Early History of Montessori
Montessori education debuted in 1907 with Maria Montessori’s first school, the Casa dei Bambini, part of an urban renewal project in a low-income district of Rome. The school’s success resounded throughout Italy, and additional schools soon opened in Rome and Milan. In 1909 Dr. Montessori published her landmark book, Il Metodo della Pedagogia Scientifica applicato all’educazione infantile nelle Case dei Bambini—known by its English-translation title as The Montessori Method.
Building a Movement
By 1910, news of the innovative technique had spread beyond Europe, and teachers throughout the world were eager to learn it. Early Montessori educators were taught by Dr. Montessori herself. Her courses drew students from as far as Chile and Australia, and within a few years there were Montessori schools on 5 continents.
In the United States, the fledging movement caught on quickly. The first Montessori school opened in 1911 in Scarborough, New York, and others followed in rapid succession. Prominent figures, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, lent their support, and popular journals galvanized the public with articles on the “miracle children” who emerged from Montessori schools.
In 1916, more than 100 Montessori schools were operating in 22 states.
Yet the movement in the U.S. burned out as quickly as it had spread. Language barriers, World War I travel limitations, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the disdain of a few influential educators—all contributed to the decline. By the 1920s Montessori had all but disappeared, except for the occasional school or practitioner.
Elsewhere in the world, however, Montessori education continued to prosper and grow. Dr. Montessori traveled widely, giving courses and lectures and encouraging the launch of new schools. In 1929, together with her son, Mario, she established the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) to oversee the many national organizations and their schools and to supervise the education of Montessori teachers worldwide.
Extending the Philosophy
Dr. Montessori’s early research focused on educating young children, but in the 1920s she turned her attention to adolescence. At this stage of development, she observed, students need activities that help them to understand themselves and to find their place in the world.
She proposed residential schools where students could work and live in a trusting community, engaging in real-world activities such as farming or marketing their own handmade goods. By experiencing human interdependence, she believed, students would learn how society is organized and develop the skills needed to meet the world’s challenges in a positive way. Today, many Montessori schools serving adolescents provide real-life opportunities such as those suggested by Dr. Montessori, although relatively few in the U.S. are residential schools.
In time, Dr. Montessori also wove peace education into her curriculum, a result of having lived through 2 horrific world wars.
The founder of the Montessori Method remained its most prominent advocate into her eighth decade. Shortly before her death in 1952, she was planning a lecture tour of Africa, seeing in that continent a fertile opportunity for growth. Mario then took on the leadership of the Montessori Movement, continuing as its head until his death 30 years later. Two of his children, Mario Jr. and Renilde, carried on the family’s leadership as advocates for the Movement, with Renilde taking an active role in the work of AMI as a trainer, lecturer, examiner and, ultimately, as president of the organization.