Had Maria Montessori died in 1913 at age 43, at the height of her fame and insight, this would be a pretty straightforward article about somebody who saw a problem and used her own profound scientific instinct to make the world incalculably better. The first half of her life she moved from triumph to triumph, expanding the horizons of what education might do for a child with a system that not only achieved core competencies earlier than anyone thought possible, but engaged children as agents of their own learning progress. It is, however, difficult to both found a movement and to see it through its mature years, and for all of Montessori’s early innovation, her later career featured a marked resistance to new ideas and a tight control of administration and marketing from which it would take years for the method to recover.
That decline is a harrowing and cautionary story, but preceding it was a series of triumphs unprecedented in the history of public education. Montessori was born in 1870 in an Italy only recently united by the singular diplomatic genius of Cavour. Her native country was, and I’m being charitable here, a sloppy sloppy mess at the time. A conjured amalgam of former papal states, Habsburg possessions, and dirt poor southern territories, there was little uniting these regions except for the vague feeling that once, a while ago, all of them had something to do with the Renaissance. What was needed was a universal education system to raise the shockingly low standards that abounded throughout Italy – a new, united and educated generation to steer the ship of state into the future.
Maria Montessori was a product of that intense sense of the future and its possibilities. Her mother actively encouraged her in every bold and unorthodox step of her early career, and her father, while not always happy with her startling life choices, nevertheless refrained from getting in her way. At the time, students out of elementary school had a choice between taking either a classical or a practical track for high school. Most girls, if they continued their education at all, went for the classical track, with its training in ancient languages and literature. Maria, however, opted for the practical, with its modern languages, science, and math. Initially, she wanted to be an engineer, but once she submerged herself in the sciences, she found herself beckoned by medicine.
This was, to all Right Thinking Italians, madness. No woman had ever been accepted at the University of Rome to study medicine. Maria’s father was concerned lest their family become the farcical cautionary tale of Rome. Somehow (possibly through the intercession of the Pope) Maria was accepted to study, and proved herself one of the greatest students in the history of the college.
Which wasn’t hard, as Italian universities of the late 19th century were famously amongst the most slovenly run and ill respected institutions of Europe. Students showed up, or more often didn’t, heard a couple of lectures, took some tests, and got their degrees. Most were in it for the social standing a degree conferred, and so made the absolute minimum of effort in attendance and study. Expectations were crushingly low, but Maria, to the shock of everybody, seemed to actually want to learn, showed up for every lecture, and filled every moment with books and questions. She was easily made a doctor with the overwhelming recommendation of the faculty and thereupon began her practice.
Initially, she had no thought of specializing in the science of education. Her field was a biological anthropology which sought to use scientific measurements to determine psychological types. Her early writings focus on such matters as the relation of nose ratios to secretiveness or madness, a line of inquiry which was to have disturbing consequences in the early twentieth century in the hands of eugenics-leaning governments. Fortunately, an experience at the University’s psychiatric clinic deflected her attention onto her true path.
Common practice at the time dictated that the “mentally challenged” all be lumped together in barren rooms to prevent overstimulation of their imbalanced minds. Maria noticed that, after meals, the children would fling themselves down on the floor looking for crumbs and food scraps. The other doctors looked with disgust on the practice as an example of their mental deficiency, but Montessori saw it differently. What she saw were children so starved for mental stimulation that they were turning to scraps and crumbs to get it. These children didn’t need less sense training, they needed more.
She was soon given the chance to put her ideas into practice at the Orthophrenic School, observing and developing methods to teach and develop the senses of such children, and then tethering that sense development eventually to intellectual learning. In doing this, she was working in the tradition of Itard and Seguin, whose research in the early nineteenth century had demonstrated the potential of using a sense-based approach to help foster learning in the developmentally disabled. By working with blocks and feeling the shape of cut out letters, they were able to eventually teach abstract concepts to children who were given up as lost by the rest of the medical world. Montessori felt she could extend and systematize their work, and was soon pulling off minor miracles at the Orthophrenic School, teaching the children to first distinguish the crude sensory differences of objects, and then through a process of refinement, bringing them to more abstract understanding of the world and their function in it.
It was a culminating moment in the history of special education, but she soon realized, with a clear instinct for the psychology of children, that the methods she was using with the patients at the Orthophrenic School could also be used to improve education for all children. But before she could apply that knowledge, Montessori had a personal struggle to overcome. She had fallen in love with another doctor at the school, and had a child by him. Of course, it would destroy her fragile reputation to publically acknowledge having born a child out of wedlock, and so she was faced with keeping the child but losing her career or continuing her work but remaining a stranger to her own son.
She chose the latter. For the first fifteen years of his life, Mario Montessori’s mother was a passing acquaintance in his life, and until her death she continued to refer to him publically as her nephew, a role he understood and came to accept. She left the child behind to be raised by her family and returned to her work.
That work led to the establishment in 1907 of the revolutionary Casa dei Bambini, an experimental school that was the original idea of some low-rent landlords seeking a way to keep the children of their buildings from running wild and defacing property during the day. They decided to create a small school in the building, and called upon the world-famous Dr. Montessori to design the program and oversee its implementation. Given free rein, she developed the system that continues to be used in Montessori schools the world over.
Traditionally, children were held to be incapable of learning to read before the age of six, and were expected to sit still and be lectured at over the course of a day by way of education. Montessori, by observing children at play, discerned a thirst for understanding their environment and mastering new skills. So, she organized her school around that sense of independent mastery. The children would have a choice of activities in a large cupboard that they could take out and play with for as long as they wanted. The teacher would show them how each activity worked, and then leave them to figure the rest out on their own. The children naturally worked their way from the simple challenges (placing cylinders in the right shaped holes) to the more fine-tuned motor applications, and demanded more.
So, Montessori decided to try teaching them to write and read through a senses-first approach, crafting letters for their hands to trace and letting them hear the noise of the letter as they felt its contours. And, very soon, those children began putting their letters together to make words, writing everything they could think of anywhere that they could find (a task made easier in Italian by the fact that things are actually written as they sound, unlike the “knight” and “through” bestrewn wrecks of English spelling). Once they had that down, reading was a comparative snap. While the national schools had children just starting to struggle with their first copybooks at age six, Montessori’s children were writing full sentences at age four.
Not only that, but visitors to the Casa noted how orderly and attentive the children were, how they took turns serving each other at lunch, and how engaged they were in their own learning processes. Reports of the school’s miraculous results flew over Europe and across the sea to the United States, while Montessori found herself besieged with letters from teachers curious to learn the method. On a tour through the United States in 1913, she was treated like an A-List celebrity, her lectures instant sell-outs wherever she went.
And that’s where a movie version of her story would likely stop. Challenges faced and overcome, fame attained, all is well. However, the following decades saw Montessori settling into a long and often dictatorial struggle to preserve the purity of her method. She resigned her official positions, making herself financially dependent on sales of her learning apparatus and teacher training course fees. She steadfastly refused to let anybody but herself train teachers in the Montessori Method. Worse, she insisted that her system was absolutely complete, that any of her disciples who spoke of merging it with other educational theories or even altering the order of the apparatus was a traitor to the movement. As a result, she cut the Montessori technique completely off from other developments in the field of education, and particularly from the important ideas of Dewey and Kilpatrick in the social education of children.
She did important work in her later years, especially in overseeing the development of Montessori schools in India, but her refusal to update her methods, to scientifically test her assertions, or to allow the training of teachers outside of her immediate control all hindered the evolution of her educational philosophy and practice. When she died, the Montessori Method was a phantom of an idea in the United States, where it once seemed poised to take over the educational system entirely. It would take a new generation with fresh concerns to revive her concepts and restart the Montessori movement we know today.
However lamentable the end, there is no doubt about the ultimate impact. Take a walk down the toddler aisle at your local Target, and what you’ll find is device after device aimed at the sensory training that Montessori made famous. Those techniques, and the underlying idea of the importance of agency in education, have, when combined with Dewey’s principles of school as a social and creative space, formed the core of our modern educational system. And, in an age when More Testing is the answer to every educational problem, perhaps it’s time to step back and consider Montessori’s fundamental wisdom again, about how children, through learning, become themselves.
Lead image: Maria Montessori, 1913, public domain
Further Reading: Rida Kramer’s Maria Montessori: A Biography is fantastic. It features a forward by Anna Freud, and engaging insights into the history of education theory. More than that, it doesn’t attempt to exaggerate Montessori’s importance or cover up her faults, but tells the engrossing story of what happens to genius when it refuses intellectual cooperation.