One hundred and fifty years after Maria Montessori’s birth, tens of thousands of teachers around the world still hail her innovations and educational philosophy.
One of Italy’s first female doctors, Montessori applied her training as a scientist to teaching children in new ways. She upended conventional thinking about education by, among other things, letting kids freely choose from an array of classroom activities to foster their independence.
Many of Montessori’s original ideas are commonplace today, especially in preschools and kindergarten classrooms: child-sized tables, hands-on games and other opportunities to play at school. Even the common practice of letting children sit on the floor was revolutionary when Montessori allowed it in her first school in 1906.
I’ve been a student of Montessori’s all my life. Before becoming a college professor, I was Montessori educated, a Montessori teacher and teacher trainer, and the mom of two (now-grown) Montessori kids. My experience isn’t unique. Montessori’s specific methods are still used in the nearly 20,000 schools worldwide that bear her name, including about 5,000 in the United States. And many of Montessori’s innovations are prevalent in preschools everywhere.
An uncommon path
Maria Montessori was born on Aug. 31, 1870, in the small Italian town of Chiaravalle. Her family soon moved to Rome, where she excelled academically.
At 16, Montessori began to study engineering in the prestigious Regio Istituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci. She continued on what was an uncommon path for young women at the time, becoming one of the first Italian women to earn a medical degree.
In 1904, the University of Rome hired her to research and teach anthropology.
She proposed sweeping changes to how schools were designed. Montessori had an opportunity to put her ideas into action in 1906, when she opened her first classroom in a tenement in Rome. There, she taught the children of poor laborers while their parents were working.