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Maria Montessori, Educational Pioneer

Tomorrow, August 31, 2020, marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Maria Montessori, Italian physician and educator. This date is a fitting coincidence, as many Minnesotan children prepare to return to school either virtually or in-person.

Maria grew up in Chiaravalle, a small town in the Marche region of Italy. Throughout her childhood and early adulthood, she was always drawn to learning and had an interest in education. After considering a higher education in the male dominated field of Engineering, she ultimately decided to pursue a career as a physician. Graduating in 1896 as one of Italy’s first female doctors, Dr. Montessori continued to challenge the traditional expectations for women at the time.

Although Maria initially practiced psychiatry, her primary passion remained special education. Never shying away from a challenge, Maria often called into question the traditional methodologies of teaching children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In 1907, she opened the Casa dei bambini (Children’s House), her first full-day childcare in San Lorenzo, a low-income suburb of Rome.

In San Lorenzo, Dr. Montessori employed scientific techniques to discover which teaching methods worked best. In her chosen method, the teacher is more of an independent observer and not the center of attention in the classroom. The children of the Casa dei bambini progress through their work at their own pace and build their own foundation of learning. Maria’s fundamental belief that children absorb knowledge from their surroundings, essentially teaching themselves, caused her school to be a rousing success.

The greatest sign of success for a teacher... is to be able to say, ’The children are now working as if I did not exist.”

(Maria Montessori)  

Outside of Italy, the Montessori Method of education immediately attracted international attention. By 1910 Montessori schools could be found throughout Western Europe. The first Montessori school in the United States opened in 1911 in Terrytown, New York.

During the fascist era, Montessori accepted the support of Mussolini as a way to promote her pedagogical principles within Italy. However, as the regime's ideology became ever more radical, the doctor's relationship with Mussolini deteriorated. Maria was eventually forced to leave her home country in exile, taking her innovative approach to education with her. Still today, her departure has hampered the popularity of her schools within Italy.

Maria Montessori lived the rest of her life in the public eye, as an advocate for women’s rights and a more child-centered educational system. Today, there are over 5,000 Montessori schools that serve over one million children in the United States alone. Many prominent individuals such as Julia Child, Stephen Curry, and the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have all been educated using the Montessori Method.

Today we celebrate Dr. Maria Montessori, a pioneer and advocate. We invite you to learn more about her by clicking on the button below.

YouTube Video: 'Teacher of the Unteachable'


The Italian Cultural Center of Minneapolis/St. Paul is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization
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