From our series "Achieving Greatness……..Our Greatest Teachers"
Written by Steven Kerno
When describing people, the words ‘trailblazer’, ‘pioneer’, and ‘innovator’ get their fair share of use. However, this frequent use, over time, tends to dilute their true meaning. Consider the life and accomplishments of Maria Montessori. Born in 1870 in Italy, her original scholarly intent was to study engineering – almost exclusively the purview of men in the late 19th century. Upon graduation with a certificate in physics-mathematics, she decided upon an even more unconventional career path – medicine. Although Maria Montessori encountered opposition and harassment from many fellow students, her chosen specialties – psychiatry and pediatrics – would be invaluable to her later educational pursuits. Upon graduating from the University of Rome in 1896, she continued research in working with ‘phrenasthenic’ children – what today would be considered a cognitive challenge, delay, or disability. She quickly became a champion for such children, and in the late 1890’s advocated for the development of special classes and schools, along with specialized training for their teachers. By the beginning of the 20th century, Dr. Montessori had established an Orthophrenic School, or ‘medico-pedagogical institute’ for training these teachers, where she was co-director. Her time spent at this school was invaluable in the development of the curricula that would be used very soon with mainstream children – and which would also bear her name. Building upon these successes in educating children, Dr. Montessori then left the Orthophrenic School for the purpose of re-enrolling at the University of Rome to learn more about psychology (at the time, this was within the discipline of philosophy). She also undertook independent study to both observe and perform experimental research in elementary schools.
Casa dei Bambini
In 1906, Dr. Montessori received her first formal teaching invitation. San Lorenzo was an inner-city district in Rome, with many children of modest means. Despite very humble circumstances, and with children considered by others to be unable to learn, she set to work. Eschewing the more accepted classroom environment of the time, Dr. Montessori provided tables and chairs that were appropriate for children, and which they could move themselves. Learning materials were placed on accessible shelves, and an emphasis was placed on practical, hands-on activities. Although the children were somewhat rambunctious at first, as they acclimated to a classroom with activities suited to their personal interests and needs, their behavior improved. With a little time and patience, the children were more calm, agreeable, and capable of applying themselves to a task. Interestingly, when give a ‘free choice’ activity, the children tended to choose more practical ones instead of toys, and were not particularly motivated by food or similar rewards. Out of these experiences emerged children that were motivated to learn, who were self-disciplined, and independent. By focusing on the unique characteristics of each child, the children were much more likely to learn and to fulfill their inherent potential. In short, Dr. Montessori had tapped into each child’s natural desire to learn and personal initiative.
Success Brings Attention – from Around the World
Dr. Montessori was able to achieve so much with children who weren’t expected to succeed – ‘miracle children’, as they were called. Within a few years, adherents of the ‘Montessori Method’ had established schools on five continents. In 1911, the first Montessori School was opened in the United States, in Tarrytown, New York. Leading figures of the era, such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, were willing to lend their support. Dr. Montessori traveled extensively to promote her method, to teach others how to best apply it within a classroom, to demonstrate its effectiveness for observers, and to continue to develop her pedagogy and model for helping children to learn – at their own pace, in their own way.
The breadth, impact, and legacy of Maria Montessori’s work is unquestionably profound. She was both an engineer and physician and would have excelled in either discipline. But her true calling, her passion was teaching, and for that adherents of the ‘Montessori Method’ are eternally grateful.