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Who Was Maria Montessori?

A black and white photo of Maria Montessori smiling, surrounded by children

In the first half of the 20th century, Dr. Maria Montessori, a highly intelligent, scientifically minded woman who had found traditional school boring in her youth, decided to address the problem of education with a fresh outlook. In effect, she redesigned education from the ground up.

Maria Montessori was born in Italy in 1870. She was a math prodigy, physicist, and anthropologist. At age 24, she was the first woman to graduate from the medical school in Rome. She was a pragmatist, a visionary and a humanitarian; a friend of Gandhi’s and Thomas Edison’s; and a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Her face is on Italy’s 1,000 lire bill. Today, we know Maria Montessori best for the educational method that bears her name.

A black and white photo of an early Montessori classroom, with children working at small tables and the floor

Maria Montessori was interested in the end result of education, not its method. She cared about developing “a complete human being, oriented to the environment and adapted to his or her time, place and culture.” She came to her work with no preconceived ideas about how young people should be taught. She simply observed them, gathering evidence about how their minds worked and formulating tools that responded to their needs. 

Black and white photo of Maria Montessori and a young child looking at something together

Her observations contained groundbreaking insights into human development and cognition—insights that are largely upheld by scientific research today. They also contain luminous descriptions of the potentialities of children in the tender process of self-formation. Perhaps most moving: the picture her writings paint of a world made better by the way we adults touch those unfolding personalities. Maria Montessori recorded her observations in prose that stands as some of the most beautiful in literature. We can do no better than let this wonderful humanitarian speak for herself...


Maria Montessori on Teacher Training

“Knowing what we must do is neither fundamental nor difficult, but to comprehend which presumptions and prejudices we must rid ourselves of in order to educate our children is most difficult.”


Maria Montessori on Teaching

“The secret of good teaching is to regard the child’s intelligence as a fertile field in which seeds may be sown, to grow under the heat of flaming imagination. Our aim therefore is not merely to make the child understand, and still less to force him to memorize, but so to tough his imagination as to enthuse him to his inmost core.”



Maria Montessori on Peer Teaching

“People sometimes fear that if a child of five gives lessons, this will hold him back in his own progress. But, in the first place, he does not teach all the time and his freedom is respected. Second, teaching helps him to understand what he knows even better than before. He has to analyze and rearrange his little store of knowledge before he can pass it on. There is nothing that makes you learn more than teaching it yourself.”



Maria Montessori on Independence

“How does he achieve this independence?  He does it by means of a continuous activity. How does he become free?  By means of constant effort. …we know that development results from activity.  The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences.”



Maria Montessori on the Importance of Mistakes

"The child must see for himself what he can do, and it is important to give him not only the means of education but also to supply him with indicators which tell him his mistakes……The child’s interest in doing better, and his own constant checking and testing, are so important to him that his progress is assured.  His very nature tends toward exactitude and the ways of obtaining it appeal to him.”


Maria Montessori on Imagination

“Not only can imagination travel through infinite space, but also through infinite time; we can go backwards through the epochs, and have the vision of the earth as it was, with the creatures that inhabited it.”