Marianne Clarkson looks at the life and work of Maria Montessori.

Childhood education met in Rome to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House), which was set up by Dr Maria Montessori on the ground floor of a block of apartments, where the poor of Rome had been re-housed as part of a slum clearance scheme.

Many of Montessori’s ideas, such as the importance of the early years in a child’s development – she held that ‘the most important period of life was not the age of university studies but the first one’ – and the use of child-sized chairs and tables, have permeated, unacknowledged, into mainstream education. However, many other facts about her, including her influence on the child psychologist Jean Piaget are not so well known. It was Montessori, who speaking to Piaget on the subject of observation is reputed to have said ‘look at your own children, Jean’ and pointed him to the detailed observation of his own three children which formed the basis of many of his theories. Piaget was greatly influenced by Montessori, and was in fact, the president of the Swiss Montessori society for many years, being deeply interested in her ideas and work.

In many areas, such as the importance of parent involvement, Montessori was years ahead of her time, and still today many of the ideals of her first nurseries or children’s houses that were put into practice, such as ‘Mothers must go at least once a week to confer with the directress (teacher), give an account of their children, and receive the advice which the directress may have to give’ would seem an ambitious aim for any nursery school. Other ideas such as the working parents who lived upstairs in the apartment blocks receiving an evening meal via a ‘dumb waiter’ after a hard day at work so that they could spend more time with their children, have yet to come to fruition, even a hundred years later! So how did Montessori come to hold these advanced views?

Montessori’s background

Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) was born in Chiaraville, which was then a small village near Ancona on the east coast of Italy. She was the only daughter of middle class parents who moved with her to Rome when she was very young. Throughout her early life she showed great determination. At the age of 10 she was seriously ill, and is said to have told her anxious mother ‘Do not worry mother, I cannot die, I have too much to do.’ Rejecting a classical education to attend a technical school, Montessori’s first wish was to become an engineer. However, she later became interested in biology, and determined to pursue a career as a doctor, a career which no other woman in Italy had ever followed. Despite being turned down for medical school, Montessori was not deterred. She petitioned the Pope who declared that medicine was a noble profession for a woman, thus allowing Montessori entry to the University of Rome from where she graduated in 1896.

Montessori’s first post at the Psychiatric Clinic at the University of Rome was to have a profound effect on her future ideas. While working there she witnessed a room full of children who had nothing in their environment to engage their attention, for fear of them destroying the items or hurting other children. Montessori noticed how, after the meal, the children would crawl about the floor feeling and manipulating the left over crumbs in their hands. This observation later led Montessori to realise the importance of the hand and the sense of touch in learning, ideas which she later utilised to help the children learn letter sounds and numerals.

Montessori began to read everything she could about the education of mentally defective children, including the writings of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, who had worked with the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron’, a boy of 11 or 12 who had been found wandering wild in the woods, and who Itard had tried to help to speak and to educate. The story interested Montessori so much, that she decided to leave the Psychiatric Clinic and travel to Paris to study his work and that of his student, Edouard Seguin. Seguin had furthered Itard’s ideas, and developed a method to help children who were seemingly ineducable. His method emphasised the importance of the senses in learning, and the link between intellectual development and movement. These ideas were later taken and extended by Montessori in her work with children.

Returning to Italy, in 1898 Montessori took part in a teachers’ conference in Turin, and gave a paper on what she had learned about the possibilities of educating children with severe learning difficulties. This was a revolutionary idea, as it was generally thought that the only possibility with such children was to relieve their medical condition. Montessori’s ideas were well received, and she urged that specialist schools rather than medical institutions be set up, and for teachers to be trained to teach mentally deficient children rather than simply to give them medical care.

The Orthophrenic School

In 1899 the first ‘Orthophrenic’ School – an institution for ‘retarded and feeble-minded’ children – was set up, and Montessori together with a colleague from the psychiatric clinic, Dr Montesano, were the joint directors. Here Montessori worked long hours developing materials for the children. These materials are very similar to those used today in many Montessori nursery schools. With these materials and the sensory and physiological methods used, the children made tremendous progress, and even passed state examinations to the surprise of all.

However, while these children enjoyed great success, Montessori was concerned at the lack of progress of many ‘normal’ children, for if children with these problems had attained such a level, she felt that many ‘normal’ children should be reaching higher levels.

Suddenly in the midst of all her fame, she left the school and returned to study. She was unmarried and pregnant with Montesano’s child, and it is now generally accepted that she left because Montesano had decided to marry someone else. Montessori’s baby was adopted by a peasant couple, and although she visited him regularly, she was not reunited with her son, Mario, until he was 14, when Renilde, her mother was no longer alive. For many years, Mario was not acknowledged publicly as her son, but introduced as a nephew. It must have been deeply upsetting to Montessori, whose interest was in the early years of development, to have spent so little time with her son.

The Children’s House

One of the highlights of Montessori’s career was in January 1907 when she was asked to help with a project by a housing association. As part of a slum clearance scheme a new apartment block had been opened but was soon covered in graffiti and overrun by young children whose parents were out at work. Montessori was commissioned to set up the first ‘Children’s House’, which was in fact a daycare centre, on the ground floor of the apartments, and appointed the caretaker’s daughter, rather than a trained teacher, who she could train in her own ideas to work with the children. At first the children had toys such as dolls houses, rocking horses etc, but Montessori found that these toys did not engage the children’s attention for long. She introduced the materials which she had designed at the Orthophrenic School and found that these materials instantly engaged the children so much that the children were self-motivated and had no need of rewards to encourage them to learn.

The first Children’s House was a huge success, and the following year a second was opened. The third, which was in an area for more middle class children, interestingly Montessori described as far more difficult. These Children’s Houses led to the setting up of many others in Italy and other parts of the world.

Montessori today

In the last year or so there has been a revival of interest in the Montessori approach in England. Two mainstream schools, Gorton Mount Primary School, a school which had been in special measures in Manchester, and Stebbing Primary School in Essex, have both changed over to the Montessori approach in their nursery classrooms. In Qatar I have been involved with a government funded project where initially four classes in a school of 500 children were introduced. At the end of the first year 100% of the children in the Montessori classes achieved the government standards in tests in English, maths and science compared with 85% in the rest of the school. The behaviour of the children in the Montessori classes was also of a far highest standard.

As a result of the success of these classes a further five Montessori classes have been opened to cope with parental demand. A more controlled experiment of randomly assigned children has been undertaken by Professor Angeline Lillard in the USA who found not only academic but also marked social improvements in children in Montessori classes.

Marianne Clarkson is principal of Kent and Sussex Montessori Centre.

Key ideas of Montessori

  • Sensitive periods – children pass through times when they are specially ready to learn new skills, and need to be given special assistance at these times
  • Observation – the teacher’s task is to observe the child, and use these observations to motivate and help the child to learn. Montessori herself was described as ‘the woman who looks at children as a naturalist looks at bees’ and saw observation as a crucial part of the teacher’s role.
  • Concentration – ‘The first essential for a child’s development is concentration. They must find out how to concentrate and for this they need things to concentrate upon’.
  • Control of error – rather than correcting the child overtly, the Montessori materials have a ‘control of error’, ie rather like a jigsaw puzzle if they are not worked correctly, they cannot be completed. This lack of formal correction helps to retain the child’s self-confidence.
  • Use of specially designed materials – each piece of Montessori material is very carefully structured, and teaches only one step at a time, eg a piece of material to teach shape, does not also have bright colours to confuse the learning.
  • Mixed age groups and individual learning – children are taught in mixed-age groups, and do not progress according to their age but according to their ability. The activities are not confined to a particular age group, ie there is no three-year-old or four-year-old curriculum. The teacher ‘looks at the child’.
  • Intrinsic motivation is the aim – there is generally no giving of rewards or punishments. The aim is to motivate the child from within, working with his/her own interests.

Further reading

  • Clarkson, J and M (2006) ‘A Triumph for Montessori’, Montessori International issue 81, pp20 -21.
  • Kramer, R (1976) Maria Montessori: A Biography, Chicago: University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-201-09227-1.
  • Standing, E (1957) Maria Montessori, Her Life and Works, New York: Hollis & Carter, ISBN 0-452-25624-0.
  • Pollard, M (1990) Maria Montessori, Herts: Exley Publications, ISBN 1-85015-211-X.
  • Lillard, A, and Else-Quest, N (2006) ‘The Early Years – Evaluating Montessori Education’ Science vol 313 (issue 5,795), pp1893-4.
  • Lillard, PP(1972) Montessori: A Modern Approach, New York: Schocken Books ISBN 0-8052-0920-4.
  • Montessori, M (1948) The Discovery of the Child, Oxford, ABC Clio,
    ISBN 1-85109-086-X.
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