The “Montessori method” developed from experimental research that Dr. Maria Montessori conducted with disabled and mentally challenged children in the early 1900s.She began this research using the basic idea of scientific education that was developed and employed in the 1800s with special needs children by French physicians Jean Itard and Edouard Seguin. A student and associate of Itard, Seguin extended Itard’s initial idea of observing children in their natural, free activity by adding a series of exercises with specially designed self-teaching materials. Based on Dr. Montessori’s success using this same approach in her initial research with disabled and physically challenged children, she began to look for an opportunity to study how it might be applied to benefit the education of more ordinary children as well.

In 1906, the opportunity presented itself when Montessori was asked to establish a day-care center for young children in a low-income housing area of Rome’s San Lorenzo district. She opened the center in 1907, calling it a Children’s House, and began observing the children in the scientific manner indicated before by Seguin. In this process, Dr. Montessori soon discovered that the children responded to the materials with a deep concentration that resulted in a fundamental shift in their way of being, changing from the ordinary behavior of fantasy, inattention, and disorder, to a state of profound peace, calm and order within their environment. Observing this change occurring with all the children in her environment, she concluded that she had discovered the child’s true normal nature. Later, Dr. Montessori referred to this change as normalization and the new emerging children as normalized.

After 1907, Dr. Montessori reported her discovery and experiences to educators and others who became increasingly interested in learning how these changes came about in children. This interest soon led her to write various books on the subject and conduct training programs to explain her approach, which eventually came to be known as the “Montessori method.”

Following her initial experiments with young children, Montessori extended her research by introducing new materials and studying the effects of her approach with children of different ages. For example, near the end of her life, in her book De l’Enfant à l’Adolescent,(From Childhood to Adolescence), Montessori contributed to the work of the International Bureau of Education and UNESCO, by relating how her method would apply to the secondary-school and university settings. Her writings, lectures, and research during some 40 years until her death in 1952 constituted the basic foundation of knowledge about the method, which is currently conducted according to various philosophies in schools and other institutions associated with the name Montessori throughout the world.

Since Dr. Montessori’s death in 1952, the method has developed along several different philosophical tracks. Each tract has evolved its own distinctive organizational affiliations, training and presentation of the method to the general public.

The Montessori method involves a curriculum of learning that comes from the child’s own natural inner guidance and expresses itself in outward behavior as the child’s various individual interests are at work. Supporting this inner plan of nature, the method provides a range of materials to stimulate the child’s interest through self-directed activity.

In the Montessori method, a lesson is an experimental interaction with children to support their true normal development. With materials, these lessons primarily aim to present their basic use to children according to their own individual interests. These lessons are therefore given in such a way that the teacher’s personal involvement is reduced to the least amount possible, so as not to interfere with the child’s own free learning directly through the materials themselves.

For many presentations, a three-step process, described originally by Seguin, is used in the Montessori method for showing the relationship between objects and names. This is called the “three-period lesson.”
 With this nomenclature lesson, two or three materials are selected from what the children are working with.

Period 1 consists of providing the child with the name of the material. In the case of letter sounds, the teacher will have the child trace the letter and say, “This is /u/. This is /p/.” This provides the children with the name of what they are learning.

Period 2 is to help the child recognize the different objects. Most of the time with the three-period lesson is in period 2. Some things the teacher might say are, “Show me the /u/. Show me the /p/” or “Point to the /u/. Point to the /p/.” After spending some time in the second period, the child may move on to period 3.
Period 3 involves checking to see if the child not only recognizes the name of the material, but is able to tell you what it is. The teacher will point to the “u” sandpaper letter and ask the student, “What is this?” If the child replies with, “uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu”, the child fully understands it. With letters, the lesson finally ends with the child blending the letters to make a simple word, such as “up”.

Angeline Stoll Lillard’s award-winning 2005 book Montessori: “The Science Behind the Genius” (Oxford University Press) presents a recent overview evaluating Montessori versus conventional education in terms of research relevant to their underlying principles. Lillard cites research indicating that Montessori’s basic methods are more suited to what psychology research reveals about human development, and argues the need for more research.

A 2006 study published in the journal “Science” concluded that Montessori students (at ages 5 and 12) performed better than control students who had lost a random computerized lottery to attend a Montessori school and instead went to a variety of different conventional schools. This improved performance was achieved in a variety of areas, including not only traditional academic areas such as language and math, but in social skills as well.

On several dimensions, children at a public inner city Montessori school had superior outcomes relative to a sample of Montessori applicants who, because of a random lottery, attended other schools. By the end of kindergarten, the Montessori children performed better on standardized tests of reading and math, engaged in positive interaction on the playground more, and showed advanced social cognition and executive control more. They also showed more concern for fairness and justice. At the end of elementary school, Montessori children wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.

The authors concluded that, “when strictly implemented, Montessori education fosters social and academic skills that are equal or superior to those fostered by a pool of other types of schools.” Research by K. Dohrmann and colleagues supplements this by showing superior math and science performance in high school by children who previously attended public Montessori (as compared to high school classmates, over half of whom were at the most selective city public high schools); and two studies by Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi showing a higher level of interest and motivation while doing school work as well as more positive social relations among Montessori middle-schoolers as opposed to matched controls.