Montessori With Finnish Characteristics

Finland broke out on the education scene in 2010 after the controversial film Waiting for Superman (wiki) publicized that country’s surprising strength in international rankings with an education system founded on equity, serious teacher preparation, and a striking absence of testing. From the Finnish National Board of Education, helpfully provided in English:

The main objective of Finnish education policy is to offer all citizens equal opportunities to receive education. The structure of the education system reflects these principles. The system is highly permeable, that is, there are no dead-ends preventing progression to higher levels of education.

The focus in education is on learning rather than testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of the objectives included in the curriculum.

Other elements include critical support for early childhood education, formal education beginning at 7, a homogenous culture, and centralized control in a small country. (Finland has a population of 5.4 million, about the size of Minnesota.)

The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Smithsonian, among many others, took notice, and Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg’s 2012 book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn about Educational Change in Finland? covered the system in detail.

And Finland is still hot, although they have slipped in the rankings.

Now Sahlberg has a post picked up by Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss: Five U.S. innovations that helped Finland’s schools improve but that American reformers now ignore.  (With a follow-up comment from Howard Gardner!) The essence: Finland’s system is driven by innovations researched in the U.S. but not adopted here. And what are the innovations? Some of them sound strangely familiar…

It’s a long piece—read the whole thing here. Edited, highlighted, and annotated:

Finland’s Innovations in Education

1. John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education

[I]n an ideal classroom, pupils speak more than the teacher. … It is understandable that the pragmatic, child-centered educational thinking of John Dewey has been widely accepted among Finnish educators. … Many Finnish schools have adopted Dewey’s view of education for democracy by enhancing students’ access to decision-making regarding their own lives and studying in school.

Dewey (father of progressive, constructivist education) has a bad name in Montessori because his follower W. H. Kilpatrick publicly slighted her work in 1915, but at a one hundred year remove, they have a great deal in common. She merits 20 sensitive, detailed, mostly positive pages in his 1915 book Schools of Tomorrow. But that’s another post.

2. Cooperative Learning

Unlike in most other countries, cooperative learning has become a pedagogical approach that is widely practiced throughout Finnish education system. … The 1994 National Curriculum included a requirement that all schools design their own curricula in a way that would enhance teaching and learning according to constructivist educational ideas.

3. Multiple Intelligences

This part leans heavily on Martin Gardner’s work, but take out the jargon and here’s what’s left:

[S]chool reform in Finland included another idea …: development of the whole child. The overall goal of schooling in Finland was to support the child’s holistic development and growth … schools have a balanced program, blending academic subjects with art, music, crafts, and physical education. This framework moreover mandated that all schools provide students with sufficient time for their self-directive activities.

4. Alternative Classroom Assessments

Without frequent standardized and census-based testing, the Finnish education system relies on local monitoring and teacher-made student assessments. A child-centered, interaction-rich whole-child approach in the national curriculum requires that different student assessment models are used in schools. Furthermore, primary school pupils don’t get any grades in their assessments before they are in fifth grade.

5. Peer Coaching

Peer coaching—that is, a confidential process through which teachers work together to reflect on current practices, expand, improve, and learn new skills, exchange ideas, conduct classroom research and solve problems together in school

This doesn’t really have anything to do with Montessori. But, it sure sounds like a good idea!

There’s been a lot about what we can’t learn from the Finns, and how their small, homogenous, welfare-state system isn’t relevant to our situation. But what if there were already a well-developed model, available here, that was founded on the same principles…what would that look like?

Forward, Adovcacy! Now With ECERS-R

That comment the other day about advocacy for public Montessori obviously caught my attention. More people should know about the outstanding advocacy work at Montessori Forward, a website, blog, Google group, and community of Montessorians which make up a crowd-sourced yet deeply researched source for the latest advocacy and public policy news.

Now the MForward community has come out with a tool that could be a huge boost for Montessori Primary programs engaging with QRIS (Quality Rating and Improvemt Systems) policies in their states.  You may have heard of the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, or ECERS-R, a widely used instrument for rating pre-school programs under QRIS.  Montessori schools can do badly on the ECERS-R for lacking multiple sets of materials, plush toys, and dress-up.

MForward’s The Montessori Guide to ECERS-R, professionally written and incorporating successful work from several states, aligns Montessori practice with the goals of the ECERS-R standards and explains our developmental theory and pedagogy. It’s available on the site for anyone to use.

I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from Montessori Forward. Here’s a sampling:

  • Montessori Forward was first on the scene with QRIS and keeps a running narrative of Montessori schools’ struggles, strategies, and successes. There’s a great page of resources here.
  • Ohio recently passed charter school legislation allowing children under 5, as well as providing state teacher credentials for AMI and AMS trained teachers.
  • The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), a multi-billion dollar piece of legislation will be revised this year for the first time since 1996 with huge implications for all of early childhood education. Here’s the post; here’s a deep dive. Amendments specifically mentioning Montessori were under consideration, but may not make into the final draft.

Follow the blog for so much more. It’s an incredible resource.
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Montessori and Google: Early Influences Count

Comes now an article (h/t Madmen) in The Guardian: How Google’s Larry Page became a responsible entrepreneur, by Carol Sanford (actually an excerpt from her new book The Responsible Entrepreneur). Excerpts from the excerpt:

To understand Google’s orientation toward creating global change, it’s helpful to know a bit about four influences that helped shape Larry Page’s world view: his grandfather’s history in the early labor movement, his education in Montessori schools, his admiration for the visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, and his participation in the LeaderShape Institute … These helped build in Page the desire and confidence to take on large-scale systemic change. (emphasis added)

An unconventional education was a second significant influence in Page’s life. Like his Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, Page attended Montessori schools until he entered high school. They both cite the educational method of Maria Montessori as the major influence in how they designed Google’s work systems. (emphasis in the original!)

This we’ve heard before, although corroboration is always great. But what’s also great is how she gets Montessori:

The Montessori Method believes that it has a “duty to undertake, in the school of the future, to revolutionize the individual.” Montessori’s ultimate goal of education was to create individuals who could improve society and were unafraid to take on seemingly impossible tasks. In fact, Montessori spoke at length about education for peace. “Everything that concerns education assumes today an importance of a general kind, and must represent a protection and a practical aid to the development of man; that is to say, it must aim at improving the individual in order to improve society”

Sounds about right. (The first quote is from long out-of-print Pedagogical Anthropology, believe it or not.  The second is in From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 59 in the Clio version.) Continuing on:

Maria Montessori believed that the liberty of the child was of utmost importance. For her it was imperative that the school allow a child’s activities to freely develop. Without this freedom, children could not grow the personal agency that would allow them to serve a social purpose as adults. Thus, Page’s childhood education promoted independence. It encouraged students to grow at their own rate. They were allowed large chunks of uninterrupted time to work on projects they created themselves. Students were encouraged to take on small-scale but real-world challenges and to invent ways to solve them.

It’s easy to see how Google’s well-known policy of encouraging all engineers to dedicate 20% of work time to projects of personal interest grew directly out of this educational history. And why collaboration without supervision is core to Google’s work culture. And why Page repeatedly exhorts his colleagues to generate “10x returns” with regard to the social benefits they are striving to create. He is recreating the inspiring learning environment he had as a child, where the focus was on growing free people with the capacity to transform society.

This nails it. It wasn’t about early literacy, clever and intuitive materials, or a comprehensive approach to the study of the universe—although Montessori has all that. It was liberty, freedom to develop, independence, uninterrupted work, and  growing “the personal agency that would allow them to serve a social purpose as adults.

Comments are open on the Guardian piece. More about Carol Sanford at her website. More about the book here.

Montessori in the Public Sphere

So this is happening in St. Louis, once again thanks to the Montessori Madmen:

Montessori billboard

It’s an advertising collaboration among five St. Louis area schools—$4500 for the billboard, so $900 each.  (The Madmen can help you put one up in your town, if you want.) A great investment if it brings in even one new student.  Beyond that, it puts Montessori in the public eye.

Why is that so important? Private businesses join together to advertise their product to families who can pay the price—why is that news? On Facebook, someone asked if there was similar advocacy for Montessori in the public sector. Regular readers will know of many such efforts: the Madmen themselves, with their “Make it Montessori” campaign, the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, Montessori Forward, the joint AMI-AMS Montessori Public Policy Committee, and more.

But it’s true-most Montessori teachers work in, and most Montessori children attend, private tuition-based programs. Why is that? It’s not a lack of motivation.You’ll hardly find a stronger advocates for children than Montessori teachers, who will be quick to remind you that the first Montessori Casa dei Bambini in San Lorenzo served 50 poor children from working families. “All children deserve Montessori,” my Facebook commenter said, and that’s what we want out movement to be about.

But there are significant challenges for public Montessori. People who work in these environments can no doubt say more about this than I can, but here’s what I see.

Before you start, there are challenges to even getting to implement public Montessori.  First, there’s negotiating the bureaucracy and politics surrounding charter, magnet, or other alternative school programs where your Montessori model might happen. Beyond the red tape, there’s the enormous challenge of bringing in a huge change of culture for school systems and teachers. Montessori can be transformative—that’s what makes it so important to bring to children. But that’s also what makes it so threatening.

Once you get a program going, there’s the challenge of keeping it going and doing it well. The holistic nature of Montessori makes it hard to implement one grade at a time—but that might be all you get to start. Even if you can bring Montessori children up through the system, you may not have funding for 3 and 4 year olds, so you may be starting with kindergarten or 1st grade. You’ll face ongoing bureaucracy and politics, and school practices (such as testing) that get in the way of your work. Teachers can get demoralized, programs can go downhill, and before long you may have people saying, “see, Montessori doesn’t work.”

So lots of people are doing private Montessori because that’s what there is nearby. Lots of people doing it because they would rather do great Montessori now than fight like crazy to do something Montessori-like only to see it compromised out of existence. “Children of privilege deserve progressive education too,” we tell ourselves. And lots of people, in Hartford, in Milwaukee, in D.C., and all over (check the NCMPS for a comprehensive census), do great public Montessori against all odds.

But those outstanding, highly visible, private programs, with their NPR spots and their billboards serve another purpose. An indirect preparation, if you will. They put Montessori in the public eye, if not in the public sector. People see those billboards and visit those schools, and they say, “There is a better way. How can we have this in our school district, for our children”

John Dewey laid down the cornerstone for public education over a century ago when he said:

What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.

But how can they know they want it if they don’t know it exists?

Make it Montessori

So this happened:

Make It Montessori

In January, New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio announced a huge expansion for pre-K in NYC.  The Montessori Observer had a cynical take here, on the scale mismatch between New York’s 100,000 4-year-olds and an estimated 200,000 4-year-olds in Montessori schools in the rest of the country.

The Montessori Madmen cast cynicism aside and took up the challenge of leveraging this news for Montessori, launching an indiegogo campaign (now successfully closed) to fly the banner shown here over New York City for three hours on Friday, May 2nd.  The project got picked up on the New York Daily News politics blog and the Albany TimesUnion’s Capitol Confidential blog by reporter Annie Karni.

The a scale problem remains.  I imagine deBlasio looking out the window of his office, seeing the banner, and barking to his secretary, “Get me Montessori on line one!”  Who would he call, and what could we deliver?

But once again the Madmen network is getting results.  People in the New York Montessori world are contacting the Mayor’s office, and  a meeting with the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector and the folks at New York City Montessori Charter School is in the works.   

Contact info for the Mayor’s Office:

Online: http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/contact-the-mayor.page

By mail:

City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Phone:

311-NEW-YORK
212-NEW-YORK outside NYC 

The Montessori-Márquez Connection—With Links!

Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Márquez died last week, and a wave of tributes has spread through the Montessori world as we recognize Márquez as one of the Celebrity Montessori Alumni, including “the Google Guys” Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, the Washington Post’s Katharine Graham, and many more.

But I have to admit, I’m always curious about the people on this list—what was their Montessori experience actually, and how much did it influence their lives? And it’s always hard to dig down and find the source of the claim. When you google “Jeff Bezos Montessori”, you get lots of school websites claiming him, but a direct quote is harder to find.

So I wanted to see if I could piece together the Márquez-Montessori story.

Rosa Elena FergussonA lot of people quoted Márquez saying that Montessori was like “playing at being alive.” Márquez biographer Martin provides the quote, saying “García Marquez later said “it was like playing at being alive” in Gabriel García Márquez: A Life: A life. Martin reports that Márquez attended a school in Aracatca, Colombia, “named after Maria Montessori, and loosely based on her methods”, and names his teacher, Rosa Elena Fergusson, “graceful, gentle, and pretty”, and Garcia’s “first infant love.” Astonishingly, a picture of Fergusson at the time exists.

Montessori AracatacaBut Márquez himself speaks of his Montessori school in more detail in his autobiography Vivir para contarla, in English Living to Tell the Tale, calling it “the little school where I learned to read”. He continues, mentioning practical life and music, and clearly describing Montessori’s “education of the senses”:

The consolation was that during this time the Montessori school had opened in Aracataca, and its teachers stimulated the five senses by means of practical exercises, and taught singing. With the talent and beauty of the director, Rosa Elena Fergusson, studying was something as marvelous as the joy of being alive. I learned to appreciate my sense of smell, whose power of nostalgic evocation is overwhelming. And taste, which I refined to the point where I have drinks that taste of window, old bread that tastes of trunk, infusions that taste of Mass. In theory it is difficult to comprehend subjective pleasures, but those who have experienced them will understand right away.

There again is the charismatic attraction of the beautiful and talented Rosa. “Joy at being alive” is the line Martin has as “playing at being alive”. In the original, it is “jugar a estos vivos”.

Márquez talks about learning to read thanks to Montessori’s phonetic approach:

It was very hard for me to learn how to read. It did not seem logical for the letter m to be called em, and yet with some vowel following it you did not say ema but ma. It was impossible for me to read that way. At last, when I went to the Montessori school, the teacher did not teach me the names of the consonants but the sounds. In this way I could read the first book I found in a dirty chest in the storeroom of the house.

Finally, in another passage widely quoted:

I do not believe there is a method better than the Montessorian for making sensitive to the beauties of the world and awakenig their curiosity regarding the secrets of life. It has been rebuked for encouraging a sense of independence and individualism, and perhaps in my case this was true.

Rosa Elena Fergusson 2And Rosa Fergusson? The woman who taught nobel prize winner GGM to read and write passed away in 2005, well remembered in several obituaries for her role in Márquez’ life

 

*****

Notes:

The photo of the school comes from Montessori Communica, a Colombian blog associated with the Colegio Montessori La Calera.

A spanish-language video of Márquez speaking about Montessori, Montessori un sistema de enseñanza que marca vidas, can be found on the MontessoriAcalli YouTube channel, associated with Acalli Montessori in Mexico.

 

Montessori Talking Points

When they ask you, “so what is Montessori?” what do you say? If you’re like me, you’ve been trying to boil this down for years with little success. It seems like every piece is connected to every other piece, and you don’t know how to begin.

Last year the Montessori Madmen challenged us all to work on our Montessori Elevator Speeches—quick summaries of Montessori you could give in the space of an elevator ride. You’re in a hotel at a conference, and someone sees “Montessori” on your name tag and says, “Montessori? What’s that?” And you have the perfect spiel ready to roll out.

And some great pieces came out of that, still up on YouTube, including the top five winners.

But it doesn’t always work quite like that, does it? It all depends on who is on that (metaphorical) elevator with you—what floor they got on, where they’re getting off, and how long they have for the ride. Then there’s the tendency of Montessorians to go on and on. Joke:

Q: How do you get a Montessorian to talk about Montessori?

A: How do you get them to stop?

What’s really needed are Montessori Talking Points, to be tailored to the speaker, the audience, and the particular situation. So here’s my first run at them, to be adapted and improved as readers see fit. (Just try not to talk too much.)

Montessori is a method of education.

It’s a method of education, based on a model of human development, created over one hundred years ago by Maria Montessori.

In Montessori, the children choose their own work.

What the choices are, how they are presented, and with what freedoms and limits—that’s where it gets really interesting. But children choosing their own work is the central premise of Montessori education.

Montessori isn’t religious, it isn’t just for gifted children, and it isn’t just for the wealthy.

Montessori herself was Catholic, but Montessori education is secular. Montessori is about meeting children where they are, so it’s for all children. Montessori started out with “special needs” children and poor children, and serves children of all backgrounds and conditions.

Montessori happens in public and private schools, all over the world.

Montessori is the leading alternative pedagogy and operates in the U.S. in more than 500 public schools and thousands of private schools, and in tens of thousands of schools worldwide.

Montessori has mixed-age classrooms, hands-on materials, and students learning at their own pace.

Montessori pioneered many educational innovations which later became widely known, such as mixed-age classrooms, manipulatives, and student-guided learning, as well as child-sized furniture, phonics, scaffolding, student agency, learning progression, and many more.

Montessori is observation and evidence based.

Maria Montessori was a scientist and a medical doctor. She experimented, and she refined and developed her method throughout her lifetime. Modern brain and education research validate her work.

The best way to understand Montessori is to visit a school and see it in action.

If you want to know more about Montessori, many schools will let you visit a classroom for a short observation. There’s some good video available on the internet as well, but seeing it in person is best.

Montessori is education for peace.

Montessori famously said: “Preventing war is the work of politicians. Establishing peace is the work of education.” Montessori educators believe that human beings allowed to develop to their full potential are the key to a peaceful future.

There they are. That should get us started.

Here they are again, without the paragraphs of explanation—you could print them out and stick them in your wallet, even.

Montessori Talking Points

  • Montessori is a method of education.
  • In Montessori, the children choose their own work.
  • Montessori isn’t religious, it isn’t just for gifted children, and it isn’t just for the wealthy.
  • Montessori happens in public and private schools, all over the world.
  • Montessori has mixed-age classrooms, hands-on materials, and students learning at their own pace.
  • Montessori is observation and evidenced based.
  • The best way to understand Montessori is to visit a school and see it in action.
  • Montessori is education for peace.