This year is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Maria Montessori, who revolutionised ideas on education, human development and equality. Today, Montessori education is offered in over 25,000 schools across 145 countries.
“Help me to do it myself” is the essence of a Montessori education.
Maria Montessori’s most famous legacy, The Montessori Method, is a kind of education which is wholly child-centered which enables children to develop themselves, learning at their own pace, and learning to be responsible for themselves, their environment and their community. This is the essence of Montessori education.
The notion of social reform became a strong theme throughout Montessori’s life
Maria Montessori was born on 31 August 1870 in the town of Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father, Alessandro, was an accountant in the civil service, and her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was well educated and had a passion for reading.
The Montessori family moved to Rome in 1875 and the following year Maria was enrolled in the local state school. Breaking conventional barriers from the beginning of her education, Maria initially had aspirations to become an engineer.
When Maria graduated from secondary school, she became determined to enter medical school and become a doctor. In opposition to her parents’ encouragement to enter teaching, Maria wanted to study medicine, a male-dominated field. After initially being refused, with the endorsement of Pope Leo XIII, Maria was eventually given entry to the University of Rome in 1890, becoming one of the first women in medical school in Italy. Despite facing many obstacles due to her gender, Maria qualified as a doctor in July 1896.
Around the same time, Maria became involved in the Women’s Rights movement. She became known for her high levels of competency in treating patients, but also for the respect she showed to patients from all social classes. In 1897, Maria joined a research programme at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome.
This work initiated a deep interest in the needs of children with learning disabilities. In particular, the work of two early 19th century Frenchmen, Jean-Marc Itard, who had made his name working with the ‘wild boy of Aveyron’, and Edouard Séguin, his student, interested her so much that she translated his seminal book on challenged children from French to Italian for her own benefit. Maria was appointed as co-director of a new institution called the Orthophrenic School. In 1898 Maria gave birth to her son Mario, following her relationship with Giusseppe Montesano, her co-director at the school.
At the age of twenty-eight Maria began advocating her controversial theory that the lack of support for mentally and developmentally disabled children was the cause of their delinquency. The notion of social reform became a strong theme throughout Maria’s life, whether it was for gender roles, or advocacy for children.
Montessori came to realise that children have the power to educate themselves
In 1901 Maria began her own studies of educational philosophy and anthropology. From 1904-1908 she was a lecturer at the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome. This period saw a rapid development of Rome, but the speculative nature of the market led to bankruptcies and ghetto districts.
One such area was San Lorenzo, where young children were left to run amok at home as their parents worked. In an attempt to provide the children with activities during the day to prevent them for causing damage to the property, Maria was offered the opportunity to introduce her materials and practice to ‘normal’ children. There, in 1907, she opened the first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) bringing some of the educational materials she had developed at the Orthophrenic School.
Maria put many different activities and other materials into the children’s environment but kept only those that engaged them. She came to realise that children became empowered to educate themselves when places in an environment where activities were designed to support their natural development.
By 1909 Maria gave her first training course in her new approach to around 100 students. Her notes from this period provided the material for her first book published that same year in Italy, appearing in translation in the United States in 1912 as The Montessori Method; This book was later translated into 20 languages.
Montessori and her son Mario trained over a thousand Indian teachers
A period of great expansion in the Montessori approach now followed. Montessori societies, training programmes and schools sprang to life all over the world, and a period of travel with public speaking and lecturing occupied Maria, much of it in America, but also in the UK and throughout Europe.
Maria lived in Spain from 1917, where her son Mario and his wife Helen Christy raised their 4 children: Marilena, Mario Jr, Rolando and Renilde. In 1929, mother and son established the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) to safeguard and perpetuate her work.
The rise of fascism in Europe substantially impacted the progress of the Montessori movement. By 1933 the Nazis had closed of all the Montessori schools in Germany, with Mussolini doing the same in Italy a year later. In 1936, Maria and Mario travelled to England for a congress, but decided not to return to Spain which country was going through a Civil War at the time. From England they travelled to the Netherlands where they stayed with the family of Ada Pierson, who would later become Mario’s second wife.
A three-month lecture tour of India in 1939 turned to a seven-year stay when the outbreak of war had Mario interned and Maria put under house arrest, detained as Italian citizens by the British government. In India, Maria began the development of her approach to support the 6-12 child through ‘Cosmic Education’.
Her 70th birthday request to free Mario was granted and together they trained over a thousand Indian teachers.
In 1946 they returned to the Netherlands. Maria was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in three consecutive years: 1949, 1950 and 1951. Her last public engagement was the 9th International Montessori Congress in London in 1951. Maria Montessori passed away at age 81 on 6 May 1952 in the Netherlands, bequeathing the legacy of her work to her son Mario.
The Montessori Method
The Montessori Method is characterised by providing a prepared environment: tidy, pleasing in appearance, simple and real, where each element exists for a reason in order to help in the development of the child. A Montessori classroom integrates children of mixed ages that are grouped in periods of 3 years. This promotes socialisation, respect and solidarity among them naturally.
The prepared environment offers the child opportunities to commit to interesting and freely chosen work, which brings out long periods of concentration that should not be interrupted. Freedom develops within clear limits, and this allows children to live in harmony with others in the small society they belong to in the classroom.
Children work with concrete materials that were scientifically designed, which provide them the keys to explore our world and develop basic cognitive abilities. The materials are designed to allow the child to recognise the error by him/herself and become responsible for his/her own learning.
The adult is an observer and a guide: he/she helps and stimulates the child with all his/her effort. This allows children to act, want and think by themselves, and helps them to develop confidence and inner discipline.
The Montessori education covers all periods in education, from birth to 18 years old, providing a integrated curriculum.
For more on The Child, Tangible Materials, The Adult, and the Montessori Curriculum, click here.
“Anyone who wants to follow my method must… follow the child as his leader.”
The following are the last words of a longer talk by Dr Montessori to her students on 6 January 1942, celebrating the anniversary of the inauguration day of the first House of Children:
“My educational method has grown from these as well as from many other revelations, given by the children, You know from what I have told you, that all the details included in the method, have come from the efforts to follow the child. The new path has been shown us. No one knows exactly how it arose, it just came into being and showed us the new way.
It has nothing to do with any educational method of the past, nor with any educational method of the future. It stands alone as the contribution of the child himself. Perhaps it is the first of its kind, which has been built by him step by step.
It cannot have come from an adult person; the thought, the very principle that the adult should stand aside to make room for the child, could never have come from the adult.
Anyone who wants to follow my method must understand that he should not honour me but follow the child as his leader.”
— Maria Montessori
For a timeline of Maria Montessori‘s incredible life and achievements, see below.
Timeline of Maria Montessori’s Incredible Life and Achievements
1870 Maria Montessori born on August 31 in Chiaravalle, Ancona province, Italy. Attends a boys’ school in Rome, with a science/engineering emphasis.
1890 Against opposition from her father, she pursues her wish to become a doctor.
1896 Becomes one of the first women to obtain a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Rome. Represents Italy at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin; delivers address on rights of working women, including equal pay for equal work. Studies the writings of French doctors Itard and Séguin, who worked with disabled children.
1897-98 Audits courses in pedagogy at the University of Rome; reads all major works in educational philosophy over the past 200 years.
1899 Attends women’s congress in London; received by Queen Victoria.
1899-1906 Lectureship in hygiene and anthropology at the teacher training college for women in Rome.
1900 Works at the psychiatric clinic in Rome. Appointed director of the Orthophrenic School, a model school for training teachers of children with developmental disabilities. For two years, she experiments at the model school with materials to stimulate the senses. She succeeds in fostering the development of some of the children to such an extent that they achieve the same results on state exams as typically developing schoolchildren.
1901 Begins a second degree—in education, experimental psychology, and anthropology—at the University of Rome. Visits elementary schools to do anthropological research.
1904-08 Lectures in anthropology and biology at the University of Rome’s school of education, incorporating her clinical observations of pupils in Rome’s elementary schools. These lectures become the basis of her book Pedagogical Anthropology (1910).
1907 First Children’s House (Casa dei Bambini) is opened at 53 Via dei Marsi in the San Lorenzo district of Rome on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6.
1908 The Children’s House on Via Solari in Milan, run by Anna Maria Maccheroni, is opened.
1909 Gives the first training course in her method to about 100 students in Città di Castello. There, she writes, in the space of a month, her first book, Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica applicato all’educazione infantile nelle Case dei Bambini. In the years to follow, this book is translated into over 20 languages. The English edition is titled The Montessori Method.
1910 Two parallel teacher training courses are held in the Franciscan convent on Via Giusti in Rome, where there is a model Children’s House. Second book: L’Antropologia pedagogica (Pedagogical Anthropology).
1911 Resigns her teaching post at the University of Rome and gives up her private medical practice to concentrate entirely on education. The Montessori method is already being put into practice in English and Argentinean schools. Model schools set up in Paris, New York, and Boston.
1912 The English version of Il Metodo appears in the U.S. in an edition of 5,000 copies under the title The Montessori Method. Within a few days, it is sold out. It reaches second place on the year’s list of nonfiction bestsellers.
1913 Runs the First International Training Course in her apartment in Rome, under the patronage of Italy’s Queen Margherita. Students come from Italy and other European countries, Australia, South Africa, India, China, the Philippines, the United States, and Canada. Montessori Educational Association founded in the United States. Its membership includes Alexander Graham Bell, his wife, Mabel Bell, S.S. McClure, and President Wilson’s daughter, Margaret Woodrow Wilson. First trip to the United States.
1914 Second International Training Course in Rome. Montessori’s third book, Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, is published in New York.
1915 Second trip to the United States, accompanied by her son, Mario. Addresses International Kindergarten Union and National Educational Association (NEA), and runs a training course, the Third International Course. At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, a Montessori class works in a glass pavilion observed by visitors. Dr Montessori’s NEA lectures are published in New York: My System of Education, The Organization of Intellectual Work in School, Education in Relation to the Imagination of the Little Child, and The Mother and the Child.
1916 Moves to Barcelona at the invitation of the city government; Barcelona remains her home until the coup in 1936 that brings General Franco to power. Fourth International Training Course in Barcelona. Model Montessori school and a children’s chapel are set up in Barcelona, as well as a teacher training institute, with the backing of the Catalan government. Her fourth book appears, L’autoeducazione nelle Scuole Elementari (English title: The Advanced Montessori Method).
1919 Training course in London using the format that would become standard: fifty hours of lectures, fifty hours of teaching using the materials, fifty hours of observation of Montessori classes.
1920 Lectures at Amsterdam University.
1921 Training courses in London and Milan. Founding of the New Education Fellowship (today known as the World Education Fellowship), of which Maria Montessori is an active member, engaging in heated debate with the leading educational reformers of the time.
1922 Publication of I bambini viventi nella Chiesa in Naples (English edition The Child in the Church, London 1929), Maria Montessori’s first book on the Catholic liturgy from the child’s point of view. First Children’s House in Vienna set up by Lili Roubiczek.
1923 Training courses in London and the Netherlands. Montessori’s first visit to the Haus der Kinder in Vienna; start of her collaboration and friendship with Lili Roubiczek (Peller), Lisl Herbatschek (Braun), and others.
1924 Four-month training course in Amsterdam. Meeting of Montessori with Benito Mussolini (who had come to power in 1922) results in official recognition and widespread establishment of Montessori schools by the Italian government.
1925 Training course in London. Dr Montessori’s son, Mario, takes this course and receives his Montessori Diploma.
1926 Visits Argentina. Speaks on “Education and Peace” at the League of Nations in Geneva.
1927 Presented at the English court. Visits schools in Ireland for the first time.
1928 The book Das Kind in der Familie, based on lectures she gave in 1923 in Vienna, is published in German. (It was to be issued in English as The Child in the Family in 1936.)
1929 A Montessori teacher training centre with a model Montessori school is built in Rome; collaboration between Maria Montessori and the architects. First International Montessori Congress in Helsingør, Denmark. In conjunction with her son, Mario, founds the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), with headquarters in Berlin (until 1935; after that in Amsterdam).
1930 International Training Course in Rome. Lectures in Vienna, during which she becomes acquainted with Anna Freud (founder of child psychoanalysis and daughter of Sigmund Freud).
1931 International Training Courses in Rome and England. Lectures at Berlin University. Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement, visits Montessori schools in Rome.
1932 Second International Montessori Congress in Nice, France. Montessori delivers lecture Peace and Education, published by the International Bureau of Education, Geneva. Publications: La Vita in Cristo (Rome), Ideas Generales Sobre Mi Método (Madrid), The Mass Explained to Children (London).
1933 The Nazis systematically destroy the Montessori movement in Germany, closing all Montessori schools. Third International Montessori Congress in Amsterdam. Training courses in London, Dublin, and Barcelona.
1934 Fourth International Montessori Congress in Rome. After conflicts with the fascist system, all Montessori schools in Italy “cease to exist … in a single day” (Rita Kramer). Psico-Aritmética and Psico-Geometría published in Barcelona.
1936 Fifth International Montessori Congress in Oxford, England; development of further principles of Montessori education for Elementary (Cosmic Education) and for secondary schools. General Franco’s coup; Maria Montessori flees Barcelona for England and then Amsterdam. The Netherlands becomes her home; a training centre with model school is set up in Laren, near Amsterdam (materials on Cosmic Education are used for the first time), and AMI moves its headquarters there. At this time there are over 200 Montessori schools in the Netherlands. Publications: The Secret of Childhood (London), Les Etapes de L’Education (Bruges, Belgium).
1937 Sixth International Montessori Congress in Copenhagen; the theme is “Educate for Peace.” Montessori delivers several lectures later collected in Education and Peace (first published in Italy as Educazione e Pace, 1949).
1938 Seventh International Montessori Congress in Edinburgh, Scotland. Speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in which she makes one of her numerous appeals for peace.
1939 God en het Kind (“God and the Child”) and The ‘Erdkinder’ and the Functions of the University: The Reform of Education During and After Adolescence published in the Netherlands. Departs for India with Mario to run what was to be a three-month training course at the invitation of the Theosophical Society, which has been using the Montessori method to successfully combat illiteracy.
1940 Italy enters World War II on the side of the Germans. In June, Mario Montessori interned by the British colonial government in India as an enemy alien, and Maria Montessori confined to the compound of the Theosophical Society. Mario is released in August out of the Viceroy’s respect for Maria Montessori and to honor her 70th birthday. Still, the Montessoris are not allowed to leave the country until the war is over.
1939-1946 Training courses in Madras, Kodaikanal, Karachi, and Ahmedabad in India, and in Ceylon. Further develops the Cosmic Education Plan for the Elementary years with Mario’s collaboration.
1941-1942 The Child (1941) and Reconstruction in Education (1942) published in India.
1946 The war over, Maria and Mario Montessori return to Europe. Training course in London; visit to Scotland. Education for a New World published in India.
1947 Maria and Mario Montessori establish a Montessori Centre in London. Trip to Italy: revival of the Montessori Society. Montessori establishments start to be reopened. Assistants to Infancy work initiated in Rome. Return to India to give a training course in Adyar.
1948 Training courses in Ahmedabad, Adyar, and Poona; lectures in Bombay. Trip to Gwalior, India; supervises the opening of a model school up to age twelve. Visit to the Montessori training centre with model school in Colombo (Ceylon). De l’enfant à l’adolescent (From Childhood to Adolescence) published in French. This book sets out Maria Montessori’s concepts for elementary and adolescent education. The Discovery of the Child, To Educate the Human Potential, What You Should Know about Your Child, and Child Training published in Madras, India.
1949 First nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (again in 1950 and 1951). One-month training course in Pakistan, assisted by Mario and Albert Joosten. Definitive return to Europe. Eighth International Montessori Congress in San Remo, Italy. The Absorbent Mind published in India. Publication of her last major work: Formazione dell’uomo (in English, The Formation of Man, Adyar 1955).
1950 Lecture tour of Norway and Sweden. Speaks at the General Conference of UNESCO in Florence.
1951 Ninth International Montessori Congress in London. Last training course run by Maria Montessori held in Innsbruck, Austria.
1952 Maria Montessori dies May 6 in Noordwijk aan Zee, Netherlands; she is buried at the local Catholic cemetery.
With thanks to Romana Schneider and Gerard Leonard, courtesy of the North American Montessori Teachers’ Association (NAMTA)