Maria Montessori was born in the town of Chiaravalle, in the province of Ancona, Italy, 1870. Her parents were Alessandro Montessori and Renilde Stoppani. Her father, Alessandro, was in the military. He was a descendant of the noble family in Bologna. Her mother, Renilde, was the niece of a very famous philosopher/scientist/priest named Antonio Stoppani. Montessori grew up in a time when teaching was one of the few professions open to educated women, and her father urged her to follow that path. Montessori, however, showed from an early age that she was a fiercely independent and assertive woman, and insisted on attending a technical school. In an effort to better the education of Maria and her siblings, her parents decided to move their family to Rome. However, even with the many advantages Rome brought her, she was still unsatisfied. (Standing, 1957). From early on in her life, Maria Montessori showed that she was incredibly independent and insisted on attending a prestigious school.
While in Rome, her studies focused mainly on mathematics and engineering, eventually obtaining a degree in engineering. After completing her degree in engineering, her interests changed slightly. She then decided she wanted to study biology and medicine in hopes to become a doctor. However, a woman wanting to attend medical school was to no avail and was considered impossible. Montessori was very persistent and landed herself an interview with the head of the board of education at the university. At this time, Montessori was the first female medical student in Italy (Standing, 1957). In the year 1896, Montessori became the first woman in Italy to receive the degree of Doctor of Medicine. During the same year she began speaking as an advocate for working women, thus becoming very well known throughout Europe and attending conferences in Berlin and later in London. As well as speaking for working women, she also spoke out against the exploitation of child labor. (Standing, 1957). Her clinical observations during her medical practice led her to analyze the child’s learning process. Her days were spent working with the children and her nights were spent evaluating how the children responded to the materials and re adapting them (Standing, 1957). Montessori came to the conclusion that children build themselves based on what they encounter in their environment. Upon returning to the university in 1901, Montessori shifted her focus from the body to the mind to study psychology and philosophy. In 1904, Maria became professor at the University of Rome teaching anthropology.
In 1906, Montessori resigned from both her medical practice and her university chair position to work with a group of children belonging to working parents in San Lorenzo, Rome. What ultimately became the Montessori Method of education developed there in a classroom consisting of sixty children. It was in San Lorenzo, Rome that Montessori founded the first
Casa dei Bambini, meaning “Children’s House”. Casa dei Bambini was based on her scientific studies and observations of the children’s ability to soak up an incredible amount of knowledge from their surroundings. The children’s accomplishments were made possible by the resources Montessori provided. Through her research, Montessori found that children became particularly engaged in using educational materials developed by Edward Sequin. So, Montessori carefully observed the children’s use of these manipulative materials and then designed and developed additional materials to further support children’s efforts to learn and develop. Through these observations she learned what children are capable of doing naturally, unassisted by adults.
While working at the Casa dei Bambini, Montessori developed the basis of her philosophy of the child. She began to see education as an “aid to life” and saw the child as working to developed him or herself. Montessori’s focus became the learner and she developed a child centered approach to education where the focus was on learning and the learner rather than on teaching and the teacher. The teacher’s job was to help the natural process of development.
As a result of visitors to the Casa Bambini, Montessori schools began to emerge in a number of countries throughout the world. Such places include the United States, England, China and India. Throughout the next forty years, Montessori traveled around the world in an effort to better the education and the rights of children. Montessori traveled all over the world giving presentations until her death in 1952. After she passed away, E.M. Standing, a colleague and friend stated, “her most lasting monument is, and will always be, the serene and joyful atmosphere which emanates from thousands of happy children in every part of the word” (Standing, 1957).