Who is Montessori?

Some believe Dr. Maria Montessori was a Superwoman.
A young female medical student is jeered and hooted at by male classmates. The year is 1890 and women are not supposed to have technical careers, minds of their own, or the liberty of going about the city unchaperoned. Fellow students enjoy blocking the young woman’s path to classrooms and making sarcastic remarks in her presence.1 “A woman of genius might reasonably consider a profession, but surely an ordinary woman shouldn’t,” said one critic. Another teased: “Fool men go in for medicine, why not a fool woman?”2

The young woman, Maria Montessori, was clearly ahead of her time. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree from the University of Rome, which earned her a position on the staff of the city’s Psychiatric Clinic. Working among an uncaring and disinterested staff, she undertook the job of sifting out and salvaging “feeble-minded” and “backward” children.

Through patient experimentation she discovered that if a child was given
something to twist and touch with his or her hands (what we call “Manipulative”), the brain might learn to function responsively. At least it was less restive. Four years later (1898), Montessori made her preliminary findings known to colleagues at the Pedagogical Congress in Turin.  Her psychiatric studies and feminist activities brought her national recognition. Including a letter written by Sigmund Freud in 1917:4

My Dear Frau Montessori,
It gave me great pleasure to receive a letter from you.  Since I have been preoccupied for years with the study of the child’s psyche, I am in deep sympathy with your humanitarian and understanding endeavors, and my daughter, who is an analytical pedagogue, considers herself one of your disciples.
I would be very pleased to sign my name beside yours on the appeal for the foundation of a little institute as planned by Frau Schaxel. The resistance my name may arouse among the public will have to be conquered by the brilliance that radiates from yours.
Yours very sincerely, 
Sigmund Freud

As a holder of doctorate degrees in psychology and philosophy, as well as professor of anthropology, Dr. Montessori’s work was recognized worldwide.  Her method was endorsed and financially backed by people such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, Ghandi and Jean Piaget.

 Montessori observed children’s almost effortless ability to absorb knowledge from their surroundings. There was no need to take notes or memorize. She also observed the children’s tireless interest in manipulating materials. Every piece of equipment, every exercise, every method Montessori developed was based on what she observed children to do naturally, by themselves, unassisted by adults. Her key was to allow the child independence in learning.

In 1907 the first Montessori school – Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House)  opened in Rome. Two more schools in New York and San Francisco followed suit. Here the children, just like in our classroom, were provided with a prepared environment and were invited to explore and choose their own work, thereby fostering their independence.

Montessori was constantly experimenting, modifying and adapting her materials to suit the needs of the children. Within two years she trained teachers and saw the opening of hundreds of Montessori schools all over Europe. During World War II, the Mussolini/Hitler regime closed all her schools in Italy and Germany, and by 1936 Montessori left Italy for Spain. She then fled Spain to England at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, escaping the Nazi regime, at the age of 69, she arrived in India to establish a Montessori Training Centre for teachers. Her quest for lasting peace through education during her time earned her three Nobel Peace Prize nominations. 

She died shortly before her 82nd birthday on May 6th 1952 in Holland. To this day, the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), the organization she established in Holland, carries on her important work.

– Ayelet ‘Ellie’ Lichtash, 2008


[1] “Education: Maria Montessori,” Time, Feb. 3, 1930.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maria Montessori (1870-1952) brought about a revolution in the classroom. She developed a method of teaching small children and inspired a movement that carried that method into every corner of the world. See Rita Kramer and Anna Freud, Maria Montessori, Biography, De Capo Press, 1988.

[4] Freud, E.L. (1917). Letter from Sigmund Freud to Maria Montessori, December 20, 1917. Letters of Sigmund Freud 1873-1939, 319-320.