Montessori had studied the work of Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and Edouard Séguin; she first worked with children who were mentally disabled, observing that they responded well to sensory-rich environments and learned best when engaged in purposeful activities. Montessori used materials designed to appeal to the senses, created learning games and activities, and developed strategies for teachers to guide children in learning rather than lecture them from a book. She published a handbook on her teaching methods and philosophies in 1914, laying the foundation for what became known as the Montessori method of education. After working with children who were mentally disabled, Montessori adapted her methods for preschool-age children and then further adapted her approach for elementary and secondary students.
Montessori’s method differed from conventional pedagogies in that it put a premium on freedom of movement and choice for students. Instead of being confined to desks, children circulated freely in the classroom, choosing the activities that interested them. Student interaction, peer teaching, problem solving, and socialization were encouraged, and students were challenged according to their ability levels.
Today there are Montessori schools all over the world. Montessori schools are part of both private and public school systems, and the Montessori influence is evident particularly in early childhood education and early childhood special education. The name Montessori is not legally protected and can be used by anyone; hence, there are many Montessori organizations.
The Montessori method discourages the traditional measurements of achievement, such as tests and grades. Instead, assessment is based on student-developed portfolios and teachers’ observational data. Teachers help students to make improvements to reach the specified knowledge and skills in each of the curricular areas. Some Montessori schools today provide grades, especially at the secondary level, because grades are an important consideration for college entry requirements.
Critics of Montessori schools have complained that because students are given freedom to choose what they study, certain students will not master areas of the curriculum in which they are not naturally interested. Montessori schools also have been criticized for not assigning homework, not giving tests, and not giving grades.