(Chiaravalle, 1870 – Noordwjek, 1952) She was an Italian educator who rejuvenated teaching by developing a particular method known as the Montessori Method, which would initially be applied in Italian primary schools and later all over the world. Aimed particularly at preschool children, it was based on encouraging the initiative and response capacity of children through the use of specially designed teaching material. The method proposed great diversification of work and as much freedom as possible, so that the child would learn by themselves, substantially in line with the rhythm of their own discoveries..
Maria received a degree in Medicine in 1896 from the University of Rome. The following year, she started working as an assistant in the department of Psychiatry in the same university. There she was driven by her profound instinct to study special-needs children and warned immediately that their problem, more than medical, was educational. She expounded her ideas on this subject at the Education Conference of 1898 in Turin. Minister Baccelli put her in charge of a course for teachers of Rome on the education of mentally disabled or “psychopathic” children, a course that was transformed later at an Orthophrenic School, led by Montessori for two years.
She then went to London and Paris for further study, attending Philosophy and Experimental Psychology courses at the University of Rome, convinced that education of children had to firstly and essentially be based on the scientific, somatic and psychological knowledge of their being. Readings of works by J.M.G. Itard and E. Séguin, both illustrious teachers of special-needs education in France, helped her to gain a deeper understanding of the problems of special education which soon came to her as the application and revelation of the general laws of child education.
The work developed after for children with special needs through a practical and fruitful experience resulted in the emergence of a Montessori who theorised and organised a general method of child education. In January of 1907, Montessori, commissioned by the Instituto dei Beni Stabili of Rome, opened the first “Children’s House” in one of the new working class districts, soon followed by another, also in Rome. Since then, the Institution has spread throughout Italy and, further still, throughout the world as an independent institution, with increasingly clear organisation as an original method of child education.
This method, now mature due to experience and reflection, was expounded by Montessori in the volume Il metodo della pedagogia scientifica applicato all’autoeducazione infantile nella Casa dei bambini (1909), later published several times (1913, 1935, until the 4th edition of 1950, appearing with the title La scoperta del bambino) and soon translated into the main reference languages.
Montessori with her students (London, 1940)
The method consisted of developing the independence of the child, who could find in the “House” indispensable material for the exercising of the senses, objects appropriate to their interests and physical proportions, and the chance to apply themselves, with their personal work in accordance with their free choice, to solving interesting practical problems through the wide material available.
The dominant principle was that of laissez-faire; monitoring to help if needed; having faith in the immense value of a free activity developed with specific goals adopted by the child who is capable of driving forward their safe development, gradually resulting in spontaneous discoveries and conquests in accordance with their natural rhythm and a succession of “sensitive periods”, linked to the particular interests of the child which it was necessary to know how to understand and satisfy at the appropriate time, so as to not let the right moment pass without the indispensable exercise.
They were a programme and a ministry that made their own mark on the movement of the “active school” and were more or less connected to Rousseau and Friedrich Froebel. Her following work, L’autoeducazione nelle scuole elementari (Turin, 1910), also re-published twice in 1916 and 1940, applied the method to teaching in elementary school.
Meanwhile, since 1909, she took courses for teachers in Città di Castello, protected by two distinguished figures of popular education, Leopoldo and Alice Franchetti, and wrote articles in Italian and English to illustrate her method and thinking, which she later summarised in the Manuale di pedagogia scientifica (Naples, 1921). From 1913-14 she increased her stays in North America and many European countries: Germany, Great Britain, Spain (Barcelona was the city interested in the new methods), the Netherlands and Sweden. She later went to China and India and Montessori “Casa dei Bambini” were simultaneously spreading throughout the world.
Her influence was also felt in countries such as France, Austria and Switzerland. Meanwhile, her works were translated into almost every language and the Montessori school of thought, still retaining its essential features, developed the spiritual seeds, the often mystical vision of nature, the religious inspiration, that were already appearing in the first works.
The stages of its development, even including influences from psychoanalysis, are represented by the volume Il segreto dell’infanzia, published in Bellinzona in 1938, and then in Milan in 1950; through the essays Il bambino in famiglia, of 1936; the work De l’enfant à l’adolescent (Paris), not translated into Italian; La mente del bambino (Milan, 1952), the posthumous Italian translation of the work published in English in Madras, in 1949, with the title The absorbent mind, and the fourth edition of her first major work, with the title La scoperta del bambino, mentioned above.
At lectures, courses and conferences she developed the formidable activity of educator. In 1916 she also founded a “Children’s church”, an application of the principles of the “Casa dei Bambini” to the religious education of children, a subject to which she later dedicated some essays (I bambini viventi nella Chiesa, 1924; La Santa Messa spiegata ai bambini, 1949).
She increasingly concentrated her ministry on the idea that the child educated with full respect for their freedom and their infinite resources should be the educator of the adult, the reformer of humanity, and that training humans in accordance with the principles she preached could and should ensure the triumph of justice and peace in the world. We may say that the short volume Formazione dell’uomo (1949) and the three essays contained in Educazione e pace (1949), represent her spiritual testament. In the last years of her life she participated significantly and competently in the works of UNESCO and founded the Educational Studies Centre in the University for Foreigners of Perugia.