Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Little History: The Establishment of Maria Montessori's Casa dei Bambini

As part of Maria Montessori's work in insane asylums, she came across mentally retarded children who were not receiving any educational helps. They were only receiving medical help but no developmental help as well. She felt strongly that they needed education. Speaking at an educational conference, the minister of education asked her to open a school for the cognitively disabled. She discovered the work of Drs. Pereira, Seguin, and Itard. She trained teachers in her new school and developed special materials to see what worked for them, and she spent morning to night planning and preparing items for the school. She said, "Those two years were my first and only degree in pedagogy." When she had worked with these children for some time, she gave them the opportunity to take the state exams given to all children in the primary schools and all over Italy at that time. When the results came back, it was discovered that some of those children did better than those who had no known cognitive disabilities whatsoever.

How could children with obvious cognitive disabilities do as well as children who were developing normally? How were the normal children pulled down to such an extent that they were functioning as well as a child with cognitive disabilities? They had developed as human beings, not just as intellectual bodies, operating with kindness and respect; she did not see this in traditional schools around them at this time. Maybe what we are doing in these schools does not help them, she thought. Maybe it even harms them. The methods from Dr. Seguin could support the development of any child, not just the cognitively disabled child. While she was waiting for the opportunity to work with neurotypical children, she studied, systematically, what values were available in their approach. By hand, she translated the works in French, to see what they were saying. She also wanted to know more about the methods used in traditional school.

She enrolled in university to take courses of psychology and pedagogy. She took the time to go study regular children in the schools, while also lecturing and teaching on anthropology and hygiene at the university. In that capacity, as an anthropologist, she could observe what was happening in the classroom. She wrote papers for scientific journals about the conditions in the schools and came to certain conclusions. Working with children with cognitive disabilities, she saw the same course of development as in the normal schools, but the blueprint was slowed down, giving her a heightened awareness of the stages previous. When development is not normal, we are more conscious of it.

The child with cognitive disabilities cannot adapt to your method of teaching. You have to start with their capabilities, not the curriculum or the teacher's methods. This is the framework which shaped the Montessori method as one of observing the child and then helping with the child's needs. She found that this approach used by Dr. Seguin was more respectful and effective than the method used in traditional schools. He saw the children as individuals with individual needs, and the traditional method was designed for the cohort. At the conclusion of her study, Montessori determined that normal children deserved the same respect that Seguin's method proposed, and she prepared to apply these methods to teaching normal children.

In 1906, when she returned from Rome, a businessman named Talamo approached her as a social worker. In 1870 Italy had become a unified nation, and education was compulsory. For the new Casa dei Bambini for the street children in the slums, she did not have educational ambitions for the children, since they were under the age of seven, and they busied themselves with staying clean, nourished, and busy. The success of these methods here was completely by accident. She showed the instructors very strict instructions for how the materials would be used with the small children there, and she started giving the children lessons in how to clean themselves and how to interact with one another. For nine and a half hours a day, the children could do whatever they wanted with their care of self and care of the environment, and for one and a half hours a day, they would have special materials presented to them.

Jeannot Jonte Boucher is a Montessori educator and parent in Dallas, Texas. 

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