Maria Montessori is probably the best known of the thinkers. She was the first Italian female physician, and, years ahead of her time, was a feminist and a children's advocate. She became intrigued with the education of young children for various reasons. She did not like the rigidity of Italian public education and was concerned about the education of children who were mentally retarded or delayed. Montessori abandoned her role in medicine at a time when Italy's economy was precarious, when many families lived in poverty and in facilities without regard to health and safety. As she pondered her concerns about the situation, a reform movement brought about programs of employment for parents. That was the good news. The bad news was that children were left alone for long days.
The situation of children without care attracted Montessori's attention. Influenced by what she knew as a physician and by her efforts to educate "deficient children," she developed Children's Houses (Casas dei Bambini)—schools for children living in the tenement apartments of Rome. Montessori's ideas were reshaped over the years as she worked with both poor and wealthy children, as society changed, and as her ideas were transported to other countries, specifically the United States. To begin to understand her ideas, it's important to look at Montessori's five dominant beliefs:
- Her method represents a scientific approach to education.
- The secret of childhood resides in the fact that through their spontaneous activity, children labor to "make themselves into men" [Montessori, 1964].
- Mental development, similar to physical growth, is the result of a natural, internally regulated force.
- Liberty is the imperative ingredient that enables education to assist the "unfolding of a child's life" [Montessori, 1964].
- Order, most especially within the child, but also in the child's environment, is prerequisite to the child becoming an independent, autonomous, and rational individual. (Goffin, 1994, p. 49)
What do these statements mean? Basically, Montessori believed that children could grow and develop very well if left to do so without too many restrictions but with an orderly environment that promoted their efforts at being independent and critical thinkers. Her approach was scientific in that it evolved from studying children and what they could do and in that she prescribed both teaching techniques and materials for her schools.
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