The Concrete Materials Part 1: Important attributes of the manipulative materials

Maria Montessori designed her manipulative materials to meet specific developmental needs of children as they progress through the sensitive periods of development. These sensitive periods are also recognised in current research on brain development. Furthermore, Montessori’s holistic and child-focused perception of education and learning corresponds with the expectations and requirements of the National Quality Standard (NQS) and the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF). As such, Montessori’s method is still applicable and relevant to the education of children today.

Important attributes of Montessori manipulative materials

All of Montessori’s manipulative materials are designed to teach or introduce an abstract concept in a concrete way. This visual, sensory, and hands-on approach to learning enables the child to explore the materials in a way that is appropriate for their developmental stage (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; Kramer, 1988; M. Montessori, 1912). Each material has a relationship with later materials in some way, building on what was learnt with one activity with another later on (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; M. Montessori, 1912). The Sensorial curriculum covers all the senses—tactile, gustatory, auditory, thermal, baric, chromatic, olfactory—providing the child with a rich array of learning experiences to teach a love of learning and develop all aspects of the brain’s capabilities (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; M. Montessori, 1912).

To develop the brain’s potential, Montessori’s manipulative materials have several specific features. These features allow the child to work with the materials without much input from an adult, enabling them to explore and learn at their own pace with control over their own learning (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; M. Montessori, 1912). The materials have an in-built control of error so that the child can see if the activity is completed incorrectly (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). For example, if the brown stairs are not graded correctly, the stair appearance will not be achieved. Isolating a single quality aids the child to focus on that quality and not be distracted by other features (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). The colour of the brown stairs, pink tower, or knobless cylinders remains the same whilst the size changes, as size differentiation is the lesson being taught. The Montessori materials require active involvement rather than passive observation (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). Movement, spatial awareness, problem solving, and gross or fine motor skills combine to assist in learning. Finally, the materials are attractive to the child, with mathematical proportions that are aesthetically pleasing, uniformity of beautiful colours, and colour coding that also assists with organisation (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007).

The Geometric Solids

The Montessori manipulatives prepare the child’s mind for academic thought and processing through teaching the child’s senses to isolate a characteristic and hone their observation skills (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). They improve thinking, problem solving, and visual discrimination skills through distinguishing, organising, sorting, classifying, and matching (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). All of these activities are preliminaries for reading, writing, and mathematics, preparing the mind for the sensitive periods of these learning opportunities (M. Montessori, 1912; Morrison, 2007). The materials provide “feedback” to the child, with the patterns and solutions stored in memory to be utilised by the child’s imagination in the form of new ideas and answers (Chisnall & Maher, 2007). Montessori designed these materials to be a link between concrete experience and abstract thought and reasoning, better to absorb learning (Chisnall & Maher, 2007; Kramer, 1988; M. Montessori, 1912). Furthermore, she designed her materials to assist the child in the development of their personalities into “… mature and independent adulthood” (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 31).

Mario Montessori believed that this last aspect of the Montessori materials is usually disregarded when considering their attributes (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). He explained that some believe the Montessori materials are considered too rigid to assist in the unconstrained development of the child’s personality, while others view them as limited and deficient in meticulous systemisation (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). However, Mario recognised that the Montessori materials play a significant role in children’s learning through. He identified two main purposes of the materials—to extend the child’s internal development and to assist the child to obtain new understandings of the world through exploration (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). They sharpen the child’s powers of observation and how to use this gathered information, and he believed that each material also “… challenges the intelligence of the child, who is first intrigued and later fully absorbed by the principles involved” (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 36). Once the principle has been internalised and mastered by the child, they then apply this knowledge to the use of other objects (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976). Mario Montessori goes on to identify the “guiding instincts” or “inner directives” that drive humans to learn and progress, linking them to the sequences (or developmental planes) of development and maturation (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 33). Moreover, he highlights Montessori’s theory of “the absorbent mind” as a developmental tool that children are equipped with but adults are not (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 33). He highlighted that the materials do not teach the “factual knowledge” but rather enable the child to recognise their own knowledge, which in turn expands the child’s faculty for additional learning (M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 36). Consequently, Maria Montessori named this process “materialized abstractions” (Haines, Baker, & Kahn, 2000; M. Montessori, 1912; M. M. J. Montessori, 1976, p. 36; Röhrs, 2000).

Blackfriars Public School Montessori Methods, 1910

Reference List

Chisnall, N., & Maher, M. (2007). Montessori mathematics in early childhood education. Curriculum Matters3(23), 6.

Haines, A., Baker, K., & Kahn, D. (2000). Optimal Developmental Outcomes: The social, moral, cognitive, and emotional dimensions of a Montessori education.

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

Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori MethodEnglish (Second). New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.

Montessori, M. M. J. (1976). Education for Human Development: Understanding Montessori. New York.

Morrison, G. S. (2007). Early Childhood Education TodayEarly childhood education today (Tenth). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

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

History of Montessori’s influence in Australia Part 2: How Montessori’s educational ideas have impacted the wider educational context

At Montessori’s first international training course in 1913, she described the restricting social conditions for children at the time (Feez, 2013). She presented the attendees with the notion of freedom with limits, describing the materials and conditions of her methods, as well as the way a Montessori directress should interact with individual children and their needs (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). Twenty-first century Montessori student teachers still follow a very similar course of topics to that of the first lectures, and her material presentations are just as appealing to modern day children across the globe (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013, p. 108) declared that Montessori training has the same effect now as it did back then in that it “… has a lasting influence on the way people interact with children, and prepare learning environments for them, no matter the context and prevailing wisdom.”

Blackfriars Montessori school, 1913

Although Montessori’s influence was starting to decline in educational leadership circles in the late 1930s, there were some diligent believers who quietly continued their work, such as Norma Selfe (Feez, 2013). There were also still Australians travelling to Rome to learn from and participate in Montessori’s training courses (Feez, 2013). Aside from kindergarten and state infant school teachers, some of the teachers who worked alongside Lillian de Lissa and Martha Simpson were known to have continued their work in the Montessori education field (Feez, 2013). Furthermore, some Montessorians opened private schools across Australia, or were involved in the areas of child health or religious orders (Feez, 2013). Some of these known or significant contributors are described further by Feez (2013). Moreover, Feez (2013) declared the work of these dedicated Australian Montessorians made an impact internationally from the beginning.

Feez (2013, p. 14) marvelled that “… for over a century, and across the world, the Montessori approach has resisted obsolescence, making it an oddity among the educational choices available to parents and teachers today.” In the Montessori schools of the past and present, children are taught how to be independent contributors to society, where this independence is the foundation of their freedom (Feez & Sims, 2014; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984) and where children are “… free to follow their true nature and to learn through their own effort.” (Feez, 2013, p. 15). Children are considered active learners, understood to be developing in a series of stages, through use of a specially designed environment to assist their progression (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). Furthermore, that exploring a concept first in its concrete form is vital for foundational learning (Kramer, 1988; Montessori, 1912; Simons & Simons, 1984). These ideas can still be seen in a variety of early childhood settings today, whether Montessorian or not (Simons & Simons, 1984). Children are being given more choice in their basic educational needs, and their development through learning stages recorded in detail. This idea of observing a child’s development stems from Montessori’s scientific observations she employed during her time as a medical student (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988; Simons & Simons, 1984).

It was Montessori’s belief that these observations were the basis of a Montessori teacher’s work (Feez, 2013; Montessori, 1912). Montessori thought that observing children in the strict, traditional settings of the past could not uncover the truth of each child (Feez, 2013; Montessori, 1912). However, some of the more detailed methods for observing children’s development from the original 1913 training course are no longer used (Feez, 2013). These incredibly precise analyses arose from Montessori’s medical experience at the University of Rome’s Psychiatric hospital (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). They were, however, ground-breaking at the time in that they focussed the educator’s attention on children’s developmental and social needs, presaging the way twenty-first century educators plan individualised learning programs across a diverse range of educational fields and age ranges (Feez, 2013; Simons & Simons, 1984).

Blackfriars Public School, c.1913

Possible reasons why the Montessori approach is not more widespread in Australia

Social conditions during the depression worsened, resulting in increases of infant and maternal mortality, poor health and sanitation, unemployment, homelessness, and overcrowding (Feez, 2013). Free kindergartens and infant schools became safe places where children received care as well as an education (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) noted that the disparity between infant schools and kindergartens became hard to differentiate between at this time as well, so phrases such as early childhood education and preschool became more evident. However, Feez (2013) also acknowledged that there was still a distinct separation between education and childcare. Due to the severity of social and financial conditions, these centres had to reduce staff and resources, which Feez (2013) posited could be a reason for the decline in the Montessori vs. Froebel debate, and the popularity of both.

When the 1937 international New Education Fellowship Conference was held in Australia, the most popular papers and presentations were by “… the new leaders of the progressive education movement, the educational psychologists and psychoanalysts promoting play as the basis of children’s intellectual and social development” (Feez, 2013, p. 107). Although the start of the New Education Fellowship in 1921 was originally inspired by Maria Montessori, and 1937 was the Froebel centenary, there was not much interest shown in either of these educational fields at the conference (Feez, 2013).

Feez (2013) also identified a shortage of trained Montessori teachers as a significant limiting aspect for Montessori education’s reach. She links this to “… the tyranny of distance …”, made worse by teachers leaving the unstable working conditions of small schools for greater security in their careers (Feez, 2013, p. 134). Moreover, Simons and Simons (1984) posited that Montessori teacher training is not up to modern standards of teacher education. This limitation could possibly deter people from undertaking the training. Additionally, Murray (2008) declared that access to Montessori teacher training is limited.

While access to pure Montessori education is still somewhat limited for families in twenty-first century Australia, there seems to be a resurgence in some of its principles, which Lillian de Lissa already remarked upon in 1955 (Feez, 2013). On reflection of the educational ideas of the past, she observed that rather than being outdated, they could have been understood as radical and enlightened thought if worded in more modern phraseology (Feez, 2013). However, it can still be difficult for parents to identify the degree to which a centre is Montessorian, adding to the confusion about what Montessori education actually is (Murray, 2008).

Lastly, limited or misinterpreted understanding of the true nature of Montessori education is another possible limitation (Murray, 2008). Analyses of Montessori education by Simons and Simons (1984) outlined many misunderstandings that are often stated in regard to the field. For example, they argued that the “… classroom environment is frequently impoverished, rigid, and rule-bound” and that “music, dance, drama, literature, and poetry are neglected” (Simons & Simons, 1984, p. 44). This narrow idea that Montessori education is too suffocating of children’s creative potential seems to be a common view in modern society.

Summary of Parts 1 and 2

Montessori’s ideas had a significant impact on Australian education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The concepts of liberty, freedom and independence appealed strongly to the post-invasion, democratic Commonwealth ideals of Australia’s past. The advocacy of a few sparked a tidal wave of educational reform that gradually diminished with the rise of progressive New Education after the war. However, her philosophies continue to influence early childhood education today, whether in Montessori classrooms or otherwise. While there is still limited access to pure Montessori primary and secondary schools, there appears to be increasing interest in Montessori early childhood education. Whether there is a resurgence or not, Dr Maria Montessori left a legacy that changed Australia’s educational history for good.

Reference List

  • Feez, S. (2013). Montessori: The Australian Story. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.
  • Feez, S., & Sims, M. (2014). The Maybanke Lecture 2014 (pp. 1–58). Sydney: Sydney Community Foundation.
  • Kramer, R. (1988). Maria Montessori: A Biography. Chicago: Da Capo Press.
  • Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori MethodEnglish (American E.). Radford: Wilder Publications.
  • Simons, J. A., & Simons, F. A. (1984). Montessori and Regular Preschools: A Comparison. Urbana.

History of Montessori’s influence in Australia Part 1: Beginnings of the Montessori movement in Australia

Montessori’s libertarian philosophies about education impacted significantly on nineteenth and twenty-first century Australian history, at a time of social reform and a desire for democracy. That impact has remained, even though the Australian educational field moved away from authentic Montessori methods in favour of the New Education Movement.

“Australia in the 1890s was in the midst of an economic depression” (Feez, 2013, p. 42). As such, educated women that were committed to social reform established free kindergartens for poor children, including training teachers (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). These women aimed to improve living conditions for the poor, alongside the government’s increasing reformation of primary school education to control child labour and care for neglected children (Feez, 2013). The kindergartens (based on Froebel’s theories of play-based learning) differed greatly from the teacher-directed rote-learning for the masses of infant classes originally established to relieve congestion in schools (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). Nevertheless, Feez (2013) stated that by the 1890s and beginning of the twentieth century, variations of Froebel’s pedagogy were evident in the infant school pedagogies.

Commonwealth Free Kindergarten in Bettington St, Millers Point, c.1910

Like Froebel, Rousseau and Pestalozzi, Montessori’s methods place high significance on the freedom of the child (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). However, many identify more similarities with the works of Itard and Séguin (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Simons & Simons, 1984). Understanding these approaches and their similarities with Montessori education assists in comprehending the appeal of liberty-based education in twentieth century Australia (Feez, 2013). Independence and freedom, as well as being fundamental philosophies of Montessori and Froebel education, are also significant ideologies of Anglo-Australian culture since European invasion and settlement with a focus on democracy and social reform (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). As such, these aspects of Montessori education appealed to the twentieth century educators and continue to motivate parents and teachers to this day (Feez, 2013; Simons & Simons, 1984). Educators discovered that the progress children made through the liberty they were given could easily be transferred to other contexts, providing a real channel for children’s independence (Feez, 2013).  “The Montessori system offered a program of reform to a reform-minded age …” (Kramer, 1988, p. 154).

Reverend Bertram Hawker of South Australia seems to have been the first Australian to see the Montessori system at work in a Casa dei Bambini in Rome (Feez, 2013). Hawker was a notable philanthropist and social reformer, helping the poor in Adelaide and London (Feez, 2013). Through his observations of children in kindergartens, he resolved that play was integral to children’s social, cultural and moral development (Feez, 2013). Consequently, Hawker invited Frances Newton (principal of the Sydney Kindergarten Training College at the time) to Adelaide to assist in starting the South Australian free kindergarten movement (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). Lillian de Lissa accompanied her mentor, Frances Newton, in delivering lectures and presentations on kindergarten methods at Hawker’s home and the Exhibition Building (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007).

In 1911, Hawker visited a Casa dei Bambini and met Dr Montessori (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007). These experiences had such a strong impact on him that he remained in Italy before returning to England and founding their first Montessori classroom, in his own home (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). He then established the Montessori Society of the United Kingdom in 1912, with much of London’s early childhood sector later teaching or advocating Montessori’s methods (Feez, 2013; Kramer, 1988). On Hawker’s return to Adelaide in March 1912, he imparted his new passion for Montessori’s methods to Lillian de Lissa, who subsequently returned to Sydney later that year to see the Blackfriars experiment, travelling on to to Rome for the 1914 Montessori course (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009).

Blackfriars Public School - staff (Margaret Simpson middle row, 3rd from left), 1919

Feez (2013) identified Martha Margaret Mildred Simpson as the educational leader who seems to be the earliest and most prominent advocate for Montessori education in Australia. She had opened an experimental classroom at Blackfriars School in New South Wales by mid-1912, influencing the spread of Montessori philosophies throughout Australia (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Feez (2013, p. 39) noted, however, that a possible contributing factor to the success of the Blackfriars experiment was that “the first Australian Montessorians were trained and experienced teachers …”

Simpson travelled to Rome during the first international Montessori training course in 1913 to meet and learn from Montessori herself, remaining there two months (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Four other experienced and trained Australian teachers also attended the course that year—Rhoda Selfe, Norma Selfe, Ruby Starling and Harriett Emily Barton (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). Ruby Starling had been persuaded by Reverend Hawker to attend Montessori’s course after meeting him and visiting his school (Feez, 2013). In 1913, Montessori’s training course and methods were frequently featured in Australian newspapers, including mention of the four Australian women attending the course at the time (Feez, 2013; Feez & Sims, 2014).

Feez (2013) suggested that the students returning from Montessori’s 2013 course would have been filled with hope and passion for what they had learnt. However, she also stated that the epoch they were returning to was “… far less attuned to their enthusiasm for educational reform based on liberty” (Feez, 2013, p. 88). Upon their return to Australia, the Selfe sisters gained employment as Montessori early childhood teachers, with Rhoda at Blackfriars and Norma at North Newtown Public School (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). However, they did not approve of the way Martha Simpson had adapted Montessori’s methods, so chose to resign to open their own school rather than be moved to rural positions (Feez, 2013). They opened Warwick Montessori School in Ashfield, New South Wales in 1915, starting with 24 students and operating successfully for six years (Feez, 2013).

Ruby Starling, conversely, returned to the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales, opening their first experimental Montessori School in Pyrmont in 1915 with 12 students (Feez, 2013; Feez & Sims, 2014). Ruby’s school (dubbed ‘The Little Brown House’) was also a success, doubling in size over the next nine months, and requiring a waiting list (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013, p. 94) noted that with anti-German feelings raging due to the war, it was a “politically astute” move at the time by the Union to overshadow Froebel’s methods with those of Montessori. However, after family and societal tragedies during the war, Warwick Montessori School closed and The Little Brown House resumed its Frobel-inspired methods, later being renamed ‘Maybanke’ (Feez, 2013).

Montessori Teaching Staff (possibly from Blackfriars Montessori School)

Neither Rhoda Selfe nor Ruby Starling appear to have taught Montessori education after the closure of their schools (Feez, 2013). Norma Selfe, in contrast, started a Montessori class at the Havilah Church of England Children’s home where she and Rhoda had been volunteering after their school’s closure (Feez, 2013). Norma was employed as the Kindergarten Leader by 1924, and utilised Montessori’s methods there until 1948 (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) alleged that Norma’s Montessori Kindergarten class was possibly one of the most longstanding Montessori classes run by the same teacher in Australia’s centenary of Montessori Education.

After Lillian de Lissa’s introduction to Montessori education by Reverend Bertram Hawker, de Lissa explored the methods further through visiting various classes and schools across the globe and attending the second international training course in 1914 (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009). On her way back to Adelaide from the training course, de Lissa visited Perth to present lectures on Montessori’s methods, which had a profound and immediate effect on their teacher training and kindergarten programmes (Feez, 2013; Prochner, 2009). In 1915 de Lissa started trialling the Montessori method in the free kindergartens of Adelaide, and gave lectures for the training college (Feez, 2013). By 1916, the Franklin Street Free Kindergarten was a Montessori Children’s House (Feez, 2013). It was such a success, de Lissa subsequently implemented Montessori’s methods at the Bowden and Halifax Street kindergartens too (Feez, 2013). In 1917 de Lissa returned to England to accept the position of first principal at the Gipsy Hill Training College, where she remained for 30 years (Feez, 2013; O’Donnell, 2007; Prochner, 2009).

Although de Lissa returned to England, her mark on Australian early childhood Montessori education would continue to grow (Prochner, 2009). After the great success of her experimental Montessori classrooms, the program was expanded until all of the Adelaide free kindergartens were Montessorian, and the training college had become the Kindergarten Montessori Training College by 1920 (Feez, 2013). College Montessori School was opened as a private school on the new premises of the training college in North Adelaide in 1918 (Feez, 2013). A graduate of the training college, Helen Jenkins, opened Sydney’s first private Montessori school in Croydon in 1920 (Feez, 2013). Feez (2013) identified that the Montessori program of the Kindergarten Union of western Australia was also expanding during the early 1920s. In 1922 they transferred the training college to West Perth and started a model Montessori kindergarten for children of three to eight years of age (Feez, 2013).

Reference List

  • Feez, S. (2013). Montessori: The Australian Story. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing.
  • Feez, S., & Sims, M. (2014). The Maybanke Lecture 2014 (pp. 1–58). Sydney: Sydney Community Foundation.
  • 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.
  • Prochner, L. (2009). A History of Early Childhood Education in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Vancouver.
  • Simons, J. A., & Simons, F. A. (1984). Montessori and Regular Preschools: A Comparison. Urbana.

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. 

Who was Maria Montessori?

Note: All opinions expressed here are those of the author (derived from extensive research), unless otherwise stated. All references that were used are stated. 

Early home life

Maria Montessori was born in 1870 in the Italian town of Chiaravalle, Ancona (Kramer, 1988; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957; Stewart-Steinberg, 2007). She was an only child whose father, Alessandro Montessori, was a conservative, military man from a noble home, and whose mother, Renilde Stoppani, was the niece of Antonio Stoppani (a well regarded philosopher-scientist-priest) and known for her piety and charm (Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957). Standing (1957) stated that there was great affection and understanding between the two women and that Renilde believed in discipline, evident in Montessori’s works (Standing, 1957).

Montessori inherited an innate sense of personal dignity and authority, and an outlook on life from Renilde and Antonio Stoppani, which was apparent even as a child (Kramer, 1988; Standing, 1957). She also developed an early predisposition for peacemaking and an interest in assisting the poor (Kramer, 1988; Standing, 1957). These mature traits, along with her keen interest in mathematics, affected the way she was viewed and understood by children and adults alike, frequently in a negative way (Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957). Standing (1957, p. 23) cited negative early educational experiences as influencing the significance she placed on  “…treating even the smallest child with a respect that amounts almost to reverence”. Despite some negative experiences, young Montessori was an enthusiastic and curious learner due to Renilde’s encouragement and support (Kramer, 1988).


Educational context

There are differing accounts of when and why Montessori’s family moved to Rome. Kramer (1988) and Stewart-Steinberg (2007) argued that it was due to her father’s work, whilst Standing (1957) believed it was to gain a better education for young Montessori than the Ancona state school could offer. Whatever the case was, it was here that, rather than follow convention and train to be a teacher, Montessori continued her studies in mathematics and science by enrolling in a boys’ technical school with the view of becoming an engineer (Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957; Stewart-Steinberg, 2007). She enrolled in the Regia Scuola Tecnica Michelangleo Buonarroti in 1883 at the age of thirteen (Kramer, 1988).


Further experiences of the limitations of education offered at the time “… gave her a clear model of what a school should not be” (Kramer, 1988, p. 32). Here, she again changed her mind about her future career, moving away from mathematics and engineering and towards biology and medicine (O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957; Stewart-Steinberg, 2007). However, she encountered many impediments before she was able to even enroll at the University of Rome to study medicine (O’Donnell, 2007; Röhrs, 2000; Standing, 1957). Montessori continued to confront many difficulties throughout her studies due to her gender (Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957), but Kramer (1988) and Standing (1957) both agreed that she gradually gained “… a sort of grudging admiration” from her fellow students due to her “pluck” (Standing, 1957, p. 24). She also had to overcome the disapproval of her father for her chosen occupation, although her mother always believed in her ability to succeed in it (Kramer, 1988; Standing, 1957)

She won many scholarships throughout university and paid her way through with private tuition, which Standing (1957, p. 24) stated as influencing her later ideas about “… the value of economic independence in adolescent development.” Her perseverance, dignity, and independence supported her through those early years at university, until she graduated in 1896 with a Doctorate of Medicine and Surgery with honours and a study of neuropathology .

During her final years studying medicine, she worked as a surgical assistant and assistant doctor at the women’s hospital of S. Salvatore al Laterano, the Ospedale Santo Spirito for men, and the Regia Clinica Psichiatrica (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009; Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957). She continued to work at the Psychiatric Clinic after graduating, where she worked with children with additional needs (Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007; Standing, 1957). During this time, she observed that these children had the same desire to learn and play as any other child, so began exploring educational opportunities for them (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009; Kramer, 1988; Standing, 1957). It was also at the University’s Psychiatric Clinic that she first met Dr Giuseppe Montesano, whom she worked with closely on common interests over several years, and who fathered her son, Mario, born in 1898 (Kramer, 1988; O’Donnell, 2007)

Montessori was so inspired by her experiences with the children at the clinic (and with a need to remove herself from the distressing personal situation with Montesano) that she returned to the University of Rome in 1897 to study pedagogy in the department of philosophy, and some psychology topics (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009; Kramer, 1988; Standing, 1957). Her passion for improving the lives of children with additional needs continued in her position at the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica from 1900 to 1901, where she trained special education teachers (Gimbel & Emerson, 2009; Kramer, 1988). In 1904 she was made a Professor at the University of Rome and occupied the Chair of Anthropology for some years (Standing, 1957).


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.

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.