Maria Montessori: biography and educational method

Aristotle, one of the founding philosophers of Western thought, put forward an idea that became one of the most famous phrases about education. “Those who educate children well are more to be honored than those who produce them. For these only gave them life, those the art of living well”.

Indeed, education accompanies us throughout life, but its foundations are laid in the earliest childhood. There have been many brilliant philosophers and educators, but among all of them stands out the name of an Italian woman. Her novel vision marked a milestone in the way of educating children. Of course we talk about the physician and educator, Maria Montessori.

Who was she?

Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, in the province of Ancona, Italy, on August 31, 1870. From a young age she showed brilliant intellect and a personality ready to break with the stereotypes of the time. Not only was she the third woman to graduate as a doctor in her country, she went one step further. She developed an educational method following an experience with the least favored segments of society. However, today her method is considered a reference of first level education, changing the essence of its initial purpose.

Maria Montessori biography

Born into a bourgeois and Catholic family, Maria Montessori had a notable advantage in her childhood. Although her father was a strict military man, he recognized the right of women to education. That is why, at only fourteen years old, Maria began to study engineering. She then moved on to biology, finally deciding on medicine. Her acceptance in the Faculty of Medicine of the Sapienza University of Rome was revolutionary for the time. She graduated in 1896, at the age of 26. Then she supplemented her training with studies in anthropology, philosophy and experimental psychology.

From the early days of her professional practice, Montessori began to show an interest in the health and environment of people. She joined as a member of the University of Rome Psychiatric Clinic. Her experiences there would mark the direction that her profession would take. She specialized in pedagogy, and experimented with the processes of children’s education and learning. The result was the well-known Montessori method, which is still a leading reference in the classroom today.

Montessori established, for example, a clear relationship between child abandonment and juvenile delinquency. Montessori belonged to a society devastated by war and economic inequality. As a result, she chose to engage in activities that were in pursuit of the well-being of the less favored, especially women. She participated in renowned international conferences, in which she presented her ideas on how the living conditions of children translate into long-term social well-being.

Montessori philosophy

According to Montessori philosophy, each child possesses a unique and unrepeatable physical, mental and intellectual potential. For this reason, respecting their own development, must be the goal of education in order to be able to express themselves freely. Maria Montessori has dedicated over 50 years to observing children around the world, exploring the development of the child as a whole.

“If help and salvation are to come, they can only come from the children, for the children are the makers of men.” This phrase reflects the essence of Maria Montessori’s thought. She did everything she could to ensure that her work resulted in better education and more favorable conditions for children. The method that today stands out as part of the highest level of educational systems, had a very different origin and inspiration.

The development of Montessori theory

In 1898, Montessori began to visit the psychiatric hospital in Rome. In its facilities, she encountered an overwhelming reality. The children who were hospitalized there, were dirty, abandoned, and were treated like animals. These children struggling with mental illness were treated as handicapped or intellectually disabled. The diagnoses varied: mental disabilities, blindness, deafness, autism and epilepsy. In all cases, they were considered incurable.

With this reality as inspiration, Maria Montessori began to form clear ideas about education. She visited reformatories, where the treatment of young people was no better. Her conclusions were to develop an educational method based on love and respect. In which independence, autonomy and the exploration of the potential of each child were promoted. 

Montessori education

Maria Montessori took the time to experiment with her theories with socially marginalized children and young people. The children who were hospitalized in the mental institution played with crumbs of food, as there were no other objects available to them. This is where one of the fundamental premises of the Montessori Method arose. Play is the central activity by which children observe, investigate and learn the dynamics of their environment.

Main principles of Montessori education

Therefore, the learning process, rather than forcefully induced, is spontaneous and develops freely. With each game or experience, the children acquire knowledge that they accumulate and relate, giving rise to learning. Accordingly, a child should be placed in a suitable environment. In contact with the right materials and under the guidance of an attentive teacher. That way he will be able to experiment and refine his immense potential. In this sense, the Montessori Method is based on the following fundamental principles:

1. Educate the child to independence

To serve children is to stifle their abilities. Therefore, the task of parents and educators is to help them accomplish their goals by themselves, such as learning to walk, run, wash.

2. Never prevent a child from doing something because he is too small

We must not judge the ability of children on the basis of age and prevent them from doing something because they are too small. You have to show confidence and let them do the easier tasks. Children are satisfied when they have given the best they are capable of and are not excluded from the possibility of exercising.

3. Getting a child used to doing things with precision is an excellent exercise for developing body – mind harmony

Children are naturally attracted to details and to perform certain acts with precision. Learning to act with precision is a great exercise to harmonize the body and learn movement control. One of the most useful exercises recommended by Montessori is to teach children to set the table diligently, serve food, wash dishes, etc.

4. The Montessori educator must be a ‘guardian angel’ who observes and almost never intervenes

The teacher must respect the child who makes a mistake, and direct him to correct himself. Clearly the educator must intervene firmly and decisively when the child does something dangerous for himself and for others.

5. Never force a child to do something

Respect the child who wants to rest from an activity and just watch other children work. The educator must not force it.

6. Educating in contact with nature

Make the child live as much as possible in contact with nature. Because the connection of nature is enhanced through exercise. A child playing outside expands more muscle energy than parents think.

7. Water the plants and take care of the animals

Educate the child to take care of living beings. The caring for plants and animals is one of the keenest instincts of the infantile soul. Nothing is more capable of awakening an attitude of foresight in the child who is used to living without thinking about tomorrow. But when the child knows that animals need him. And seedlings dry up if he does not water them, it connects today’s acts with the rebirth of the following day.

8. Develop talents and never speak ill of a child

The educator must focus on strengthening and developing what is positive in the child. The child’s strengths and talents, so that the presence of his abilities can leave less and less room for defects. And never speak ill of the child in his presence or absence.

9. The school environment must be suitable for children

The school must be a welcoming and familiar environment in which all objects are modeled on the sizes and needs of children. The teaching materials must be specifically designed and allow self-correction of mistakes.

10. Children are the travelers of life

According to Maria Montessori, the child is like a traveler. He observes new things and tries to understand the unknown language of those around him. We adults are the guides of these travelers who enter human life.

Maria Montessori wrote that the objective is the study of the conditions necessary for the development of the spontaneous activities of the individual. It is the art of arousing joy and enthusiasm for work. The interest that leads to a spontaneous activity is the real psychological key to education.

Maria Montessori joins the enormous list of important women in history. Women, who by their actions, knowledge, talents, courage and character, contributed to generating structural and positive changes in the society in which they lived. We conclude this brief review with a quote that sums up the essence of her thought. “Everyone talks about peace but no one educates for peace. In this world, they educate for competition, and competition is the beginning of any war. When educating to cooperate and owe each other solidarity, that day we will be educating for peace.”

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