Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. She was one of the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Italy, earning her degree in 1896 despite much social and institutional resistance. In the years immediately following matriculation she taught courses at the University of Rome, worked in the attached hospital, specialized in pediatrics, and began her own private practice.
One of the tasks Montessori was assigned as part of her hospital duties was the medical care of children housed in a local clinic. When she began her rounds she was dismayed to discover the impoverished conditions in which the children lived. They were housed in a large room with sleeping cots but no toys, no activities, and no break from the monotony of their sterile environment. The children’s supervisor berated them for playing with their food – shaping bread crumbs into objects of their imagination – though they were given nothing else with which to engage. Dr. Montessori however, recognized the intrinsic drive of children to learn from and interact with their environment, and that these seemingly purposeless actions were hints to a deep underlying need.
Dr. Montessori began bringing in materials for the children to use. She became deeply interested in their developmental progress, and watched carefully to see what materials were successful and what were not, refining and amending the selection as needed. She used several materials first designed by Edouard Seguin and Jean Itard, two men who had developed highly original manipulatives just several decades earlier, and of whom she had become aware while studying for a year in France.
Following the introduction of these materials, the children in the clinic began to do very well. They became much more active and responsive and they thrived on the new things to do. When they were administered Italy’s standardized tests for all school-age children, they performed as well as many normally developed children. This success was astounding to many, no less to Dr. Montessori. She was shocked that developmentally disabled children performed as well as children in the normal range. While pleased with the results, it disturbed her greatly that normal children were not thriving to a higher degree. The children in the clinic were there because they had specific physical, emotional, or mental developmental challenges, and their recent successes did not alter that reality.
The next opportunity to work with children (outside of Dr. Montessori’s practice as a doctor) came a few years later. In 1903 she was invited – based on her success with the children in the clinic – to design a program for young children in tenement housing whose parents worked long factory shifts. These children were all below school age, at risk of running around on the streets unsupervised during the day. Had this opportunity not been presented to her, she, like many others, would probably not have thought of working with such a young age group, focusing instead on older, elementary-aged children.
Dr. Montessori began to share with these very young children the same materials she had shared with the children in the clinic, and she witnessed startling results. The children showed themselves to be capable of deep, extended periods of concentration and they expressed a great deal of joy, satisfaction, and benevolence upon completion of the concentrative period. They also showed a high level of independence and a strong desire to acquire the skills they observed in the adults and older children in their world. They were eager to sweep, clean, wash, polish, fold, and dust! They expressed a strong desire to be active participants in their world.
At this point Dr. Montessori underwent another period, this time much longer than the first, of intensive, active development and refinement of appropriate materials and activities for these children. She eventually left all of her other areas of work – the professorship, the private practice, the hospital duties – and dedicated herself entirely to her work with children. This period of focused and intensive research, observation, and experimentation lasted for approximately ten years.
Originally resistant to – and dubious of – the idea of ‘teaching’ such young children to read and write, Dr. Montessori yielded to parental requests and developed materials both directly and indirectly conducive to that purpose. Out of these efforts, the children experienced further success, learning to read and write with enthusiasm and excitement.
Publicity came on the heels of this success. Word spread quickly through newspapers, periodicals, and word of mouth, and Dr. Montessori received many visitors wishing to see these unheard-of phenomena. Knowing that she had something incredible to share, Dr. Montessori sat down for a sober and far-sighted discussion with Father Tacchi Venturi SJ. She was strongly considering entering monastic life and establishing a special order for the education of children along these new methods. Father Tacchi said no, this was something she must make available to all of the world, regardless of creed. Pressed for answers and explanations, and much encouraged by her close friends, she sat down to put her discoveries down in the form of a manuscript. This first book, The Method of Scientific Pedagogy Applied to the Education of Children in the Children’s Houses (1909), became the core embodiment of her work.
Dr. Montessori spent the next five decades of her life solely dedicated to further experimentation and research, refinement of her understanding of the initial discoveries, the training of guides (‘directresses,’ in her native Italian), and the dissemination of the method on a global scale. People traveled across continents and overseas to sit in her lectures and study the method. They then took the method home with them and tested it in places far and wide. The characteristics, tendencies, and developmental needs of the children that she had first observed in the tenement housing held true for children around the world: they were universal.
As Dr. Montessori’s fame traveled with the method, the method became more and more associated with her name. What she herself referred to simply as a discovery of the child became known as the Montessori Method. Initially undesiring of this, Dr. Montessori long resisted the use of her name. She understood that the success she had stumbled upon was not hers, but the children’s. It is, as one of her book titles aptly calls it, “the secret of childhood.”
Late in life, Dr. Montessori established the Association Montessori Internationale as a means of formalizing, furthering, and upholding the integrity of her work. While there are many Montessori foundations and organizations established by people at various times and in various places, the Association Montessori Internationale became and remains the internationally recognized standard bearer for Montessori pedagogy. The discovery of the child continues today with each of us who follow her example.