What is usually called the Montessori method is not really a
method. It is an understanding of child development and an
approach to Education based on a clearly defined set of
principles. Dr. Montessori formulated these fundamental
principles based on careful and scientific observation of the
natural tendencies of children. Dr. Montessori saw the role of
the adult, as educator, as a secondary, yet important role. In
Montessori, the adult is not called a teacher, but a directress,
because she gently guides and directs. All education should be
an aid to life, meaning that nothing should be forced or
imposed. Children need guidance more than instruction. Maria
Montessori observed that children follow an inner guide which
she called the child's inner teacher. By following the
promptings of this inner teacher, children seek activities that
are most necessary and adequate to satisfy their needs at given
stages of their development. This allows each child to fulfill
its own potential. Wholesome growth cannot take place without
the right conditions. These conditions are referred to in
Montessori as the "prepared environment."
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In many ways, Maria Montessori was ahead of her time. Born in
the town of Chiaravalle, Italy, in 1870, she became the first
female physician in Italy upon her graduation from medical
school in 1896. Shortly afterwards she was chosen to represent
Italy at two different women's conferences, in Berlin in 1896
and in London in 1900. Early in her medical practice her
clinical observations led her to analyze how children learn, and
she concluded that they build themselves from what they find in
their environment. Shifting her focus from the body to the mind,
she returned to the university in 1901 to study psychology and
philosophy. In 1904 she was made a professor of anthropology at
the University of Rome. Her desire to help children was so
strong that in 1906 she gave up both her university chair and
her medical practice and founded the first Casa dei Bambini, or
"Children's Home." This was a programmed established to help a
group of sixty young children of working parents in the San
Lorenzo district of Rome. What ultimately became the Montessori
"method" of education developed there, based upon Montessori's
scientific observations of these children's almost effortless
ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings, as well as
their tireless interest in manipulating materials. Every piece
of equipment, every exercise, every method Montessori developed
was based on what she observed children doing "naturally," by
themselves, with little or no assistance from adults.
Children teach themselves. This simple but profound truth
inspired Montessori's lifelong pursuit of educational reform,
methodology, psychology, teaching, and teacher training-all
based on her dedication to furthering the self-creating process
of the child.
Maria Montessori made her first visit to the United States in
1913, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell and his wife
Mabel founded the Montessori Educational Association at their
Washington, DC, home. Among her other strong American supporters
were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller.
In 1915 she attracted world attention with her "glass house"
classroom exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition
in San Francisco. On this second U.S. visit she also conducted a
teacher training course and addressed the annual conventions of
both the National Education Association and the International
Kindergarten Union. The committee that brought her to San
Francisco included Margaret Wilson, the daughter of U.S.
President Woodrow Wilson.
The Spanish government invited her to open a research institute
in 1917. In 1919 she began a series of teacher training courses
in London. In 1922 she was appointed a government inspector of
schools in her native Italy. Because of her opposition to
Mussolini's fascist regime, however, she was forced to leave
Italy in 1934 after all her Casa dei Bambini (Children's Homes)
were shut down. She traveled to Barcelona, Spain, and was
rescued there by a British cruiser in 1936, during the Spanish
Civil War. She opened the Montessori Training Centre in Laren,
Netherlands in 1938, and founded a series of teacher training
courses in India in 1939.
In 1940, when India entered World War II, she and her son, Mario
Montessori, were interned as enemy aliens, but she was still
permitted to conduct training courses. Later, she founded the
Montessori Center in London (1947).
She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times: in
1949, 1950, and 1951.
Maria Montessori died in Noordwijk, Holland, in 1952.