On Wednesday, we got to the point in Maria Montessori’s life where she had a very successful experience bringing many mentally handicapped children up to the academic standards of normal children. That experience sparked a desire within her to work with normal children in similar ways, assuming she could also increase their learning. It was seven years before she had that opportunity, however.
She decided she needed further education herself, so while a lecturer at the University, she also became a student in philosophy and psychology. She studied the works of Seguin and Itard more in depth, to the point of actually writing out the entirety of their books by hand. “I chose to do this by hand,” she commented, ” in order that I might have time to weigh the sense of each word and read in truth the spirit of the authors.”
Her continued work as a lecturer and physician included performing a special study of the nervous diseases of children (publishing her work in technical journals). She also occupied the Chair of Hygiene at the Magistero Femminile in Rome, one of the two women’s colleges in Italy at the time. In addition, she was made a Professor at the University of Rome, and served as the Chair of Anthropology. She released her first major publication, Pedagogical Anthropology.
One attendee of her lectures stated, “In that opening lecture she spoke, not so much about anthropology, as about schools – what the function of a school should be. She emphasized two main points: first, that it is the duty of the teacher to help rather than to judge; and second, that true mental work does not exhaust, but rather gives nourishment, food for the spirit.”
You would think all that would keep Maria going non-stop, but in those years, she also practiced in the clinics and hospitals around Rome and even had her own private practice. (Apparently, she had compassion on many of the people she treated through her private practice and frequently did not charge.)
Okay, so those last few paragraphs were rather resume-ish, but now we’re to the point where Maria started having amazing results working with normal children. Within two years, she went from just being known in her inner circle to being a world-wide name, with visits by kings and queens, professional educators, and people of all types and degrees, to see these amazing children for themselves.
There was a slum in Rome called San Lorenzo. During a building boom, a number of large buildings had been built, and then abandoned. A discovery was made that a thousand people, of the poorest class in the city, had set up “house” in the buildings. “Here flourished unchecked all the evils of subletting, overcrowding, promiscuous immortality, and other crimes.”* A building society stepped forward and built new flats for the families, jobs were found for the parents, and older children (ages 6 and up) went off to school. This left a hoard of young children alone in the flats during the day. As you could imagine, they created chaos, playing all over the place, defacing walls and staircases, and damaging various parts of the flats. The authorities decided that it would make more sense financially to put them in one room and hire someone to watch them than to keep repainting and repairing the flats.
Here’s where Maria comes in. One of the people in charge of this situation was convinced that Maria Montessori was the perfect fit for the job. When presented with the offer, she jumped at the chance “for she saw in it the fulfillment of a long-cherished hope – the opportunity to work with normal children.” She now had the responsibility of 60 children, ages 3-6.
Strangely, her budget was limited to things that would normally be office equipment. Therefore instead of the normal desks you would find in any school of the time, she had little child-sized tables and chairs made. My understanding is that this was the first time furniture was made specifically to fit children. She also had precise scientific materials, similar to those used with the mentally handicapped children, made. She commented that these, too, “had nothing about them which should be considered as school equipment.”
After Maria gave the inaugural address at the official opening ceremony she remarked, “I had a strange feeling which made me announce emphatically that here was the opening of an undertaking of which the whole world would someday speak.”
Well, she was right. “In the whole history of education, from the time of Plato to the present day, there is no episode more remarkable than the series of happenings which came tumbling into being, one after the other, in the next six months…Montessori discovered that children possess different and higher qualities than those we usually attribute to them.”
- amazing mental concentration
- love of repetition
- love for order
- freedom of choice
- they preferred work to play
- no need for rewards and punishment (I still don’t get how she managed that one!)
- lovers of silence
- the children refuse sweets
- a sense of personal dignity
- the “explosion” into writing
- the discovery of reading
- spontaneous self-discipline
- cosmic discipline
In a period of a few months, the children had transformed from out of control, destructive children to self-controlled children who eagerly engaged themselves in learning. Maria continuously made new materials and new methods based on what she was learning from the children’s unexpected reactions.
An important thing to note here is that Maria was still busy with many other responsibilities during this time. Therefore she had assistants who worked with the children on a regular basis. Maria came and went, but spent as much time as possible in the school, and received regular and detailed feedback from the assistants. At times, she literally did not believe what an assistant was telling her. “It took time for me to convince myself that all this was not an illusion. After each new experience proving such a truth I said to myself, ‘I won”t believe yet; I’ll believe in it next time.’ Thus for a long time I remained incredulous, and at the same time deeply stirred and trepident.”
It wasn’t long before a second “Children’s House” was built in another tenement building. Then the visitors started coming, wanting to see these astonishing children for themselves and walking away in awe. Queen Margherita of Savoy said, “I prophesy that a new philosophy of life will arise from what we are learning from these little children.”
One Englishman who was in Rome to visit his estates there decided to go visit the school. Instead of continuing on to Australia as planned, he went back home to England to found the Montessori Society in England and set up, in his own house, the first Montessori class in that country.
Two sisters who were teachers in Australia went so far as to sell their house and furniture to earn enough money to travel to Rome for the chance to study Maria’s school.
The government of New South Wales informed Maria that they had transformed all their kindergartens into Montessori classes.
Tolstoy’s daughter was also one of the pilgrims to visit the school.
As word spread, more visitors came and more of these new schools were started around the world. Every one produced the same results in the children.
Maria herself was now traveling even more, giving lectures and teaching six-month teacher training courses all over the world. (I was pleased to discover that the training course I attended was arranged just like the ones she did, only longer.) What was really neat about all her speaking engagements was that no two were ever the same. She was continuously learning more and therefore changing what she was presenting. Many of her students attended multiple training courses so they could continue learning as she did.
Maria came to America for the first time in 1914, and was greeted quite enthusiastically. Thomas Edison, who greatly admired her work, invited her to stay with his family in their home. Alexander Graham Bell formed the American Montessori Society and served as its first president. The U.S. President’s daughter, Miss Margaret Wilson, was the honorary secretary of AMS. At the San Francisco World Exhibition, Maria set up a Children’s House with glass walls, surrounded by hundreds of chairs. People crowded around to watch the children inside at work. (I totally picture an ant farm that you place in your house.) Of the two gold awards presented at the Exhibition, Maria’s “new children” took both.
One thing I never realized before is that Maria, a Roman Catholic, actually focused on teaching religion at various points in her life. She wrote several religious books for young children. Just before her death in 1952, a Catholic Montessori Guild was formed in England for the purpose on continuing this aspect of her work. The day before she passed away, she wrote a message to be read at the inaugural meeting of the Guild.
Throughout the rest of her life, Maria continued researching, writing (only 30% of her writings have been published), lecturing, training new teachers, and, of course, spending time with children. At 81 years old, she died suddenly in Holland, which had become her headquarters.
An appropriate end to a two-day post about her life is a quote from her concluding address at the Ninth International Montessori Congress, the last before her death.
Your action, ladies and gentlemen, in giving me this honour, has brought to my mind a very simple and homely simile. Have you noticed what happens when you try to point out something to your dog? He does not look in the direction you are pointing, but at your outstretched hand and finger. I cannot help thinking that you are acting in a somewhat similar way in paying so much attention to me. I am pointing – as I have never ceased to point for the past forty years – to someone outside myself, and you are saying in effect, “What a handsome finger she has! And what a beautiful ring she is wearing!” The highest honour and the deepest gratitude you can pay me is to turn your attention from me in the direction in which I am pointing – to The Child.
*I got pretty much all of this information from the book Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work by E.M. Standing. Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from that book.
**Full descriptions and illustrative stories of these are on pages 40-52 of the book named above.
Side Note: E.M. Standing was a personal friend of Maria’s for decades. Maria read through the book as Standing was writing it, so she could approve, review, and endorse it along the way. She had agreed to write the introduction, but died before that could happen.
There’s a series of really neat photos of Maria, students at the original Children’s House in San Lorenzo, and Montessori students from around the world. The first in the San Lorenzo row shows the children outside, surrounded by visitors there to watch them! Awkward!