Maria Montessori is an influential educator whose novel approach to education, while initially developed in the early 20th century, remains in use today. Her life story is an inspiring tale of overcoming challenges and resilience. The method of education she invented offers an alternative to traditional instructional principles. Although its popularity fluctuated over the years since its conception, and its effectiveness is debated, it is returning to the modern scientific scope.
Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in the Italian province of Ancona. As a child, she expressed interest in mathematics that would eventually lead to her attending a technical school for boys to study engineering (Standing, 1957/1998). However, she soon became interested in biology and later, medicine (Standing, 1998). As at the time these subjects were considered inappropriate for a woman, she faced resistance, including ostracism from her own family (Standing, 1957/1998). However, in 1893 she was admitted to the University of Rome’s medical faculty, becoming the country’s first female medical student (Standing, 1957/1998). It is at her medical practice that she discovered an interest in working with and educating children (Standing, 1957/1998). Since then, she would contribute to education studies and advocated for children with developmental disabilities.
The initial conception of Dr. Montessori’s approach to education occurred when she observed children with mental deficiencies at a mental asylum. Examining the bland environments in which they were kept, she recognized their lack of, and need for, stimulation (Standing, 1957/1998). From there, her work as an educator, developing a method initially intended to aid developmentally challenged children, but later coming to the conclusion that nothing prevents it from being applied to all children (Standing, 1957/1998). Later in life, she continued her efforts to refine and distribute her education method, becoming well-known and respected in multiple countries (Standing, 1957/1998). Her work also put her in a position to advocate for women’s rights and against child labor (Standing, 1957/1998). This life story makes Dr. Maria Montessori an exceptional example of an innovator ahead of her time, and an inspirational figure to those who would follow.
The Montessori method of education, developed throughout Dr. Montessori’s career, differs greatly from the traditional instructional method. In a lecture, she describes it as based on the phenomenon she terms polarization of attention, a child’s ability to become fixated on an object and ignore distractions (Montessori, 1915). She further posited that the child undergoes significant development through exploring objects in such a fixated state (Montessori, 1915). Therefore, she concluded that if provided with objects that provoke this polarization, a child would be able to mature with little outside help, or distractions (Montessori, 1915; Montessori, 1939). Further, she observed that finding such absorbing objects and activities, which were unique for each of them, children developed “a spontaneous discipline” (Montessori, 1946, p. 94). Her method, therefore, relies to a significant degree on this ability of the child to experience and discover the world for itself (Montessori, 1946). Furthermore, she argued that adult intervention can have a significant deterring effect on a child’s development (Montessori, 1939). Thus, the Montessori method calls for the creation of environments that facilitate children’s development and agency, and little guidance from adults.
In her work, Dr. Montessori distinguishes three essential periods in a child’s development. The first period is from birth to six years of age; the second lasts until twelve; and the final period covers adolescence and ends around eighteen (Montessori, 1949). She argued that it is that first period that is the most important for one’s development as that is when the child obtains its critical skills (Montessori, 1949). Basic motion and language are developed during this period, and, as Montessori (1949) observes, they are developed without traditional instruction. She further explains that it is practical skills and experience are valued in adults, in contrast to the traditional model of education’s emphasis on theoretical knowledge (Montessori, 1949). She posits that within these broad age categories exist sensitive periods when a child is most receptive to a particular stimulus and, therefore, a particular type of development (Standing, 1957/1998). This means that an educational environment for each of these periods should be created that facilitates this.
Considering the factors described above, the Montessori method calls for the creation of a special learning environment. This environment includes teaching materials arranged in shelves and cupboards that are within reach of the children, and the freedom to interact with those that are interesting to the particular child (Montessori, 1939). Care should be taken not to place too much or too little material as a lack of options or excessive choice can lead to under stimulation or confusion, which are detrimental to the child (Montessori, 1915; Montessori, 1939). The method also puts significant emphasis on maintaining a child’s dignity (Montessori, 1939). This environment relies on the removal of obstacles to a child’s natural, spontaneous learning, and calls for the minimization of a teacher’s involvement.
Montessori Education Now
During her life, Dr. Montessori’s method of education became recognized across the world, and its influence can be seen, especially in preschool education, which focuses on creating a free learning environment. An international organization, Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), and the American Montessori Society (AMS) advocate for the further development and adoption of the method today (Association Montessori Internationale [AMI], n. d.; American Montessori Society [AMS], n.d.). They offer specialized training in the method to educators and maintain schools that adhere to its principles.
Despite the evidence in its favor, the Montessori method of education remains an alternative approach to education. Although it encourages independence, self-learning, and social interaction, it has been criticized for its lack of emphasis on collaboration, which can be detrimental in later education or the workforce (Meinke, 2019). Furthermore, the looser structure of Montessori education limits its compatibility with the traditional approach, potentially leaving children unprepared for certain subjects (Meinke, 2019). Finally, the method’s reliance on specialized learning materials can make it expensive and, therefore, inaccessible to some families (Meinke, 2019). These criticisms limit the method’s applicability and must be addressed if it were to become more generally adopted.
Dr. Maria Montessori is an exceptional individual, whose novel approach to education has, in her lifetime, produced significantly positive results. Her method, informed by the recognition of a child’s developmental and learning processes, emphasizes self-learning and independence through the creation of a learning environment and limited adult involvement in the learning process. While the method’s influence can be seen in the design of children’s spaces, it remains an alternative method of education, criticized for its limited compatibility with traditional education. Dr. Montessori’s life, meanwhile, offers an inspiring tale of resilience, dedication, and strength.
American Montessori Society. (n. d.). History of the American Montessori Society. Web.
Association Montessori Internationale. (n. d.) What We Do. Web.
Meinke, H. (2019, November 04). Exploring the Pros and Cons of Montessori Education. Rasmussen College. Web.
Montessori, M. (1915). My System of Education. The House of Childhood.
Montessori, M. (1939). The Secret of Childhood. Frederick A. Stokes Company, Inc.
Montessori, M. (1946). Education for the New World. Kalakshetra.
Montessori, M. (1949). The Absorbent Mind. The Theosophical Publishing House.
Standing, E. M. (1998). Maria Montessori, Her Life and Her Work. Plume. (Original work published 1957).