Education isn’t a product. It’s a collection of daily actions and experiences. So who was Maria Montessori, the woman the education system we have chosen for our children was named after? Maria was born in 1870 to a father who worked as a financial manager and a mother who loved reading. She (ambitiously for a woman at that time) entered the University of Rome to study medicine and was awarded her doctorate in 1896, in the face of significant opposition and hostility because of her gender.
Following her graduation she worked in psychiatry and paediatrics and became an outspoken advocate for the educational rights of ill and disabled children as well as for woman’s rights. Her only child, Mario Montessori, was born in 1898. Maria chose not to marry his father in order to continue to practice medicine and to travel on her lecture tours. She spoke passionately about the responsibility of society toward educating mentally disabled children and she proposed dedicated teacher training courses for those women working with disabled children.
In 1902 Maria returned to University in Rome to study towards a degree in philosophy (today this would be called psychology) while she adapted and adjusted her educational principles to best advantage mainstream children. She said of her work at this time “I did not invent a method of education; I simply gave some little children a chance to live”.
She opened her first full day childcare centre ‘The Children’s House’ in January 1907 in a poor neighbourhood of inner city Rome. Observing and working with these children and their families gave her the opportunity to refine and record her educational philosophy and methods. She further developed her learning materials and carefully arranged the environment and as she did the children’s concentration and self-discipline improved. In parallel she developed detailed – and revolutionary for the time – director/ess (teacher) training materials. Her prolific writings gathered many followers and today there are thousands of Montessori schools worldwide.
Maria Montessori was an outspoken in her demands for gender equality and was a lifelong campaigner for peace. She overcame oppression and re-imagined the world a better place. She died in Amsterdam at 81 but her legacy lives on: have we ever needed her wise approach more than we do now, given the complexity of the world at present?
“The Child who has felt strong love for his surroundings and all living creatures, who has discovered joy and enthusiasm in work, gives us reason to hope that humanity can develop in a new direction.”