
In 1900 she was appointed as the Director the Orthophrenic School (a model school for training teachers of children with developmental disabilities) and there experimented with materials to stimulate the senses. It was here that she succeeded in fostering the development of some of the children to such an extent that they achieved the same results on state exams as typically developing school children.
She designed and had built a set of teaching materials and developed an environment in which self-motivated learning could take place.
Her success with so-called ‘defectives’ led her to take an interest in the education of children in general, and in 1907 she started her first school, the Casa dei Bambini (Childrens House) in a slum of Rome.
Thus began Dr Montessori’s lifelong involvement in education rather than medicine.
The Casa dei Bambini attracted a great deal of attention, and in 1909 Maria Montessori ran her first training course for teachers. From this came her theory of education (set out in The Montessori Method) and the growth of Montessori Schools all over Europe and the US. Subsequent lecture tours and training courses were held in England, Spain, Australia, Holland and the US.
In 1929, she set up the International Montessori Association (AMI) to safeguard and promulgate the Montessori Method.
In 1934, Mussolini forced the closure of the Montessori Schools in Italy, and Dr Montessori settled in Holland.
When World War II broke out, Dr Montessori went to India to establish a training centre, and there her ideas were influenced by the Indian culture. As a result of the war she also developed a passionate concern for peace through education.
After the war ended, she went to London and established a Montessori Centre. The rest of her life was spent writing and teaching, and she travelled widely to further the aims of the AMI.
She lived to see herself and her theories acclaimed throughout the world and died in Holland in 1952, at the age of 82. She is buried near The Hague, where the headquarters of the AMI are located.