Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Little History: Three scientists who inspired Maria Montessori to develop her educational methods

The development of the Montessori method is closely tied to the life of Maria Montessori. She was born August 31, 1870, in the small town of Chiaravelle. Her father came from an aristocratic family, and her mother came from a family of poets and scientists. In 1870, Italy became unified as one country with Rome the capital. When she was two or three, her family moved to Rome so that she could have a better education. In those days, after primary education, women went to teacher's training or something like a finishing school. She determined that she would rather study math and engineering, which led to her interest in medicine. She strove for many years before being admitted in to medical school, but in 1896, she became one of the first women to receive her medical and surgical degree.

When she opened her practice, it mainly consisted of women and children. It was only after 1908 that she gave up her practice, as an independently self-supporting woman. She got an understanding of the scientific method at that point, and she was also trained to observe and respond to human suffering. It prepared her to respond to human suffering in the child, when she encountered it later. It also developed in her the urge to respond to a human who is suffering. At this time, Montessori was also involved in the early women's movement. She fought against the scourge of child labor, again fighting for the rights of any underdog. She was at the forefront of the development of psychiatry and was appointed to the university to work in the field of psychology and psychiatry, where she discovered children locked up as "idiot children", children disabled enough that their families could not care for them.

There was no place in the society for these mentally deficient children in the assylum, and she was determined to discover what was causing their disabilities. She believed that it was not a medical problem, but rather, she felt it was an educational problem. She spoke about these children at medical conferences. It was a problem of education, she believed, and everyone in the society was neglecting these children. In 1898, she attended her first educational conference to address the needs of these children. The minister of education at that time heard her and asked her to train teachers in how to help children with cognitive disabilities.

She discovered three doctors pioneering a field of curative pegagogy. These doctors had observed these children and then adapted the teaching methods to those children. The first doctor was a Portuguese doctor, J. R. Pereira (1715-1780), who took on the job of training the sense of hearing in deaf children, so that they could participate.

The second doctor was Dr. J. M. G. Itard (1775-1838), who specialized in treating the diseases of the ear, nose, and throat. He also worked with deaf and hearing impaired children. Itard was hunting, historically, and he discovered a wild animal while hunting who was discovered to be a small child in the forests of Aveyron, France. The work of education that Itard began was built on the foundation of helping the child become sensitive to the human voice and to establish the relationship of trust. He named the child Victor, as evidence of his belief in the success of the child. She taught herself French, even, to read the work of Itard.

The third inspiration for Dr. Montessori's work was Edouard Seguin (1812-1880), who made it his life's work to build a method of educating children with cognitive disabilities. He started his work in France, but in 1856, he left for political reasons and immigrated to the United States. His work became popular, and he invented many tools to specifically educate mentally handicapped children.  (One of his books, Idiocy and Its Treatment, is currently available in Google Books.) Seguin's impact on Montessori was to inspire the sense of approaching the child with love, to inspire their trust.

After reading these books, Montessori did not find anything about the method that was not applicable to the neurotypical child. Her study of the works of these people led her to understand that certain schools were attempting to employ the methods of Dr. Seguin, and she went to the schools. However, when she went to the schools, she saw that the places were not treating the children there in keeping with the spirit of Dr. Seguin's method. They were disrespectful to the children, and she decided that it was adults that needed more spiritual formation to the way one must be to care for children.

Furthermore, she did all of this work while she continued her medical practice. She was also appointed to the college at the University of Rome as a professor of hygiene, working to train teachers and keeping records of the work done. She went to carpenters who would make her materials, and she worked with the children from early morning to late night. She would later write that her last two years of practice that these were her first and only degrees in pedagogy.

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

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