Culture and Recreation


How did Montessori schools get started?

The schools, evident throughout the United States, as well as Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, France, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina, Japan, China, Korea, Syria, India, and Pakistan, carry the name of their founder, Maria Montessori (1870–1952). She was the first woman in Italy to earn a medical degree and to practice medicine. In 1900 Montessori pioneered teaching methods to develop sensory, motor, and intellectual skills in retarded kindergarten and primary school students. Under her direction, these “unteachable” pupils not only mastered basic skills, including reading and writing, but they passed the same examinations given to all primary school students in Italy.

Montessori then spent time in the country’s primary schools, where she observed the educators’ practice of teaching by rote (by using repetition and memory) and their reliance on restraint, silence, and a system of reward and punishment in the classroom. She believed her system, called “scientific pedagogy,” which was based on non-coercive methods and self-correcting materials (such as blocks, graduated cylinders, scaled bells, and color spectrums), would yield better results in students. Montessori theorized that children possess a natural desire to learn and, if put in a prepared environment, their “spontaneous activity” would prove educational. Instead of lecturing to their students, Montessori encouraged educators to simply demonstrate the correct use of materials to students who would then teach themselves and each other. She also believed in community involvement in schools, encouraging parents and other community members to take active roles in the education of the children. When Montessori put these principles into action, it was to highly favorable results.

In 1909 Montessori published The Montessori Method, which was made available in English three years later and became an instant best-seller in the United States. Her method, which she believed “would develop and set free a child’s personality in a marvelous and surprising way,” caught on. For Montessori, who has been called a “triumph of self-discipline, persistence, and courage,” spreading the message about her teaching method became her life’s work. She was still traveling, speaking to enthusiastic crowds the world over, when she died in the Netherlands at the age of 81. Montessori’s beliefs—which were both scientific and spiritual—had a profound effect not only on students in Montessori schools, but on primary education in general.


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