Great Educator: Maria Montessori 1870 to 1952
At the age of 13 Maria Montessori decided to become an engineer. She enrolled in a technical school but changed her focus to medicine. In 1896 she was to become the first woman in Italy to graduate from medical school. Soon after she broadened her scope to become an educator. She studied young children in asylums and was drawn to the work of Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Edouard Seguin.
In her book, The Montessori Method, she describes The voice of Seguin seemed to be like the voice of the forerunner crying in the wilderness, and my thoughts were filled with the immensity and importance of a work which should be able to reform the school and education. (Chicago: Regnery, page 42, 1972 ed).
She studied various contributors to educational thought including the philosophies of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. She went on to develop a series of lectures at a teacher training institute in Rome on special methods of education and was then appointed director of a medical pedagogical institute in the Pedagogic School at the University of Rome.
In 1880 she opened Casa dei Bambini for children who were running wild in Rome’s tenements while their parents were at work. In her book ‘The Montessori Method’ she lays out the theory and practice of the Casa dei Bambini. Once written it was widely translated and very well received. People from all round the world travelled to Rome to see her ideas in action.
She went on to travel the world giving talks on her educational theory. In the United States one 1913 newspaper article referred to Montessori as having already taken a place alongside the worlds great educators. Montessori continued lecturing to huge audiences throughout Europe, training many people in her own inimitable way.
Montessori, as so many big thinkers do, provoked difference of opinion; sometimes outright attacks. Most notable of these might be that of William Heard Kilpatrick, a member of the faculty of Teachers College at Columbia University. Famously in a speech to the International Kindergarten Association and a monograph to teachers and school superintendents, Kilpatrick damned her in critique.
He suggested she was illogical for admiring Seguin’s work with retarded children and regularly compared her unfavourable to Dewey… They are ill advised who put Madam Montessori among the significant contributors to educational theory. Stimulating she is; a contributor to our theory, hardly, if at all (William Heard Kilpatrick, The Montessori System Examined, Boston: Houghton Mifflin page 30, 1914)
In 1918 Robert R. Rusk of the University of Glasgow wrote a chapter in his book ˜The Doctrine of the Great Educators detailing her contribution to educational theory.
In 1935 Mussolini closed down all her schools in a single day causing her to move to Holland so she could continue her work. There she delivered several addresses which were collected together in Education and Peace. In 1939 she moved to India were during World War II she trained over a thousand teachers. Developing many lectures which facilitate this work they were drawn together the foundations of The Absorbent Mind and The Discovery of the Child.
After the war she returned to Europe where she spoke, wrote, and attended conferences alongside giving teacher training courses. At the time of her death she had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.
Montessori’s ideas about the importance of the child’s environment, her system of individualised instruction, the exercises for sensory training and practical living she devised, and her emphasis on auto-education have inspired vast numbers of educators. She has had a worldwide influence on educational practice, and her work still continues to be used today.
Montessori schools continue to proliferate using the Casa dei Bambini approaches. Her work is varyingly interpreted. Jane Roland Martin puts forward a key interpretation of her philosophy in Routledge’s Fifty Major Thinkers on Education.
At the opening of the second Casa dei Bambini in Rome, Montessori said ‘We Italians have elevated our word casa to the almost sacred significance of the English word home, the enclosed temple of domestic affection, accessible only to dear ones’
This is significant in the focus it puts on the interpersonal relationship rather than the abstraction commonly rendered in translation: The House of Childhood or The Children’s Houses. Read casa as home and a social and moral dimension emerges to inform a nuanced environment. A common criticism of her work is that it ignores interpersonal or social education. When we examine the differences between house and home, these critiques might not hold so much stock.
Montessori wrote that the child must no longer be considered as the son of man but rather as the creator and father of man. In Education and Peace she uses the image of a womb as a child’s first home. Just as the physical embryo derives its nutriments from the womb, the spiritual embryo absorbs them from its surroundings.
Put children in the wrong environment and their development will be abnormal; they will become the deviated adults we now know. Create the right environment for them and their characters will develop normally. The second womb is what she called the young child’s proper environment. From at least age 3 the Casa dei Bambini was to be that second womb.
She was clear in her Inaugural Address that the Casa dei Bambini is not simply a place where the children are kept, not just an asylum, but a true school for their education. By extension of her conception of these schools as homes, the inhabitants of Casa dei Bambinis constitute a family. The social nature of Montessori’s system becomes apparent in these idealized forms: the children are treated as individuals, their individuality is allowed to flourish, they feel connected to one another and feel concern about each other’s welfare.
In From Childhood to Adolescence she projected her idea of school as home to the world of teenagers. Indeed she seems to be socially integrating these institutional constructs of learning. She proposed that adolescents live together in the country away from their private homes, that they run a modern farm, a country store, and The Rural Children’s Hotel.
This enterprise would be directed by a married couple who would exercise a moral and protective influence. This home away from home would be an ongoing commercial enterprise. Conserving a tradition by which personal talent was expressed in the fabrication of objects, the store would sell the produce not only of the young people but also of poor neighbours. This would blend business with friendship and also serve as a kind of social centre.
Casa dei Bambini emerged from the context of compensating for the domestic vacuum in the lives of children whose mothers were required to work each day outside their own homes. As fathers have left home each day to go to work since the Industrial Revolution and many families are headed by single mothers, the exodus of women to the workplace greatly expands this concept.
Montessori envisioned the school as an extension of the private home and the world as continuous with school and home. She did not formulate dichotomous relationships in her vision which moves away from an industrial, specialized and atomized view of societal functioning.