Maria Montessori (1870-1952) has been one of the most innovative childhood pedagogues of the 20th Century. An early feminist and advocate of women’s rights, she gave birth to a pioneering method of childhood education that has survived almost unchanged in its essential features – and despite a long period of obscurity in the USA — for more than ninety years. Montessori’s pedagogical methodology (deeply inspired by her background in pediatrics as well as by her psychological, anthropological, and philosophical research) has shown an amazing degree of resiliency. Schools following the “Montessori method” have been growing virtually in every country in the world, as a remarkable testimony to the method’s adaptability to different historical, cultural, and socio-economic environments.
The philosophy grounding Montessori’s pedagogy is based on a few basic principles. In Montessori’s view, each child has a unique potential for growth and development waiting to be expressed and revealed. Such potential is best developed by letting the child be free to explore and manipulate the surrounding environment. The role of the teacher in this process should be not that of directing the child’s activities, but rather that of continually adapting the environment in new and exciting ways in order to let the child fulfill her potentials — physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually – at growing degrees of complexity. The teacher is, therefore, more the “interpreter” of the child’s inner potentiality than the outside “controller” of the child’s behavior.
Throughout her studies, Montessori became increasingly convinced of the vital role of education in building a more just and peaceful society. Hence, towards the end of her life she tirelessly devoted her efforts to the rights of children: most notably, by becoming involved in the founding meetings of UNESCO and by advocating for peace education in her writings, lectures, and training courses. This repeatedly earned her the nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1949, 1950 and 1951).
Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle (near Ancona), Italy, in 1870. She was the only child of a middle-class, devotedly Catholic, well-educated family. Her mother came from an academic family, while her father, formerly a military man, worked as a financial officer in the tobacco industry. Allegedly, Maria’s father was a very conservative man and a firm authoritarian, while her mother held more liberal ideas and always supported Maria’s controversial and stubborn educational and career choices.
In 1882, the Montessoris moved to Rome, where Maria soon began attending a technical school (at the time, a kind of institution mostly chosen by young boys). After high school, Maria’s interests in mathematics led her to first seek a university degree in engineering, and then move to the medical sciences. This decision was strongly opposed by Maria’s father, who nonetheless ended up escorting her to and from class, since at the end of the 19th Century for a woman to go around unaccompanied was considered to be inappropriate. Maria’s university experience was a struggle on many respects. The only career that was believed suitable for a woman was that of a schoolteacher. At that time a woman in academia had to overcome many prejudices and obstacles. For instance, women were not supposed to study the human body in the presence of men, to the point that Maria had to arrange for separate, solitary sessions to perform her assigned autopsies. Nevertheless, in 1896 Maria became the first woman in Italy to earn the degree of Doctor of Medicine (Hainstock 1997) .
Montessori’s first job appointment was as an Assistant Doctor at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome. Her assignment was to visit psychiatric asylums to select qualifying patients to be treated at the clinic. Her target was mostly “mentally deficient” children (what nowadays would be dubbed...
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