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Maria Montessori (1870–1952)

Biography, Work with Disabled Children, Links to Itard and Séguin, The Orthophrenic School

Physician Maria Montessori is recognized as one of the pioneers in the development of early childhood education. She is also credited with promoting a substantial number of important educational reforms that have worked their way over the course of the twentieth century into the mainstream of education. These include the recognition of multiple pathways to learning, the importance of concrete or hands-on learning, the stages of cognitive development in children, and the link between children's emotional development and their ability to learn at an optimal rate. Her ideas about the importance of the first six years of life and the boundless potential of children–regardless of race, gender, or social class–made a significant contribution to human rights as societies around the world began to rede-fine the rights and roles of women and children.


Montessori was born in 1870 to an educated middle-class family in Ancona, Italy. Growing up in a country that was, at the time, very conservative in its attitude toward and treatment of women, Montessori pursued a medical and scientific education. In 1896, despite many years of opposition from her father, teachers, and male fellow students, she graduated with highest honors from the Medical School of the University of Rome, becoming the first woman physician in Italy.

Work with Disabled Children

As a physician, Montessori specialized in pediatrics and the newly evolving field of psychiatry. Her approach was that of a well-trained scientist, rather than the familiar philosophical exploration and intuitive approach followed by many of the educational innovators who came before and after. Montessori found it ironic that she became best known for her contributions in education, a field that she had been unwilling to enter as it was one of the three traditional roles open to women at the time: working with children, homemaking, or the convent.

Montessori taught at the medical school of the University of Rome, and through its free clinics she came into frequent contact with the children of the working class and poor. Her experience with the children of poverty convinced Montessori that intelligence is not rare, although it seemed to present itself in many forms other than those recognized by traditional schools.

In 1900 Montessori was appointed director of the new Orthophrenic School attached to the University of Rome, formerly a municipal asylum for the "deficient and insane" children of the city, most of whom would be diagnosed in the twenty-first century as autistic or mentally disabled. She and her colleagues initiated a wave of reform in an institution that formerly had merely confined these mentally challenged youngsters in barren settings. Recognizing her young patients' need for stimulation, purposeful activity, and self-esteem, Montessori dismissed the caretakers who treated the inmates with contempt. Facing a desperate lack of staff to care for so many children in a residential setting, she set out to teach as many as possible of the less-disturbed children to care for themselves and their fellow inmates.

Links to Itard and Séguin

From 1900 to 1901, Montessori combed the medical libraries of western Europe seeking successful work previously done with the education of children with disabilities. Her studies led Montessori to the work of two almost forgotten French physicians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin. Itard is well known in the twenty-first century for his work with the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," a youth who had been found wandering naked in the forest, presumably abandoned as a very young child and thus spending many years living alone. The boy could not speak and lacked almost all of the skills of everyday life. Here apparently was a "natural" man, a human being who had grown up outside of human society without the influence of interaction with his own kind. Itard hoped from this study to shed some light on the age-old debate about what proportion of human intelligence and personality is hereditary and what proportion stems from learned behavior.

This experiment was a limited success, although it captured the attention and imagination of many of his contemporaries. Itard found his wild boy uncooperative and unwilling or unable to learn most things. This led him to postulate the existence of developmental periods in normal human growth. He formed the hypothesis that, during these "sensitive periods," a child must experience stimulation to develop normally, or grow up, forever lacking the skills and intellectual concepts not developed at the stage when nature expects them to be readily absorbed.

Although Itard's efforts to teach the wild boy were barely successful, he followed a methodical approach in designing the process, arguing that all education would benefit from the use of careful observation and experimentation. This idea had tremendous appeal to the scientifically trained Montessori, and later became the cornerstone of her method.

From the work of Édouard Séguin, a French psychologist who studied with Itard and carried on his research, Montessori drew further confirmation of Itard's ideas, along with a far more specific and organized system for applying it to the everyday education of children with disabilities. Working primarily with the blind, Séguin developed a methodical approach to breaking skills down into small steps, and was highly successful with a carefully developed collection of hands-on educational materials. In the early twenty-first century, Séguin is recognized as the founder of the modern approach to special education.

The Orthophrenic School

From these two predecessors, Montessori took the idea of a scientific approach to education, based on observation and experimentation. She belongs to the child study school of thought and pursued her work with the careful training and objectivity of the biolo-gist studying the natural behavior of an animal in the forest. Montessori studied her mentally disabled patients, listening and carefully noting their response to her attempts to implement Séguin's educational methods, as well as their progress in becoming increasingly independent and verbal.

Slowly the children learned to perform most of the everyday tasks involved in preparing the meals and maintaining the environment of the residential school. Her success with these mentally disabled children received international attention when, after two years, many of Montessori's such adolescents were able to pass the standard exams given by the Italian public schools.

Acclaimed for this miracle, Montessori responded by suggesting that newborn human beings normally enter the world with an intellectual potential that was barely being developed by schools in the early years of the twentieth century. She challenged that if she could attain such results with children who were disabled, schools should be able to get dramatically better results with normal children.

Montessori's work reinforced her humanistic ideals, and she actively supported various social re-form movements. She was a highly regarded guest speaker throughout Europe on behalf of children's rights, the women's movement, peace education, and the importance of a league of nations. Montessori become well known and highly regarded throughout Europe, which contributed to the publicity that surrounded her schools.

The Children's House

Unfortunately, the Italian Ministry of Education did not welcome Montessori's ideas, and she was denied access to school-aged children. Frustrated in her efforts to conduct the experiment with public school students, in 1907 she welcomed the opportunity to serve as the medical director for a day-care center that was being organized for working-class children who were too young to attend public school.

This first Casa dei Bambini (Children's House) was located in the worst slum district of Rome, and the conditions Montessori faced were appalling. Her first class consisted of fifty children, from two through five years of age, taught by one untrained caregiver. The children remained at the center from dawn to dusk while their parents worked, and had to be fed two meals per day, bathed regularly, and given a program of medical care. The children themselves were typical of extreme inner-city poverty conditions. They entered the Children's House on the first day crying and pushing, exhibiting generally aggressive and impatient behavior. Montessori, not knowing whether her experiment would work under such conditions, began by teaching the older children how to help out with the everyday tasks that needed to be done. She also introduced the manipulative perceptual discrimination and puzzles and eye-hand manipulative exercises that she had used with mentally disabled children.

The results surprised her, for unlike her mentally disabled children who had to be prodded to use her apparatus, these very small children were drawn to the work she introduced. Children who had wandered aimlessly the week before began to settle down to long periods of constructive activity. They were fascinated with the puzzles and perceptual training devices.

To Montessori's amazement, children three and four years old took the greatest delight in learning practical everyday living skills that reinforced their independence and self-respect. Each day they begged her to show them more, even applauding with delight when Montessori taught them the correct use of a handkerchief to blow one's own nose. Soon the older children were taking care of the school, assisting their teacher with the preparation and serving of meals and the maintenance of a spotless environment. Their behavior as a group changed dramatically from that of street urchins running wild to models of grace and courtesy. It was little wonder that the press found such a human-interest story appealing and promptly broadcast it to the world.

Montessori education is sometimes criticized for being too structured and academically demanding of young children. Montessori would have laughed at this suggestion. She often said, "I followed these children, studying them, studied them closely, and they taught me how to teach them."

Montessori made a practice of paying close attention to the children's spontaneous behavior, arguing that only in this way could a teacher know how to teach. Traditionally schools at this time paid little attention to children as individuals, other than to demand that they adapt to external standards. Montessori argued that the educator's job is to serve the child, determining what each student needs to make the greatest progress. To her, a child who fails in school should not be blamed, any more than a doctor should blame a patient who does not get well fast enough. Just as it is the job of the physician to help people find the way to cure themselves, it is the educator's job to facilitate the natural process of learning.

Montessori's children exploded into academics. Too young to go to public school, they begged to be taught how to read and write. They learned to do so quickly and enthusiastically, using special manipulative materials that Montessori designed for maximum appeal and effectiveness. The children were fascinated by numbers. To respond to their interest, the mathematically inclined doctor developed a series of concrete math learning materials that still fascinates many mathematicians and educators to this day. Soon her four- and five-year-olds were adding and subtracting four-digit numbers, soon progressing on to multiplication, division, skip counting, and increasingly advanced and abstract concepts.

Their interests blossomed in other areas as well, compelling the overworked physician to spend night after night designing new materials to keep pace with the children in geometry, geography, history, and natural science. Further proof of the children's academic interests came shortly after her first school opened, when a group of well-intentioned women gave the children a collection of lovely and expensive toys. The new gifts held the children's attention for a few days, but they soon returned to the more interesting learning materials. To Montessori's surprise, she found that children who had experienced both generally preferred work over play, at least during the school day. Of the early twenty-first century classroom, Montessori would probably add: "Children read and do advanced mathematics in Montessori schools not because we push them, but because this is what they do when given the correct setting and opportunity. To deny them the right to learn because we, as adults, think that they should not is illogical and typical of the way schools have been run before."

Montessori evolved her method through trial and error, making educated guesses about the underlying meaning of the children's actions. She was quick to pick up on their cues, and constantly experimented with the class. For example, Montessori tells of the morning when the teacher arrived late, only to find that the children had crawled through a window and gone right to work. At the beginning, the learning materials, having cost so much to make, were locked away in a tall cabinet. Only the teacher had a key and would open it and hand the materials to the children upon request. In this instance the teacher had neglected to lock the cabinet the night before. Finding it open, the children had selected one material apiece and were working quietly. As Montessori arrived the teacher was scolding the children for taking them out without permission. She recognized that the children's behavior showed that they were capable of selecting their own work, and removed the cabinet and replaced it with low open shelves on which the activities were always available to the children. This may sound like a minor change, but it contradicted all educational practice and theory of that period.

The Discovery of the Child

One discovery followed another, giving Montessori an increasingly clear view of the inner mind of the child. She found that little children were capable of long periods of quiet concentration, even though they rarely show signs of it in everyday settings. Although they are often careless and sloppy, they respond positively to an atmosphere of calm and order.

Montessori noticed that the logical extension of the young child's love for a consistent and often repeated routine is an environment in which everything has a place. Her children took tremendous delight in carefully carrying their work to and from the shelves, taking great pains not to bump into anything or spill the smallest piece. They walked carefully through the rooms, instead of running wildly as they did on the streets.

Montessori discovered that the environment itself was all-important in obtaining the results that she had observed. Not wanting to use heavy school desks, she had carpenters build child-sized tables and chairs. She was the first to do so, recognizing the frustration that a little child experiences in an adult-sized world. Eventually she learned to design entire schools around the size of the children. She had miniature pitchers and bowls prepared and found knives that fit a child's tiny hand. The tables were lightweight, allowing two children to move them alone. The children learned to control their movements, disliking the way the calm atmosphere was disturbed when they knocked into the furniture. Montessori studied the traffic pattern of the rooms, arranging the furnishings and the activity area to minimize congestion and tripping. The children loved to sit on the floor, so she bought little rugs to define their work areas and the children quickly learned to walk around work that other children had laid out on their rugs.

Montessori carried this environmental engineering throughout the entire school building and outside environment, designing child-sized toilets and low sinks, windows low to the ground, low shelves, and miniature hand and garden tools of all sorts. Many of these ideas were eventually adapted by the larger educational community, particularly at the nursery and kindergarten levels. Many of the puzzles and educational devices in use at the pre-school and elementary levels in the early twenty-first century are direct copies of Montessori's original ideas. However, there is far more of her work that never entered the mainstream, and twenty-first-century educators who are searching for new, more effective answers are finding the accumulated experience of the Montessori community to be of great interest.

Worldwide Response

Maria Montessori's first Children's House received overnight attention, and thousands of visitors came away amazed and enthusiastic. Worldwide interest surged as she duplicated her first school in other settings with the same results. Montessori captured the interest and imagination of leaders and scientists around the world. In America, leading figures such as Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford enthusiastically supported her. Through books and countless articles written about and by Montessori, she also became a well-known authority to parents and teachers.

As an internationally respected scientist, Montessori had a rare credibility in a field where many others had promoted opinions, philosophies, and models that have not been readily duplicated. The Montessori method offers a systematic approach that translates very well to new settings. In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the Montessori method seemed to offer something for everyone. Conservatives appreciated the calm, responsible behavior of the little children, along with their love for work. Liberals applauded the freedom and spontaneity. Many political leaders saw it as a practical way to reform the outmoded school systems of Europe, North America, and Asia, as well as an approach that they hoped would lead to a more productive and law-abiding populace. Scientists of all disciplines heralded its empirical foundation, along with the accelerated achievement of the little children. Montessori rode a wave of enthusiastic support that many felt should have changed the face of education far more dramatically than it did.

The Decline and Resurgence of Interest in Montessori Education in America

By 1925 there were more than 1,000 Montessori schools in the United States and many tens of thousands more around the world. But by 1940 the movement had virtually disappeared from the American scene. Only a handful of schools remained that openly advertised that they followed the Montessori approach, although many continued to operate without using the name. Education textbooks failed to mention her at all except as an obscure footnote, and her work was virtually forgotten until it was "rediscovered" and brought back to North America in the 1960s by Dr. Nancy McCormick Rambush and the newly formed and rapidly expanding American Montessori Society. During this period, Montessori schools continued to expand in most of the rest of the world.

The question is often asked about what led to the decline of Montessori education in the United States. Several reasons can be reasonably postulated, including the disruption in trans-Atlantic travel during and after World War I and World War II. Many would agree that a highly influential book published in 1922 by Professor William Kilpatrick of Columbia University, Montessori Reexamined, may have led many American educators to dismiss Montessori unfairly as being an intellectual holdover from the outdated and no longer accepted theories of faculty psychology. Kilpatrick pronounced that Montessori was rigid, outdated, and mistaken in her attempt to educate the senses, suggesting that she was under the misapprehension that the brain and senses could be strengthened, like a muscle, by exercises in sensory training and memorization. Unfortunately, this and many other criticisms were unfounded, primarily based on a lack of accurate information and under-standing, along with perhaps some bias against Montessori's popularity as she was a doctor and not a trained educator. Others have suggested that her being a highly articulate and outspoken woman who was openly critical of the schools of her day may have also played a substantial role.

In the early twenty-first century there are almost six thousand Montessori schools in the United States, and their number continues to expand in virtually every country around the world. In America, most Montessori schools are nonpublic and primarily serve early childhood students between the age of two and six. However, the number of public school districts implementing the Montessori approach has grown substantially since the 1980s, with more than 300 districts running more than 500 magnet Montessori schools. As charter schools have developed, Montessori schools are among the most popular and successful models.

Also since the 1980s, Montessori schools have tended to expand in both enrollment and the age levels served, with the majority of schools offering elementary programs as well as early childhood. Secondary Montessori programs are less common, but are beginning to appear in substantial numbers, initially as middle school programs and gradually as high school programs as well.

The largest professional society in the United States is the American Montessori Society in New York City. It accredits Montessori schools and more than fifty university-sponsored and independent Montessori teacher education centers around the United States. Several dozen smaller professional Montessori associations can also be found in the United States. They include the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the society founded by Montessori herself in 1929, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands and a national office in Rochester, New York; and the more recently founded umbrella organization for Montessori schools, the International Montessori Council (IMC), which has its American offices in Rockville, Maryland, and Sarasota, Florida. The Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE) also accredits Montessori teacher education programs and is recognized ognized by the United States Department of Education.

Montessori's prime productive period lasted from the opening of the first Children's House in 1907 until the 1930s. During this time, she continued her study of children, and developed a vastly expanded curriculum and methodology for the elementary level as well. Montessori schools were set up throughout Europe and North America, and Montessori gave up her medical practice to devote all of her energies to advocating the rights and intellectual potential of all children.

During her lifetime, Montessori was acknowledged as one of the world's leading educators. As with all innovators, the educational community moved on beyond Montessori, adapting many elements of her work that fit into existing theories and methods. It can be fairly suggested that every classroom in America reflects Montessori's ideas to a fairly substantial degree. Certainly the contemporary attitudes about multiple intelligences, the importance of mental health and emotional literacy, the attractiveness of the modern classroom, the use of manipulative materials in instruction, cooperative learning, authentic assessment, and multiage classrooms as a desirable model for classroom groupings are just a few examples of ideas generally attributed to Maria Montessori.

Ironically, schools are beginning to recognize that the Montessori approach has much more to offer, primarily because to obtain the results that Montessori made world famous, schools must implement her model as a complete restructuring of the school and the teacher's role, rather than as a series of piecemeal reforms.

As understanding of child development has grown, many contemporary American educators and those who would reform education have rediscovered how clear and sensible her insight was. In the early twenty-first century, there is a growing consensus among many psychologists and develop-mental educators that her ideas and educational model were decades ahead of their time. As the movement gains support and continues to spread into the American public school sector, one can readily say that Montessori, begun at the dawn of the twentieth century, is a remarkably modern approach.


KRAMER, RITA MARIA. 1988. Maria Montessori: A Biography. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

LILLARD, PAULA. 1972. Montessori, a Modern Approach. New York: Schocken.

MONTESSORI, MARIA. 1992. The Secret of Childhood (1940). London: Sangam.

MONTESSORI, MARIA. 1995. The Absorbent Mind (1949). New York: Holt.

MONTESSORI, MARIA. 2002. The Montessori Method (1912). Mineola, NY: Dover.

STANDING, E. MORMITER. 1998. Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Plume.


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