Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, on August 31, 1870. She was one of the most famous figures in the diverse and frequently contradictory formation known as the Progressive education movement. As was the case in other fields at the time, it was a male-dominated movement and Montessori was its most prominent woman leader. A first-wave feminist who, when young, had spoken at women's conferences, she overcame many social obstacles to become an internationally renowned public figure. Among the potential barriers to her success was the fact that she was a single parent. Throughout her life she managed to conceal from the general public the fact that she had a son. She was driven by an unshakable belief in the correctness of her educational opinions and beliefs and was highly skilled in communicating them to international audiences. The strength of her convictions about the efficacy of her methods, while adding to her persuasiveness, paradoxically undermined her ambition to see her practices widely adopted. This failure was also partly due to the necessity to generate income from her method and apparatus in order to live. Unable to sanction any version or representation of her methods other than those over which she had complete control, the movement she inspired repeatedly split when she disowned it.
Although Montessori's impact was perhaps greatest in the field of early childhood education, where PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION was at its most coherent, as she outlined in her The Advanced Montessori Method (1917), she hoped that her method would be implemented in schools for older children. Like other child-centered educators, such as JOHANN PESTALOZZI, FRIEDRICH FROEBEL, and JOHN DEWEY, she made a unique contribution to the formulation of the general principles and practices that currently inform the field of early childhood education.
In 1896 Montessori became the first woman graduate of a medical school in Italy. In 1897 she joined the staff of the psychiatric clinic attached to the University of Rome and as part of her work she visited mental asylums and came into contact with children who at that time were referred to as "feebleminded." This encounter led her to an examination of the work of the French physicians Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin who, earlier in the nineteenth century, had written about children with physical and mental disabilities. Having formed the opinion that the problems encountered by such children required a pedagogical rather than a medical solution, Montessori then embarked on a study of the work of the Romantic educationalists Pestalozzi, Froebel, and JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, as well as other less well known educational theorists. In addition, she studied anthropology, particularly the versions taught by Cesare Lombroso and Giuseppe Sergi. From this mix of study and experience she concluded that, given the right scientific approach, the children of the poor, including the disabled, were all educable and that by this means social reform could be achieved.
For two years, from 1900 to 1902, she held a position at the Orthophrenic School, an institute responsible for the training of teachers in schools for physically and mentally disabled children. During this time, she developed her own apparatus based on that of Itard and Seguin to assist children's learning. From 1904 until 1908 she lectured at the University of Rome in anthropology and education. Her lectures were published in a book entitled Pedagogical Anthropology (1913). While the content of this book is dated it contains ample evidence of Montessori's social reforming impulses, and her commitment to "scientific pedagogy" and social regeneration. Overall, her work is characterized by a combination of positivism and spirituality or even mysticism, mixed with Roman Catholicism, feminism, and theosophy.
During this period, the focus of her work changed from a concern with the physical condition of individuals to their social condition. In this respect the trajectory of her thinking was similar to that of social reforming women in many countries such as Kate Douglas Wiggin of the free KINDERGARTEN movement in the United States and Margaret McMillan, the pioneer of nursery schools in England.
Montessori's involvement in attempts at social reform intensified in 1907 when her Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) was opened in a model dwelling in a slum in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. There she was able to experiment with the educational methods and apparatus that she had developed with children with disabilities. Many visitors to the Casa dei Bambini, and to the other schools she opened subsequently, were astonished by the success of her approach.
In 1912, an English edition of her book on her work at the Casa dei Bambini was published. Entitled The Montessori Method, this book made her internationally famous. In it she outlined the origin of her pedagogical apparatus which was used for sense training and which, she claimed made possible, "the method of observation and liberty." Observation by the teacher, individualism, and autoeducation were the watchwords of the Montessori method. The latter meant that by means of carefully graded apparatus the children would educate themselves in a prepared environment with little help from a teacher.
By 1913, the year of her first trip to the United States, Montessori's fame had spread widely and both the educational and mainstream press were full of reports of her work. From then until the end of the 1920s, Montessori occupied a prominent place in education debate and policy. Although many schools adopted some of her ideas, few implemented them in their entirety. During this period Montessori travelled widely and provided training courses for teachers in many countries.
In 1924, she accepted government support for her methods in Italy from the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Ten years later when she refused to concede further to the demands made by Mussolini, he ordered that all the Montessori schools in Italy be closed. The same fate befell her schools in Germany, Austria and Spain as Nazi and fascist governments came to power. As the threat of war intensified, Montessori began to devote her efforts to a campaign for world peace.
During World War II, Montessori was stranded in India when the British authorities in India interned her son, Mario, as an enemy alien. They had gone there at the invitation of the Theosophical Society just as the war broke out. When the war ended, Montessori resumed her work of training teachers, lecturing and publication. Her later books, which include The Absorbent Mind, consist mainly of notes of her lectures. Montessori died in 1952 near The Hague in the Netherlands. Her ideas still attract followers in education and the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), founded in 1929 continues to promote them.
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Association Montessori Internationale. 2002. Available from www.montessori-ami.org/ami.htm.
KEVIN J. BREHONY