Dr. Maria Montessori was a remarkable woman. She was born on August 31, 1870 in Italy, a time when it was not considered appropriate for a woman to study medicine. She persevered and was one of the first woman physicians in Italy.
Dr. Montessori's medical practice was in pediatrics and psychiatry, working with children with intellectual disabilities. In order to aid her in her practise, Dr. Montessori studied education and developed a method to teach her patients to read and write. She achieved extraordinary results, so extraordinary in fact that her challenged patients tested on par with children of the same age attending the mainstream school.
Dr. Montessori realized that if her patients could do so well relative to children in the public school system, then there clearly was a problem with the way those children were being taught. She devoted the rest of her life to improving those teaching methods.
This eventually led her to develop "The Montessori Method". By 1910 Montessori schools were acclaimed worldwide. The same philosophy of teaching and nurturing children by providing a conducive environment and appropriate materials is still in use today.
More recently many of these techniques and materials have been used in the care of people with dementia to help them become more independent and lead a more fulfulling life.
An excellent explanation of Dr. Montessori's philosophy is written in her own words. This is an excerpt from a talk she gave in 1942, a decade before her death. She is referring to her work at the first Casa dei Bambini (House of Children), an education center she established for under-privileged children...
“ ...What happened more than thirty years ago now will always remain a mystery to me. I have tried since then to understand what took place in those children.
I brought them some of the materials which had been used for our work in experimental psychology, the items which we use today as sensorial material and materials for the exercises of practical life. I merely wanted to study the children's reactions. I asked the woman in charge not to interfere with them in any way as otherwise I would not be able to observe them.
You must realize that what happened was something so great and so stirring that its importance could never be sufficiently recognized.
They were left alone and little by little the children began to work with concentration and the transformation they underwent, was noticeable. From timid and wild as they were before, the children became sociable and communicative. Their personalities grew and, strange though it may seem, they showed extraordinary understanding, activity, vivacity and confidence. They were happy and joyous.
Their fame spread and in consequence all kinds of people visited the House of Children, including State ministers and their wives, until finally also the Queen became interested. She came to that quarter so ill famed that it was considered hell's doors, to see for herself the children about whom she had heard wonders.
What was the wonder due to? No one could state it clearly. But it conquered me for ever, because it penetrated my heart as a new light. I changed my whole life. I was nearly 40. I had in front of me a doctors' career and a professorship at the University. But I left all, because I felt compelled to follow [these children], and to find others who could follow them, for I saw that in them lay the secret of the soul.
You must realise that what happened was something so great and so stirring that its importance could never be sufficiently recognized. It is not possible that it came because of my method, for at the time my method did not yet exist. This is the clearest proof that it was a revelation that emanated from the children themselves.
My educational method has grown from these as well as from many other revelations, given by the children. All the details included in the method, have come from the efforts to follow the child. The new path has been shown us. No one knows exactly how it arose, it just came into being and showed us the new way. It has nothing to do with any educational method of the past, nor with any educational method of the future. It stands alone as the contribution of the child himself.
It cannot have come from an adult person; the thought, the very principle that the adult should stand aside to make room for the child, could never have come from the adult.
Anyone who wants to follow my method must understand that he should not honor me but follow the child as his leader.”