Maria Montessori was born in Chiaravalle, Italy, on August 31 1870. In spite of contemporary cultural expectations for women, she pursued higher education and earned a medical degree from the University of Rome in 1896 (although she was not, as is often claimed, the first Italian woman to do so). Between 1896 and 1906, Montessori worked with mentally disabled children and continued her research in psychology and education.
In 1906, Montessori took on the care of group of about 50 working-class children up to seven years old in a tenement in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. She established her first classroom, calling it the Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House. Here, Montessori made many of the observations and developed the educational approach that made her famous. Some of her innovations from that time included:
- a mixed-age classroom
- student liberty to choose work and to pursue it without interruption
- freedom of movement within the classroom environment
- didactic materials for student use developed through research, observation, and experimentation
- materials for care of the classroom environment, such as brooms and mops
- activities for the development of physical abilities, such as pouring and fastening buttons
- child-sized furniture and child-accessible equipment
- a new conception of the adult role as observer and guide rather than direct instructor
The first Casa was followed by additional classrooms, and Montessori continued to observe behavior that quickly attracted the attention of educators and public figures:
- a surprising level of attention and concentration
- spontaneous choice and repetition of challenging activities
- sensitivity to order and beauty in the environment
- spontaneous self-discipline
- spontaneous reading and writing in children far younger than expected at the time
Montessori’s work spread widely in Italy and around Europe, and she began to train teachers and develop her method full-time as schools and Montessori societies sprang up all around the world. She continued to develop her work, extending her approach to children from six to twelve by 1915, preparing teachers in international training courses, and earning international recognition as an advocate for children and peace.
Montessori maintained tight control over her methods, and was reluctant to delegate the training of teachers to other individuals or organizations. In 1929, Montessori and her son Mario Montessori established the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI), “to oversee the activities of schools and societies all over the world and to supervise the training of teachers.”
Montessori traveled to India in 1939, where she and Mario were interned at the outbreak of World War II because they were Italian citizens. Montessori and her son continued to refine the elementary (six to twelve) approach there, and remained in India until 1946. She continued to travel internationally after that time and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951. She died in the Netherlands in 1952, at the age of 81.
Montessori has been the subject of two biographies: Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work (1957) by E. M. Standing, a somewhat uncritical contemporary account by a close associate, and Maria Montessori: A Biography (Da Capo Press, 1988) by Rita Kramer, a more modern biography. The Wikipedia article on Montessori has been a reliable and accurate source as well.