Maria Montessori, the visionary behind the popular child-directed approach to education, focused her early efforts on groups that had long been excluded from Italy’s schools: children from impoverished backgrounds, kids with disabilities, those with mental illnesses. At the first school Montessori led, she worked with neglected young residents of one of Rome’s poorest, most “disreputable” neighborhoods, San Lorenzo — “a sort of no-man’s-land where the police are reluctant to set foot,” writes Cristina De Stefano in “The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori,” a new biography of the famous educator. “The children of San Lorenzo, above all, elicit her compassion,” De Stefano tells us; they were “barefoot, defenseless, victims of all kinds of abuse.”
It was at this school, the Children’s House, which opened in 1907 for children ages 2 to 6, that Montessori began to crystallize her approach, which emphasizes child-led exploration, manipulation of physical objects and steady teacher observation. She insisted from the start that “the children have to have total freedom of movement. They must be allowed, if they want, to lie on the floor or sit under the table.”
It was a radical pedagogy at the time — no less so because of its application to some of Italy’s most disenfranchised children. One of Montessori’s first essays on education documented the unnecessary treatment of Italian students expelled from school. “The article is an act of accusal against the government, which thinks it can resolve the problem of troubled youth by hiding it from view,” De Stefano writes.
Yet as the Montessori approach quickly spread, it morphed in some parts of the world into something very different: an educational fad for the upper class. In 1911, De Stefano reports, the first American Montessori school opened in a suburb of New York. It was private, was funded by a wealthy bank president and served exclusively students whose families were part of Manhattan’s financial elite. In more recent decades, dozens of public — and free — Montessori programs have opened across the country, often as part of explicit efforts to desegregate schools. Yet it remains an exclusive option in many communities; there are five times as many private Montessori schools in the United States as public ones.
“The Child Is the Teacher” repeatedly evokes this tension between “Montessorism” as something of a social justice movement, aimed at empowering society’s most neglected through education, and as an educational strategy deployed largely to benefit society’s most privileged.
It is that social justice element of Montessorism that Americans need to embrace now, as we emerge from a pandemic that has widened gaps in educational opportunity and outcomes, and contributed to the disappearance of thousands of disproportionately low-income students from classrooms.
In many American communities, low-income children have the least access to programs that prioritize freedom, creativity and critical thought. One recent large-scale study of a public prekindergarten program for low-income children in Tennessee, for instance, found that years later graduates of the program performed worse in school than students who did not attend the program. One of the researchers blamed in part the authoritarian, drill-focused approach to pre-K (a startlingly different approach than most middle- and upper-income families seek out). “Teachers talk a lot, but they seldom listen to children,” the researcher told NPR. “Children are not learning internal control. And if anything, they’re learning sort of an almost allergic reaction to … external control.”
Meanwhile, the government-backed exclusion of “troubled youth” that Montessori railed against at the dawn of the 20th century in Italy persists well into the 21st century in America. One 2020 report found that American public school students lost more than 11 million days of instruction to out-of-school suspension in 2015-16, with Black and Latino students disproportionately affected. And every year, more than 100,000 students are expelled — often to boot-camp-style schools that serve more as holding pens than educational institutions.
We may not wholesale exclude or incarcerate our least-privileged children, as they did more than a century ago in Italy — but at times we come close to it. We need a Montessori revolution in this country, but one focused broadly on reviving and extending the principles of inclusion, access and respect for all children’s bodies and minds that defined Montessori’s early work.
“The Child Is the Teacher” is the first biography of Montessori written by a “non-follower” with no connection to the movement or its founder, according to De Stefano. “I am not an expert in pedagogy and I leave to others the task of explaining Maria Montessori’s thought in all its complexity,” she writes. Her aspiration, she says, is solely to tell “the story of a life.”
And an interesting life it is. In short, vignette-style chapters De Stefano documents Montessori’s unusual and groundbreaking career path from one of the first female physicians in Italy to a feminist leader active in pushing for women’s suffrage to a professor of anthropology at the University of Rome. Throughout most of this work, Montessori maintained an interest in children’s welfare.
The author strongly implies that some of Montessori’s initial interest in children stemmed from a prolonged estrangement from her young son: Conceived out of wedlock, the child was raised primarily at boarding schools, in keeping with convention for upper-middle-class families of the time . At age 15, he reunited with his mother, at which point the Montessori movement was already spreading rapidly. Mother and son remained close-knit partners in spreading the movement for the rest of her life.
Montessori was heavily influenced by the work of Édouard Séguin, a French physician who in the mid-19th century started what was probably Europe’s first special-education class. Working exclusively with students with intellectual disabilities from a Paris asylum, Séguin developed all of their senses by having them work with a range of items, such as feathers, seashells, peas, flour and bearing balls. Montessori absorbed Séguin’s hands-on, immersive approach — and his emphasis on children historically excluded from traditional schools.
De Stefano doesn’t portray a saint who is consistently and exclusively devoted to serving the underserved. Particularly as her movement grew, Montessori became prickly and controlling, concerned about money, expansion and a rigid adherence to her beliefs. In 1919, a German socialist follower opened a Montessori program with the explicit goal of using it as “an instrument of liberation for the children of the proletariat.” Montessori initially refused to sign the diplomas, concerned that too many of the children became atheists. And for years, she collaborated with the fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini, using his powerful endorsement to reignite and expand Montessori schools in her home country. (Their relationship fell apart as he became more belligerent, a breach that forced her to flee Italy before World War II; by the mid-1930s, Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler had closed all Montessori programs in their countries.)
Yet to her death, Montessori never abandoned her faith in the idea that all children, rich and poor, should be more valued, supported and empowered. And whether we embrace her educational methods or not, in that sense we should all be more Montessorian.