Montessori today

Montessori practice this year reached its one hundred year milestone in the UK, marked by many celebrations, including a special garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. In this extract from her book, Understanding the Montessori Approach, Barbara Isaacs highlights its enduring strengths and appeal.

In Chapter 1, ‘Historical context’ Barbara Isaacs explores the history of the Montessori approach and the reasons for its continued relevance and appeal in the 21st century. This chapter also considers the global aspects of Montessori and its bearing on the lives of children today. It examines the discoveries made by Montessori in the first Children's House and how those findings impact Montessori practice today.

Education must concern itself with the development of individuality and allow the individual child to remain independent not only in the earliest years of childhood but through all the stages of his development. Two things are necessary: the development of individuality and the participation of the individual in a truly social life. This development and this participation in social activities will take different forms in the various stages of childhood. But one principle will remain unchanged during all these stages: the child must be furnished at all times with the means necessary for him to act and gain experience. His life as a social being will then develop throughout his formative years, becoming more and more complex as he grows older.

Montessori's beginnings

Montessori was born in Chiaravale, Ancona province, on the east coast of Italy on 31 August 1870, the year in which Italy became a republic. The new political structure heralded changes in society and spawned new possibilities for education. Montessori was one of the beneficiaries of the emerging new political and social trends in Italian society in the last three decades of the 19th century.

Montessori was the only child of Renilde Stoppani, a niece of the renowned naturalist Antonio Stoppani. Renilde supported her daughter's aspiration to study mathematics, the sciences and later, to become a doctor. Montessori's father, Alessandro, was of a military background and rather conservative in his outlook on life. As a civil servant he and his family moved several times until they finally settled in Rome in 1875, when Maria was five years old. At the age of fourteen the young Maria joined a technical school for boys, hoping to become an engineer. Her subsequent interest in biology led her towards the medical sciences. Gaining entry into the University of Rome to study medicine was a real challenge; she was opposed both by her father and the establishment. Nonetheless, she achieved her goal and entered the University of Rome School of Medicine in 1892.

Becoming a doctor

Her student life was not easy; she funded her university studies by tutoring and scholarships. As the only woman admitted into the programme of study, she faced ridicule and difficulties in attending some of the courses. For example, she was not able to participate in the dissection lectures because it was considered inappropriate for a woman to share the lessons with men.

Montessori achieved her aim in 1896 when she graduated with double honours. For the first time her father acknowledged and applauded her determination to join the medical vocation. She was one of the first two women to become a doctor in Italy at the time. For the next ten years she devoted herself to practising medicine both in a small private clinic and in the hospitals of Rome, working with women and children. Her appointment as an assistant doctor at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Rome gave her the opportunity to gain a deeper insight into the lives of children with various levels of mental disability. They became her inspiration for further study and she focused on the work of two French doctors, Jean Itard (1775–1838) and Eduard Seguin (1812–1880). Following her study and observations of children in the Psychiatric Clinic, she formed the opinion that they needed suitable education more than medical treatment. She expressed this view for the first time at a meeting of teachers and lecturers in Turin in 1898. This was the beginning of Montessori's focus on pedagogy rather than medicine.

Following the Turin presentation, she was invited to give a series of lectures on the observation and training of children with disabilities to teachers in Rome. These lectures were instrumental in the foundation of the first state Orthophrenic School in the city. This meant that all the children with special needs in the city had the opportunity to attend. Montessori was the first director of this clinic. For the next two years she and her colleagues worked tirelessly to observe children and train teachers, testing and developing Sequin's and Itard's ideas in the process. Their efforts were recognised when some of the children from the Orthophrenic School passed state school examinations and were able to enter mainstream schools. This was the beginning of Montessori's consideration of general education for all children in Italy.

Medical profession leads Montessori towards work with children

At the same time, Montessori continued her advocacy on behalf of women and children. Her concerns for their plight were voiced at a feminist conference held in London in 1900, where she was critical of child labour and supported Queen Victoria's programme against it. Montessori's commitment to the rights of women and children continued until her death in 1952.

Some time between 1898 and 1900 Montessori gave birth to a son, Mario. We know that he was the son of Doctor Montessano, a medical colleague, whose aristocratic background barred marriage to Maria Montessori. However, there is a lack of clarity in the Montessori records as to when exactly Mario was born and why he was not given his father's name. He was brought up in the countryside outside Rome and Montessori visited him frequently. She revealed the truth about his parentage when he was fifteen; from then on Mario lived alongside his mother and became her assistant. Montessori never spoke about Mario's origins – he was known as her adopted son. Only at Mario's own funeral in 1982 was his father publically acknowledged for the first time.

Establishing the first Montessori nursery – the Casa dei Bambini in Rome

Following her work with teachers in Rome, Montessori realised that further study of the philosophy and anthropology of education would be beneficial to her, and she enrolled, once again, as a student at the University of Rome. It was during this time that Montessori translated the works of Itard and Sequin into Italian. In 1904 she became a Professor of Anthropology at the university. The ten years between her graduation in 1896 and 1906 can be seen as the preparatory period for the work which commenced in 1906. In that year Montessori was invited to set up a school in a newly built social housing estate in the San Lorenzo slum district of Rome, where migrants from the countryside and abroad came to live in search of work in the city. At that time in Italy, compulsory education started at the age of six, as it does today. The director of the housing project wanted children under that age to be looked after whilst their mothers went to work. Montessori was approached to lead this project and so began to establish the first Children's House (Casa dei Bambini).

Her team reassembled office furniture to make chairs and tables appropriate for a child's size. When the school opened on 6 January 1907 at 53 Via Marsi, Montessori made a now famous speech in which she committed to provide well for the fifty children in her care (Montessori 2007b).

She began her project by ensuring that all the children attending were clean, weighed, measured and provided with nourishing food, so caring for their physical needs. She realised that the parents were keen to be involved and that the children had the power of introducing basic hygiene and orderly habits to their families. This was as much a social experiment as a pedagogical one. During the inaugural address delivered at the opening of the second Children's House in 1907 Montessori stated that traditionally:

The home is shut off not only from education but also from social influences. In the Children's Houses we see for the first time the possibility of effectively establishing ‘closer links.’ This school is located in the same building as the children's homes and the teacher lives in the midst. The parents know the Children's House belongs to them … They can go there at any hour of the day to watch, to admire, to meditate.(Montessori 2007b: 336)

Thus the school was placed at the heart of the community. This principle was mirrored by the parents who first established the Reggio Emilia nurseries after World War II (Edwards et al. 1998). Key too was how the schools looked to establish closer links between the children, their families and the whole community.

Children pursue their own interests at Hopes and Dreams Montessori Nursery School in Islington

Montessori did not have preconceived ideas about the educational content of the programme she offered in the nursery. Rather, she observed the children and these observations constituted the basis of what we know today as the Montessori approach.

Observation remains at the heart of Montessori practice today and guides the educators' understanding of children in their care, and serves as the basis for their planning and assessment of children's progress.

The early days of Montessori education

Montessori's two-year engagement with the two Children's Houses in San Lorenzo and the establishment of the Casa dei Bambini in Milan's Umanitaria, a Jewish Socialist Centre, by Anna Maccheroni in 1908, contributed to discoveries documented by Montessori herself in The Montessori Method (1964 [1912]) and further elaborated upon by Kramer (1976), Standing (1984) and others.

Montessori's aim was to nurture each individual child so that she or he could reach her or his potential as a human being. She believed that this was made possible by providing a favourable environment which would nurture self-development under the guidance of sensitive and empathetic adults (MCI 2010). To achieve this aim, she instinctively recognised that movement and manipulation are the keys to learning in the early years and therefore that young children must be given opportunities to be ‘active learners’ (DfE 2017). This discovery translated into encouraging children to help look after the classroom and its environs, and to the development of materials for educating the senses. To this day, these two areas are the bedrock of all learning in Montessori nurseries.

Montessori (2007b) recognised that for unique development of each individual to take place, children needed freedom within limits to explore the favourable environment specially prepared to meet their developmental as well as individual needs. In an atmosphere of autonomy which is supplemented by a wide range of accessible activities, the child would reveal the true potential of the human being and should be nurtured to achieve it. She observed that children as young as three were able to select activities which engaged them and so were able to repeat them whilst deeply focusing on the task. This type of activity fulfilled the children's individual needs, demonstrated their ability to concentrate for long periods of time and facilitated development of self-discipline and awareness of others. This, for Montessori (2007a, 2007b), was the sign of true liberty. In the 1946 lectures (Montessori 2012: 133) she declared: ‘if they [the children] don't become independent they can do nothing in the world’.

The children in the first Children's Houses demonstrated real satisfaction from the activities on offer. Montessori believed that the personal fulfilment gained from engaging in a self-chosen activity was a reward in itself; therefore there was no need for further praise. The spontaneous nature of children's learning also means that children who are able to become involved in activities embark on purposeful tasks and achieve satisfaction for their whole being without extrinsic incentives.

She came to realise that she needed to share her research. Such was the interest in her work that she was able to offer the first training course for teachers in August 1909. This training course was followed by the publication of her first book Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica applicata all educazione infantile melle Casa dei Bambini. The English translation was published under the title The Montessori Method. Montessori disliked this title because it implied that it was her method rather than the scientific pedagogy of observing children.

Her discoveries between 1907 and 1908 attracted much attention in the Italian and international press. The publicity and interest in Montessori's first book contributed towards the decision to devote her time to teacher training and writing.

Montessori education around the world

Following the death of her mother in 1912, with whom she lived, the forty-two-year-old Montessori began to travel and deliver lectures not only in Italy but also abroad.

She offered the first international course in Rome in 1913 and it was attended by ninety students from all over the world. This was followed by a short visit to the US in December of the same year, where she met, amongst others, Alexander Graham Bell, Helen Keller and John Dewey. She also visited Harvard University. The Montessori Educational Association of America was established during her first visit. In 1914 a second international course was delivered in Rome, during which Anna Maccheroni, Montessori's friend and colleague who set up a school in Milan in 1908, participated in demonstration classes, while Claude Claremont, engineer and fellow of the British Psychological Society, acted as an interpreter. The following year Montessori returned to the US to participate in the San Francisco Pan American Exhibition, where she established a Montessori classroom in a specially constructed glass pavilion so that visitors could witness the Montessori classroom in action. This was also the first time Mario accompanied his mother on an international visit.

However, Montessori was never to return to the US. This was the result of criticism of her work by William H. Kilpatrick (1914), an influential pedagogue of the day. It is thanks to the efforts of Nancy McCormick Rambusch that awareness of the Montessori approach was revived in North America in the 1950s. Rambusch was also the first president of the American Montessori Society (AMS), which has become one of the leading organisations in Montessori education in the US today. The influence of the AMS is growing internationally.

Montessori spent much of her time between the two world wars in Europe working first in Spain and then in England. At this time she developed ideas for the education of primary-school-age children, which were published around 1917 in two volumes entitled The Advanced Montessori Method (1991, 2007f). In 1920 Montessori visited Amsterdam for the first time, and there she found a country ready to embrace her ideas. The Call to Education, a magazine edited by Montessori and published in Amsterdam in 1924 and 1925, documented the growth of the Montessori movement in countries as far apart as Panama, South Africa and Bulgaria. To this day the Netherlands is the only country in the world where Montessori schools operate as an integral part of the education system and are funded by the state from the age of three to eleven, giving parents a true choice in their children's early education. Montessori training is offered as postgraduate study for Dutch qualified teachers.

Children enjoy unstructured time as part of Montessori practice

The period between the two world wars was very productive for Montessori, with the establishment of Association Montessori Internationale in Amsterdam in 1926 followed by a seminal lecture to the League of Nations on ‘Education and Peace’ in the same year. In 1929 she published The Montessori Method in a new edition. Addressing her displeasure at the original title in English, she renamed it The Discovery of the Child (2007b).

Montessori witnessed the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona and was in India when World War II broke out. She was joined in India by Mario and remained there until 1946. Upon her return to Europe she settled in the Netherlands, near her son and his family. She was active in supporting the establishment of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) by becoming one of its founding members. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts towards international peace. She felt passionately that the future of harmonious co-existence on the planet lay in the hands of the child. She continued to lecture until the year of her death. She was preparing for a trip to Ghana when she died in May 1952. She is buried in Noordwijk-on-Sea, the Netherlands.

During celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the first Casa dei Bambini, Montessori organisations conducted an international survey of Montessori schools. It identified 22,000 schools in over 100 countries of the world, a powerful testimonial to the relevance of the Montessori approach in the 21st century.


Consider the time when Montessori first promoted the rights of women and children:

  • How were children perceived at that time?
  • What were the rights of women at that time?
  • How were young children of the day educated?
  • Share with parents and colleagues.

Montessori today

Montessori's approach has been considered scientific because she used her medical, anthropological and pedagogical knowledge to assess children's development and learning. For her primary research technique she harnessed the power of observation. Whilst her research methods may not have been as rigorous as those of today, we need to acknowledge Montessori's pioneering study of children at the beginning of the 20th century. This was before much of Freud's work was published and certainly before Piaget (1963) or Vygotsky (1978) conducted their research. Some of her statements relating to the nature of children were intuitive, however, their validity has been confirmed subsequently. In his introduction to Lillard's (1980)Montessori in the Classroom, Bruner refers to her as both a pragmatist and a mystic. Montessori's commitment to using observation as the key tool for getting to know children cannot be disputed. However, the information she offers about how to document these observations is scant. Equally, she says little about the tools to be used for their analysis. Nonetheless, contemporary observations of children provide us with evidence for the relevance and validity of her approach, particularly if analysed not only in the context of Montessori's own writing but also with reference to theories of developmental psychologists such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Bowlby and Erikson.

The continued relevance of Montessori's original findings about children is astounding even though some of her ideas are expressed in rather inaccessible language for today's reader. Perseverance and reflection on her writing, combined with observation and knowledge of children, will lead the reader to a verification of many of the principles underlying Montessori's approach. In the 1970s Covington Packard explained Montessori's emphasis on learning through practical activities as follows:

A child gains self-confidence as he feels able to participate usefully in the society around him … In practical work self-discipline and competence are gradually developed. They come as the child and adult live in mutual respect … The efforts to attain and successfully accomplish increasingly difficult tasks bring the self-discipline known as self-control. The efforts to respond to one's own needs, to the environmental needs, and to the needs of others, as much as competence allows, bring the kind of self-discipline that is known as responsibility. From this kind of discipline comes a sense of true liberty. (Covington Packard 1972: 60–61)

Montessori's emphasis on the child's freedom with responsibility remains the key principle of her pedagogy. Without giving children freedom to move and choose, adults would have very little insight into how best to support their learning and development. Opportunities to move freely both inside and outside the classroom guide children towards spontaneous choice, reflecting their interest in the environment and also in social interaction. The selected activities, games and partnerships signal to the adult observer the child's needs as well as interests, and identify support for future learning. This freedom is further supported by extended periods of unstructured time which give the child an opportunity to engage in activities and use their natural pace and rhythm whilst completing them. More will be said about the continuous provision (DfE 2017, BAECE 2012) on offer in Montessori settings in subsequent chapters.

The freedom Montessori speaks about is possible because of the organisation of the learning environment. It needs to be accessible, predictable and consistent as well as interesting to engage the child. Once again, more detail will be given in Chapter 3.

The biggest challenge in ensuring that Montessori's discoveries remain relevant today lies in the attitudes of adults. To give the child the freedom to reveal his/her true potential through self-directed activities requires an adult who is able to not only respect the child, but also trust in the child's innate ability to spontaneously select activities and engage in them, learning through problem solving and discovery. The role of the teacher in Montessori settings, catering for all ages of children, is to guide rather than teach or lead the child in his/her learning.

Key points

  • Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. From her earliest days she was drawn towards sciences at school.
  • She qualified as one of the first women doctors from the University of Rome in 1892.
  • Post qualification she worked with women and children and also in a clinic for children with special needs.
  • Her work in the clinic led her to wanting to know more about how children learned and therefore she enrolled to study educational anthropology. She later lectured in this discipline.
  • She championed the rights of women and children and was asked to set up a nursery for disadvantaged children in the slums of Rome in 1907. She called it Casa dei Bambini – The Children's House.
  • Montessori's experiences and observations of children in this nursery led her to write her first book The Montessori Method which was published in 1912.
  • Her approach celebrates the unique potential of each child and advocates a child-centred approach based on the child's freedom to learn within a favourable environment specifically prepared to meet the individual needs of the child.
  • The news of her unique approach spread rapidly and by 1914 she not only established training for teachers interested in her pedagogy but also gained an international reputation.
  • The Montessori approach provides a framework for children's learning and development from birth to eighteen years of age and is international, with at least one Montessori nursery or school in almost every country of the world.
  • Montessori education continues to thrive today because it is based on the innate qualities of children and observation is its main assessment tool.

Useful resources

  • This is an extract from Chapter 1, Historical Context, of Understanding the Montessori Approach, Early Years Education in Practice, second edition, by Barbara Isaacs, published by David Fulton, Routledge ISBN: ISBN-13: 978-1138690547 – In addition to her role as Global Montessori ambassador, Barbara Isaacs continues to work with Montessori Centre International to inform its training –

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