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A History of Montessori

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. She was a math prodigy, a physicist, an anthropologist. At 24 she was the first woman to graduate from the medical school in Rome. She was a pragmatist and a visionary and a humanitarian; a friend of Gandhi’s and Thomas Edison’s; a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Her face is on Italy’s 1000 lire bill. Today, we know Maria Montessori best for the educational method that bears her name.

Maria Montessori came to education in a roundabout way. She was a doctor in a Rome psychiatric clinic, her wards were children from orphanages and asylums across the city. She saw her young patients first and foremost as human beings, and searched for ways to help improve their mental and spiritual (as well as physical) health. In trying to reach their minds, she made discoveries so fascinating that she left her medical practice to focus on learning more. She applied what she learned, testing and refining her ideas throughout the rest of her long life.

Maria Montessori was interested in the end-result of education, not its method. She cared about developing “a complete human being, oriented to the environment and adapted to his or her time, place and culture.” She came to her work with no preconceived ideas about how young people should be taught. She simply observed them, gathering evidence about how their minds worked and formulating tools that responded to their needs. Her observations contained groundbreaking insights into human development and cognition—insights that are largely upheld by research today. They also contain luminous descriptions of the potentialities of children in the tender process of self-formation. Perhaps most moving: the picture her writings paint of a world made better by the way we adults touch those unfolding personalities.

Maria Montessori recorded her lucid observations in prose that stands as some of the most beautiful in literature. We can do no better than introduce her words, and then step aside.

Maria Montessori On Teaching: “A teacher must be consecrated to bettering humanity. She must be like the vestal who kept the sacred fire that others had lighted pure and free from contamination; the teacher must be dedicated to the fire of the inner life in all its purity. If this flame is neglected, it will be extinguished—never to be lighted again."

On Teacher Training: “Knowing what we must do is neither fundamental nor difficult, but to comprehend which presumptions and prejudices we must rid ourselves of in order to educate our children is most difficult.”

On Helping: “One day I was in the country in the company of a little boy about one year old who had just learned to walk, and we were on a rocky pathway. My first impulse was to take him by the hand, but then I restrained myself and sought to guide him with words: ‘Walk on that side’ and ‘Watch, there is a rock! Be careful here’. He listened with a kind of friendly seriousness and obeyed. He neither fell nor did poorly. I guided him step by step, murmuring softly, and he listened attentively and enjoyed taking part in this meaningful activity of understanding my words and responding with his own actions. To guide a child in this fashion—that is the real job...”

On Education Reform: “We must, therefore, quit our roles as jailers and instead take care to prepare an environment in which we do as little as possible to exhaust the child with our surveillance and instruction.”

On Incarnation: “The process by which the human personality is formed is the hidden work of incarnation. The helpless infant is an enigma. The only thing we know about him is that he could be anything, but nobody knows what he will be or what he will do. His body contains the most complex mechanisms of any living creature, but it is distinctly his own. Man belongs to himself, and his special will furthers the work of incarnation. ...the parent [errs who] sees himself as the force which animates the child and his inner life. He acts externally upon the child as one would upon a creative piece of work, giving suggestions and directives in order to develop intelligence, sensitivity and will. ...but the child thus incarnate is a spiritual embryo which must come to live for itself. ...Having once understood this, the adult must change his attitude toward the child. That tender, graceful little being, whom we adore and overwhelm with material things and who is almost like a toy to us, must inspire reverence in us. Multa debetur puero reverentia.” (“We must revere the child.”)

On World Peace: “Averting war is the work of politicians; establishing peace is the work of education.”

On Cultivating Conscience: “To care for, and keep awake, the guide that lies within every child is a matter of the first importance.”

On Conversations with Teenagers: “Confidences would come more easily in the years they are longed for, if they were invited in the years when living was exciting and every act a great adventure.”

On Sippy Cups: “People always tell me to put rubber stops under the legs of the furniture to lessen the noise. I prefer the noise because it signals any abrupt motion. Children to not move in a very orderly fashion and they do not know how to control their movements very well; in contrast to ours, their muscles produce disordered movement precisely because they have not yet learned physical order and economy.

In the ‘house of the child’ every abrupt motion reveals itself by the noise of the chair and the table, and finally the child becomes aware of his body. [In this ‘house’] there must also be a certain number of fragile objects—glasses, plates, vases and so forth. Now certainly adults will exclaim, ‘How come? Put glasses in the hands of three- and four-year-old children? They will surely break them!’ By this comment they place more importance on the glass than on the child; an object worth a few cents seems more precious than the physical training of their children. ...We might give a child a metal cup or plate that he can throw to the floor without breaking, but by doing so we have tempted him diabolically. We seek to hide that which is bad simply by not looking at it, while the only one truly involved—the child—cannot be held responsible.

This child, beyond the fact that he will persist in his errors, will be stymied!... We must think of the person who, for the first few years of his life, is closed up in a house where he cannot exercise mastery over himself or learn the use of the common objects of daily life. He will be deprived of much necessary experience, and his life will always manifest this lack.”

On Tolerance: “The needs of mankind are universal. Our means of meeting them create the richness and diversity of the planet. The Montessori child will come to relish the texture of that diversity.”

On The Montessori Method: “I beseech you, do not go around speaking of an educational method that has convinced you, nor of having studied the way to make culture for children easy, universal, and attractive. Speak instead to everyone of the child and his secret... Proclaim him for what he is: the father of man, the builder of humanity, the creative and transforming energy which can act on hearts and offer new elements for the solutions of social problems.”

On The Reason For It All: “Let us [end] with one very simple reflection: The child, unlike the adult, is not on his way to death. He is on his way to life.”