A Brief History of Maria Montessori

Dr Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in the provincial town of Chiaravalle, Italy. She was the first woman to gain admittance into The University of Rome’s, also known as “La Sapienza,” Medical School. Soon after, Montessori became one of the first few female physicians to have successfully graduated in the whole of Italy during that time.

After becoming intrigued with trying to educate children with special needs, she began a post-graduate research degree into the intellectual development of special needs children. She later developed what came to be called the Montessori Method as an outward growth of her studies by extending the application of her successful techniques to children without learning and development disabilities.

In 1906, Dr Maria Montessori was well-known enough that she was asked to head a day-care centre in Rome’s poorer district of San Lorenzo. She used the opportunity to observe the children’s interactions with sensorial materials (materials developed to appeal to the senses). Based on her observations she then refined and developed new materials with which the children could work with. It is this through this self-directed, interactive materials, centred approach, in which the teacher mainly observes while the children select objects specifically designed to impart conceptual frameworks and skills, that is the hallmark of the Montessori Method of education.

With the 1907 opening of Dr Montessori’s first school in Rome, her surname – Montessori – became associated with schools applying her educational approach and educational materials in schooling tailored to children’s developmental needs.

“Education is a natural process carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.”

Dr Maria Montessori.

The main principles of a Montessori approach to teaching and learning recognises:

That children are capable of self-directed learning.

That it is critically important for the teacher to be an ‘observer’ of the child instead of a lecturer. This observation of the child interacting with his or her environment is the basis for the continuing presentation of new material and avenues of learning. Presentation of subsequent exercises for skill development and information accumulation are based on the teacher’s observation that the child has mastered the current exercise(s).

That there are numerous ‘sensitive periods’ of development (periods of a few weeks or even months), during which a child’s mind is particularly open to learning specific skills or knowledge such as crawling, sitting, walking, talking, reading, counting, and various levels of social interaction. These skills are learnt effortlessly and joyfully. Learning one of these skills outside of its corresponding sensitive period is certainly possible, but can be difficult and frustrating.

That children have an ‘absorbent mind’ from birth to around age 6, possessing limitless motivation to achieve competence within their environment and to perfect skills and understandings. This phenomenon is characterised by the young child’s capacity for repetition of activities within sensitive period categories, such as exhaustive babbling as language practise leading to language competence.

That children are masters of their school room environment, which has been specifically prepared for them to be academic, comfortable, and to encourage independence by giving them the tools and responsibility to manage its upkeep.

That children learn through discovery, so didactic materials with control for error are used. Through the use of these materials, which are specific to Montessori schools (sets of letters, blocks and science experiments) children learn to correct their own mistakes instead of relying on a teacher to give them the correct answer.

That children most often learn alone during periods of intense concentration. During these self-chosen and spontaneous periods, the child is not to be interrupted by the teacher.

That the hand is intimately connected to the developing brain in children. Children must actually touch the shapes, letters, temperatures, etc. that they are learning about–not just watch a teacher or TV screen to tell them about these discoveries.