postheadericon Dr. Montessori's Legacy

The following essay is excerpted from The Montessori Way by Tim Seldin and Paul Epstein.

“It was January 6th (1907), when the first school was opened for small, normal children of between three and six years of age. I cannot say on my methods, for these did not yet exist. But in the school that was opened my method was shortly to come into being. On that day there was nothing to be seen but about fifty wretchedly poor children, rough and shy in manner, many of them crying, almost all the children of illiterate parents, who had been entrusted to my care. They were tearful, frightened children, so shy that it was impossible to get them to speak; their faces were expressionless, with bewildered eyes as though they had never seen anything in their lives.

It would be interesting to know the original circumstances that enabled these children to undergo such an extraordinary transformation, or rather, that brought about the appearance of new children, whose souls revealed themselves with such radiance as to spread a light through the whole world.”

Dr. Maria Montessori


Within the next year, news of Dr. Montessori’s work stirred interest around the world. Literally hundreds of people began to travel to Rome to see for themselves the school in which young children — children of the deepest poverty and ignorance — taught themselves how to read, write, do mathematics, and run their own schoolhouse with little or no adult supervision.

In her book about educational reform, The Schoolhome (Harvard University Press, 1992), Dr. Judith Rowland Martin writes that she was not very impressed when she first encountered Montessori education.

“I understood that Montessori schools placed children in multi-age classrooms and used manipulative learning materials, which may have been unusual during Dr. Montessori’s lifetime but has long since been incorporated into most early childhood and many elementary classrooms thanks to the Open Classroom movement of the 1960s.”

However, Dr. Rowland Martin’s understanding of the value of the Montessori approach was profoundly shaken when she came across a statement in one of the very first books written about Dr. Montessori’s work in the United States (A Montessori Mother, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1913). “The phrase, Casa dei Bambini, is being translated everywhere nowadays by English-speaking people as The Children’s House; however, its correct meaning, both linguistic and spiritual is The Children’s Home” (or Children’s Community, ed.). Canfield Fisher insisted upon this rendering, which she felt offered a much more accurate and complete insight into the character of the Montessori classroom.

Dr. Rowland Martin reflected: “This misreading of the Italian word casa as house has effectively cut off two generations of American educators from a new and intriguing vision of what school can and should be. If you translate the word casa as house, your attention will be drawn to the child-sized furniture, the Montessori materials, the exercises in Practical Life, the principal of self-education. But if you translate the word casa as home, you will begin to perceive a moral and social dimension that transforms your understanding of Montessori’s idea of a school. Once I realized that Dr. Montessori thought of school on the model of a home, the elements of her system took on a different configuration. Where before I had seen small children manipulating concrete learning materials, I now recognized a domestic scene with its own special form of social life and education.”

Rowland Martin realized that what Montessori had established was not simply a classroom in which children would be taught to read and write. The Casa dei Bambini represented a social and emotional environment, where children would be respected and empowered as individual human beings. It was an extended family, a community in which children truly belonged and really took care of one another. Montessori described this sense of belonging as “valorization of the personality,” a strong sense of self-respect and personal identity. Within this safe and empowering community, the young child learned at the deepest possible level to believe in herself. In an atmosphere of independence within community and personal empowerment, she never lost her sense of curiosity and innate ability to learn and discover. Confident in herself, she opened up to the world around her and found that mistakes were not something to be feared but rather the endless opportunity to learn from experience. This special relationship that is so common among Montessori children and their teachers and schools is unfortunately still very different from the experience most children have in school.


The Discovery of the Child

Montessori was absorbed with what she later called “The Discovery of the Child.” She did not see the core of her work as a method or curriculum, per se, as is commonly thought, but as a dramatic discovery that children around the world share common, or universal, characteristics and tendencies, even though each child is a unique human being, who deserves the same respect we would give an adult.

In response to the pleas of so many earnest admirers, Dr. Montessori arranged to give her first training course for teachers in 1909. Expecting only Italian educators, she was amazed to find that her first course, and all of the courses offered since, attracted teachers from all over the world who had heard of her discoveries and were moved to make great sacrifices to learn from her personally.

Many people have the impression that Montessori is a centrally controlled business, from which schools can buy a franchise and learn to replicate the model consistently. Nothing could be further from the truth. The name Montessori was never copyrighted or controlled by Montessori, and much to her dismay, many people attempted to profit from the familiarity and cachet of the “Montessori” name.

The Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the organization established by Montessori herself to oversee the integrity of her work, openly expresses its concern over the uncontrolled dissemination and loose interpretation of Montessori’s ideas on their website:

“Since the beginning, Montessori pedagogy has been appropriated, interpreted, misinterpreted, exploited, propagated, torn to shreds and the shreds magnified into systems, reconstituted, used, abused and disabused, gone into oblivion and undergone multiple renaissances.”

As teachers from many countries carried her ideas back to their homelands, national organizations were established, many of which evolved independently of a continued close association with Montessori and her closest circle of colleagues. The United States is a perfect example.

Montessori made two extended trips to America, the first in 1913 and the second in 1915. The reception that she received must have been gratifying. Montessori was greeted by attentive crowds wherever she spoke. Her first book about the work in Rome, The Montessori Method, was translated into English by her American sponsor, S. S. McClure, publisher of the enormously popular McClure’s Magazine. She was strongly encouraged to allow her work to be translated by the president and faculty of Harvard University, to whom she dedicated the first American edition.

Rather than simply translate the original title of Montessori’s book, which would have roughly translated as “Scientific Education in the Children’s Houses (Communities) of Rome,” Mr. McClure chose to give the book a title that was much more succinct, but quite different in perspective: The Montessori Method. The term has stuck for the last ninety-plus years in the United States and abroad. During her visit, the first formal Montessori society, the Montessori Educational Association, was founded by Alexander Graham Bell, among many other nationally prominent supporters.

When Montessori returned to America in 1915, she arranged to have an entire class work in a special “schoolhouse” made of glass at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. It attracted worldwide attention and publicity, as the children went about their tasks under the scrutiny of thousands of visitors from around the world.

Dr. Montessori also conducted a teacher training course in California and addressed the annual conventions of both the National Education Association and the International Kindergarten Union. That year a bill was introduced into the United States Congress to appropriate funds to establish several teacher education colleges across America to prepare educators to introduce the Montessori approach to American public schools.

The one condition was that Montessori make her home in the United States, an offer that she graciously declined, remarking that her findings could never belong to just one country but must be introduced around the world. Ultimately, her mother’s untimely death and the intensified disruption to normal travel caused by World War I, led Dr. Montessori to leave America for Europe. In addition, Professor William Heard Kilpatrick published a scathing critique of her ideas entitled, “The Montessori System Examined.” In it, he inaccurately accused her of being rigid and outdated in her psychological theories. Kilpatrick, a colleague of the highly popular American educational reformer, Dr. John Dewey of the University of Chicago, had a significant effect, leading many initially enthusiastic supporters back to the Progressive Education Movement led by Dewey.

Progressive Education, in turn, declined as America moved away from a child-centered perspective to a basic skills focus, during the hard years of the Depression and Second World War. Montessori was outraged at what she felt were false assertions made about her ideas by Dewey, Kilpatrick, and others. Whatever the true cause, over the next fifteen years, Montessori’s influence in America slowly ebbed from its peak in 1920, when there were more than one thousand Montessori schools in America to the period from 1930 to the late 1950s, when only a handful of Montessori schools quietly worked without openly using her name.

In 1960, Nancy McCormick Rambusch, an American mother who had spent two years in Europe studying Montessori education, was given the support of the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) to organize a branch of the Association in the United States. The group that she founded was the American Montessori Society (AMS), which originally operated under the auspices of the AMI central office in Holland.

A teacher preparation program began at the Whitby School in Greenwich, Connecticut. Thanks to the untiring efforts of McCormick Rambusch, the American media became fascinated with the Montessori approach all over again. Determined to develop a specifically American interpretation of Montessori’s work, differences over practice and policy eventually led the two organizations (AMS and AMI) to separate. Montessori’s Later Years in Europe and India After Dr. Montessori left the United States, she eventually moved to Barcelona, Spain, where a liberal and enlightened provincial government was setting out the ideas that eventually blossomed into the Republic of Spain before the Spanish Civil War. She established an international training center and research institute in Barcelona in 1916.

In 1919, Montessori began a series of teacher-training courses in London. During the next three decades, she and her colleagues refined the Elementary Montessori program and began to open classes for older children across Europe. That same year, she was invited to give a series of lectures on the issue of education for the young adult (secondary). These talks, later published as the Erdkinder Essays, reflected a strong theoretical basis for her thoughts about the reform of secondary education; however, she was not to develop them herself during her lifetime. Others did pursue this path, and the first secondary schools following the Montessori approach opened in the Netherlands in the 1930s. Today, after many years of fits and starts, Montessori Secondary programs have begun to be established around the world.

In 1929, Dr. Montessori was invited by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to introduce her ideas throughout the Italian national school system. Having left Italy after her mother’s death to find a more liberal-thinking home abroad, Mussolini’s invitation was irresistible to the Italian-born, self-declared citizen of the world. Montessori arrived back in Rome with much fanfare in January of 1930 and re-established her teacher-training center. It is fascinating to consider what each of the two, liberal Maria Montessori and fascist Benito Mussolini, were thinking. He certainly sought to add Montessori’s worldwide acclaim to the glories of the modern Italy. We assume that she believed that she could quietly do her work without getting involved in politics. Ultimately, the two clashed publicly when Mussolini demanded that all students in Italy join the Young Fascists and wear a special student uniform. In 1934, she was forced into exile once again, returning to Barcelona, Spain.

The years leading to World War II were tumultuous for Maria Montessori, who was then sixty-six years old. In 1936, as the Spanish Civil War broke out across Spain, she escaped the fighting on a British cruiser sent to rescue British nationals. She traveled to the Netherlands, where she opened a new Montessori teacher education center and lab school. As war approached, many urged her to leave Europe, and in 1938 she accepted an invitation to conduct a series of teacher training courses in India. When India entered World War II as part of the British Empire, Montessori and her son, Mario, were interned as “enemy aliens.” She was, however, allowed to continue her work and over the next few years trained more than ten thousand teachers in India and Sri Lanka.

It was during this period that she wrote several of her most important works, including: The Absorbent Mind; Education and Peace; and To Educate the Human Potential. Having spent years educating teachers to grasp the “big picture” of the interdependency of all life on earth, she reflected on the global conflict and humankind’s ultimate place within the universe, distilling them into her Cosmic Curriculum: The Lessons in Science, History, and Human Culture that has offered generations of Montessori students a sense of wonder and inspiration. Returning to Europe after the end of the war, during her final years, Montessori became an even more passionate advocate of Peace Education. Maria Montessori died in 1952 at her home in the Netherlands. In her last years, she was honored with many awards and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951.

Montessori was a brilliant student of child development, and the approach that has evolved out of her research has stood the test for nearly one hundred years in Montessori schools around the world. During her lifetime, Dr. Montessori was acknowledged as one of the world’s leading educators. Mainstream education, however, moved on, adapting only those elements of Montessori’s work that fit into existing theories and methods. Ironically, the Montessori approach is not designed to be implemented as a series of piecemeal reforms. It requires a complete restructuring of the school and the teacher’s role. Today there is a growing consensus among many psychologists and developmental educators that Montessori’s ideas were decades ahead of their time. Only recently, as our understanding of child development has grown, have we rediscovered how clear and sensible her insight was. As the movement gains support and begins to spread into the American public school sector, one can readily say that the “Montessori Way” is a remarkably modern approach.


Last Updated (Wednesday, 21 July 2010 13:12)