Dr. Maria Montessori began an educational revolution that changed the way all of us think about children and it continues to affect people and we all look at children differently since Maria Montessori put her ideas into the world. Montessori was born in 1870 and she died in 1952.
She said, “Whoever touches the life of a child touches the most sensitive point of a whole which has roots in those distant past and climbs towards the infinite future.”
Maria Montessori was born in a very small town in Italy called Ancona. Her father was working for the military and her mother was stay-at-home mom which was very common in those days but what was different was that her mother was educated and in those days women really did not have an education so when she saw that from a very young age Maria had a lot of potential and she really enjoyed learning and she asked a lot of questions, her mother would really encourage her to study and to learn.
When Maria grew up, she decided that she wanted to be a doctor, so she applied to medical school and unfortunately, she was rejected because in those days it was unheard that a woman as a doctor. A woman doesn’t become a doctor that was the way people thought and so she had no option but to join in engineering school and study to be an engineer but while she was there, she wasn’t happy because really all she wanted to do was be a doctor. So, she couldn’t continue to appeal, she wrote letters to different people in the government and the schools and finally it was the Pope at that time who wrote a letter to the University and requested them to grant her admission.
She went on to enter University to study medicine and she became the very first female doctor in Italy which was a huge achievement. Now as part of her study she had to work as an intern of course and practice and one day she and her team of doctors went to what they called in those days a mental asylum for children. In those days if a child had some kind of learning disability or special needs they were dumped in these institutions called mental asylums because parents didn’t know how to help them, teachers didn’t know what to do with them, so they were kept there so that they could be looked after physically and people thought there’s nothing these children will amount to, they cannot learn, they were like a waste of society so let’s just look after them the best we could. She went with her team of doctors to give them a physical check and make sure that they were in good health. The first thing they did, the team of doctors as they brought these breads and snacks for the children and after the children would finish eating, they would start their check-ups.
She noticed that the children had finished eating they were full, but she saw them sitting on the floor playing with the breadcrumbs, rolling them in their fingers, rolling them in their mouths, and she was wondering. One of the caretakers there passed by and said to her look at these children they are such idiots those are the kind of terms they would use for these children in those days and they’re so greedy they’d eaten and still they wanted more food, but Maria Montessori didn’t agree with him. She looked around the room that they were kept in, and she saw that there was absolutely nothing there for the children, there was nothing on the walls, there were no toys, there was nothing to look at or to touch and to feel and she realized that these children looking for sensory stimulation that’s why they were playing with the breadcrumbs.
She went home and she just couldn’t get it out of her mind and she’d thought we had to be able to do something for these children so she looked into the work of a Frenchman called Johnn Etard and he worked with another gentleman called Edward Seguin and both of these men had done studies they’d done research and they felt mentally disabled children can be educated and they had worked on a particular case that was called the wild boy of Aveyron. This wild boy of Aveyron is a true-life story of something like Tarzan or the Jungle Book Mowgli, this is what we call a feral child, a child who was abandoned in the wild nobody knows for how long, but this boy emerged into the town the village of Aveyron one day and he appeared to be just like an animal. He had all the animal tendencies. He couldn’t talk. There was nothing human about him and when Edwards and Etard heard about him they went to Aveyron and brought him into Etard’s home in Paris and his intention was that he wanted to work with this child and he wanted to rehabilitate him and make him more human like as much as he could and he was able to achieve a lot with this child and so Maria Montessori looked into his work and she also felt that we can educate who have mental challenges and she gave a lecture about training these children.
At that point she became the director of an institution that was devoted to care and looking after children who had mental challenges, and this is where what materials we learn about in the Montessori philosophy started to unfold during that time and she developed a program that would teach these children how to read, to write, to do mathematics but in a very hands-on way not in the conventional way of talking and lecturing them. She believed that if she wanted anything to enter the minds of these children first it must go through their senses. So first the education of the senses and then will come the education of the intellect or the mind. She said these children must learn; it must go through their senses first.
These children were made to do tests of writing in mathematics, and they passed with such flying colours that people were shocked, and it came to be known as the first Montessorian Miracle.
She went out and educated them to be able to read and write and be productive so then she’s appointed to become a professor of Anthropology, but she still wasn’t relaxed. Her mind was not at ease because she felt that if this system of learning that she developed for these children with special needs if it works so well why can’t we change this so called normal conventional system of Education which she felt was failing children.
She approached government, and government agreed and gave her a place to start her first school and she called her first school Casa de bambini which means children’s house or House of Children. Now a lot of schools all over the world also play on these words. They call themselves the Montessori bambini house or Montessori house or Casa Montessori. The school was in the poorest area of Italy of Rome called San Lorenzo. Both of their parents had to work they were at factories all day, so these children were left alone. They had nobody to teach them nobody to guide them, so they were wild.
They were all over the place, they did know how to share, they had no concentration they were constantly fighting. She was pretty much given the toughest bunch of children to start her first school with and what did she do? She would observe these children and she developed her system of Education by observing them, she would watch and see what excites them, what makes them happy, what frustrates them, what makes them concentrate, what makes them angry and bit by bit the Montessori philosophy unfolded, so in the beginning of school, they didn’t have open shelves like what we see now in a Montessori School. They had these cupboards and the cupboards had doors and every morning the teachers would come in and they would choose a piece of material and give it to the child and he or she will work. Now by mistake one day at the end of the day the teachers forgot to lock those cupboards so the next day when the children came, they opened the cupboards themselves they took what they wanted to work with, and they sat down and that day she saw a huge difference.
There was a deeper level of concentration in the children. They were more invested and interested in what they were doing. They were calmer and that’s when got rid of those cupboards put in those open shelves and the children had the freedom to choose what they wanted to use, and this is how all the things unfolded in this Montessori environment. One of the things she learned is that children teach themselves it’s not me teaching a child, it’s not me showing them what to do, but they are teaching themselves.
She said every single child is born with potential and possibility. Inside him he knows what he must do to blossom and what we have to do is, we have to provide him with all of those things needed for development and she has charted that out for us perfectly in this philosophy that she had developed, she said when you free the child’s potential you will transform him into the world. So, we are not a centre that is just here to give children the academics. But we are here to give them everything they need to become a fully functioning human being that can live in this world, so these children after some time went through such a huge transformation. She herself was so surprised and said if there are new children they are so different from what we started, they share, they get along with each other, they cooperate, they concentrate, mostly they are happy, nobody has to bribe them to work, nobody has to force them to do anything, they are truly happy and so people start to hear about this amazing transformation and in 1909 she demonstrated her first Montessori course to teachers who came to Italy from all around the world. She said if you wanted to educate children stimulate their mind with activities that feel useful that feel constructive, they are not meaningless and in this way their self-esteem rises, they feel good about themselves and they encouraged to do more.
In 1913, she was invited to the United States to talk about her philosophy. This was a time that there was no Facebook there was no Instagram there were no WhatsApp calls but still she had many supporters, the daughter of the President Woodrow Wilson this is Margaret Wilson she had a fully functioning Montessori classroom in the basement of the White House which people didn’t know. Anne Rand who was an author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Helen Keller, all were very strong Montessori supporters. In fact, Helen Keller also believed that the children who teach themselves when you create the right circumstances for them. In 1915 there was an Exposure in San Francisco and what they did was they had this fully functioning Montessori classroom with children and one wall was completely glass and they wanted people to come and have a look and see how Montessori truly works and what people saw just blew them away.
They couldn’t believe that children were working like this independently without being controlled by an adult without being stuck in chairs the whole day and after that education was just no longer the same anymore. Everybody in the world heard about it, there was so much attention on it and then Montessori school started crowd sprouting up all over the world so she goes back to Italy and in 1922 Benito Mussolini was in power and initially he gave her a free hand to open as many Montessori schools all over the country as she wanted but then the war broke out and he insisted that even children should be in uniform and she was very much against the war and she spoke out very vocally against Mussolini and he was so angry that he exiled her from her own home country. She had to leave Italy and never ever return. The first place she went to was Spain and when the war spread there then she went and spent a lot of time in the Netherlands where she laid a very strong foundation for Montessori. In 1939 she was invited to come to India to teach about Montessori, she’s 69 years old she could easily well retire but she still wanted everyone to have access to this system of education, so she travelled to India with her son Mario, and they spent a good many years, they trained many people here in fact one of the biggest Montessori schools is in India with 4,000 students. She conducted 16 training courses while she was there in 1947.
She founded the first international training centre which was in London, and she was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 the very first year that it came out 1950 and 1951 but unfortunately, she never won. In 1951 she finally came to settle in Holland and spent the last year of her life. She passed away a year later the 6th of May 1952 of a cerebral haemorrhage. There’s an inscription in Italian and if you translate it into English, it says I begged the dear all-powerful children to unite with me for the building of peace in man and in the world because really in her heart she believed that if we offer children a Montessori education, we can truly achieve a world of peace there’s no war and there’s no fighting.
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