“Montessori” refers to a method of education established by a medical doctor and scientist, Dr Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952). Miles ahead of her time, Dr Montessori was an advocate for children and women’s rights. She became the first female to attend a boys’ technical school at age 13 and later, became the first female in Italy to graduate as a medical doctor (May, ND).
Dr Montessori used her scientific training and experience to develop didactic materials and a method of educational practice aligned to her philosophy of education and child development (Tregenza, 2008). Her method developed from her observations during her work as the director of the Orthophrenic School for developmentally disabled children in 1900. As a specialist in paediatrics and psychiatry, she began to extensively research early childhood development and education and came across the work of Jean Itard and Édouard Séguin. Montessori conceptualised her method by applying their educational theories, which she tested through hands-on observation of students at the Orthophrenic school. The results were remarkable and after exclusively applying these techniques to special needs students, Dr Montessori opened her first school, Casa dei Bambini (Children’s Home), in the inner-city slums of San Lorenzo in Rome in 1907.
She advocated that the child goes through four planes of development from birth to maturity and that each plane lasted approximately six years. She also indicated that these planes could be further sub-divided into three-year periods. Children should be placed in mixed-aged and non-graded classes, which corresponds to these three-year groupings. Each plane of development is guided by a set of sensitive periods, that is, periods during which an overwhelming inner drive directs the child to a particular area of development (Haines, 2016). The first plane of development (from birth – 6 years) is believed to be the most important years of one’s life and is characterized by the absorbent mind, that is, the ability to take in everything from the environment effortlessly. The programme is designed to facilitate the holistic development of children without using rewards or punishments. In the pre-primary class (3-6-year-olds), concrete activities are prepared in an environment in which children have the freedom to work at their own pace. The method is based on a belief of the child’s need for independence, as independence leads to self-confidence, which is regarded as the fundamental building block for learning.
Dr Montessori spread her research findings in books, speeches, and lectures in Italy and then throughout Europe. The method became respected and recognized around the world as it sp
read to Argentina, Australia, China, India, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Switzerland and the United States of America. She also offered teacher-training courses around the world. During WWII, she was forced into exile. She moved to India with her son, Mario, where they lived from 1939 – 1946. During her time in India, she worked on her book “Education for Peace”, and her work on peace education likely led to her being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. Montessori spent her final years in Amsterdam with her son and his family. She continued to travel, lecture and train during this time. She died in 1952 at the age of 81.
*Adapted from Jassiem, S. (2016). Montessori and Religious Education in Western Cape Preschools. UCT.
May, S. (No Date). Maria Montessori [On-line]. Available at: http://www.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/catholic/maria_montessori/ Date Accessed: 19th April 2013
Tregenza, V. (2008). Looking back to the future: The current relevance of Maria Montessori’s ideas about the Spiritual wellbeing of young children. Journal of Student Wellbeing 2:2, p. 1-15.