Maria Montessori would have turned 142 this year. Her Montessori schools helped shape several prominent business leaders and celebrities. (Google)

Maria Montessori would have turned 142 this year. Her Montessori schools helped shape several prominent business leaders and celebrities. (Google)

(Originally posted by The Christian Science Monitor, Chris Gaylord)

<i>Maria Montessori stands in many ways as the mother of alternative education. The Italian physician and teacher invented a new kind of school, one with self-directed learning, classrooms with mixed age groups, and no grades. Now, on what would have been her 142 birthday, thousands of schools bear her name. These Montessori schools have some very famous alumni, many of which credit the free-flowing classes with teaching them to think differently and allowing them to change the world. Here are 10 of the most prominent.</i>

1. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Google ran one of its famous doodles on Friday in honor of Maria Montessori. No surprise, really. Both of the company’s founders went to Montessori schools.

In 2004, ABC’s Barbara Walters asked Larry Page and Sergey Brin about the secret to their success. Both Mr. Page and Mr. Brin had college professors for parents. She wondered if that familial connection to learning played into their success. They said no. Their parents helped, but really their Montessori education was the key. Brin and Page specifically pointed to the curriculum of self-directed learning – where students follow their interests and decide for themselves what they want to learn.

“I think it was part of that training of not following rules and orders, and being self motivated, questioning what’s going on in the world and doing things a little bit differently,” says Page, who’s now CEO of Google.

The transformation from college friends to twin billionaires took several turns. Google may have never taken off if Brin and Page didn’t keep asking themselves: What else can I do? What do I find interesting? How can I make that happen?

As Forbes pointed out last year, Google “wasn’t launched by Larry Page and Sergei Brin as a brilliant vision, but rather as a project to improve library searches, followed by a series of small discoveries that unlocked a revolutionary business model.” The Forbes article credits Montessori education for allowing them to keep tinkering. “Overall,” it says, “there was resonance with the idea that education concerns inspiring students to become life-long learners with a love of education.”

This model has seeped into Google’s corporate culture, as well. The company is famous for its 20-percent rule. Employees should spend one day a week working on something that isn’t in their job description. Basically, be self-directed. This Montessori ideal has led to many major Google products: Google Maps, Alerts, Reader, and many more.

Look for another Silicon Valley megastar as we continue down the list.

2. Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs

Unlike Google‘s founders, Sean Combs (also known as Puffy Daddy, P. Diddy, and now just Diddy) rarely talks about his Montessori background. Perhaps it doesn’t fit the rapper image.

This singer, record producer, and actor was born in Harlem. But after the murder of his father, Mr. Combs and his family moved toMount Vernon, N.Y., just north of the Bronx. There, he attended the Mount Vernon Montessori School.

“The Montessori educational approach might be the surest route to joining the creative elite, which are so overrepresented by the school’s alumni that one might suspect a Montessori Mafia,”writes The Wall Street Journal, which names Combs as part of this talented gang. “Is there something going on here? Is there something about the Montessori approach that nurtures creativity and inventiveness that we can all learn from?”

3. Dakota Fanning

Before starring in “Man on Fire” and “I Am Sam,” Dakota Fanning attended a Montessori school in Georgia. Her family then moved toCalifornia so that she could pursue an acting career.

Her few years in a Montessori environment gave Ms. Fanning an impressive point of pride: “I learned to read at two,” she told “I was in a Montessori school and they teach you to read really, really young.”

4. Julia Child

In her book “Julia Child and Company,” Ms. Child says that Montessori learning taught her to love working with her hands.

“[Maria] Montessori wanted kids to develop ‘a friendly relationship to error,’ – to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that to learn, you must be willing to make mistakes, and then to move forward,” writesJohn Long, head of a Montessori school inHouston, who wrote about Child’s connection to Montessori education.

That’s certainly the schtick behind the famousSaturday Night Live sketch, where Child (played by Dan Aykroyd) ruins just about every part of the meal, yet rolls right along. Child always was graceful under stress.

5. Will Wright

Video game pioneer Will Wright created The Sims, SimCity, and Spore. Each of his widely successful games share a certain spirit. For one thing, they rarely ever say “The End.” Instead, his games let you tinker toward perfection, but let you define that perfection. Whether mapping out a digital city or directing the lives of a pixelated family, players follow whatever path interests them.

“Montessori taught me the joy of discovery,” Mr. Wright told The Wall Street Journal. “It showed you can become interested in pretty complex theories, like Pythagorean theory, say, by playing with blocks. It’s all about learning on your terms, rather than a teacher explaining stuff to you. SimCity comes right out of Montessori.”

6. Jimmy Wales

If you want to learn more about Montessori – the woman or the teaching philosophy – you can always turn to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia run by Montessori graduateJimmy Wales.

“As a child, Wales was a keen reader with an acute intellectual curiosity and, in what he credits to the influence of the Montessori method on the school’s philosophy of education, ‘spent lots of hours pouring [sic] over the Britannicas and World Book Encyclopedias,’ ” says Mr. Wales’ own Wikipedia entry. “There were only four other children in Wales’ grade, so the school grouped together the first through fourth grade students and the fifth through eighth grade students. As an adult, Wales was sharply critical of the government’s treatment of the school, citing the ‘constant interference and bureaucracy and very sort of snobby inspectors from the state’ as a formative influence on his political philosophy.”

7. Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Colombian author of “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” attended a Montessori school as a child.

Many Montessori websites quote the Nobel prize winner as saying, “I do not believe there is a method better than Montessori for making children sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakening their curiosity regarding the secrets of life.”

8. Jeff Bezos

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stands as a key member of the “Montessori Mafia.”

“Mr. Bezos often compares Amazon’s strategy of developing ideas in new markets to ‘planting seeds’ or ‘going down blind alleys,’ ” writes The Wall Street Journal. “Amazon’s executives learn and uncover opportunities as they go. Many efforts turn out to be dead ends, Mr. Bezos has said, ‘But every once in a while, you go down an alley and it opens up into this huge, broad avenue.’ ”

9. Anne Frank

The famous diarist from World War II went to a Montessori school while living in Amsterdam.

10. Strong supporters

This wraps up our 10 graduates. But several notable Americans also greatly supported the movement.

Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the first practical telephone, helped create the first Montessori school in CanadaThomas Edison, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, kickstarted four such schools. And PBS host Fred “Mister” Rogers pushed for expanding Montessori education.

If you’d like to learn more about Maria Montessori, check out Laura Edwins’ piece on how she broke gender boundaries.