Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in Ancona, Italy. To understand her unique method of education it is important to know something of her background. The child of a progressive and ambitious family, she chose to study engineering and mathematics at a time when higher education for girls was considered unnecessary. Even more remarkably, she went on to qualify as the first female doctor in her country’s history. It is hardly surprising therefore that from such a remarkable woman came remarkable views.
Her early work with handicapped children showed her that with a special kind of help and encouragement, they were capable of learning much more than hitherto had been considered possible. She ban to develop special learning materials to help them follow a normal academic program and enter the state school system.
The results of these early experiments were so impressive that Dr. Montessori was inspired to continue her work on a much broader basis. Her aim was to show that if her special children, working with carefully structured materials, could achieve a standard approaching the national average, then other children working with the same material could reach an even higher academic standard. However even she did not dream that her theories would result in the discovery of an almost limitless academic potential within the average child.
In 1907 she opened her first school, in a slum area of San Lorenzo. So encouraged was she by her results here that she began to share her discoveries with others by publishing books and giving lectures: thus the Montessori method of education was born.
Dr. Montessori made her first visit to the United States for a brief lecture tour in 1912. She was given an enthusiastic welcome, including a reception at the White House. She gave her first lecture at Carnegie Hall to overflowing crowds, and stayed at the homes of such famous people as Thomas Edison, who admired her work. An American Montessori Association was formed with Mrs. Alexander Graham Bell as President and Miss Margaret Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter as Secretary. So pleased was Dr. Montessori with her reception here she returned in 1915, this time to give a training course in California. During this visit a Montessori class was set up at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco so that more interested people could observe her methods. A room was built with a glass wall, behind which spectators sat and watched the children. Twenty-one children, all completely new to a Montessori environment, attended for four months.
The observation seats were filled every day, and at noon, when the children served lunch to their classmates and washed up afterwards, there was standing room only in the audience. The two gold medals awarded for education at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition both went to the Montessori class.
Montessori schools were started all over the country, one of the first being established in Alexander Graham Bell’s home. A flood of articles on Montessori education appeared in the popular press and educational journals. Now children from all over the world benefit from this unique learning experience.
Dr. Maria Montessori left behind a wonderful legacy: a philosophy of life, a unique method of education, materials with which to educate, and a system of training which is capable of producing teachers who give the children the best possible foundation for life. In essence, our aim is to create better, more complete children, who can grow into men and women able to build a better world.