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Educational Heroes: Maria Montessori

Montessori schools. Montessori toys. The Montessori method. All bear the name of Maria Montessori – physician, history-maker, educational pioneer.But do you know her story?


Maria Montessori was born in the gritty port-city of Ancona, Italy in 1870.Like most of Europe at the time, Italy was a patriarchal society where women were discouraged from stepping above their station.From an early age, however, Montessori challenged societal norms.Aged 16, she broke gender barriers by enrolling in an all-boys technical college in Rome.Thereafter, she continued to defy expectations by graduating in engineering – a man’s vocation.Yet Montessori decided to continue her studies in medicine.Despite being strongly discouraged by the faculty at the University of Rome, she became the first female physician in Italian history.


So when did her passion for educational practice begin?Montessori initially specialized in the study of children with disabilities.As a result, she founded Casa Dei Bambinos, or The Children’s House, located in the slums of San Lorenzo. Casa Dei Bambinos provided education for some of the poorest children in Italian society.It was there that Montessori developed her ideas around individualized learning.
“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”


In Montessori’s classroom, children were not segregated by age.Instead, they all learned together, from each other and the teacher, who acted as a guide.Montessori cultivated an atmosphere of freedom in her classrooms. She focussed on intrinsic motivation rather than simply improving test scores. But it was her observational research that would enshrine Montessori’s name in the roll call of educational heroes.


Given freedom of choice, Montessori noticed that children veered toward practical activities and the materials she provided rather than toys. So she implemented more practical-based learning activities and made the classroom accessible and flexible by replacing heavy furniture with child-sized tables and chairs. Montessori also encouraged her students to come and go as they pleased – essentially dipping in and out of different areas and lessons.
“The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, ’The children are now working as if I did not exist’.”


The primary goal of Montessori’s program was to help each child to reach their full potential in all areas of life.She promoted the development of social skills, emotional growth and physical coordination as well as cognitive preparation. Her ideas were so revolutionary, in fact, that they spread throughout the Italian education system and garnered international attention.Montessori would later rise to prominence as an advocate for women’s rights and campaigned for education for mentally ill and disabled children. Could the Montessori Method work in your classroom?

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