History of Montessori Education

In the United States, the Montessori Movement caught on quickly. The first Montessori school opened in 1911, in the home of a prominent banker in Scarborough, New York. Others followed in rapid succession. Unlike Maria Montessori’s first Casa dei Bambini, which was for children from poor, disadvantaged families, these catered to children from wealthy, cultured families striving to give their children the best education possible. Prominent figures, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, gave their support. 

In 1913, Maria Montessori traveled to the U.S. on a 3-week lecture tour, where she was met with crowds of curious and interested supporters. A reception was arranged for her in Washington, DC. Four hundred people attended, including Margaret Wilson, the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, and many foreign ministers and dignitaries.

She lectured to a crowd of 1,000 at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, where she showed “moving pictures” taken at her school in Rome; in response to demand, a second lecture was arranged.

Montessori reported that she found the schools in America faithful to her methods, and considered the trip an overwhelming success.

Dr. Montessori returned to the U.S. in 1915 to demonstrate her method at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and to give an international training course for prospective Montessori teachers.

At the exposition, a Montessori “Glass Classroom” was constructed—that is, a classroom with panoramic glass windows on 3 walls. This unique design enabled spectators to observe, with amazement, the class of young students who worked with intense focus and concentration, seemingly oblivious to the crowd surrounding them.

That same year, 1915, Dr. Montessori was an invited speaker at the prestigious annual conference of the National Education Association in Oakland, California. More than 15,000 educational leaders attended.

The success of the Glass Classroom and Dr. Montessori’s long California visit fueled American interest in Montessori education and its visionary founder, helping to propel Montessori education across the country. American newspapers and educational leaders embraced its founder for both her pedagogy and her personality. By 1916, more than 100 Montessori schools were operating in the U.S.

A Movement Derailed

The Montessori Movement in the U.S. burned out as quickly as it had spread. Language barriers, World War I travel limitations, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the disdain of a few influential educators all contributed to the decline. 

William Kilpatrick, a highly regarded figure in the progressive education movement, and a former student of John Dewey, was one such detractor. He critiqued the Montessori Method in his book, The Montessori System Examined. A popular scholar in the early 20th century, Kilpatrick criticized Dr. Montessori’s credentials, perspectives, and overall philosophy. He dismissed her beliefs of the role of the teacher, ideal classroom size, and classroom materials. And, he rejected her interpretation of the doctrine of development, as well as the amount of freedom the children have in a Montessori school. Kilpatrick’s negative assessment of Montessori quickly became widely known and accepted throughout the U.S.

By the 1920s, Montessori education in the U.S. had almost completely faded away, except for the occasional school or practitioner. 

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