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Dr. MARIA MONTESSORI, the Educational Innovator

by Marguerite dar Boggia

Educator, medical doctor, researcher, author, lecturer, innovator, humanist, Maria Montessori's contribution to the education of children is profound and timely. She was born on 8/31/1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. 

Her father was an accountant in the civil service and her Mother was the great niece of a famous geologist.  Family relations were loving. The family moved to Rome when she was five years old.

She entered secondary school with the desire to become an ENGINEER; but upon graduation she was intent on studying medicine. What better way to render service  to others than by being a loving doctor.

At that time in Italy, it was unheard of for a woman to study medicine. Her father  tried to dissuade her. She should become a teacher, which was more acceptable. When the Professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rome tried to discourage her she replied: "I know I shall become a doctor." She was self-willed and determined.  Fortunately Pope Leo XIII interceded for her to study medicine. She then entered the University of Rome at the age of 20.

She did extremely well in all her subjects.  Two years later she qualified to enter medical school with the Pope's help.  In her last two years she studied pediatrics and psychiatry, and worked in the pediatric consulting room, becoming an expert in pediatric medicine.

On July 10, 1896 at the age of 26 she graduated from the University of Rome as a doctor of medicine.  She was the first woman to become a doctor in Italy. With that distinction, she became known throughout the country. She was immediately employed in the San Giovanni Hospital attached to the University.

Being famous, she was asked to lecture, which she did all around the world. She lectured on societal responsibility for juvenile delinquency and for special classes for the mentally disabled children. She presented a vision of social progress and political economy rooted in educational measures.  She was asked to represent Italy at the International Congress for Women’s Rights in Berlin. In her speech to the Congress she developed a thesis for social reform, arguing that women should be entitled to equal wages with men. A reporter covering the event asked her how her patients responded to a female doctor. She replied, “… they know intuitively when someone really cares about them.… It is only the upper classes that have a prejudice against women leading a useful existence.”

She believed research was important. A year later she volunteered to join a research program at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome. As part of her work at the clinic she would visit Rome’s asylums for the insane, seeking patients for treatment at the clinic. 

Her involvement with the National League for the Education of Retarded Children led to her appointment as co-director, of a new institution called the Orthophrenic School.  The school took children with a broad spectrum of disorders and proved to be a turning point in her life, marking a shift in her professional identity from physician to educator. 

It was here that she worked alongside Giuseppe Montesano, a fellow doctor who was co-director with her of the Orthophrenic School of Rome. A romance developed and she became pregnant. (Oh dear!) The son, named 'Mario', was born on 3/31/1898. She had a decision to make.  If  she married, she would be expected to cease working professionally; Instead of getting married, she decided to continue her work and studies. She wanted to keep the relationship with her child's father secret, under the condition that neither of them would marry anyone else. When the father of her child fell in love and subsequently married, she was dismayed and betrayed. She decided to place her son into foster care with a family living in the countryside. She would later be reunited with her son when he was 14, where he proved to be a great assistant in her research.

In 1900 she was appointed co-director of an orthophrenic school for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children with an attached laboratory classroom.  The school was an immediate success. Some of these children later passed public examinations given to so-called "normal" children.  Her method allowed children to develop at their own pace and provided educators with a better understanding of child development. The term "cosmic education" was introduced to describe an approach for children aged from six to twelve years that emphasized the interdependence of all the elements of the natural world. Children worked directly with plants and animals in their natural environments.

In 1904 she took up a post as a lecturer at the Pedagogic School of the University of Rome, which she held until 1908.  In one lecture she told her students: “The subject of our study is humanity; our purpose is to become teachers. Now, what really makes a teacher is love for the human child; for it is love that transforms the social duty of the educator into the higher consciousness of a mission .

During this time she began to consider adapting her methods of educating mentally disabled children to mainstream education. She expanded the range of practical activities such as sweeping and personal care to include a wide variety of exercises for care of the environment and the self, including, hand washing, gymnastics, care of pets, and cooking. Courtesy, system and order and respect for the child was emphasized. She also included large open air sections in the classroom encouraging children to come and go as they please in the room's different areas and lessons.

She was asked to lecture on her methods in many countries, including India. In the United States in the 1920's her book on the Montessori Method was a second best seller.  Although  her educational approach was highly popular in the United States, she was not without opposition and controversy. A follower of reformer John Dewey, wrote a dismissive and critical book, which had a broad impact in 1925. From then on for forty years, her method of teaching was not popular, until after she died in 1952 at the age of 81.

She held peace conferences from 1932 to 1939 in Geneva, Brussels, Copenhagen, and Utrecht. Her lectures were later published in Italian as Educazione e Pace, and in English as Education and Peace. In 1949, and again in 1950 and in 1951, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, receiving a total of six nominations.

Maria created over 4,000 Montessori classrooms across the world and her books were translated in many different languages for the training of new educators. Her methods are installed in hundreds of public and private schools across the United States.

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