The inspiration for the Montessori Method of education comes from Dr Maria Montessori (1870-1952) who was a pioneer of child-centered education. She became the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in Italy and it is her scientific background which underpins much of the teaching philosophy.
Like many nineteenth century women of her class, she felt social responsibility for the poor and supported them far beyond the duty expected of a doctor. In 1897 she was asked to visit Rome’s asylums and became intrigued with trying to educate the poor and mentally disadvantaged children who were thought to be ‘unteachable’. Her first notable success was to have several of her ‘unteachable’ students pass the State exams for reading and writing with above average scores. These mentally disadvantaged children made her wonder in awe at the untapped potential she might be able to discover in normal children.
After establishing her first school in 1907 she began observing children’s reactions to their new environment without any pre-conceived ideas of what would happen –this is what we would call today: ‘action research’. She modified the materials originally used on the mentally disadvantaged children in relation to the normal children’s usage and her insights formed the basis for her first book, ‘The Montessori Method’ published in 1912. In this book she describes children as:
- being capable of extended periods of concentration;
- enjoying repetition and order;
- revelling in the freedom of movement and choice;
- enjoying purposeful activities (preferred work to play);
- self-motivated, displaying behaviours that did not require punishments or rewards;
- taking delight in silence and harmony of the environment;
- possessing personal dignity and spontaneous self-discipline;
- being capable of learning to read and write.
Montessori believed that these characteristics represented the potential of humanity. She advocated that all children should be given the opportunity to ‘reveal themselves’ in a developmentally appropriate environment that would facilitate their natural growth and development. The favourable environment forms one of the key links in the triangle of components at the heart of the Montessori Method. The other two links being the child and the teacher.