Her Early Life
Maria Montessori was born in the town of Chiaravalle Italy in 1870. Her parents were Alessandro Montessori and Renilde Stoppani. Her father, Alessandro, was a retired military officer. He was a descendent of the noble family in Bologna. Her mother, Renilde, was the niece of a very famous philosopher, scientist and priest Antonio Stoppani. Montessori grew up in a time when teaching was one of the few professions open to educated women, and her father urged her to follow that path. Montessori, however, from an early age showed that she was a very independent and assertive woman, and insisted on attending a technical school. To better the education of Maria, her parents decided to move their family to Rome. However, even with the many advantages Rome brought her, she was still unsatisfied. From early on in her life, Maria Montessori showed that she was incredibly independent and insisted on attending a prestigious school. While in Rome, her studies focused mainly on mathematics and engineering, eventually obtaining a degree in engineering. After completing her degree in engineering, her interests changed slightly. She then decided she wanted to study biology and medicine in hopes to become a doctor. However, a woman wanting to attend medical school was to no avail and was considered impossible. Montessori was very persistent and landed herself an interview with the head of the board of education at the university. Eventually, it seems, Pope Leo XIII interceded on her behalf. In 1890 Montessori enrolled at the University of Rome to study physics, maths and natural sciences, receiving her diploma two years later. This and the Pope’s intercession enabled her to enter the Faculty of Medicine, and she became the first woman to enter medical school in Italy. Montessori stood out not just because of her gender, but because she was actually intent on mastering the subject matter. She won a series of scholarships at medical school which, together with the money she earned through private tuition, enabled her to pay for most of her medical education. Upon returning to the university in 1901, Montessori shifted her focus from the body to the mind to study psychology and philosophy. She began to read all she could on the subject of mentally retarded children, and in particular she studied the ground breaking work of two early 19th century Frenchmen, Jean-Marc Itard, who had made his name working with the ‘wild boy of Aveyron’, and Eduard Séguin, his student. She was so keen to understand their work properly that she translated it herself from French into Italian. Itard had developed a technique of education through the senses, which Séguin later tried to adapt to mainstream education. Highly critical of the regimented schooling of the time, Séguin emphasised respect and understanding for each individual child. He created practical apparatus and equipment to help develop the child’s sensory perceptions and motor skills, which Montessori was later to use in new ways. During the 1897-98 University terms she sought to expand her knowledge of education by attending courses in pedagogy, studying the works of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. In 1898 Montessori’s work with the asylum children began to receive more prominence. The 28-year-old Montessori was asked to address the National Medical Congress in Turin, where she advocated the controversial theory that the lack of adequate provision for retarded and disturbed children was a cause of their delinquency. Expanding on this, she addressed the National Pedagogical Congress the following year, presenting a vision of social progress and political economy rooted in educational measures. This notion of social reform through education was an idea that was to develop and mature in Montessori’s thinking throughout her life. Montessori’s involvement with the National League for the Education of Retarded Children led to her appointment as co-director, with Guisseppe Montesano, of...
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