Maria Montessori, Italian educator and physician, and founder of the education method that bears her name, was born 143* years ago yesterday in Chiaravalle, Italy, a village near Ancona on the Adriatic side of the peninsula.
Italy in 1870 had only recently become a unified country, and traditional values dominated much of society and culture. For women, public education for women, the right to manage property, and entry into professional life may have been permitted by law, but were limited in practice. Nevertheless, Montessori attended elementary, secondary, and technical school, and became one of the first** women in Italy to earn a medical degree. She went on to develop and refine a comprehensive model of human development and a corresponding education model that has spread to every inhabited continent.
The Montessori story is well documented in two biographies (Standing and Kramer) and fairly well represented on her Wikipedia page.*** I want to address a question that comes up from time to time when Montessori’s name and history comes up: Why are we using an educational approach that’s now more than 100 years old? Has nothing been learned in the intervening century?
So let’s look at a few of Montessori’s rough scientific contemporaries and the relevancy of their work. Montessori was a scientist, after all, with degrees in medicine and anthropology from the University of Rome, and she debuted her method in 1907, 37 years old and already prominent in her field. What other century-or-more-old scientific models are still relevant?
Well, for starters, there’s Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his fairly well -regarded theory of evolution by natural selection, published 154 years ago in 1859 and still going strong.
Then you have James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), whose equations published in 1873 “form the foundation of classical electrodynamics, classical optics, and electric circuits.” (Wikipedia)
And Marie Curie (1867-1934), whose term “radioactivity” is a foundational concept in physics, and whose namesake element radium (which she discovered, along with polonium) is in wide use.
A bit later, Maxwell’s equations laid the foundation for the work of two more Montessori contemporaries you may have heard of: Max Planck (1858-1947), who formulated quantum physics in 1900, and Albert Einstein (1879-1955), whose 1905 work, including his famous E = mC2, has been validated to multiple decimal places. In fact, Einstein’s most fundamental work, general relativity, was developed in 1907—the same year as Montessori’s groundbreaking work in San Lorenzo.
So the next time someone asks you, “Why are we following a 100 year old theory?”, remind them that gravity and the speed of light have been around for a long time, too, and they seem to be working just fine.
* Yes, a previous version of this post had this as her 133rd birthday. Must have dropped a ten bar.
** Contrary to what you will often see published, but documented by Paola Trabalzini in the NAMTA Journal, Montessori was not the very first female Italian M.D. Readers of this site will have had the correct information all along.
** Full disclosure: I made substantial contributions to that article in 2010, although, Wikipedia being what it is, revisions and maintenance have continued under other hands.