Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father, Alessandro Montessori, was an official of the Ministry of Finance working in the local state-run tobacco factory. Her mother, Renilde Stoppani, was well-educated for the times and was the great-niece of Italian geologist and paleontologist Antonio Stoppani.
Maria was very close to her mother who readily encouraged her. She also had a loving relationship with her father, although he disagreed with her choice to continue her education.
The Montessori family moved to Florence in 1873, then to Rome in 1875 because of her father’s work. Montessori entered a public elementary school at the age of 6 in 1876. Her early school record was “not particularly noteworthy”, although she was awarded certificates for good behavior in the 1st grade and for “lavori donneschi” the next year.
At the age of 13, Montessori entered a secondary technical school, Regia Scuola Tecnica Michelangelo Buonarroti, where she studied Italian, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, accounting, history, geography, and sciences. She graduated in 1886 with good grades and examination results.
That year she continued at the technical institute Regio Istituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci, studying Italian, mathematics, history, geography, geometric and ornate drawing, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology and two foreign languages. She did well in the sciences and especially in mathematics.
She initially intended to pursue the study of engineering upon graduation, an unusual aspiration for a woman of her time. By the time she graduated in 1890 with a certificate in physics–mathematics, she had decided to study medicine, a more unlikely pursuit given cultural norms at the time.
At Medical School
Montessori moved forward with her intention to study medicine. She appealed to Guido Baccelli, the professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rome, but was strongly discouraged. In 1890, she enrolled in the University of Rome in a degree course in natural sciences, passing examinations in botany, zoology, experimental physics, histology, anatomy, and general and organic chemistry, and earning her diploma di licenza in 1892. This degree, along with additional studies in Italian and Latin, qualified her for entrance into the medical program at the University in 1893.
She was met with hostility and harassment from some medical students and professors because of her gender. Because her attendance of classes with men in the presence of a naked body was deemed inappropriate, she was required to perform her dissections of cadavers alone, after hours. She resorted to smoking tobacco to mask the offensive odor of formaldehyde.
Montessori won an academic prize in her first year and in 1895 secured a position as a hospital assistant, gaining early clinical experience. In her last two years, she studied pediatrics and psychiatry, and worked in the pediatric consulting room and emergency service, becoming an expert in pediatric medicine.
Montessori graduated from the University of Rome in 1896 as a doctor of medicine. Her thesis was published in 1897 in the journal Policlinico. She found employment as an assistant at the University hospital and started a private practice.
From 1896 to 1901, Montessori worked with and researched so-called “phrenasthenic” children (children experiencing some form of cognitive delay, illness, or disability). She also began to travel, study, speak, and publish nationally and internationally, coming to prominence as an advocate for women’s rights and education for mentally disabled children.
After graduating from the University of Rome in 1896, Montessori continued with her research at the University’s psychiatric clinic. In 1897 she was accepted as a voluntary assistant there. As part of her work she visited asylums in Rome where she observed children with mental disabilities, observations that were fundamental to her future educational work. She also read and studied the works of 19th-century physicians and educators Jean Marc Gaspard Itard and Édouard Séguin, who greatly influenced her work.
Montessori was intrigued by Itard’s ideas and created a far more specific and organized system for applying them to the everyday education of children with disabilities. When she discovered the works of Jean Itard and Édouard Séguin they gave her a new direction in thinking and influenced her to focus on children with learning difficulties. Also in 1897, Montessori audited the University courses in pedagogy and read “all the major works on educational theory of the past two hundred years”.
In 1897 Montessori spoke on societal responsibility for juvenile delinquency at the National Congress of Medicine in Turin. In 1898, she wrote several articles and spoke again at the First Pedagogical Conference of Turin, urging the creation of special classes and institutions for mentally disabled children, as well as teacher training for their instructors.
On March 31, 1898 her only child, a son named Mario Montessori, was born. Mario Montessori was born out of her love affair with Giuseppe Montesano, a fellow doctor who was co-director with her of the Orthophrenic School of Rome. If Montessori married, she would be expected to cease working professionally. Instead of marriage, Montessori decided to continue her work and studies.
Montessori wanted to keep the relationship with her child’s father secret under the condition that neither of them would marry anyone else. When the father of her child was pressured by family to make a more advantageous social connection and subsequently married, Montessori was left feeling betrayed and decided to leave the university hospital. She was forced to place her son in the care of a wet nurse living in the countryside, distraught to miss the first few years of his life. She would later be reunited with her son in his teenage years, where he proved to be a great assistant in her research.
In 1899 Montessori was appointed a councilor to the newly formed National League for the Protection of Retarded Children and was invited to lecture on special methods of education for children with intellectual disabilities at the teacher training school of the College of Rome. That year she undertook a two-week national lecture tour to capacity audiences before prominent public figures. She joined the board of the National League and was appointed as a lecturer in hygiene and anthropology at one of the two teacher-training colleges for women in Italy.
In 1900 the National League opened the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica, a “medico-pedagogical institute” for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children with an attached laboratory classroom. Montessori was appointed co-director. 64 teachers enrolled in the first class, studying psychology, anatomy, physiology of the nervous system, anthropological measurements, causes and characteristics of mental disability, and special methods of instruction.
During her two years at the school Montessori developed methods and materials which she later adapted to use with mainstream children.
The school was an immediate success, attracting the attention of government officials from the departments of education and health, civic leaders and prominent figures in the fields of education, psychiatry, and anthropology from the University of Rome.
The children in the model classroom were drawn from the asylum and ordinary schools but considered “uneducable” due to their deficiencies. Some of these children later passed public examinations given to so-called “normal” children.
In 1901, Montessori left the Orthophrenic School and her private practice, and in 1902 she enrolled in the philosophy degree course at the University of Rome. She studied theoretical and moral philosophy, history of philosophy, but she did not graduate.
She also pursued independent study in anthropology and educational philosophy, conducted observations and experimental research in elementary schools and revisited the work of Itard and Séguin, translating their books into handwritten Italian. During this time she began to consider adapting her methods of educating mentally disabled children to mainstream education.
Montessori’s work developing what she would later call “scientific pedagogy” continued over the next few years. In 1902, she presented a report at a second national pedagogical congress in Naples. She published two articles on pedagogy in 1903 and two more the following year.
In 1903 and 1904, she conducted anthropological research with Italian schoolchildren, and in 1904 she was qualified as a free lecturer in anthropology for the University of Rome. She was appointed to lecture in the Pedagogic School at the University and continued in the position until 1908. Her lectures were printed as a book titled Pedagogical Anthropology in 1910.
Casa dei Bambini
In 1906 Montessori was invited to oversee the care and education of a group of children of working parents in a new apartment building for low-income families in the San Lorenzo district in Rome. As Montessori was interested in applying her work and methods to mentally normal children, she accepted.
The name Casa dei Bambini was suggested to Montessori and the first Casa opened on January 6, 1907, enrolling 50 or 60 children between the ages of two or three and six or seven.
At first the classroom was equipped with a teacher’s table and blackboard, a stove, small chairs, armchairs, group tables for the children and a locked cabinet for the materials that Montessori had developed at the Orthophrenic School. Activities for the children included personal care such as dressing and undressing, care of the environment such as dusting and sweeping, and caring for the garden. The children were also shown the use of the materials Montessori had developed.
Montessori while occupied with teaching, research and other professional activities, oversaw and observed the classroom work, but did not teach the children directly. Day-to-day teaching and care were provided, under Montessori’s guidance, by the building porter’s daughter.
In this first classroom, Montessori observed behaviors in these young children which formed the foundation of her educational method. She noted episodes of deep attention and concentration, multiple repetitions of activity and a sensitivity to order in the environment. Given a free choice of activity, the children showed more interest in practical activities and Montessori’s materials than in toys provided for them and were surprisingly unmotivated by sweets and other rewards. Over time, she saw a spontaneous self-discipline emerge.
Based on her observations, Montessori implemented a number of practices that became hallmarks of her educational philosophy and method. She replaced the heavy furniture with child-sized tables and chairs light enough for the children to move and placed child-sized materials on low, accessible shelves. She expanded the range of practical activities such as sweeping and personal care to include a wide variety of exercises for the care of the environment and the self, including flower arranging, hand washing, gymnastics, care of pets, and cooking.
She also included large open-air sections in the classroom encouraging children to come and go as they please in the room’s different areas and lessons. In her book she outlines a typical winter’s day of lessons, starting at 09:00 am and finishing at 04:00 pm:
- 9–10. Entrance. Greeting. Inspection as to personal cleanliness. Exercises of practical life; helping one another to take off and put on the aprons. Going over the room to see that everything is dusted and in order. Language: Conversation period: Children give an account of the events of the day before. Religious exercises.
- 10–11. Intellectual exercises. Objective lessons interrupted by short rest periods. Nomenclature, Sense exercises.
- 11–11:30. Simple gymnastics: Ordinary movements done gracefully, normal position of the body, walking, marching in line, salutations, movements for attention, placing of objects gracefully.
- 11:30–12. Luncheon: Short prayer.
- 12–1. Free games.
- 1–2. Directed games, if possible, in the open air. During this period the older children in turn go through with the exercises of practical life, cleaning the room, dusting, putting the material in order. General inspection for cleanliness: Conversation.
- 2–3. Manual work. Clay modelling, design, etc.
- 3–4. Collective gymnastics and songs, if possible in the open air. Exercises to develop forethought: Visiting, and caring for, the plants and animals.
She felt that by working independently children could reach new levels of autonomy and become self-motivated to reach new levels of understanding. Montessori also came to believe that acknowledging all children as individuals and treating them as such would yield better learning and fulfilled potential in each particular child.
She continued to adapt and refine the materials she had developed earlier, altering or removing exercises which were chosen less frequently by the children. Based on her observations, Montessori experimented with allowing children free choice of the materials, uninterrupted work, and freedom of movement and activity within the limits set by the environment. She began to see independence as the aim of education, and the role of the teacher as an observer and director of children’s innate psychological development.
Spread of Montessori education in Italy
The first Casa dei Bambini was a success and a second was opened on April 7, 1907. The children in her programs continued to exhibit concentration, attention and spontaneous self-discipline, and the classrooms began to attract the attention of prominent educators, journalists, and public figures.
In the fall of 1907 Montessori began to experiment with teaching materials for writing and reading. Four- and five-year-old children engaged spontaneously with the materials and quickly gained a proficiency in writing and reading far beyond what was expected for their age. This attracted further public attention to Montessori’s work.
Three more Casa dei Bambini opened in 1908 and in 1909 Italian Switzerland began to replace Froebellian methods with Montessori in orphanages and kindergartens.
In 1909, Montessori held the first teacher training course in her new method in Città di Castello, Italy. In the same year she described her observations and methods in a book titled Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica Applicato All’Educazione Infantile Nelle Case Dei Bambini.
Two more training courses were held in Rome in 1910 and a third in Milan in 1911. Montessori’s reputation and work began to spread internationally. Around that time she gave up her medical practice to devote more time to her educational work, developing her methods and training teachers.
In the United States
In 1911 and 1912 Montessori’s work was popular and widely publicized in the US, especially in a series of articles in McClure’s Magazine. The first North American Montessori school was opened in October 1911, in Tarrytown, New York. The inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his wife became proponents of the method and a second school was opened in their Canadian home.
The Montessori Method sold quickly through six editions. The first International Training Course in Rome in 1913 was sponsored by the American Montessori Committee and 67 of the 83 students were from the US. By 1913 there were more than 100 Montessori schools in the country.Montessori traveled to the United States in December 1913 on a three-week lecture tour which included films of her European classrooms aandmeeting with large, enthusiastic crowds wherever she traveled.
Montessori returned to the US in 1915, sponsored by the National Education Association, to demonstrate her work at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California and in order to give a third international training course. In November 1915 Montessori’s father died and she returned to Italy.
Although Montessori and her educational approach were popular in the US, she was not without opposition and controversy. Influential progressive educator William Heard Kilpatrick, a follower of American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey, wrote a dismissive and critical book titled The Montessori Method Examined, which had a broad impact. The National Kindergarten Association was critical as well.
Critics charged that Montessori’s method was outdated, overly rigid, overly reliant on sense-training, and left too little scope for imagination, social interaction, and play. In addition, Montessori’s insistence on tight control over the elaboration of her method, the training of teachers, the production and use of materials, and the establishment of schools became a source of conflict and controversy.
After she left in 1915, the Montessori movement in the US fragmented, and Montessori education was a negligible factor in education in the US until 1952.
On her return from the US Montessori continued her work in Barcelona, where a small program sponsored by the Catalan government begun in 1915 had developed into the Escola Montessori, serving children from three to ten years old, and the Laboratori i Seminari de Pedagogia, a research, training, and teaching institute.
A fourth international course was given there in 1916, including materials and methods, developed over the previous five years, for teaching grammar, arithmetic, and geometry to elementary school children from six to twelve years of age.
In 1917 Montessori published her elementary work in L’autoeducazionne nelle Scuole Elementari, which appeared in English as The Advanced Montessori Method. Around 1920, the Catalan independence movement began to demand that Montessori take a political stand and make a public statement favoring Catalan independence which she refused.
Official support was withdrawn from her programs. In 1924 a new military dictatorship closed Montessori’s model school in Barcelona and Montessori education declined in Spain, although Barcelona remained Montessori’s home for the next twelve years.
In 1933, under the Second Spanish Republic, a new training course was sponsored by the government, and government support was re-established. In 1934 she published two books in Spain, Psicogeometrica and Psicoarithemetica. With the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, political and social conditions drove Montessori to leave Spain permanently.
In the Netherlands
In 1917 Montessori lectured in Amsterdam and the Netherlands Montessori Society was founded. She returned in 1920 to give a series of lectures at the University of Amsterdam.
Montessori programs flourished in the Netherlands and by the mid-1930s there were more than 200 Montessori schools in the country.
In the United Kingdom
Montessori education was met with enthusiasm and controversy in England between 1912 and 1914. In 1919, Montessori came to England for the first time and gave an international training course which was received with high interest.
Montessori education continued to spread in the UK, although the movement experienced some of the struggles over authenticity and fragmentation that took place in the US.
Montessori continued to give training courses in England every other year until the beginning of WWII.
In 1922 Montessori was invited to Italy on behalf of the government to give a course of lectures and later to inspect Italian Montessori schools. Later that year Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government came to power in Italy.
In December 1922 Montessori returned to Italy to plan a series of annual training courses under government sponsorship, and in 1923, the minister of education Giovanni Gentile expressed his support for Montessori schools and teacher training.
In 1924 Montessori met with Mussolini, who extended his official support for Montessori education as part of the national program. A pre-war group of Montessori supporters, the Societa gli Amici del Metodo Montessori, became the Opera Montessori with a government charter, and by 1926 Mussolini was made honorary president of the organization.
In 1927 Mussolini established a Montessori teacher training college, and by 1929 the Italian government supported a wide range of Montessori institutions. From 1930 onward, Montessori and the Italian government came into conflict over financial support and ideological issues, especially after Montessori’s lectures on Peace and Education.
In 1932 she and her son Mario were placed under political surveillance. In 1933 she resigned from the Opera Montessori and in 1934 she left Italy. The Italian government ended Montessori activities in the country in 1936.
In other Countries
Montessori lectured in Vienna in 1923 and her lectures were published as Il Bambino in Famiglia, published in English in 1936 as The Child in the Family.
Between 1913 and 1936 Montessori schools and societies were also established in France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Serbia, Canada, India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand.
The Association Montessori Internationale
In 1929 the first International Montessori Congress was held in Elsinore, Denmark, in conjunction with the Fifth Conference of the New Education Fellowship. At this event, Montessori and her son Mario founded the Association Montessori Internationale (or AMI) to ”oversee the activities of schools and societies all over the world and to supervise the training of teachers.”
AMI also controlled rights to the publication of Montessori’s works and the production of authorized Montessori didactic materials. Early sponsors of the AMI included Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1936 Montessori and her family left Barcelona for England, and soon moved to Laren, near Amsterdam. There Montessori and her son Mario continued to develop new materials, including the knobless cylinders, the grammar symbols and botany nomenclature cards.
In the context of rising military tensions in Europe, Montessori increasingly turned her attention to the theme of peace. In 1937, the 6th International Montessori Congress was held on the theme of “Education for Peace” and Montessori called for a “science of peace” and spoke about the role of education of the child as a key to the reform of society.
In 1938 Montessori was invited to India by the Theosophical Society to give a training course and in 1939 she left the Netherlands along with her son.
Montessori gave a training course at the Theosophical Society in Madras in 1939, with the intention of giving a tour of lectures at various universities and then return to Europe.
When Italy entered WWII on the side of Germany in 1940, Britain interned all Italians in the UK and its colonies as enemy aliens. Mario Montessori was interned, while Montessori herself was confined to the Theosophical Society compound, and she was reunited with her son after two months. The Montessoris remained in Madras and Kodaikanal until 1946, although they were allowed to travel in connection with lectures and courses.
During her years in India, Montessori and her son continued to develop her educational method. The term “cosmic education” was introduced to describe an approach for children aged from six to twelve years that emphasized the interdependence of all the elements of the natural world.
Children worked directly with plants and animals in their natural environments and the Montessoris developed lessons, illustrations, charts, and models for use with elementary aged children. Material for botany, zoology, and geography was created.
Between 1942 and 1944 these elements were incorporated into an advanced course for work with children from six to twelve years old. This work led to two books: Education for a New World and To Educate the Human Potential.
While in India Montessori observed children and adolescents of all ages and turned to the study of infancy. In 1944 she gave a series of 30 lectures on the first three years of life and a government-recognized training course in Sri Lanka. These lectures were collected in 1949 in the book What You Should Know About Your Child.
In 1945 Montessori attended the first All India Montessori Conference in Jaipur and in 1946, with the war over, she and her family returned to Europe.
In 1946 Montessori returned to Amsterdam and spent the next six years travelling in Europe and India. She gave a training course in London in 1946 and in 1947 opened a training institute there, the Montessori Centre. After a few years this centre became independent of Montessori and continued as the St. Nicholas Training Centre.
Also in 1947, she returned to Italy to re-establish the Opera Montessori and gave two more training courses. Later that year she returned to India and gave courses in Adyar and Ahmedabad. These courses led to the book The Absorbent Mind, in which Montessori described the development of the child from birth onwards and presented the concept of the Four Planes of Development.
In 1948 Il Metodo was revised again and published in English as The Discovery of the Child. In 1949 she gave a course in Pakistan and the Montessori Pakistan Association was founded.
In 1949 Montessori returned to Europe and attended the 8th International Montessori Congress in Sanremo, Italy, where a model classroom was demonstrated. The same year, the first training course for birth to three years of age, called the Scuola Assistenti all’infanzia was established.
She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Montessori was also awarded the French Legion of Honor, Officer of the Dutch Order of Orange Nassau and received an Honorary Doctorate of the University of Amsterdam.
In 1950 she visited Scandinavia, represented Italy at the UNESCO conference in Florence, presented at the 29th international training course in Perugia, gave a national course in Rome, published a fifth edition of Il Metodo with the new title La Scoperta del Bambino and was again nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1951 she participated in the 9th International Montessori Congress in London, gave a training course in Innsbruck, was nominated for the third time for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Montessori died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 6, 1952, at the age of 81 in Noordwijk aan Zee, the Netherlands.