|Leaders in Education
Maria Montessori (1870–1952)
Maria Montessori became a proponent of preschool education, an urban educational reformer, and a believer in equal opportunities for women sixty years before any of these issues were matters of widespread concern.
As a child, Montessori excelled in mathematics and thought of becoming an engineer. Later she became interested in medicine and overcame tremendous criticism to become the first woman to enroll in the University of Rome’s medical school. After graduating, she lectured on anthropology at the university and became associated with the psychiatric clinic. She developed an interest in children with mental retardation and, suspecting they were far more capable of learning than was commonly believed, founded and headed the Orthophrenic School, where she achieved remarkable results with these children.
Not until she was thirty-six years old, though, did Montessori find her life work. Believing that her methods could be even more effective with normal children, she opened her first school, the Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), to the preschool-age street urchins of Rome. Montessori’s school was run on the principle of allowing children freedom within a carefully designed environment and under the sensitive guidance of a trained director. The materials and toys available in the school were prescribed, but the children could handle or ignore them as they wished. The teachers were instructed simply to wait until the child became interested in a particular game or project. A child who was concentrating deeply on a ritual with a toy was not aided or corrected by a teacher unless she or he asked for help.
Montessori discovered that certain simple and precise educational materials evoked sustained interest and attention in young children. Children under five years of age would concentrate on a single task, oblivious to distraction, from fifteen minutes to an hour, and afterward seemed refreshed rather than tired. Montessori’s close observations of children led her to conclude that from birth to age six, all children have "absorbent minds" that equip them to learn more quickly and easily than at any later period in their lives. Montessori recognized that small children learn through their senses, and she developed methods of stimulating the child’s senses in ways that would improve learning. For instance, children were taught the alphabet with sandpaper letters that they could manipulate with their fingers. Montessori was the first to use flashcards as a sensory stimulus, and she even introduced the hula hoop, which became a fad in the United States in the 1950s. When severely criticized for ignoring discipline, she replied that in the conventional schools she had visited, children were "not disciplined, but annihilated."
Montessori’s teaching methods have aroused considerable interest in the United States as a result of recent psychological research that verifies many of her theories. Psychologists and educators have come to agree with her that the period of early childhood is critical in determining a person’s intellectual potential. Teachers of underprivileged or poor children in particular claim great success with Montessori techniques. The day care center movement and the early childhood movement in general have been significantly influenced by Maria Montessori’s views. In many ways, hers was one of the first compensatory education programs.
Visit the following web sites for more information on Maria Montessori and her work:
The Montessori Method
At this web site, you can read the full text of a translated version of Maria Montessori’s book describing the educational methods she used at the Casa del Bambini.
This is the web site of The Montessori Foundation, an organization dedicated to using Montessori methods in education today. You can find out more about Montessori schools and Montessori teacher education here, and read a sample from their magazine for parents and educators, Tomorrow’s Child.
American Montessori Society
The American Montessori Society is another organization dedicated to promoting Montessori methods. You can access a great deal of information about Montessori education in America from their web site.
International Montessori Index
This organization refers to itself as the "official international Montessori website." The web site includes a great deal of information about the specifics of Montessori education for children of different ages.
North American Montessori Teachers Association
NAMTA is an organization for Montessori teachers and parents. Their web site includes an online directory to Montessori schools to locate schools, information for parents, information for teachers, and a section on research in Montessori methods.