Born in 1870, Maria Montessori and her family moved from the countryside to Rome just as she reached the age to begin her formal education; her experience in the Italian school system later served as the antithesis of her pedagogy.
Since the 1830s, Rome's children had suffered under thirty-three different ministers of education, each of whom left a strict legacy of laws, rules, and codes. The city's large peasant population, speaking a variety of dialects, created communication problems within the classrooms. Insufficient textbooks and supplies barely stimulated the students. Montessori, in spite of these drawbacks, showed academic promise and early leadership skills. At thirteen, she chose to pursue technical school over classical and devoted the next seven years to studying French, arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra, geometry, history, geography, general science, German, English, math, physics, and chemistry.
Despite the range of subjects, this educational environment only perpetuated the mediocrity from Montessori's early schooling experience. The government completely controlled these secondary schools by assigning the curriculum, designing the examinations, and hiring the teachers, allowing no room for individual teaching or learning styles.
The students' progress was solely determined by end-of-the-year exams that did not consider differences in economic background, language, or previous education. Passing required rote memorization rather than true comprehension of the lessons.
Montessori critiqued this stifled, unchanging atmosphere later in her life, finding fault with the system's lack of practicality. She disagreed that teachers substituted diagrams and illustrations in place of direct observation and that "physical immobility was enforced." (Kramer 31) During three hours of morning classes and two hours following a lunch-break, the students learned simultaneously and continuously—in the classroom, there was no time for discussion, questioning, or even independent thinking. Montessori prevailed despite these circumstances but, upon graduating, ironically she shunned the traditionally female career of teaching by deciding to pursue a doctorate in medicine.
Her father strongly disagreed, as did society: "[At this time] legally the position of women was still so primitive that [. . .] for most middle-class women, it was a dull, empty life." (Kramer 30) Her mother,however, continued to support her daughter's ambitions. Special permission from the Pope allowed Montessori to matriculate at the University of Rome, but much to her disappointment, the academic environment proved little different from her past experiences. As one faculty member explained: "There is no question of doing well or ill. The whole concern is that the Regulations should not be contravened." (Kramer 37) Unattended lectures went unnoticed as long as students managed to pass the exams. Characteristically, Montessori differed from her fellow all-male students, earning her both an unpopular reputation and also a series of scholarships that covered tuition. Banned from anatomy classes for reasons of impropriety, she performed dissections alone at night in the lab. Again, in spite of these setbacks, she specialized in the care of pediatric diseases and graduated in 1897 to become Italy's first woman doctor.
Montessori grew interested in Edouard Seguin's mid-1800s work with retarded children. In particular, Seguin dismissed traditional educational approaches that emphasized memorization; he focused on improving children's intellect and physical movement through the stimulation of the senses. Montessori also studied the biological classification of people, plant, and animals; she was intrigued by the children Seguin worked with and wondered if there were ways to prevent abnormalities, or at least improve their situations through education.
Her studies led her to Rome's asylums where she worked with mentally retarded and disturbed children. At this point, Montessori's main concern was to prove that such children were educable. Society labeled these children as "idiots" and stereotyped them as future criminals. She used her scientific background in these early special-education situations to lessen the divide that society placed between normal and abnormal people. Along with propagating early educational-reform ideas, Montessori also became a public speaker for the early feminist movement. She argued: "It is not the science that is against the women, but the male scientists." (Kramer 79) Montessori recognized a divide in academia; mirroring her approach with the idiot-children, she used her knowledge of science to improve women's social conditions, relying on reason rather than sentiment in both situations.
Her earliest experience teaching began in 1900; she became the director of a teacher-training school for the special-education of children. In a classroom at a teaching-hospital, Montessori soon astonished her critics by teaching many of the asylum children to read and write. She tested out early versions of her sensorial materials, inspired by Seguin. These objects and tasks moved from general exploration by the children to learning a specified skill. When the so-called idiot-children passed the state-examinations, these successes "convinced [her] that similar methods applied to normal children would [also] develop or set [them] free [like] their peers." (Kramer 96) Two years later Montessori decided she wanted to test her theories on normal children. Determined, she returned to university to take classes in pedagogy, hygiene, psychology, and anthropology.
Observations of teachers and students during regular visits to schools allowed Montessori to assess what textbooks often avoided. The children, clothed in identical uniforms, sat in rows and remained immobile most of the day, learning the lesson in silence and suffering physical punishments. The repressive nature of education bothered Montessori; similarly, it disturbed an emerging group of socialists. Rural crop failures had caused a rise in disease, poverty and child labor, sparking a political movement led by teachers. A new Prime Minister, Giovanni Giolitti, democratized the country in 1903, focusing on educational reform by raising money to build schools and augment teacher salaries.
Alongside these positive changes, however, speculation sites from the 1890s began to fail as investors abandoned unfinished buildings. The poorest local and immigrant families, homeless people, criminals and prostitutes soon overtook the deserted San Lorenzo district, once the largest of these developments. Giolitti's reforms focused on this neighborhood. Ironically, his committee soon realized that the slum children were their largest obstacle. With parents working all day, these pre-school age children were left unattended to "[run] wild throughout the building, defacing the newly whitewashed walls and using their ingenuity on whatever other petty acts of vandalism they could invent." (Kramer 110) Giolitti's committee turned to Montessori for help and she accepted their proposal to establish a day-care/nursery school because they offered her complete control over the school, teachers, materials and students—the situation she needed to test her hypotheses.
Friends and colleagues disapproved of her decision, thinking she was lowering her standards after proving herself worthy of a doctorate. However, the chance to test her educational hypotheses on "normal" children proved too tempting. Her observations from the first few weeks of class reaffirmed her decision. With no money for toys, teaching supplies, or meals, Montessori opened the doors of Casa dei Bambini (the Children's House) with little furniture, a few hand-made materials, and a mission: to provide a safe and hygienic haven away from the tenement housing, which she described as "dark habitations [and] vile caves of misery." Fifty to sixty children from two to seven years old crowded into the school's one room and immediately engrossed themselves in what work she had provided: "[Even the] sullen, the disinterested and withdrawn, and the rebellious children showed remarkable interest in the didactic materials which they chose over the toys or drawing materials." (Kramer 113)
The early materials and the ones she later developed combined Seguin's theory of the educational capacity of the senses with her own notion of self-correction. The children, whom society had earmarked as future criminals, did not sit and wait for the next activity. They either repeated their previous task or occupied their free time in a physical outlet. She found that self-satisfaction was the common motivating factor behind her students' determination rather than trying to earn the traditional reward. She commented in her Handbook: "The desire of the child to attain an end which he knows, leads him to correct himself. [For example it] is not the object that the child should learn how to place the cylinders, and that he should know how to perform an exercise. The aim is an inner one, namely, that the child train himself to observe." (Montessori 33)
Montessori treated her students with respect, a novel approach, which allowed them to figure out the materials without being told the correct solution. She required cleanliness and punctuality from the students and their parents, but she made a concerted effort never to criticize a child when materials were misused or the wrong answer given. Inspired by these successes, Montessori began introducing more difficult concepts into the classroom, even though doubtful critics told her the children were too young or undeveloped to understand. The major lessons Montessori herself learned during those first few years became the cornerstone of her philosophy for teaching all levels of students. Rather than the conventional teaching approach, the Montessori method assigns its teachers, or directresses, a quieter role, thereby allowing the children's manipulation of the carefully constructed materials to do the majority of the instructing. (A "directress" was Montessori's preferred name for a teacher because of the nature of the job: to guide, or "direct," the students rather than to tell, or "teach," them.) Bambini, a current major manufacturer of Montessori materials, clarifies this distinction on its website: teachers "[provide] the child with stimuli that capture his/her attention and initiate a process of concentration," but they never tell students how to use the equipment. With as few words as possible, they demonstrate the materials, replacing the verbal, group instruction of traditional classrooms with individual attention/lessons.
Montessori revolutionized duties and roles within the classroom. In her own words, she explained: "The instructions of the teacher consist then merely in a hint, a touch—enough to give a start to the child. The rest develops of itself." (Montessori 24) The children are free to choose the materials, and their experimentation eventually leads to discovery of how each works. By mixing ages within a classroom, Montessori felt better able to focus on the individual, rather than the group, rate of children's development. The materials are grouped by subject and sequence of difficulty, but a child is never expected to accomplish a task by a certain time. The materials epitomize Montessori's student-based approach to learning because they are only introduced when a child is "ready" to learn their inherent lesson.
Through observation, she recognized that successful manipulation of a material rarely comes during a child's first attempt, and so she focused on a repetitive, self-correcting exploration process. Montessori designed all the equipment, viewing it as a scientific departure from parochial classroom supplies and toys. She identifies that their educating "method is scientific [...] in directions no longer only material and physiological [...] but in the treatment of the physical side alone," truly disparate from traditional pedagogues. (Montessori 8) Much like a scientist trying to test and prove a hypothesis, repetition of a challenging task reinforces the equipment's aim.
Montessori theorized about sensitive moments for introduction, which each child develops individually. Aline Wolf, a Montessori lecturer, explains these sensitive periods in her guide for parents: "[Moments] of intense fascination for learning a particular characteristic or skill [. . .] It is easier for the child to learn a particular skill during the corresponding sensitive period than at any other time in his life." (Wolf 6) Montessori capitalizes on these moments by training teachers to identify when a student enters one such stage and what corresponding material to introduce. For reference, each directress-in-training creates a manual for the different areas of the classroom: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Math, and Cultural, which includes geography, music, art, history, plants, and animals. These notebooks contain detailed descriptions of every piece of material, step-by-step preparation for presentation, the direct (for that particular sensitive period) and indirect (for subsequent sensitive periods) aims, who and what controls the error, and variations on the exercise. These manuals are highly organized; they stress methodical approaches to understanding and presenting the different materials.
Furthermore, Montessori was particular about the organization of a classroom, inspiring a radical change from the rows of desks and chairs of traditional settings. She was the first educator to market the idea of child-sized furniture and records details such as size, color and placement: "The furniture is light so that children can move it about, and it is painted in some light color so that the children can wash it with soap and water." (Montessori 10) She emphasized the authenticity of the materials and their corresponding activities: "The plates are always of china, and the tumblers and water-bottles of glass. Knives are always included in the table equipment." (Montessori 13) She stresses that the shelves, blackboards, individual cubbies, and posters are at low levels for the children's benefit. She arranged the shelves with the easiest activity on the lowest, left-hand spot, ascending up and towards the right in order of difficulty. The materials of the classroom belong to everyone, leaving most of the classroom unfurnished for the children to spread out mats, on which they sit and work with the pieces of material they have selected. Everything in the classroom pertains to the children's interests and needs. As "their" communal space, the children necessarily should feel comfortable within the room.