Influences on Montessori Part 2: Theorists

At the beginning of her book The Montessori Method, Montessori overtly endeavours to dissociate her method from any prior philosophers (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009). However, various researchers over the years have identified several theorists, scientists and educators that seem to have influenced her works in some way. Of these theorists, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Edouard Séguin were probably the most significant (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009; Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957). Montessori’s work with the children with additional needs at the Psychiatric Clinic of the University of Rome inspired her to read comprehensively in that field, leading her to the work of Séguin and Itard (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009; O’Donnell, 2007). This research influenced her “… interest in the role of pedagogy as related to development” (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009, p. 40) and her work with student teachers at the State Orthophrenic School (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009). Röhrs (2000), O’Donnell (2007), and Standing (1957) all acknowledged that Montessori was particularly fascinated by Itard’s work. He was the first teacher to employ the same observational methods used in hospitals to observe the sick, and developed a range of educational approaches for the improvement of children’s senses (Montessori, 1912; O’Donnell, 2007). Both of these techniques can be seen in Montessori’s methods. Furthermore, both Itard and Montessori “… followed children’s natural tendencies” (O’Donnell, 2007, p. 4) rather than start with a theory. Based on this approach, individuals had detailed observations, notes and records kept of their progress in a secure, compassionate environment (O’Donnell, 2007). Moreover, in a turnaround of the established teacher-student relationship, the Montessori educator adjusted to each student and their needs to engender positive learning encounters (O’Donnell, 2007).

Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard
Edouard Seguin

Itard’s pupil, Edouard Séguin was purported to be the second key influence on Montessori (O’Donnell, 2007; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957). In actual fact, Röhrs (2000) stated that Montessori did not reveal where much of her inspiration came from, but in her writings examined in great detail her endeavors in understanding Séguin’s works. Séguin followed Comte Claude de Saint-Simon’s social theories and dream of a social reconstruction built around loving one another (O’Donnell, 2007). As such, he viewed education as the groundwork for a perfect society, where harmony and democracy would be achieved through each person’s active involvement in their own education, resulting in people who lived and worked together harmoniously (O’Donnell, 2007). Séguin saw education as being dependent on nature and nurture, where he advocated self-care and independence, individual experiences, and practical life activities, all of which are evident in Montessori’s methods (O’Donnell, 2007). Montessori (1912) also acknowledged Séguin’s influence in her ‘three period lesson.’ A significant aspect of Montessori’s programme, and where Séguin’s influence is evident, is that “… it gave equal emphasis to internal and external development, arranged so that they complemented one another” (Röhrs, 2000, p. 3). Such acknowledgement of the external educational factors is evidence of the scientific direction of Montessori’s works, and the effect of Séguin (as well as Pereira’s work on personality development through the senses) (Röhrs, 2000). Séguin’s influence is also apparent in Montessori’s didactic materials, which improved and developed children’s sensory functions (Montessori, 1912; O’Donnell, 2007; Röhrs, 2000). Montessori, Séguin, Itard, and Rousseau all believed that training of the senses was vital for each individual’s early education (O’Donnell, 2007).

O’Donnell (2007) argued that Montessori’s works were profoundly influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She asserted that much of Montessori’s writing was similar to Rousseau’s ideas, and her denunciations of aspects of the adult world displayed similarities to his outlook (O’Donnell, 2007). Furthermore, they held similar views on assisting those who could not help themselves as being a significant part of the development of moral individuals (O’Donnell, 2007). O’Donnell (2007) identified a correlation between Montessori’s detailed observations and Rousseau’s opinion that these were vital for educators as well. However, she also stated that Montessori never undertook a thorough study of Rousseau’s works and that there were not specific mentions of them in hers (O’Donnell, 2007).

Standing (1957), conversely, identified similarities between Montessori’s methods and Froebel’s. He believed that Montessori’s system was a “… natural development …” (Standing, 1957, p. 320) of Froebel’s, in terms of pedagogy and philosophy. Both Montessori and Froebel created specially designed materials for teaching through self-activity, but did so for different reasons—Froebel from the position of metaphysics and theology, and Montessori from that of psychology and physiology (Standing, 1957). Both viewed children as explorers of life where the adult needs to assist them in their research, and consequently had similar opinions on “… useless aid …” (Standing, 1957, p. 323) by adults in its hindrance to children’s learning. Montessori and Froebel were aware of sensitive periods or budding points in children’s development, with the development of the child as “… a series of metamorphoses” (Standing, 1957, p. 324). Standing (1957) believed that there was a likeness between the essences of Montessori and Froebel, but also identified differences in practice and theory. He goes on to discuss areas of dissimilarity between the two, such as their views on spontaneity, fairy tales, play versus work, and imagination versus reality (Standing, 1957). Standing (1957, p. 330) finished by stating that both Montessori and Froebel were idealists in that they associated “… their educational aims to ultimate religious values.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Friedrich Froebel

The idealistic principles mentioned by Standing (1957) in relation to Montessori and Froebel were also articulated by Gimbel and Emerson (2009) regarding Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s influence on Montessori’s works. Gimbel and Emerson (2009) suggested that aspects of the Naturphilosophie movement (specifically that of Hegel’s work) are apparent in Montessori’s scientific worldview. They alleged that Montessori and Hegel used the same fundamental terminology and tracked the same progression of human development (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009). This progression, along with the idea of a guiding spirit, is also evident in the writings of Herder, Caspar Wolff, and Ernst von Baer, with the latter’s work described in detail in The Absorbent Mind (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009). Montessori believed that the idea of a guiding spirit is an essential theory in grasping the disposition of humanity, which correlates with the theories of the Naturphilosophie scientists (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009; Montessori, 2012). However, Gimbel and Emerson (2009) also recognised that a significant difference between Hegel and Montessori was that Montessori argued that nature is made up of scientific, ‘real’ things, whereas Hegel was a pure idealist. They contend that Montessori’s view is in line with that of “… Antonio Labriola, a neo-Hegelian Marxist philosopher at the University of Rome when Montessori studied philosophy there” (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009, p. 40). Gimbel and Emerson (2009, p. 40) suggested that Montessori was introduced to Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit during that time, influencing her understandings of “pedagogical methodology.”

Röhrs (2000), on the other hand, stated that there were strong similarities between Montessori’s methods and that of other educators in the New Education Movement. However, he also noted that her viewpoint on the other educators’ works is somewhat unknown (Röhrs, 2000). Like Decroly, Dewey, Ferrière and Kilpatrick, Montessori believed it was essential to use the child’s interests and prior knowledge as the “starting-point” (Röhrs, 2000, p. 4) of education, with activities to develop these interests and knowledge, and stimulate senses of self-discipline and responsibility. Nevertheless, a collaboration between Montessori and the New Education educators never occurred (Röhrs, 2000). In fact, Röhrs (2000) asserted that the only ones she mentioned in her works were Carleton Wolsey Washburne and Percy Nunn. Nunn’s theories about mneme and hormic theory, influenced her understanding of “… the constructive function of the developing human mind,” (Röhrs, 2000, p. 3) evident in her notion of the “absorbent mind” (Montessori, 2012). According to O’Donnell (2007) and Röhrs (2000), there are other theorists and educators with similarities to Montessori that possibly had an influence on her, including Decroly, the Agazzi sisters, Sergi, and Diderot. Furthermore, O’Donnell (2007) indicated that other prominent influences included Pestalozzi (also mentioned by Röhrs (2000)), Locke, and Owen. However, the evidence around these possible influences is less detailed than about those previously discussed.

Summary of Parts 1 and 2

As described in this post and the first part of this series, Maria Montessori was inspired and influenced by the people, events, and stimulating moments she encountered and experienced throughout her personal and professional life. Real life incidents had a much more significant impact on her work and her soul than any established theories could have done (Röhrs, 2000). Her early life experiences and relationship with her parents set her on her destined path, with her educational and cultural struggles over her lifetime contributing to her passion for social justice and a strong-willed ambition to follow what she believed in. Some called her a social reformer where her scientific and faith-based understandings of education led to “… a remodelling and renewal of life” for many (Röhrs, 2000, p. 3). Her approach and her personality (so unusual in Italian society at the time), garnered much interest and attention, but it was her inspirational delivery of her unique combination of theory and practice, verbally and in written form, that led to such prodigious admiration throughout the world and across generations:

She looked for the confirmation of her theories in practice and shaped her practice according to scientific principles, thus achieving perfection: that is why Maria Montessori’s educational concept has been so successful.  (Röhrs, 2000, p. 10)

Reference List

Gimbel, S., & Emerson, A. (2009). Montessori and the Uncited Influence of Hegel. Communications.

Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori MethodEnglish (American E.). Radford: Wilder Publications. 

Montessori, M. (2012). The Absorbent Mind. California: BN Publishing.

O’Donnell, M. (2007). Maria Montessori. (R. Bailey, Ed.). London: Bloomsbury Academic. 

Röhrs, H. (2000). Maria Montessori (1870-1952), XXIV(1), 1–12.

Standing, E. M. (1957). Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Plume.

Influences on Montessori Part 1: Cultural context and wider events

The year in which Maria Montessori was born (1870) was the year that Italy became a unified nation (Kramer, 1988; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957). According to Kramer, before that time “… Italy had been a backwater of Western Europe” where social and political developments came late and were not implemented successfully (Kramer, 1988, p. 19). Kramer (1988) declared that the unification of the nation changed the political structure but scarcely produced any significant changes in the social composition. As such, there were significant divides between the poor and the wealthy in terms of education and privileges (Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912). Many saw education as the key to successful reform, so the government established elementary schools that were separate from the Catholic Church, and where attendance was compulsory (Kramer, 1988). Public girls schools were founded, although many girls continued to attend the private Catholic schools, with the public schools primarily populated by boys (Kramer, 1988). Kramer (1988) declared that while there were high expectations of improving the illiteracy of the masses at the beginning, these hopes gradually disappeared as apathy took over and illiteracy continued under the reign of rigid bureaucracy and difficult working conditions for the poor. It was into this social and educational context that Montessori was born, where the anticipation and disenchantment both had significant impacts on her later vision for the future of education (Kramer, 1988).

O’Donnell (2007) posited that the origins of Montessori education could be traced back to the start of modern science appearing in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, Röhrs (2000, p. 6) suggested that Montessori was one of the first people to attempt founding “… a true science of education” through scientific observation. He used this excerpt from Montessori (1976, p. 120) to explain:

The possibility of observing the mental development of children as natural phenomena and under experimental conditions converts the school itself in activity, to a type of scientific environment devoted to the psychogenetic study of man. (Röhrs, 2000, pp. 6–7)

While the attitude of the Renaissance and the upper classes was deeply pro-science and anticlerical in the years following the unification of Italy (Kramer, 1988), Montessori employed a strong Christian faith alongside her scientific principles, and, therefore, viewed childhood as an extension of Creation (Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957). As such, she employed an amalgamation of methods through her scientific observations and experiments, and her view that hope, faith and trust were the preeminent instruments for teaching confidence and independence to children (Montessori, 1912; Röhrs, 2000). Röhrs (2000, p. 8) asserted that she was successful in connecting her perception of science with “… this form of faith as inner knowledge and improved vision …” This unique worldview at that time in history enabled Montessori to understand the needs of society and see a way that she could improve life for those who couldn’t do it for themselves.


In 1896 Montessori joined an organization for women aimed at inspiring women to safeguard their interests in a supportive environment . It was through this organization that she attended International Women’s Congress in Berlin to represent the women of Italy (Standing, 1957; Stewart-Steinberg, 2007). Stewart-Steinberg (2007, p. 300) stated that at this congress and inside the association, Montessori combined the “practical feminism” of Italy at the time and her medical training to advocate a “scientific feminism.” Stewart-Standing (2007) went on to explain that these women became highly involved in improving hygiene, education, and family morals through their tangible and positive interventions in women’s lives. This practical viewpoint of the suffragette movement also corresponded with changes in the Catholic Church’s view of women’s roles in modern Italy (Stewart-Steinberg, 2007). The Church declared that “… the Madonna wanted women to develop into modern but Catholic subjects … by becoming engaged in social activism” (Stewart-Steinberg, 2007, p. 300). As such, the rapid escalation of women’s participation in charitable works and the improvement of society resulted in a new perception of them—a “canonization” or “beatification” (Stewart-Steinberg, 2007, p. 300). These new understandings of women’s roles in society assisted the rise of Montessori’s fame, and is evident in her works through her implicit use of social activism (Stewart-Steinberg, 2007). Montessori successfully merged her feminism, social activism, medical knowledge, and Christian faith in her social and educational works, where she empowered women to become social equals to men in their improvements of the educational system (Stewart-Steinberg, 2007).

One way Montessori empowered women was through the training of teachers in her methods. As well as social relationships between men and women being disparate at that time, the divide between the teacher and the child was also drastically dissimilar (O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957). Then, the teacher had the right to dominate all classroom activities, but also the child (Standing, 1957). Standing (1957, p. 22) stated “… [Montessori’s] whole life’s work could be summed up as an effort to bring to an end the agelong [sic] struggle … between the Child and the Adult, a struggle which … is no less real because it is carried on unconsciously.” Consequently, in line with her social activism, Montessori advocated a restructuring of the relationship between student and teacher (Standing, 1957). In this improvement was seen the rise of ‘freedom with limits’, where students improved their mental health and grew in self-reliance, independence, and a sense of justice (O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957). These ideas that Montessori was advocating were so unlike the previous teaching methods, that teachers needed re-training (O’Donnell, 2007). However, Standing (1957) alleged that teachers who participated in Montessori’s training courses habitually came to understand more about themselves and controlling their own lives than they did about education and children. As such, some viewed Montessori as a social reformer, where she advocated the rights of those without a voice in society—women, children, and the poor (Standing, 1957; Stewart-Steinberg, 2007).

Montessori endured the worst wars in human history, including surviving internment during World War Two at the age of 69 alongside her son, Mario (O’Donnell, 2007). Although she was released, Mario remained captive until her 70th birthday, which was also the first time she publicly recognised him as her son (O’Donnell, 2007). They were forbidden from leaving India until the completion of the war (O’Donnell, 2007). Montessori made the most of her and Mario’s time there, training thousands of Indian teachers and testing new ideas for early childhood and high school (O’Donnell, 2007). She also met or re-met many influential people whilst there, including Mahatma Gandhi, Krishnamutri, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sir Rabindranath Tagore, who agreed with or praised Montessori’s principles and works (O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957). Other than her time spent in India, Montessori travelled to many different countries over the years for her work, including the Netherlands (where she died in 1952), England, Scotland, America and various areas of Italy (Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957). Wherever she went, she left inspiration and reformation in her wake, changing society’s understandings of education and the role of women.

The theorists that influenced Montessori’s work will be explored in Part 2 next week.

Reference List

Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori Method. English (American E.). Radford: Wilder Publications. 

O’Donnell, M. (2007). Maria Montessori. (R. Bailey, Ed.). London: Bloomsbury Academic. 

Röhrs, H. (2000). Maria Montessori (1870-1952), XXIV(1), 1–12.

Standing, E. M. (1957). Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work. New York: Plume.

Stewart-Steinberg, S. (2007). The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians (1860-1920). Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.