The paradoxes of Maria Montessori

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Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Maria Montessori, Lumen has just published the biography that Cristina De Stefano dedicates to this woman pioneer of feminism and new pedagogies. Titled The child is the teacher, the Italian journalist has spent years investigating the figure of Montessori, investigating unpublished letters, direct testimonies, essays, and journalistic texts to trace the biography of one of the few women whose face she has illustrated. a bill - the old Italian thousand lire bill.

In this passionate biography, the feminist, medical doctor, businesswoman, daughter and mother (hers being a somewhat sui generis motherhood) is portrayed, with her lights and shadows. Maria became pregnant when she was single, the result of her relationship with her colleague (and love of her life) Giuseppe Montesano. From this relationship, Mario Montessori was born in 1898, her only child, whom she did not raise and whom she always presented as her nephew. These were unfortunate times for a single mother and her own mother, Renilde Stoppani, who warned her: “You have done what no woman has done in Italy: you are a scientist, a doctor, you are everything, and now for a child you do it. you lose everything ”.

Paradoxically - and this story is full of paradoxes - Maria began her pedagogical project with the children of the Rome asylum, later directing a kindergarten in the humble neighbourhood of San Lorenzo. From this poor neighbourhood, her method jumped and spread like wildfire, especially in countries of Anglo-Saxon culture and reaching this great popularity that continues to this day.

 We have interviewed the author of El niño es el maestro, Cristina De Stefano, who tells us first-hand her motivations, opinions, discoveries and some curiosities about the figure of Maria Montessori and her method.

Part of your career is dedicated to the investigation of notable women, fighters, feminists, relevant, brave ... what has been your inspiration or the starting point to set yourself and give voice to the lives of women like Oriana Fallaci, Maria Montessori or Cristina Country?

I never went to a Montessori school, nor have my children studied in Montessori schools, so I didn't know anything about her before I started writing. But I like great women and I was struck by the contrast between the fact that the name Montessori was so famous all over the world but so little was known about the person of Maria Montessori. So I decided to do my research and found that there were indeed very few books written about her. There was an American biography from the 1970s and many books about her movement, her method. But the mystery that surrounded the figure of Maria Montessori attracted me. There is a lot of wrong information and a lot of mistakes. So I decided, as a person who knew absolutely nothing about her, to take care of her.

I don't know if the fact that I didn't know about Montessori is good or bad. I think it's good because it's like when you walk into Alice in Wonderland from the outside. You ask questions, naive perhaps, but what are the questions to ask. I am curious to know how the Montessori movement embraces my book. Personally, I think it is a book that was needed.

During my career, I have dealt with very different women from each other. I think the common point and what attracts me the most about them is their energy. In other words, all of them are women who give off enormous energy, such as Cristina Campo and Oriana Fallaci; Also the adventurous Americans - writers, photographers, ladies of society, actresses, a feminist precursor, an aviator ... -, about whom I wrote a book, are characters like that, with a special and enormous energy. And sometimes they got hurt, they got hurt. Because when you have so much energy, sometimes you take damage to leave something behind. This attracts me a lot because, as a woman, I am obviously attracted to female figures. But I'm not always like that: I think biographies are read and written to live other lives and learn new lessons… without hurting yourself in the first person.

There are several points of contact between the women I write about. Cristina Campo was a very spiritual woman, as was Maria Montessori. This was a surprise to me: I was unaware of this spiritual aspect of Maria, I found out later. So to speak, there are like hidden connections between them. Montessori, for example, was very authoritarian, just like Oriana Fallaci.


The origins of the Montessori method are striking: Maria Montessori began working with children in situations of poverty or social fragility. It is striking that, right now, in Spain, parents who wish to opt for an educational center with the Montessori label must have a more than healthy economic situation. Why has it gone from being a philosophy conceived from the humble to an option within the reach of the most favoured?

It is a paradox. It's stupid. Indeed, if you speak of the Montessori method today, you immediately think of private schools for healthy economies. It is an absolute paradox. The origin of the Montessori method is Maria's work with children in poverty, it is a method of inclusion. I believe - and I explain in the book - that the method was not democratized due to Maria's difficult character. It was not adopted by the Italian public system basically because it was not possible. Maria had to seek financing at the private level, financing that at that time could only be offered by the elites of society. Her method was born in poor neighbourhoods but was adopted by the elites, especially at the Anglo-Saxon level. That is why it became an elite school ... but we must not forget its origins.

There are countries whose public schools have adopted the Montessori method. In the Netherlands, for example, there are many public Montessori schools, from kindergarten to high school. In Italy, things are changing. More and more public schools are adopting this method. Also in France. The training and acquisition of Montessori material have an initial cost, but it is a material that does not age, does not wear out. If you put Montessori material in a class, it will last 20 or 30 years. It is not plastic material, it is material made of wood, it is practically indestructible material. And secondly, one of the rules of the Montessori method is to have only one set of each material for each class. Really, the investment in Montessori materials is not inordinate. Unfortunately, there is also marketing around this method: many boxes of Montessori materials are sold to parents who want to invest in training their children in this way. But, if we remove marketing from the equation, the Montessori method has a place in public schools, as it does not require a large investment.

A young French teacher, Céline Álvarez, asked to take over the education of a class in a school located in a marginal neighbourhood of Paris and, for two years, she applied the Montessori method in a hybrid way. She got incredible results. She wrote a book, The Natural Laws of the Child, which recounts this experience. Her experiment shows that the public school can successfully integrate the Montessori method: it is a political decision.


What would you highlight about the passage of Maria Montessori through our country?

To begin with, Maria Montessori lived in Barcelona for a few years, but in reality, she was always travelling, with which she had a discontinuous relationship with Spain. She learned Spanish even though she was not good at languages ​​- she spoke very poor English, for example. The base of her family was in Barcelona. Her son Mario hers lived in Barcelona with his wife and his children. After the First World War and until the Spanish Civil War, she had a base here.

She managed to involve the public authorities in Catalonia in her project and her collaboration with them was very close. One thing that caught my attention was the link between Maria and religion. Because María, in the years in which she lived in Spain, began to collaborate with different religious orders in Barcelona. She developed with them the thought and connection with religion. She even wrote books in which she prepares material to teach the sacred rites, the mass, etc. to children. This aspect of Maria's work in Spain is not well known. She herself tried not to do much publicity about it, keeping the method above all else. She wrote several books on religious meaning, books that she wrote in Spain. Therefore, I think that Spain was a country that reacted very early to the method, even in the public sector, especially in Catalonia. And the reason is that Catalonia, in those years, paid a lot of attention to education. Anarchy also had this attention to education, it found quite fertile ground for its growth, recovered after the Civil War. Obviously, part of this inertia was lost at the beginning of the war, but I would like to extend an invitation to young Spanish writers: I did not find any books on Maria Montessori in Spain. I found some articles, not much. I was hoping to find a biography, more material ... It could be a good idea for a historian to study the archives, see the characters associated with the method, who have developed or applied it ... In Spain these characters were colourful: missionaries returning from South America, for example. There is a South American millionaire who invested a lot of money to create Montessori schools ... well: there are interesting characters who could be investigated.

Why was Maria's ideological revolution a failed revolution?

At first, in my research, I thought it was her fault. Because clearly, she was very authoritarian in managing the movement, she was a fundamentalist. She said that it only had to be applied in a pure way, that it should not be mixed with other methods. In addition, she had a strong desire for control over teacher training: she wanted to train all teachers and her students could not, in turn, train other students. I thought it was all her fault, that she wanted to leave this method and launch her message, but she did not let him free in the world. 

As I investigated, I realized that it wasn't just her fault. One of the reasons for this failed revolution, a revolution that did not become a revolution is, perhaps, the utopia of her thought. It is so radical ... that it requires discarding everything that has been done so far.

Other than applying the Montessori method in school, in general, obeys two aspects. One is its radicality. You have to do a clean sweep and start over from scratch. And the second aspect is that it requires an adult's work on himself similar to psychoanalysis. It is difficult, in public schools, to train all teachers correctly. I believe that this revolution is a failed revolution because of Maria's personality, because of her personal choices and also because of the radical nature of her thinking. It is a thought that puts the adult in crisis. Surely we do not really want to get into it and we prefer to think that it is a thing for a few. I am very sorry because I believe that the method, the idea of ​​Maria Montessori, has a kind of yeast that can make the lives of children and adults much easier in the future.

What is the footprint of your children in this study?

My children are already older. They are 24 and 27 years old, so they no longer live with me. I was a very distracted mother, she worked a lot. Therefore, while I was studying Maria Montessori, I was very sorry not to have read these coasts about her, being a young mother, because perhaps I would have observed my children with a little more attention. On the other hand, maybe I didn't leave too much damage to them because one of Montessori's messages is to let the child be, don't intervene so much, let it be. In the end, without looking for it, maybe I was a mother who respected her children a lot because of that because she didn't focus too much on them.

Now I am a mother with older children, but I can say that I came out of this work on Maria Montessori - a work developed over years - with a different vision. Now I pay much more attention to children when I interact with them. I listen to a lot more - I usually talk a lot -, I sit down, I look at them, I watch them, I hope they tell me what they want. I think it is always very interesting. That is why I have chosen this title, because teachers are children, for example, in their way of wondering, of getting excited about life.

Any advice to apply some principles of the Montessori method in our homes, waiting for future confinement?

Speaking of confinement, it is difficult to give advice. I think that if I were a young mother, right now I would try to be in contact with nature as much as possible. Nature is the first book, said Maria Montessori. If you can, try to take your children to the countryside, because nature teaches a lot.

At home you have to remember what Maria Montessori used to say: that the child does not play, the child works. That is, what he is doing helps him understand things. As parents, it is interesting to avoid distracting the child: you do not have to give him things to do to keep him calm. You have to let the child move within her environment and let him choose the activities he wants to do.

A curious example: Maria Montessori said that, at home, the children's bed had to always be level with the ground, because she said that the child had to be able to go to bed when he decided and get up when he decided. When I read this I thought that it is the complete opposite of what we usually do: we even put railings on the beds so they do not fall. However, she in a letter defends that a six-month-old child can have a safe bed, as long as he is close to the ground.

 A parent, at home, can develop a Montessori-style prepared environment. And for this you do not need too many financial resources. Build it around not the demands, but the nature of the child. Returning to the example of the bed: if it makes the child freer, he may wake up at night and get up, but if he is in a crib with bars, he may cry at night. Then it is preferable that he can get out of bed. Obviously, you have to be careful with safety, but you have to let the child enter the kitchen and touch what is in it, because the child loves to do things with the parents. Imagine that you are in your kitchen, cleaning. Children, when they are young, follow you everywhere. They may ask you to let them clean up. and surely you say: "no, I already do". Maria says that children love to clean, to put order. Mothers or fathers who want to be Montessori - obviously maintaining certain security at home - have to let the child do it.

Another very nice example is that she, in her first school, had created the dining room so that small children could eat, but all the crockery utensils could break: crystal glasses, porcelain plates ... Obviously, there is a risk that the glass will fall and it breaks, but she said that children pay much more attention and care in what they do than we imagine. If you give a child a glass full of water, overflowing, and ask him to move it to another place, the child will take short steps, trying not to spill the water. You don't have to look for precision in them, you have to accept the risk that glass will break.

The important thing, in the end, is to try to respect the needs of children. Montessori was not talking about the boy king, the boy who says I, me, me. She defended that the rules are important, but that it is necessary to explain them to the child.

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