(courtesy of http://montessoricentenary.org)
Maria Montessori was born to Alessandro Montessori, a retired soldier and civil servant and Renilde Stoppani on 31 August 1870, in the land of pasta, pizza and fashion. Her parents were educated and live like all other middle-class families in Chiaravalle, Ancona.
Against all odds of the conservative opposition of what a woman can and should be at that time, Montessori pursued a scientific education in engineering and emerged as the first female physician in Italy.
She was never educated pedagogically as a teacher. Dr Montessori was always a scientist, occupying her days in the University of Rome with experiments and frequent contacts with the poor and young children of Rome.
Dr Montessori’s first encounter with the deficient, insane and idiot children was in 1901 when she was appointed Director of the new Orthophrenic school which is part of the University of Rome. Attracted to the idea of re-educating mentally handicapped children,
Dr Montessori also started to delve into educational methods for special children, discovering the system used by Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin.
Contrary to others’ beliefs and expectations, the mentally handicapped children pass the standard sixth grade tests of the Italian public schools, suggesting that ‘normal’ children could or should get better results using the Montessori’s Method. Her idea was denied and this blessing in disguise led to the first Casa Dei Bambini or Children’s House on January 6th 1907.
Dr Montessori’s first school was at a slum district part of Rome, where children are not given adequate basic care such as wearing clean clothes or eat a simple breakfast. There were 60 children of aged 2 to 5 in the classroom, with another helper to assist Dr Montessori. During their time there, the children’s parents were busy working and the children had to be fed, bathed and given proper medical care. New and younger children were crying, pushing and behaving aggressively, exhibiting insecure attachment behavior.
Approaching the scenario by trial and error, Dr Montessori began by showing the older children how to manage daily tasks and she started to introduce manipulative puzzles used with the previously mentally retarded or challenged children.
The results of her experiment showed that very young children can be attracted to any types of work and showed interest in purposeful and constructive activities. They stopped wandering aimlessly and can work for a long time with puzzles and sensorial training apparatus. More importantly, the young children were very much indulged in practical daily living skills activities, such as washing plates and scrubbing the floor, reinforcing their independence and dignity.
Gradually, the press found it interesting and broke the news to the world, making the Casa the centre of attraction at that time. The spark of this revolutionary practical method of following the child’s spontaneous behavior and interests through observation and offering bountiful of individual lessons caused Dr Montessori to continue to expand the curriculum and methodology to older children of primary schools and babies as well as toddlers.
During day time, Dr Montessori jotted her observation of the children’s activities, comments and responses, whilst at night she designed new materials and methods to fulfil the children’s interests in higher learning such as language, numeracy, geography, science and history.
Dr Montessori’s continuous burning desire to discover the children’s learning behavior at the Casa not only resulted on duplications of her first school in other places, but she also designed and invented the learning environment to be as conducive as to support and enhance the children’s holistic development. Child-sized toilets, furniture and utensils are constantly and eventually adapted by larger educational community at preschool and kindergarten levels around the world.
During her lifetime, Dr Montessori dedicated her time and energy to advocating the rights and human potential of the child. She was better known for her role as the modern educator, who relentlessly travel around the world, broadcasting the knowledge of the importance of the environment and the teacher’s role in a child’s life, whilst influencing prominent modern psychologists like Jean Piaget, Alfred Adler, Erik Eriksson and Anna Freud.
Dr Maria Montessori breathed her last in May 6, 1952 and was given a dignifiedly final farewell at Amsterdam. She left a legacy that will continue to transform the way children learn, and evolve our understanding of child development. As the Montessori movement gains support globally, we hope the movement in Malaysia will continue to grow and gain support for years to come.