Italian physician methods of pedagogical work with children of early age educator best known for the philosophy of education that bears her name, and her writing on scientific pedagogy. At an early age, Montessori broke gender barriers and expectations when she enrolled in classes at an all-boys technical school, with hopes of becoming an engineer.
Montessori was born on August 31, 1870 in Chiaravalle, Italy. Her father, Alessandro Montessori, 33 years old at the time, was an official of the Ministry of Finance working in the local state-run tobacco factory. The Montessori family moved to Florence in 1873 and then to Rome in 1875 because of her father’s work. Montessori entered a public elementary school at the age of 6 in 1876.
Her early school record was “not particularly noteworthy”, although she was awarded certificates for good behavior in the 1st grade and for “lavori donneschi”, or “women’s work”, the next year. In 1883 or 1884, at the age of 13, Montessori entered a secondary, technical school, Regia Scuola Tecnica Michelangelo Buonarroti, where she studied Italian, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, accounting, history, geography, and sciences. She graduated in 1886 with good grades and examination results. She initially intended to pursue the study of engineering upon graduation, an unusual aspiration for a woman in her time and place.
Montessori moved forward with her intention to study medicine. She appealed to Guido Baccelli, the professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rome, but was strongly discouraged. She was met with hostility and harassment from some medical students and professors because of her gender. Because her attendance of classes with men in the presence of a naked body was deemed inappropriate, she was required to perform her dissections of cadavers alone, after hours. She resorted to smoking tobacco to mask the offensive odor of formaldehyde.
From 1896 to 1901, Montessori worked with and researched so-called “phrenasthenic” children—in modern terms, children experiencing some form of mental retardation, illness, or disability. She also began to travel, study, speak, and publish nationally and internationally, coming to prominence as an advocate for women’s rights and education for mentally disabled children. Mario Montessori was born out of her love affair with Giuseppe Montesano, a fellow doctor who was co-director with her of the Orthophrenic School of Rome. Montessori decided to continue her work and studies. After graduating from the University of Rome in 1896, Montessori continued with her research at the University’s psychiatric clinic, and in 1897 she was accepted as a voluntary assistant there. As part of her work, she visited asylums in Rome where she observed children with mental disabilities, observations which were fundamental to her future educational work. In 1897 Montessori spoke on societal responsibility for juvenile delinquency at the National Congress of Medicine in Turin.
In 1898, she wrote several articles and spoke again at the First Pedagogical Conference of Turin, urging the creation of special classes and institutions for mentally disabled children, as well as teacher training for their instructors. In 1900 the National League opened the Scuola Magistrale Ortofrenica, or Orthophrenic School, a “medico-pedagogical institute” for training teachers in educating mentally disabled children with an attached laboratory classroom. The school was an immediate success, attracting the attention of government officials from the departments of education and health, civic leaders, and prominent figures in the fields of education, psychiatry, and anthropology from the University of Rome. The children in the model classroom were drawn from ordinary schools but considered “uneducable” due to their deficiencies.
In 1901, Montessori left the Orthophrenic School and her private practice, and in 1902 she enrolled in the philosophy degree course at the University of Rome. Philosophy at the time included much of what we now consider psychology. She studied theoretical and moral philosophy, the history of philosophy, and psychology as such, but she did not graduate. Montessori’s work developing what she would later call “scientific pedagogy” continued over the next few years. Still in 1902, Montessori presented a report at a second national pedagogical congress in Naples. She published two articles on pedagogy in 1903, and two more the following year.