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Not that long ago (August 31st), you might have noticed that Google’s logo picture tried to create the letters using some equipment that would look very familiar to all those who have had anything to do with Montessori education.
This Google Doodle, to use the technical name, was created in honour of Maria Montessori, as August 31 was her birthday. She would have been turning 142. Of course, Maria Montessori died back in 1952.
And it’s worth taking a little time again to think about the amazing lady who founded the Montessori movement.
Unlike some theories and movements, the Montessori method and principles were very popular during Maria Montessori’s lifetime – to the point that some naysayers thought that the movement was entirely driven by her personality and vision, and that it wouldn’t survive her.
Well, you can tell by the success of Friday’s Child Montessori and other Montessori early childhood centres around the world that this wasn’t the case at all!
Maria Tecla Artemisia Montessori was born in Chiaravalle in Italy in 1870. The choice of her middle names seems almost prophetic – Artemisia was the name of a Greek woman who was famous for being a successful and cunning naval captain during the wars between Greece and Persia.
Artemisia herself was named after the goddess Artemis, so this name turned out to be very fitting for Maria Montessori, a clever campaigner in the world of education who tirelessly worked to spread her revolutionary ideas.
Not that Maria Montessori would have called herself a warrior at all: she had to leave Italy in a hurry for political reasons after Mussolini took an exception to her lectures on peace.
Right from the outset, Maria Montessori was a bit of a rebel and a revolutionary against the patriarchal status quo.
Originally, she wanted to be an engineer, as she was very good at maths and science at school (which may explain the development of the sensory materials to introduce basic maths and science concepts).
However, she then turned to medicine, becoming the first woman to graduate from the University of Rome with a doctor’s degree. During her studies, she faced a lot of opposition because of her gender which could have daunted a weaker woman.
For example, it wasn’t considered decent for a woman to be in a room full of men when there was a naked body present (this was the Victorian era), which meant that she had to do all her dissection work alone and unaided – not even a tutor about to help her.
After graduation, Maria Montessori specialised in working with children with mental disabilities. She was careful to observe the children she was working with and to see what they were and weren’t capable of, as well as reading everything she could lay her hands on about education.
She was also very concerned about juvenile delinquency. Unlike many of her contemporaries who wrote children with mental handicaps off as being “uneducable”, she believed that this wasn’t the case and that the authorities should put time and effort into helping these children become the best that they could possibly be.
This idea seems so obvious today, but it was revolutionary in Montessori’s day. If you have or know someone who has a child with a mental problem, such as Down ’s syndrome, then this is another reason why you should be very grateful for the strong opinions and courage of Maria Montessori.
When she was only about 30 years old, she took on a significant challenge that would change her career and her life – and the lives of the children she came in touch with. With the new century just starting, Maria Montessori was co-director of a model school attached to a research organisation where teachers could learn the best ways of teaching children with mental problems.
They also studied the causes and symptoms of mental problems as part of an overall programme of understanding the mind and mental development. It was here that she was able to pioneer her ideas and methods – what ultimately became the Montessori method of teaching and learning.
The children who attended this school were some of those who had been categorized and labelled as “uneducable”.
And what happened next staggered all the authorities. These supposedly “uneducable” children who weren’t believed to be capable of learning anything were able to pass some of the same tests and exams as “normal” children after going through Maria Montessori’s experimental classroom.
Again, Maria Montessori had broken down some barriers and challenged the beliefs of the status quo.
After this, there was no turning back. Maria Montessori continued to refine and develop her techniques and equipment, still working with mentally challenged children. This process took six years, and in 1906, she opened the very first Casa Del Bambini, working with “normal” children aged 2–3 and 6–7.
Having the two age groups side by side in the same school/preschool gave Maria Montessori another chance to observe children and watch how they developed, which gave her more material on which to base her theories.
At this school, Maria Montessori started another quiet revolution: she discarded the old notion that a teacher has to stand up the front and be the one who supplied the discipline, the rewards and the knowledge.
Instead, Maria Montessori noticed that if children were given a free hand, they easily picked out the practical and interesting tasks that would help them learn, and that they didn’t need sweets or other rewards to learn/play in this way.
The teachers at this experimental school – Maria herself and a young woman with little or no formal teacher training – were observers and guides whose main role was to show the children how to use the various bits of equipment and how to do the various self-care tasks needed.
The first Casa Del Bambini was a huge success, and a second was opened the next year. The four and five year olds attending these centres were able to reach literacy levels well beyond their peers at “regular schools”.
And the Montessori movement took off, spreading from Italy to Switzerland and then further afield. And her legacy has lasted, with even regular schools using some of the methods pioneered by Maria Montessori, even if they aren’t strictly Montessori schools or early leaning centres.
Happy birthday, Maria Montessori – we all appreciate you so much.