Maria Montessori was born on August 31, 1870, in Chiaravalle, Italy, the only child of Alessandro and Renilde Montessori. That very same year, Italy became a unified country and her father worked in Rome with that new government. Her mother was from a wealthy family who had bucked convention and “allowed” their bright daughter to become as educated as possible. While conventional society didn’t allow Renilde to pursue a career, it didn’t stop her from raising her own bright daughter to aspire to one.
Maria’s own education didn’t start out all that stellar–the education system in Italy was in a constant state of flux, the schools were overcrowded, and the teachers untrained in anything except rote learning. Once Maria and learning got on the same page, Maria soared academically. She also began to buck convention, much to her very traditional (but loving) father’s dismay. At first, she wanted to be an accountant then an engineer (although she refused to entertain the thought of becoming a teacher) both of which required her to veer off the “girl’s” path and attend a technical school (ie: geared for boys.) She excelled in school and eventually set her career path toward medicine.
Can you hear Papa gasping from here?
Maria kept rocking it through college and, by some mysterious method which we do discuss in the podcast, she became the first woman to attend medical school at the University of Rome where she wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by her fellow students. Accent on “fellow.”
Once she became Dr. Montessori, she managed to fill her life with more jobs and projects than anyone we’ve ever covered. One of her new positions brought her into contact with children living in (“neglected in” is more like it) an asylum and Maria had a thought: Maybe these children are developmentally delayed and mentally challenged due to their lack of education, not anything biological; they didn’t need a doctor, they needed a teacher.
She set off to prove it… and did! Within just a few years she had veered onto an entirely new career path: education. As far as her personal life went, she did get close to a man that she worked with, very close and had a baby who she was able to keep secret to all but her closest of friends. She continued to take college courses in a variety of subjects she believed tied into her new field and she applied, tested, and refined them until she had developed a learning program like no other that the world had seen.
And the world LOVED it! Maria began a pattern that would continue for the rest of it based around setting up Montessori education schools and training teachers to operate them around the world. An invitation from the government to set up schools in Barcelona led to her living there for 20 years; a similar invitation from the new Prime Minister of Italy, Benito Mussolini, brought her back to Italy…and his rise as a fascist dictator sent her scrambling away several years later. First to the Netherlands, and then to India just as Italy entered World War II. As Italian citizens in a British colony, Maria and her son were held in Italy until the war ended.
But throughout it all, and through the final years of her life, Maria continued to put all of her energies, brilliance, and heart into children’s education. Montessori schools were running all over the world and Maria’s job was to train the teachers. She also struggled to prevent others from picking and choosing her lessons, materials, and name without that training.
Maria Montessori died at the age of 81 on May 6, 1952, on the same day that she was planning yet another trip to help train teachers to educate the future.
Time Travel with The History Chicks
We only touched on her learning methods, The Montessori Method (as well as versions in many languages) is available everywhere, including this link online MONTESSORI METHOD MARIA MONTESSORI.Many of the books that Maria wrote are still in print, and many of her lectures are now available in book form. The Montessori Method is the best place to start, then tumble down the Montessori rabbit hole.
The big mama overseeing organization is the one that Maria and Mario began, Association Montessori Internationale (Headquartered in her last home in Amsterdam, you can make an appointment to see Maria’s study!) In the US, the governing body is the American Montessori Society where you can find all sorts of resources like how to become a Montessori educator and finding a Montessori school near you.
Not all schools that are called “Montessori” are true Montessori schools. That is not saying they aren’t good schools or that they don’t use some of Maria’s methods and materials, it’s simply saying that they are not recognized by the governing bodies as Montessori schools. What’s the difference in Montessori education vs Conventional education and how do you find a real Montessori school? It’s simple and tricky. Here are some resources: Five Clues That Might Not Be a Montessori School Slate article, same subject
Beckett has created Pinterest boards for every episode, here is Maria’s!
The difference between Montessori and traditional education:
Susan got access to the documentary, Maria Montessori: Her life and legacy through her library, but here is a link to it via Amazon. There is no free version that we can find online (but…LIBRARY!)
The movie that neither of us could figure out how to turn the subtitles on, but has great production value and is in Italian:
Netflix has a Montessori adjacent series about child development that Beckett really liked (and thought Maria would, too.) The Beginning of Life