Montessori education was founded by Maria Montessori. She was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. After graduating from secondary school she wanted to study medicine, which was unusual for a woman in those days. Nevertheless she pushed on and graduated in 1896. She started working at a psychiatric clinic and, among other things, observed children with mental disabilities. Montessori read studies by Itard and Séguin and was very much influenced by these authors. When she worked as the co-director of a school that trained teachers in educating mentally disabled children, she incorporated their work in the methods and materials she developed.
In 1907 Montessori started the Cas dei Bambini in Rome with 50 or 60 children between the ages of two or three and six or seven from low-income families in the neighbourhood. She then developed her educational method further by observing the children. The independence of children became the main aim of Montessori education. Free choice of the materials, uninterrupted work, freedom of movement and activity within the limits set by the environment became the leading principles. The teacher’s role was to observe the children and guide the children’s innate urge to development.
The Casa dei Bamini was successful and more schools were started in Italy. Montessori published her ideas and these were widely read. In 1909 she published the first handbook of scientific pedagogy. Between 1910 and 1915 schools were started all over Europe, but also in the US, Asia and Australia.
Montessori travelled all over the world and lived in several countries. For her work on behalf of children and world peace, Maria Montessori was awarded and honoured several times. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1952 she died in The Netherlands and was buried in Noordwijk. Montessori schools can now be found all over the world.
Maria Montessori organized schools with the idea of a learning process in cycles of six years in children as they grow up. This idea was based on her observation of developmental regularities among children. These six years can be divided into two three year periods. This principle does not always coincide with the educational system that countries use, but the three year cycle is dominant in most Montessori primary schools. It means that children of three age groups are in the same class, thereby offering the opportunity of learning from one another. In a Montessori group children belong the first year to the youngest group; the second year they form a middle group and then they proceed to the position of being the oldest children in the class.
Montessori designed materials, which are still used. These materials are based on a combination of concreteness and abstraction, with a gradual change from concrete materials to symbolical materials and then abstract materials as children get older. The materials are colour coded, have clear formats and teach young children psychomotoric skills. The original Montessori materials have been very influential in all types of education and have led to the development of new materials.
In a Montessori classroom children can choose with which material they will work. Uninterrupted work, freedom of movement and activity within limits are the leading principles of the organization of the learning process. The teacher observes and helps the children according these observations. The time in a classroom is child-centred.
The traditional description of a primary Montessori school can be found in Montessori’s “The Method”
Montessori did not make a blueprint for secondary schools. Therefore these schools can be very different; they are, however, all based on the same principles. As children get older, the urge for independence becomes stronger and so does the wish to become a useful member of society. So secondary schools should offer opportunities for children to take part in society. This can be done in various ways, from projects to real life situations such as the farmschool, in which children work on the land and sell what they produce, next to their schoolwork.
In Europe secondary Montessori schools cannot be found in all countries. Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden all have a substantial number of secondary schools.
Montessori’s books have been translated into many languages and are available around the world.
Montessori materials are manufactured by Nienhuis and a few other companies.
In most countries the Montessori schools have organized themselves in a national association. A national association is important in setting standards for the schools. It can also represent the Montessori schools in their contacts with governmental institutions.
In nearly all countries teacher trainer institutions offer a Montessori specialization for primary school teachers.
The AMI (Association Montessori Internationale) is the keeper of the Montessori heritage. The AMI also offers training courses for teachers and has its own quality framework. Montessori Europe is an association with the aim of establishing and promoting Montessori pedagogy throughout Europe.