The Life of Maria Montessori
By: M. Cristina Matos.
Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, on August 31, 1870, into a middle-class Catholic family. From her earliest age, she proves to be an extroverted and vivacious child with a strong personality that quickly clashes with the norms of her school. She was passionate about performing arts, which augured a bright future for her, but she suddenly decided to abandon it, convinced that she had to continue her studies. For her young age, she develops a great interest in religion and believes in signs, which will lead her to make impulsive decisions several times throughout her life, always following her instinct and intuition.
Maria is a woman of extraordinary genius and talent, she was ahead of her time and has to struggle to continue her studies in a society where the few women who studied did so to improve their general culture before marrying, or, at most, to devote themselves to teaching. But she asserts herself and begins to improve her grades noticeably from adolescence onwards. She also became a passionate feminist militant and did not hesitate to appear before high-level male officials to make her voice heard and achieve her objectives.
She decided to study engineering, but finally opted for medicine and graduated in July 1896 from the University of Rome, becoming one of the first women to graduate in medicine at that time. Also, she studied Anthropology, Philosophy, Psychology in a continuous scientific search to know the secrets of Childhood.
At that time she met the man who would become the love of her life and the father of her only child, Giuseppe Montesano, a young doctor from a wealthy Jewish family. Giuseppe and Maria work together for a few years, while their son, Mario, is sent to a wet nurse who will take care of his education until the child becomes a young adult. Following her mother’s advice, Maria hid the existence of her son in order to devote herself fully to her professional career. Therefore, the child grew up far from her, and she lived with that pain, although she visited him, gave him gifts and watched him from afar when he played in the schoolyard, always with her unshakable faith, convinced that so much sacrifice would pay off in the future and that it would be worth it.
In 1898, Giuseppe was appointed head of service at the mental hospital in Rome. Maria accompanies him on the first inspection visits and is horrified to discover the appalling conditions in which the so-called “oligophrenic” children, whose intelligence has not developed normally and who have a severe cognitive deficiency, live locked up there. In reality, mental hospital covers a wide range of disabilities, including blindness, deafness, epilepsy, autism, and even dementia due to malnutrition. As they are considered incurable, they live there locked up for life without any hope of a better future.
From that moment on, Maria will develop a strong social commitment that will lead her to consider children in a very different way. She began to study pedagogy and discovered the works of Pestalozzi, a famous Swiss pedagogue who emphasized the preparation of the teacher, a change in her person and love for her work and for the children. Discover in particular the work of Édouard Séguin, a French pedagogue who half a century earlier had invented a method of special education with surprising results. Séguin will become her main point of reference, and Maria will use his teaching material to develop her own method. Like her, Séguin, through his work, aimed to completely reform teaching and education.
At the Pedagogical Congress in Turin in 1898, Maria Montessori presented Séguin’s work and proposal. She wants them to be applied in Italy, because she is convinced that the problem of oligophrenic children has more to do with pedagogy than with medicine.
Her method, now known worldwide as the “Montessori method”, it is based on the premise that children are their own masters, that they build themselves by extracting the elements from the environment in which they find themselves, that they only need freedom of movement and a variety of options from which to choose.
The essence of the work consists in putting the child’s observation and study before the teacher’s ideas, in working the senses in order to reach the blossoming of ideas. The didactic materials developed are designed to capture children’s curiosity and guide them in their desire to learn. They can be used individually or in groups and cover the following values: functional, experimental, structuring and relational. Also, all tasks are self-corrective, i.e., if they are completed incorrectly, the child realizes it on their own. It is about them finding their own solutions to their problems without having them imposed on them from outside.
One day she was astonished at the answer of a child who had been asked who had taught him this thing, when he said: “Who taught me? No one taught me. I have learned.” She condemned the superior position of the teacher, who judges and punishes without respecting the child. The true educator must observe the child, walk beside them, and learn from them with respect and affection.
From this moment on, Maria is becoming known, and her ideals begin to spread and attract attention. In 1899, she created an association to raise funds for special schools and won an award for her work in hospitals, but she puts all her energy into special education; she’s obsessed with the children in the mental health hospitals, claims the direct observation of the child, wants to change the existing system that is based on erroneous concepts.
Her proposal ranges from physical education to intellectual education and, finally, to moral education. Her ideals are too progressive and she continually clashes with conservative norms. She states that, “making the child feel loved and encouraging them to love themselves is the goal of our teaching, just as it was their beginning.” From their point of view, poor children do not attract the sympathy of their teachers, so they are ignored and, therefore, lack any kind of encouragement.
In 1900 the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica was inaugurated and its operation is based on voluntary work. At the end of the first year, the children show what they have learned with absolutely amazing results, matching the school results of the other children. Everyone is astonished when some students even pass the exam in public school. Maria’s revolutionary ideas attract attention, although few people really want to listen to her. Giuseppe reassures her: “You have to take note of what is possible (…), seeds always bear fruit”.
Maria quickly decided to apply Séguin’s teachings to normal children as well, to see how they would react, and on January 6, 1907, she inaugurated the first Casa de los Niños which in a few years would be established all over the world.
Séguin only worked with oligophrenic children, however, Maria will also work with normal children who work alone and do not need constant assistance, which will lead the Doctor to take a very big step in the field of children’s mind.
At the same time, in 1904, the Istituto Romano di Beni Stabili was created to improve the San Lorenzo neighborhood, one of the poorest areas of Rome. The director, Eduardo Tálamo, asks Maria to take charge of managing the project to create a kindergarten system in the neighborhood. She feels that to change the world you have to start from the bottom and accepts, even if it means putting aside her academic career.
These are just a few examples of the numerous ventures, projects and achievements carried out by this exceptional woman. Multifunctional and tireless, her method is known in the United States, Europe and even India. With a strong character, she did not let herself be intimidated and fought for the materials, the courses, the trainings all over the world to be carried out as she wanted them to be. She traveled all over the world to give courses herself, she gave lectures and explained her proposal in person. She was always concerned about maintaining the essence of her methodology and was always on the alert for predators who were only interested in the source of income she represented.
She never married, but on February 1, 1913, a few weeks after her mother’s death, Maria recovered her beloved son who had always been waiting for her and from that moment on, Mario would share experiences and trips with her and would become her right-hand man until the end of her days. Likewise, she was always surrounded by faithful admirers and pupils, disciples who left everything for her and who were the few people in whom Mary trusted and delegated her work.
When Mussolini entered the political scene in 1922, Maria began to meet with him to convince him to introduce his pedagogical method in the country’s schools. After several years, when she realized that the dictator only wanted to take advantage of his fame to turn the schools into small factories of small fascists, disciplined and obedient, she broke off all relations with him and began her exile abroad. Maria is now over 50 years old, but her war experience has encouraged her to continue studying education in depth, convinced that education is the only way to build peace.
Maria Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize up to three times, but never got it, probably because of her past with fascism.
She lived for many years in Spain (Barcelona), Holland and India and only returned to Italy in 1947 where she was received with honors and continued to work on the re-organization of the schools in her country.
She died on May 6, 1952 at the age of 82 when she was planning to travel with her son to Ghana where she was wanted to teach her method.
Today, the Montessori method is still known worldwide, although it is difficult to know if the original methodology designed by Maria Montessori is truly applied and it is also worth asking if every time a new school is inaugurated, it keeps the doors open for everyone, even for children with few resources as she did with so much love during her entire life.
De Stefano, Cristina. (2020). El niño es el maestro Vida de María Montessori (Lumen).
Fernández, Tomás y Tamaro, Elena. «Biografía de Maria Montessori». In Biografías y Vidas. La enciclopedia biográfica en línea [Internet]. Barcelona, Spain, 2004. Available at https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/m/montessori.htm [visited the 1st of February, 2021].
Montessori, María. (s.f.) María Montessori: biographía in Portal de la educomunicación. Retrieved from https://educomunicacion.es/figuraspedagogia/0_montessori.htm#Mar%C3%ADa_Montessori._Biograf%C3%ADa_
(s.f.) Biografía de María Montessori. In Asociación Montessori Española. Retrieved from http://asociacionmontessori.net/biografia/
Hernández Velasco, Irene. (2020). Método Montessori: la paradójica vida de Maria Montessori, la creadora de un método educativo para niños desfavorecidos que terminó convertido en un sistema para ricos. In BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-53949706
Translated by Juliana Lazzari