The Child Is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori 
by Cristina de Stefano, translated by Gregory Conti.
Other Press, 368 pp., £27.99, May 2022, 978 1 63542 084 5
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If there was​ one thing Maria Montessori hated, it was play. She also disapproved of toys, fairy tales and fantasy. This came as a surprise to me. I had the impression – from the hippyish reputation of modern Montessori schools – that the essence of the Montessori method was ‘learning through play’. Indeed, this is the way her philosophy is often summarised, including by her admirers. When you read her own words, however, you realise that the foundation of Montessori’s methods was a belief in work: effortful, concentrated, purposeful work. In her view, the work of children was more focused than the work of adults. Many adults were lazy, working only because they were paid to and doing as little as possible. But in her schools, she wrote, ‘we observe something strange: left to themselves, the children work ceaselessly … and after long and continuous activity, the children’s capacity for work does not appear to diminish but to improve.’ The fierce concentration Montessori observed in children had much in common with what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called ‘flow’: the state of being completely absorbed in an activity for its own sake. More recently, some psychologists studying children on the ADHD and autistic spectrums have used the word ‘hyperfocus’. For Montessori, this phenomenon was something that all children were capable of, as creatures of God.

Montessori’s educational theory is both less playful than one might assume and, as Cristina de Stefano’s biography shows, more deeply rooted in Catholicism. She wrote that the task of education was to find in the child ‘the true spirit of man, the design of the Creator: the scientific and religious truth’. She often contrasted her own methods with those of the German education theorist Friedrich Froebel, who died in 1852 (Montessori was born in 1870). Froebel coined the word ‘Kindergarten’ in 1840 to describe preschool establishments where children would spend their days at play. He created a series of sets of objects called ‘play gifts’ (Spielgaben) suitable for children of different ages. For example, ‘gift one’ consisted of balls of coloured yarn and ‘gift three’ consisted of eight identical wooden cubes. Many of Froebel’s gifts were the same objects Montessori used in her schools. The difference was the meaning assigned to them. Froebel thought a child should be encouraged to arrange a set of toy bricks as if they were horses and a stable, and then to rearrange them as a church. To Montessori, such fancies could only result in ‘mental confusion’ and even ‘savagery’ on the part of the child. For her, a brick was a brick was a brick and it was liberating for a child not to have to pretend otherwise.

Dolls’ tea sets were a particular bugbear because they squandered the opportunity to teach children the useful skill of serving an actual meal. Some teachers at a model orphanage once asked Montessori to visit and observe their work. They clearly hoped she would find an affinity between their educational methods and her own. They told her that, like her, they believed in teaching children to lead a practical life. But Montessori thought they had got it hopelessly wrong, as she recounted in The Advanced Montessori Method (1918):

Some children seated at a little table with playthings were laying the table for a doll’s meal; their faces were quite without expression. I looked in amazement at the persons who had invited me; they seemed quite satisfied; they evidently thought that there was no difference between laying a table in play and laying it for an actual meal; for them imaginary life and real life were the same thing.

To give a child a doll’s tea set instead of a real one was a ‘careless error’, Montessori thought, a delusion. Children needed real, practical objects. In her own schools, she saw to it that children as young as three or four were trusted to serve lunch to one another using china plates and serving dishes. She observed with pleasure one day a four-year-old girl called Peppinella carrying a heavy soup tureen from table to table. At each table, Peppinella leaned her hands on the table and ‘did a little hop with her feet’, a sign of relief at setting down the tureen. But she ‘immediately resumed her dignified mien’ and carried it to the next table, like a true worker.

Toys held no charm for a child who had been given a chance to work, Montessori thought. Some people donated toys to the first schools for underprivileged children she established in Rome, but Montessori found that the children showed no interest in them. She tried playing with the toys and the children joined in for a while, but soon returned to their school tasks. ‘That’s when I understood that perhaps play was something inferior in the lives of children and that they resorted to it for lack of anything better to do.’ It wasn’t that she believed imagination served no purpose, but that its purpose was to bring about things that were real. Why did adults waste so much time getting children to imagine the impossible things in fairy tales? If they could imagine fairies, she wrote, ‘it was not difficult for children to imagine America.’ She greatly approved of a three-year-old boy who looked at a globe and said he now understood how his uncle had gone round the world three times. She especially disliked the fantastic lies told to children – the tooth fairy and Father Christmas and stories with talking animals. She saw them as an indulgence on the part of adults:

We are amused by the illusions, the ignorance and the errors of the immature mind, just as at a not very remote date we were amused to see an infant laugh when it was tossed up and down, a proceeding now condemned by infantile hygiene as wrong and dangerous in the extreme. In short, it is we who are amused by the Christmas festivities and the credulity of the child.

As de Stefano explains, Montessori believed that children were born for gran lavoro – ‘immense work’. She wrote that the ‘power of concentration shown by little children from three to four years old has no counterpart save in the annals of genius’. The purpose of education was to provide them with an environment in which they were free to work without interference from adults. This was far more satisfying for children than ‘play devoid of meaning’. When they were tired, it was because they had worked too little rather than too much. One of her principles was that ‘mental work does not exhaust; it gives nourishment, is food for our spirit.’

The radical idea at the heart of Montessori’s method was not that children learn by play but that adults prevent them from learning by interrupting them. It was these interruptions that turned schools into places where ‘the body was tortured and contorted and the blood poisoned’. When a toddler has a tantrum, it is because their natural desire for order has been upset. A child experienced ‘heavy chaos’, Montessori wrote, like a man who owned a huge number of books piled up at random. What the child needed was a sensory education to allow him to uncover the ‘equilibrium’ in his own mind, which would become like ‘a well-arranged museum’.

Montessori’s writings are dotted with moments of epiphany at children’s power of concentration. One of the most famous concerns a girl working with pegboards at the Casa dei Bambini, a school for three to six-year-olds that Montessori helped to establish in San Lorenzo, a poor district of Rome, in 1907. She watched in wonder as the girl repeatedly placed and replaced pegs in a hole. Nothing Montessori could do would distract her. She lifted the girl, still in her chair, onto a table but the girl held on to the pegboard and kept working at it. Then she asked the children to sing and dance in a circle round the table, but still the girl worked. Montessori counted the girl inserting and removing the pegs 44 times without a break or sign of distraction until finally she stopped of her own accord. In one of her books, Montessori described this incident as ‘the story of a miracle’, a spiritual moment. The soul of the child, she wrote, had revealed itself.

It isn’t difficult to find clues to the origin of the Montessori method in Maria’s own childhood. Her fear of being obstructed in her work was strong from an early age. She recalled finding it impossible to study at her state primary school in Rome because the atmosphere was so oppressive. She played because she couldn’t work. ‘At school, I didn’t study at all. I paid very little attention to the teachers, using the lesson time to organise games … I didn’t understand the arithmetic exercises, and for the longest time I wrote down the answers using made-up figures, the first ones that came to mind.’

The atmosphere at home was one of great seriousness. Her father worked at the Ministry of Finance and her mother, Renilde Stoppani, a former teacher who had been forced to give up work when she married, encouraged her daughter (an only child) always to think of the poor and of how she might be useful. Montessori’s obsession with children’s work was foreshadowed in her mother’s obsession with her daughter’s work. Renilde supported her in studying at the Royal Technical School in Rome, which when Montessori joined had just admitted its first group of ten girls, and encouraged her to go to university in 1890 (her father wanted her to stop her education). Montessori talked her way into medical school despite lacking the required qualifications in Latin and Greek. Only two other women had obtained a medical degree from the University of Rome. At the start of each term, her mother would break up the textbook into smaller parts so that it wasn’t too heavy to carry. Montessori was so disgusted by the smell of the corpses in the dissection room that she paid an orderly to smoke next to her. In the end, she started smoking herself. She was also upset by the sight of genitalia, something her Catholic upbringing hadn’t prepared her for. When a female cadaver was uncovered, ‘my sense of modesty was too strong … I was about to faint at the sight of that naked woman.’ The other students didn’t make life easy. In de Stefano’s account: ‘She is chosen to be the first to enter the classroom, so her contact with the other students is reduced to a minimum. She sits in the first row, by herself. She is always the last to leave.’

This gives a flavour of the biography, which paints a portrait of Montessori in 83 tiny episodic chapters. De Stefano’s approach is to combine short, intimate novelistic sentences in the present tense (‘It starts with a little girl. She is sitting in a big classroom with a ceiling that’s way too high’) with long quotations from Montessori and her contemporaries, drawing on unpublished letters, notebooks and diaries from archives in Italy, the US and Spain as well as the Montessori archive in Amsterdam. Episode by episode, de Stefano – who says she is ‘not a Montessorian’ – builds up a weirder and more interesting picture than the one offered by accounts from within the movement. Montessori emerges as an ‘authoritarian, convinced she had a mission entrusted to her by God’ and ‘very opportunistic’. In a letter to a friend after she qualified as a doctor, she wrote that ‘nothing shakes me, nothing. I talk out loud about difficult things with such indifference … that even my professors are left disconcerted, and I have the moral force one would expect of an older woman steeled by experience.’

After five years of research, de Stefano is also convinced that Montessori was a ‘genius’ who identified disturbing truths about the relations between adults and children. For example, she observed that adults seemed to believe they have a right to handle children and that the child had a duty to accept being caressed, even against their will. Another insight – now accepted in pretty much every school in the world – was that the environment must be adapted to the needs and capabilities of the child rather than reflecting the desires of adults. Montessori, de Stefano writes, ‘asks adults to give up their position of strength and superiority with respect to children, in which they have placed themselves, consciously or not, since the beginning of time’.

In​ 1897, Montessori became pregnant by Giuseppe Montesano, a young doctor at the Institute of Hygiene. She was 27 and on the cusp of making the switch from being a doctor to a teacher. Her mother convinced her that rather than marrying Montesano, she should give up the baby – a boy called Mario – and focus on her career. ‘I believe that the mother projected all of her ambitions onto her daughter,’ Montessori’s granddaughter told de Stefano. ‘She would say to her: “You have done what no other woman has ever done in Italy. You are a scientist, a doctor, you are everything. Now because of a baby you could lose everything.”’ Mario was sent to live with a wet nurse and Montesano agreed to his child being brought up at a distance. Montessori seems to have accepted her mother’s judgment that – except for the occasional clandestine visit – she must be separated from her child for the sake of her work: ‘Reality is made of struggle, pain, hard work and that is all life is.’ Much later she wrote that she had said a prayer for her son every night, asking God to give all the joys to him and leave all the sorrows to her.

Through Montesano she was able to visit the asylum in Rome. The children there suffered a vast range of conditions, all of which were classified as ‘phrenasthenic’, a set of mental and physical issues sometimes described at the time as ‘idiocy’ or ‘feeble-mindedness’. There were cases of ‘blindness, muteness, deafness, epilepsy, paralysis, autism, rickets, character disorders, dementia and malnutrition’. Once in the asylum, the children were considered incurable and left in a large empty room. They wore dirty burlap aprons. Instead of beds, they had straw. The woman who showed Montessori round complained that the children were ‘gluttonous’: when they had finished eating, they threw themselves on the ground, gathered up the breadcrumbs and ate those too. Montessori’s theory was that the children weren’t hungry but bored in their horrible empty room. The breadcrumbs were all they had to interact with. With Montesano’s permission, she removed some of the children from the asylum to test her theory that what these ‘little phrenasthenics’ really needed was special education.

Montessori’s experiences with the asylum children led her to read the work of Édouard Séguin. In the 1830s, Séguin had worked as an assistant to Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a doctor responsible for one of the most famous educational experiments in history. Itard had taken into his care a young boy found in the woods of the Aveyron. The boy had been without human contact for so long that he seemed almost an animal. Itard named him Victor and invented many exercises with the aim of turning him into an educated French child, although he ultimately conceded defeat and took Victor to live in the Paris institute for deaf-mutes. Séguin built on this work and in 1840 established the first private institution in Paris dedicated to children with special educational needs. In 1846, he published a book about his experiences. Children who had been written off as hopeless cases were able to learn many skills, he wrote, once they were given a new kind of education based on the use of their senses. To develop their sense of touch, he blindfolded the children and encouraged them to reach inside bags filled with flour, peas and shells. He taught them the alphabet by getting them to handle wooden letters. When Montessori read Séguin’s book, she felt she had found her mission in life. ‘The voice of Séguin seemed to me even then that of the precursor shouting in the desert.’

The next few years were intensely productive. In 1898, Montessori gave what de Stefano calls a ‘pioneering speech’ at the Pedagogical Congress in Turin in favour of better provision for children with special educational needs. She argued that anyone who refused to support the programme had no right to ‘be called a civilised person’. In 1899, she represented Italy at a feminist conference in London and in 1900 she opened the Orthophrenic School of Rome, which was designed both as a teacher training college and a school for children with learning disabilities. Montesano was one of the co-founders. The children at the school developed in extraordinary ways. Their results were as good as those of children without learning disabilities in neighbouring schools; some of them even passed public exams. This prompted Montessori to ask ‘why the healthy children at regular schools should be kept at such a low level that they could be caught by my unfortunate pupils!’ It was a short step to recognising that her adapted version of Séguin’s methods could benefit all children, not just those with learning disabilities. In 1901, she left the Orthophrenic School and in 1907 she set up her first full kindergarten, the Children’s House, in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. It was here that the Montessori method was developed.

Montessori had a personal reason for leaving the Orthophrenic School in such a hurry. In the autumn of 1901, Montesano married someone else. Montessori spent days lying on the floor crying and seems never to have spoken of him again, except obliquely. She described to one student the terrible pain of losing ‘the man you love’ and realising ‘that he is totally different from what you believed’. In San Lorenzo, Montessori seems to have developed a closer bond with the children than at the Orthophrenic School. She wanted the Children’s House to be a home-like space where the children learned useful skills such as how to do up buttons. Because most of her pupils didn’t have learning difficulties, and so needed less intensive support, she found herself moving beyond Séguin’s methods. As de Stefano writes, ‘she showed the children the material and how it works, then she let them work while she observed, or better – as she liked to say – meditated.’ She soon developed the cornerstone of her philosophy: ‘The adult must not remain on high, issuing judgments and grades. The adult must humbly get down among the pupils.’ One of the examples she gave was of a boy who coloured a tree trunk red instead of brown. ‘The teacher wished to interfere, saying: “Do you think trees have red trunks?” I held her back and allowed the child to colour the tree red.’ Eventually, after he had spent time looking at trees in the garden, he started to colour the trunks brown. ‘Thus we have the test of the child’s intellectual progress. We cannot create observers by saying “observe”, but by giving them the power and the means of observation, and these means are procured through the education of the senses.’

Some of Montessori’s most passionate and extraordinary descriptions concern the games of silence she played at the Children’s House. These games, she insisted, were nothing like playing as it is normally understood. They constituted ‘a free activity, ordered to a definite end; not disorderly noise, which distracts the attention’. One three-year-old girl was so determined to succeed at the game of silence that she successfully stifled a sneeze. The children’s love of these games was one reason Montessori turned against toys. She found that children enjoyed the effort of being perfectly silent so much that it was pointless to try to bribe them with sweets or toys.

They were like ships safe in a tranquil harbour, happy in having experienced something new and to have won a victory over themselves. This, indeed, was their recompense. They forgot the promise of sweets, and no longer cared to take the toys, which I had supposed would attract them. I therefore abandoned that useless means, and saw, with surprise, that the game became constantly more perfect, until even children of three years of age remained immovable in the silence.

Her great revelation at the Children’s House was that once children had the right materials, the teacher had very little to do. She provided clay, blocks and pencils; frames to practise doing and undoing buttons; cleaning cloths. There were child-sized mirrors and sinks in the bathroom and child-sized chairs – another innovation that is now universal in schools. She gave the children aprons and sandals that were easy for them to take on and off by themselves. If anyone wanted to lie on the floor or sit under the table, they could. They were also free to move the tables and chairs anywhere they chose. She once observed a child putting away chairs and carefully leaving one of them slightly crooked because it had been that way when he came into the room.

Her most famous educational tools were sandpaper letters. She had originally wanted to commission wooden alphabets like the one Séguin used but these were too expensive. Instead, she made her own letters from paper, glue and sandpaper and soon realised the ‘great superiority’ of this alphabet: the roughness of the sandpaper helped the children to feel the letters before they learned to write them. Two months after the children started exploring these letters, an ‘explosion of writing’ started. One day, Montessori handed a five-year-old boy a piece of chalk and he wrote the words ‘mano’, ‘camino’ and ‘tetto’ (‘hand’, ‘chimney’ and ‘roof’). ‘As he was writing, he kept on shouting “I can write! I know how to write!” … The other children heard him and came over to stand around him in a circle, looking at him in amazement.’ Some of the others asked Montessori for chalk and they, too, wrote a string of words, though they had never held a writing instrument before.

This conspicuous success helped the Montessori method spread around the world. Italian newspapers wrote of the ‘miracle’ of San Lorenzo. Montessori attracted new disciples and new schools were established: first in Milan; then in other locations in Rome; then in the US. In 1913, when she first visited America, a newspaper described her as the ‘most interesting woman of Europe’ and another wrote of ‘Montessori fever’. In Washington, she visited a Montessori school established by Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel. In New York, she gave a lecture at Carnegie Hall, which sold out; a thousand people stood outside in the street to see her. She was introduced by the philosopher John Dewey. ‘The development at which I aim includes the whole child,’ she said. ‘My larger aim is the eventual perfection of the human race.’

In America, Montessori’s authoritarian tendencies were even more evident than they had been in Italy. She formed rapid alliances and fell out with people just as quickly. When she first arrived in the States, her promoter was the journalist Samuel McClure (of McClure’s Magazine). He had a vision, she wrote, of a ‘Montessori-McClure company that will conquer the world and make lots of money’. Her aim was that her son, Mario, with whom she had been reunited, would inherit the company. She wrote affectionate telegrams to McClure (‘dear friend’) begging him to write back to her daily and confiding that she was following Kellogg’s regime of massages and vegetarian food as a way to keep up her energy as she toured America. But only four months after they first met, she had broken with him entirely. Montessori sent one final telegram: ‘DO NOT DO ANYTHING WITHOUT REGULAR CONTRACTS/FORBID PUBLICATION OF LAST YEAR’S LECTURES.’

She began her next visit to the US, in 1914, in high spirits, describing to her father the skyscrapers, the typewriters and electricity, the golden light of Los Angeles and the procession of young women who came to her lectures and wanted to shake her hand. Mario accompanied her this time, introduced to everyone as her nephew. ‘Mario is festive, triumphant,’ she told her father. In San Francisco, she had a classroom built with glass walls so that observers could see the children working away inside. But she continued to be possessive over her method. She offended Mabel Bell, now the president of the Montessori Educational Association, by writing with a string of demands and wanting to approve everything the association did. This list, Bell complained, was ‘so illiberal, so at variance with my conception of all the Montessori idea stands for’. Where, in this insistence on absolute control, was Montessori’s belief in the experimental method?

Her American followers didn’t appreciate that the roots of many of Montessori’s ideas lay in her religion. On Christmas Day 1939, she gave a speech in which she announced that ‘the fallen adult must look to the child for salvation.’ In Barcelona, her method was adopted as a Catholic system of education, championed by Father Antonio Casulleras Calvet, a missionary at Saint Vincent de Paul. The Montessori schools in Catalonia adopted the method as part of a religious curriculum. As well as child-sized tables and chairs, in Barcelona, they also had mini chapels with child-sized sacred vessels and school gardens where children harvested grain and grapes for the sacrament. Montessori, usually anxious to ensure that her ideas were not muddled up with those of any other system, was only too happy to see them combined with Catholicism. She knew that some people thought her approach was anti-religious because she spoke the language of science and had abolished the concept of punishment and reward. Yet it gave her great pleasure, she wrote years later, to know that the priests at Saint Vincent de Paul instinctively recognised her method as fundamentally Catholic.

During​ the 1920s, Montessori made overtures to the Catholic Church in the hope of gaining the approval of the pope. In 1922, she published a book of essays entitled The Child in the Church: Essays on the Religious Education of Children. But she received little love in return. She once complained to Mario that she was seen as too religious for the positivists and too positivist for the ‘religious people’. In 1929, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical criticising ‘scholastic innovators’ and reasserting the principle that children should be corrected and punished when necessary, which seemed a clear rebuke to the Montessori method. In later years, she expressed the hope that her method would be used by people of all faiths. She visited India with Mario in 1939 and was thrilled to be welcomed as a spiritual leader by people ‘who have customs inconceivably different from our own, and who nevertheless are not all savages’. She once wrote to a Dutch disciple who had just converted to Catholicism: ‘The method is a small thing. As I have said in the past, it must be considered similar to a “bar of soap”, a small addition to civilisation; everyone – atheists, Jews, Christians – can use this bar of soap to wash themselves.’ She even offered the bar of soap to Mussolini, though he didn’t take it up with much enthusiasm. Montessori is often depicted as a staunch enemy of dictatorships. In fact, unable to secure approval from the Church, she sought out Mussolini’s protection to ensure her Italian schools weren’t closed down. De Stefano suggests this may have been the reason she never won the Nobel Peace Prize, although she was nominated three years in a row (1949, 1950 and 1951).

In 1928, she wrote to Mussolini calling him the ‘saviour’ of the human race and saying that her work depended on him. In 1930, she felt she had no choice but to accept the appointment of a fascist, Emilio Bodrero, as president of the Opera Montessori, the institute she had founded to promote and oversee her method. In 1931, she wrote to Bodrero (the letter was copied to Mussolini) about the affinities between her method and fascism, both of which were founded on a belief in discipline. ‘In sum, my method can collaborate with fascism so that it will realise the possibilities to construct great spiritual energies; create a real mental hygiene that, when applied to our race, can enhance its enormous powers, which – I am certain – can outstrip the powers of all the other races.’ She also agreed to set up a course in fascist culture at her teacher training school. But these gestures of appeasement were useless. In 1933, Bodrero wrote a report to Mussolini outlining his complaints about Montessori, including her habit of creating personal conflicts with the people who ran Montessori associations. On reading it, she resigned from the Opera Montessori and promptly became an anti-fascist. She wrote to Mario – who had become her greatest confidant and whom she would later describe as ‘the right and legitimate continuer’ of her work – that God had ‘used the only method he had to make us understand that we have worked enough here and that he needs us elsewhere’.

In 1936, all the Montessori schools in Italy were forced to shut. With the help of one of her students, Ada Pierson, Montessori settled in the Netherlands, where she lived until her death in 1952. Pierson gave her a big house in Laren, near Amsterdam, where she dreamed of expanding her method from young children to adolescents, ‘a delicate age, full of surprises’. Teenagers, like young children, were too often crushed and thwarted by school. ‘At fourteen, at sixteen, kids are still subject to the small-minded blackmail of the “bad grade” with which their teachers weigh their work.’ She had a vision of a secondary school where every field of knowledge would be brought together under a single curriculum and adolescents could undertake a combination of manual and intellectual labour. She started referring to teenagers as ‘Erdkinder’ – ‘children of the earth’.

But school was too small a place to contain the universality of her ideas. In The Formation of Man (1949), written when she was nearly eighty, Montessori explained that ‘it is the human personality and not a method of education that must be considered; it is the defence of the child, the scientific recognition of his nature.’ Children, she insisted, were the ‘forgotten citizens’ of the world. To understand their capabilities was to glimpse what all humans were capable of. She argued that her message about work – that it gave meaning to human life, that its full expression was possible only in a state of freedom – had implications for adults working in a factory as much as for children in a school. She was herself an example of the sheer intensity with which adults could work, to the exclusion of the demands of the outside world. In the Children’s House in Rome, where she created the games of silence, Montessori would set a personal example for the children: ‘There is an absolute silence where nothing, absolutely nothing moves. They watch in amazement when I stand in the middle of the room, so quietly that it is really as if “I were not.” Then they strive to imitate me, and to do even better.’

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