By Evi Tsakali,
Maria Montessori was born on August 31st 1870 in the provincial town of Chiaravalle, Italy. She graduated from the University of Rome’s School of Medicine in 1896, becoming one of Italy’s first female physicians. Her early medical practice focused on psychiatry, but she later developed an interest in education, attending classes in pedagogy. These studies made her observe and question the prevailing methods of teaching children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In 1907, Maria opened a full-day childcare center in San Lorenzo, a poor district of Rome. This center, the first of its kind in Italy, became the first Casa dei Bambini. Using scientific observation and experience, Maria Montessori designed learning materials (the “Montessori Material”) and a classroom environment that fostered the children’s natural desire to learn and provided freedom for them to choose their own materials.
Despite all odds (and the doubts of many), her programs thrived, fostering children’s concentration, attention, and spontaneous self-discipline. The Montessori Method began to attract the attention of prominent educators, journalists, and public figures. By 1910, Montessori schools could be found throughout Western Europe and were being established around the world.
The Montessori Material and the role of the teacher in the Method
Maria Montessori designed her materials based on children’s interests depending on their evolutionary stage. She firmly believed that manipulating concrete objects helps the development of knowledge and abstract thinking of the child. These materials give children the opportunity to investigate and explore in a personal and independent manner. The Montessori teacher, called the “directress”, is supposed to intervene in the minimum possible opportunity as the child progresses towards his/her development. The Montessori directress does not give awards or punishments: each child finds inner satisfaction that emerges from his/her personal work.
A Montessori school in Greece: my personal experience
Unfortunately, my Montessori journey has been relatively short: I spent most of my primary school years in my neighbourhood’s public school before transferring to the Montessori School of Athens in Varimpompi at 5th grade. It was the first time in my school life that I would not start my day with lessons, but with the Montessori material («υλικό» as we would call it). For one to two hours a day (that is how much the Ministry of Education would let us), before we started our lessons, we were free to practice any Montessori material we wanted. It may sound quite excessive, but indeed, we could do anything we wanted, no teachers involved. And to my surprise, I would see my whole class quiet, each one of us busy with the Montessori material of their choice, individually or in small groups. I was able to practice with Montessori material that offered me a revision of my grades or even my previous grades’ syllabus in any subject I wished, or advance to the syllabus of junior high school classes, if I felt ready to do so (I learned how to apply the Pythagorean theorem, to find the square root of four digit numbers via a very cleverly made Montessori puzzle, as well as my first notions of chemistry during my last years of primary school). The materials were not limited to conventional school subjects though: there was a Montessori material on fiction, poetry, music, famous composers, visual arts, anthropology, zoology, phytology and many more, so that every child would find something to his/her liking and interests.
You may wonder how this works: as a matter of fact, the Montessori material looks like board games and puzzles, -to put it simply- and it makes learning look like a game of questions and answers (think of it like playing Trivial Pursuit on your own or with a friend and noting down the things you learned). Of course, just like games, no one can force you to play, and no one will know if you have cheated. You could just sit down and do nothing or just copy the information on your notebook -however, in this case you still retain some information. The teacher would not intervene. We had a chart with our names and the names of the materials in order to check the ones that we had completed, but it was just for us. To keep track of our progress, the teacher would never check it or take it into consideration. The Montessori system is based on the students’ initiative and their willingness to learn; I was 11 years old and entirely responsible for my progress during these class periods. During my last year of primary school, I was allowed to take it a step further and create my own Montessori material, in French, which I hope that the school has kept and is used by students even now. I also had the opportunity to go to the 1st grade during some of these periods to act as a material directress and facilitate the geography material in small groups of 1st graders.
All that being said, I do not think it is necessary to list all the celebrities that have chosen a Montessori education for their children, or the people of influence who have had a Montessori education as children. I would just like to thank Maria Montessori; for being able to find the square roots of numbers in primary school, for knowing the answers to difficult Trivial Pursuit questions when playing with my friends, for being trusted like an adult despite being a child, for becoming the teacher when I was the student. Thank you.
- Association Montessori International (AMI). Available here
- Montessori School of Athens. Available here