Maria Montessori began an education revolution which focused on the notion that all children have a unique potential to be revealed rather than a clean slate waiting to be written on.
She advocated learning through the senses at the child’s own pace and according to their own choice of activities. She felt strongly that children should not be required to sit and listen to a teacher talking.
“The greatest sign of success for a teacher… is to be able to say ‘the children are now working as if I did not exist,” she said.
Instead, learning should be a process leading to concentration, motivation, self-discipline and a love of learning.
Her ideas had a profound effect on the education world during her lifetime and since.
Mania Montessori was born in Italy in 1870 and from an early age she showed promise. At the age of thirteen, she entered a boys’ technical school learning engineering there.
In 1896, she became Italy’s first female doctor and worked in psychiatry, education and anthropology.
Mindful of the fact that standard teaching practices so often let down ‘normal’ children, she turned her attention to mentally challenged children, who she believed could and should be given the opportunity to learn effectively. Her teaching programme did indeed enable these children to read and write and in 1907 she continued a study of ‘normal’ children, setting up the Casa dei Bambini (House of Children) in a San Lorenzo slum on the outskirts of Rome. Her belief that all children had innate intelligence no matter what their socio-economic background, led to significant success with the fifty poor and underprivileged children in the slum. Her work proved ground-breaking and suddenly Maria Montessori’s name was famous around the world.
A few years later she went to the United States where she set up a class at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Her teaching methods and the progress of the twenty-one children were studied for four months and once, again, Montessori’s methods impressed.
During the Second World War, her anti-fascist leanings meant she left Italy to start a project in India. Education for Peace led to her being nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.
After the war, she developed the Montessori programmes for infancy, elementary, middle and higher school children. The basic tenet she applied to all ages was ‘follow the child’ and today there are about 11,000 Montessori schools worldwide, 4,000 of them in the United States.
By ‘decentring’ a teacher, Montessori was able to encourage self-realisation through independent activity and taking responsibility, sound principles that are timeless and apply to all ages at all times.
As she said: “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed,” because by freeing the child’s potential “you will transform him into the world.”
Daniel Jutras, Director of the Canadian Montessori Teacher Education Institute, is quoted on the Programm Italia website:
“Maria Montessori herself had a motto: ‘Help me do it by myself.”
“We teachers are just the servants to show them how it works; we leave students to make their own mistakes and fix them.”
From sensorial activities that focus on thinking, comparing, and reasoning to language activities that awaken reading, writing, and verbal skills, Montessori teachers guide students through an array of subjects, but it is the child who dictates his/her own studies, says the website.
“At no time of the day does the Montessori teacher have an idea of what the children will do,” adds Jutras.
“This climate of uncertainty is quite a privilege to live.” Paula Glasgow, Dean of Montessori Teachers College in Toronto says. She explains how the Teachers College curriculum prepares instructors for their unique role in the classroom.
“The training of Montessori teachers involves a change of heart for most adult learners,” says Glasgow.
“In other words, each adult will develop the ability to see the world through the eyes of children.”
Montessori’s methods have had a huge impact on education.
“One test of the correctness of education procedure is the happiness of the child,” said Montessori. She would be very proud to see how well her education philosophy has stood the test of time.