Maria Montessori

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Some people will go to extraordinary lengths and do whatever it takes to ensure that others succeed. That was Maria Montessori's hallmark.

Born in Italy in 1870, Maria Montessori spent her life challenging expectations -- from the sexism embedded in a country and culture with strictly defined gender roles to the prevailing notions of how children learn.

Maria was one of Italy’s first female doctors. She endured years of hostility, harassment, and outright rejection on the part of her male teacher and peers. But she persevered. And focusing on pediatrics and psychiatry, she became an expert in pediatric medicine.

She began to practice privately in 1896. But the priority she placed on learning and education -- inherited from her parents who sent her to the best institutions Rome then had to offer -- was never too far away.

In the 1890s, most doctors believed that “mentally disabled” children were incapable of being educated. Sadly, many young people, who today would be regarded merely as “learning challenged,” were confined to asylums for life. But Maria disagreed.

Thanks to her experiences in medical school, Maria understood that there was nothing inherently wrong with these children; their brains just worked differently and in a way that didn’t resonate with “normal” pedagogical practices. That’s when she began to experiment with alternative methods of reaching and teaching these so-called “disabled” kids.

Unfortunately, in 1898, just as her career was poised to take off, sexism tore at Maria's life once again. She gave birth to her only child, Mario, out of wedlock. This was by choice, for if she married Mario's father, she would be forced by the social conventions of the day to give up working and become a housewife. At first, the two parents kept their son secret, but when Mario's father abandoned them, Maria made the heart-wrenching choice of putting Mario in foster care. It was either that or lose her professional identity.

So Maria became a mother to many. In 1906, she accepted the chance to open a school for disadvantaged working-class kids in the poor San Lorenzo district of Rome. She called her school the Casa dei Bambini and it was like none other. This is when the "Montessori method" of education as we know it today was born.


Montessori observed that when children were at liberty to act freely in an environment prepared to meet their needs, they would almost always choose to learn through self-discovery; that they were surprisingly unmotivated by sweets and other external rewards; and they showed more interest in acquiring new skills than in playing with toys.

She saw that once engaged, all children had the capacity for periods of focused concentration. Also, they returned to activities they both enjoyed and had yet to master time and again. She had tapped what educators and behaviorists today refer to as “intrinsic motivation.” She called this tendency "spontaneous discipline."

Her classroom eschewed rote learning and memorization altogether. She did away with the rows of connected wooden desks and equipped her schoolroom with child-sized furnishings that were light and easy to rearrange. Practical activities, such as sweeping the floor and washing the tables, were woven into periods of both physical as well as purposeful play. In this "learning garden" Montessori discovered that human development progressed along a similar route, if not rate, through four distinct learning periods roughly corresponding to 0-6 years, 6-12, 12-18, and 18-24. She noted different developmental imperatives active in each of these phases, and called for educators to develop approaches specific and appropriate to each period. This observation would be echoed by leaders in education throughout the 20th century.


By the 1910s, Maria had become an international star for her success with educating children previously considered unreachable. In 1911, her methods became the basis of public education in Italy and Switzerland. Soon, "Montessori Schools" had opened all over Europe. Some critics, especially followers of the American John Dewey, believed that Maria's methods were too reliant on sense-training versus reading. This initially limited the popularity of her methodology in the United States. Despite these detractors, however, when Maria Montessori died in 1952, she already had influenced the education of tens of millions of children around the world and continues to influence early education today.

But the best news? She and Mario became reacquainted after a decade apart. He would become devoted to her, as both son and colleague, for the rest of his life. A pillar of her work, he continued to advance after Maria's death. 

Maria Montessori's faith that all children possessed the capacity to learn, that it wasn't up to the child to adapt to the environment, but up to the educator to find ways to differentiate to meet individual needs, completely changed the face of education. Her desire to connect with every child, regardless of socio-economic status and perceive mental acuity continues to resonate with educators and their students the world over today. That's why she's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.

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