An Introvert as Renegade Educator
Introvert Maria Montessori used her talent for close observation to revolutionize the education of young children.
More than 100 years after the founding of her first school for children, Maria Montessori (1870–1952) is still regarded as a visionary. Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, this determined introvert not only implemented a revolutionary system of self-paced, self-directed education for young children, she also advocated a profound respect for individual differences at all ages. With some 20,000 Montessori schools around the world at present, her educational method continues to offer an alternative to the predominant “obey us,” “listen to us” paradigm of teaching children – an alternative that is remarkably conducive to the temperament of introverts.
The studious and ambitious only child of educated parents, Maria resolved to have a career, but not as a teacher, the only field open to Italian women at that time. Thinking she’d become an engineer, she enrolled in an all-boys technical institute at age 13. Soon she set her sights on medicine instead, fighting hard to enter medical school and to receive the same instruction as men while there.
Those around her described Maria as exceptionally strong-willed and having great self-confidence. Social norms dictated that she had to be escorted to and from the university by her father and that she had to dissect cadavers alone at night instead of alongside male students. Yet she persisted. The year she was completing medical school, she spoke on women’s rights at the 1896 International Women’s Congress in Berlin. Its delegates unanimously adopted her resolution on equal pay for equal work for women. Like her American counterpart in feminism Susan B. Anthony, she had the knack of rousing listeners’ emotions when she spoke, but otherwise she remained earnestly quiet.
In quotes from people who came into contact with her, we get a picture of someone self-possessed and unusually focused on taking in the world around her.
“She always comes alone, advancing boldly, at a slow pace, absorbed in her thoughts.”
“She is not aloof, but she is always apart, serene and untouched.”
“She has a way, that might be disconcerting to some people, of remaining silent, contemplating what has just been said, with an absolutely non-committal expression, for so long that you wonder whether she has understood.”
“Intense, severe, always dressed in dark colors, she lives as though immersed in a sort of spiritual and scientific retreat.”
Montessori’s penchant for observation led to a key breakthrough when, as a young physician, she took on the task of helping children labeled “feeble-minded” who had been abandoned in a free-for-all asylum. Watching these children closely from morning until night, she noted small signs of creativity and initiative. After two years of relentlessly encouraging each spark of intelligence that the children spontaneously manifested, Montessori had her supposed “idiots” take a state-sponsored exam, where many of them scored just as well as “normal” same-age children.
She repeated this experiment with under-nourished, neglected children in a neighborhood of tenements, with the same remarkable results. Her success could only come about by Montessori suspending all previous assumptions about how children learn and feeling her way toward a fresh method from the ground up.
Gradually Montessori summarized her findings and trained teachers based on principles that upended top-down educational traditions. The new philosophy placed teachers in the role of facilitators rather than lecturers and disciplinarians. “Instead of making the child pay attention to you and respect you,” the Montessori method advised, “you pay attention to and respect the child.”
Other untraditional aspects of the method included mixing children of different ages; letting children progress individually as they followed their interests; substituting intrinsic motivation and independence for gold stars and obedience; a setting replete with child-sized furniture, educational stimulants and learning aids; and a calm classroom ambiance where children cleaned up after themselves.
For a time, “Il Duce” Mussolini supported her work, but when Montessori refused to cooperate with his plan to fold her schools into his fascist youth movement, he closed down all the Montessori schools in Italy. By that time, word of her approach had spread internationally, thanks to wealthy devotees, enthusiastic impresarios, best-selling books by Montessori, and public fascination, as with the crowds that gathered around a Montessori classroom at a 1915 exposition in San Francisco. Inside a spacious cube with walls of windows, about 30 children enthralled fair-goers by quietly following their own curiosity, remaining absorbed and well-behaved throughout the day, and eating with impeccable table manners.
Within Montessori’s educational empire, however, all was not peace and light. The self-confidence that had enabled her to develop a child-centered learning method had a flip side where Montessori struggled to delegate responsibilities, clashed with various investors and tried to impose her will on collaborators in ways small and large. In the biography The Child is the Teacher, the adjective “imperious” crops up again and again to describe her behavior. One commentator said of Montessori “She sailed into situations like a battleship.”
Considering Maria Montessori’s career, two things strike me most. First, much of her success stemmed from her ability to set aside received ideas and pay close attention to small details of reality, without preconceptions. This kind of mental independence comes more easily to introverts than to extroverts. And second, although I have no first-hand experience of Montessori classrooms, from what I’ve read they sound especially suited to introverts, with their subdued atmosphere, their reliance on intrinsic motivation, their respect for self-directed learning and their rejection of adult-imposed punishments, power and authority.