A Historical Perspective

Maria Montessori

Once considered a controversial figure in education, today she recognizes as the twentieth century’s leading advocate for early childhood education, and the research she began changed the course of education.

Many famous figures in child psychology and education studied Montessori’s ideas and work and were strongly influenced by her including.

Anna Freud

Anna Freud:
In 1938 she moved to England to escape Nazi rule. During WWII she studied the development of homeless children. She founded her own course in child psychoanalysis in 1947 and her own clinic in 1952. Throughout the remainder of her life, she continued to write important papers in her field.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget:
Over the course of his career in child psychology, he identified four stages of mental development, called “schema.” He also developed new fields of scientific study, including cognitive theory and developmental psychology.

Alfred Adler

Alfred Adler:
In his childhood, he suffered some illnesses and the death of a younger brother. These experiences contributed greatly to his early decision to become an Adler was credited with developing several important theories on the motivation of human behaviour. He founded the school of individual psychology, a comprehensive “science of living” that focuses on the uniqueness of the individual and a person’s relationships with society.

Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson:
He was an artist and a teacher in the late 1920s when he met Anna Freud, an Austrian psychoanalyst. With Anna’s encouragement, he began to study child psychoanalysis at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. He immigrated to the United States in 1933. He taught at Yale University and Harvard University. It was at this point in his life that he became interested in the influence of society and culture on child development. To satisfy his curiosity, he studied groups of American Indian children to help formulate his theories. studying these children enabled him to correlate personality growth with parental and societal values.

Montessori’s Theories Influenced Many Elements of Modern Education

The open classroom, which is a student-centred classroom design format became popular in the United States in the 1970s. The idea of the open classroom was that a large group of students of varying skill levels would be in a single, large classroom with several teachers overseeing them. It is ultimately derived from the one-room schoolhouse but sometimes expanded to include more than two hundred students in a single multi-age and multi-grade classroom. Rather than having one teacher lecture to the entire group at once, students are typically divided into different groups for each subject according to their skill level for that subject. The students then work in small groups to achieve their assigned goal. Teachers serve as both facilitators

Individualized Education, Montessori Certified Teachers provide individualized instruction for each student. The Montessori Teacher observes the progress of each child and tailors her lesson presentations accordingly. Because the focus is on each individual child, there is no cap or ceiling on what a child can learn. A child who is ready and eager to move to new challenges does not have to wait for other children. Likewise, a child who needs a little extra time to master a new concept or skill is free to do so without feeling any stress or pressure.

The Ontario education system refers to this method as an IEP. It is used to assist children with special needs.

Manipulative learning materials enhance the child’s ability to understand a concept. Also, it introduces a child to critical thinking skills.

The integrated curriculum occurs primarily through projects, learning centers, and playful activities that reflect the current interests of children. For example, a social studies project such as building and operating a store or a science project such as furnishing and caring for an aquarium provide focused opportunities for children to plan, dictate, and/or write their plans (using invented and teacher-taught spelling), to draw and write about their activity, to discuss what they are doing, to read non-fiction books for needed information, to work cooperatively with other children, to learn facts in a meaningful context, and to enjoy learning. Skills are taught as needed to accomplish projects.

Teaching toys explain concepts to students with a wide variety of learning needs. Teaching toy/aids are crucial for educators as they are key to differentiating instruction for all types of learners.

Programmed instruction is a method of presenting new subject matter to students in a graded sequence of controlled steps. Students work through the programmed material by themselves at their own speed and after each step tests their comprehension by answering an examination question or filling in a diagram. They are then immediately shown the correct answer or given additional information.

Over the last few decades, brain research has confirmed the validity of Dr. Montessori’s pioneering insights into how children learn best.

The Woman Behind the Method

Maria Montessori was ahead of her time. She was born in 1870, in Ancona Italy to an educated but not affluent middle-class family. She grew up in a country that was very conservative in its attitude toward women. Despite the considerable opposition of her father and teachers, Montessori pursued a scientific education and was the first woman to become a physician in Italy.

above view of Acona, Italy

Dr. Montessori


As a physician in pediatrics and psychiatry. She taught at the medical school of the University of Rome, and, through its free clinics, she came into contact with the children of the working class and poor. These experiences convinced her that intelligence is not rare and that most newborns come into the world with human potential that will be barely revealed.

In 1901, Montessori was appointed Director of the new Orthophrenic School attached to the University of Rome, formerly used as an asylum for the deficient and insane children of the city, most of whom were probably of diminished mental capacity. She initiated reform in a system that formerly had served merely to confine mentally challenged youngsters in empty rooms. Recognizing her patients’ need for stimulation, purposeful activity, and self-esteem, Montessori insisted that the staff speak to the confined with the highest of respect. She set up a program to teach her young charges how to care for themselves and their environment.

Paving the Path

During her time as Director, Montessori began a meticulous study of all research previously done on the education of the mentally challenged. Her study led to the French physicians, Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin.

Itard is most famous for his work with The Wild Boy of Averyron, a youth who had been found wandering naked, in the forest, having spent ten years alone. Itard hoped, that from his study, he would shed some light on the age-old debate about what proportion of human intelligence and personality is hereditary and what proportion stems from learned behaviour.

Itard’s experiment was met with limited success, for he found the wild boy uncooperative and unwilling (or unable) to learn most things. This led Itard to postulate the existence of developmental periods in human growth This idea had tremendous appeal to Montessori and later became the cornerstone of her method.

From Edouard Seguin, Montessori drew further confirmation of Itard’s work, along with a far more specific and organized system for applying it to everyday education of the challenged. Today, Seguin is recognized as the father of special education.

From these two predecessors, Montessori developed the idea of a scientific approach to education, based on observation and experimentation. She belongs to the ‘child study’ school of thought, and she perused her work with the careful training and objectivity of the biologist studying the natural behaviour of an animal in the forest. She studied her mentally challenged youngsters, listening and carefully noting everything they did and said.

Slowly, Montessori began to get a sense of who these children really were and what methods worked best. Her success was given widespread notice when, two years after she began, many of Montessori’s ‘deficient’ children were able to pass the standard sixth-grade test of the Italian public schools. Montessori suggested that her results proved that public schools should be able to get dramatically better results with ‘normal children’ Unfortunately, the Italian Ministry of Education did not welcome this idea.

A New Era of Education

The first Casa dei Bambini or Children’s House (Montessori School) was located in the worst slum district of Rome, and the conditions Montessori faced were appalling. Her first class consisted of sixty children from two through five years of age, taught by one untrained caregiver. The children remained at the centre from dawn to dusk, while their parents worked. The children were typical of extreme inner-city poverty conditions.

The children entered the Children’s House on the first day crying and pushing, exhibiting generally aggressive and impatient behaviour. Montessori, not knowing whether her experiment would work under such conditions, began by teaching older children how to help with the everyday tasks that needed to be done. Also, she introduced the manipulative, perceptual puzzles that she had used with the mentally challenged children.

Children, who had wandered aimlessly, began to settle down to long periods of constructive activity. They were fascinated with the puzzles and perpetual training devices. To Montessori’s amazement, the young children took the greatest delight in learning practical everyday living skills, which reinforced their independence. Each day, they begged her to show them more, even applauding with delight when Montessori taught them the correct use of a handkerchief. Their behaviour as a group changed dramatically, from street urchins running wild to models of grace and courtesy. It was little wonder that the press found such a human interest story appealing and promptly broadcasted it to the world.

Montessori’s children exploded into academics. Too young to go to public school, they begged to be taught to read and write. They learned to do so quickly and enthusiastically, using special manipulative materials Dr. Montessori designed for maximum appeal and effectiveness.

The children were fascinated by numbers, to meet this interest, the mathematically Montessori developed a series of concrete mathematical learning materials that have never been surpassed. Their interests blossomed in another area as well, compelling the overworked physician to spend night after night designing new materials to keep pace with the children in geometry, geography, history and natural science.

One discovery followed another, giving Montessori an increasingly clear view of the inner mind of the child. She found that little children were capable of long periods of quiet concentration, even though they rarely showed signs of it in everyday settings. Although they could be careless and sloppy, the responded positively to an atmosphere of calm and order. Montessori noticed that the logical extension of the young child’s love for consistent and often- repeated routine is an environment in which everything has a place.

Maria Montessori’s first children’s house received overnight attention, and thousands of visitors came away amazed and enthusiastic. Worldwide interest surged, as she duplicated her first school in other settings, with the same results. Montessori captured the interest and imagination of national leaders and scientists, mothers and teachers, labour leaders and factory owners. As an internationally respected scientist, Montessori had rare credibility in a field, where many others had promoted opinions, philosophies, and models that have not been readily duplicated. The Montessori Methods offered a systematic approach that translated very well into new settings.

In Conclusion

During her lifetime, Maria Montessori was acknowledged as one of the world’s leading educators. Today there is a growing consensus among psychologists and developmental educators that many of her ideas were decades ahead of her time. As the movement gains support and continues to spread, one can readily say that the Montessori Method, begun more than 100 years ago, is a remarkably modern approach.