The Extraordinary Dr. Maria Montessori

Scientist.
Physician.
Educator.
Child Advocate.
Peace Advocate.
Suffragist.

Against all odds, this woman broke barriers and made remarkable achievements—and not just in the field of education.

In honor of Montessori Education Week 2024, we will revisit the life of this extraordinary woman.

maria montessori portrait

Born on August 31, 1870, in Chiaravelle, a small village in eastern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, Maria Montessori was gifted with parents who were hardworking and intelligent. Her father Alessandro, once soldier, now civil servant, met Renilde Stoppani while in Chiaravelle on assignment from the Ministry of Finance.  Renilde came from a prominent, well-educated family, the great-niece of the Italian geologist and paleontologist Antonio Stoppani.  She shared a love of learning and reading with her daughter Maria, who was born a year after her parents’ marriage.

Circumstances led the Montessori family to relocate to Rome, a move that would provide Maria with opportunities for advancement in education that she would not otherwise have had. She proved to be an adept and ambitious student, and by the age of thirteen, much to her father’s dismay and with her mother’s support, enrolled in an all-boys technical school to pursue studies in engineering. 

Maria’s interest in the biological sciences later led her to do what was considered unconventional, scandalous and (nearly) impossible: enter the medical field as a woman. When she was rejected admission by the University of Rome, she studied physics, mathematics and natural sciences for two years while exploring avenues to gain acceptance into medical school. Her persistence paid off when she was granted admission, and a few years later, at the age of 26, her presentation of her thesis to a board of ten men won her the degree of Doctor of Medicine. She was one of the first female doctors in Italy. During her time in medical school she faced criticism and prejudice. Her own father continued to discourage her efforts, but her mother was one of her greatest supporters. She eventually gained the respect of classmates and professors by her intellect and work ethic, winning scholarships and tutoring students alongside her studies and research.

Skillful in profession, uncompromising in her values, and compassionate in nature, Montessori was known for her bedside demeanor, caring for both her patient’s physical and mental health. She worked as a surgical assistant, had a private practice, and worked at a children’s hospital.  She worked with patients from all socio-economic backgrounds, seeking to improve not just prognosis, but conditions in psychiatric clinics and asylums.

It was her medical work with children in these asylums that ultimately led her into the field of education. She said, “I felt that mental deficiency presented chiefly a pedagogical, rather than mainly a medical, problem.” She called for social reform through education, requesting better teacher-training and better facilities for children with learning differences. She read the works of Froebel, Sergi, Itard and Seguin, even visiting the French hospital where Seguin had implemented sensorial education for children. She took classes in pedagogy and educational theory.

As a scientist, she saw the need for a scientific approach to education. How did children learn best? What materials helped children learn the best? What methods? Why? She directed a small school where she was able to use the scientific approach to answer these questions: observe and experiment. The progress her students made was astonishing. Her methods worked with children with learning differences, but what about “typical” children?

In 1907, Montessori opened a school for children in the Roman slum of San Lorenzo. The children were “wild and unruly”, but under her care, they began to do what no one believed they could: not just learn to read and write, but to learn the sciences, including botany, zoology, mathematics, and geography! The children were eager to learn and it came to them “spontaneously, and without getting tired.” They seemed to absorb learning!  The results were so astonishing that people travelled from across Europe to observe her school, which quickly grew from one to five schools.

Montessori didn’t credit her own ability or skill with the achievements these children made.  She said, “I did not invent a method of education, I simply gave some little children a chance to live.” The potential was within the child – they only needed the right environment.

Her methods were child centered. She said, “I studied my children, and they taught me how to teach them.” If you consider that traditional form of education in that era, you will understand how groundbreaking of a statement this was! In that “child-centeredness”, she also firmly advocated for children, calling colleagues, teachers, and parents to respect the child rather than relegating them to being “seen but not heard.”

maria montessori reading to children

In addition, she believed that the environment must be prepared for children to learn. Instead of placing children in an adult environment, she created an environment for the children. She was the first in the field of education to use child-sized tables, chairs, utensils and tools! Again, something commonplace today, but revolutionary during her time. She wanted her students to learn through exploration, manipulation of materials, order, repetition, abstraction and communication. Her classrooms were not limited to textbooks, slate and chalk. She experimented with custom made learning materials, adjusting them based on how she observed children interacting with them, or discarding them if they did not accomplish their purpose or engage the children.

Her methods garnered international attention. In 1913 she travelled to the Washington D.C.,, where Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel, had opened the Montessori Educational Association. Other well-known early American supporters of the Montessori method were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.

Montessori went on to establish an association to implement her educational method, as well as establishing training schools in Europe and internationally. She lived in India and Sri Lanka for seven years, during which time she trained thousands of teachers and spread her method of education.

Living through two global world wars made her an uncompromising advocate for peace, and much of her method centers around global citizenship and peace education. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

maria-montessori-with-young-child

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