New Study: Co-Operation and Problem-Solving is Good For You

Thanks for still being there, loyal readers.

The New York Times and National Public Radio pick up on a major study (funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) in the American Journal of Public Health:Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness.

Basically, kindergartner’s “prosocial skills” — such as sharing, cooperating, and helping others — strongly predicted their “key young adult outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health”.

I mean, we know these things, but when they are borne out by an impeccably designed, exhaustively controlled, ten-year study, we really know we know them.

There’s so much in the NYT summary that it’s hard to pull out just one things. But there’s this:  At the beginning of the study,

the teachers were asked to assign each child a score based on qualities that included “cooperates with peers without prompting”; “is helpful to others”; “is very good at understanding feelings”; and “resolves problems on own.”

The findings:

predicted the likelihood of many outcomes: whether the children would graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time employment as young adults; whether they would live in public housing or receive public assistance; whether they would be held in juvenile detention or be arrested as adults. The kindergarten teachers’ scores also correlated with the number of arrests a young adult would have for severe offenses by age 25.

And it’s not just happy talk.  Public programs are implementing social and emotional learning in districts from Anchorage to Nashville.

This, obviously, is our wheelhouse.  We know intuitively that Montessori does this work — and we’ve known since 2012 that high-fidelity Montessori Primary programs deliver

significantly greater school-year gains on outcome measures of executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, and social problem-solving”

cited right here on TMO.

It’s not like Montessori gets a mention.  But there’s always the comments section…

New York Times Discovers Play-Based Learning, Pretty Much Stops There

The New York Times Sunday Review has a bit of a drive-by take  (picked up by Diane Ravitch among others) on early childhood education that, I’m sorry to say, I’m going to have to send back for revisions if it’s going to get a passing grade.

The gist of the piece is in the title: “Let the Kids Learn Through Play”. I usually say, go read the whole article, but I think I can do it justice in a short summary here with some bullet points and a couple of quotes. Essentially:

  • 20 years ago, there was a lot of play in schools (a bold statement without much citation, but let that go)
  • formal, didactic instruction has worked its way down to preschool (sad but true)
  • research suggests that this may not be such a good idea

Here Kohn quotes an authority:

One expert I talked to recently, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., describes this trend as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.” She regularly tours schools, and sees younger students floundering to comprehend instruction: “I’ve seen it many, many times in many, many classrooms — kids being told to sit at a table and just copy letters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking indeed. If only there were body of theory and experimental work in how young children learn, that could be broadly applied with predictable results across cultures and classes…

Kohn goes on to ask a question:

As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

Which kind indeed? Sergey Brin. Larry Page. Jimmy Wales. Montessori and innovation. If only there were a method…

Kohn touches on a few other points: Common Core, Finland, inequality, and (at last) cites some intriguing research: The “Marcon Study”, by Rebecca A. Marcon  at the University of South Florida, which compared didactic, child-initiated, and “blended” pre-school models. Kohn doesn’t actually come out and say it, but Marcon found the strongest support for child-initiated preschool programs. From the abstract:

By the end of their sixth year in school, children whose preschool experiences had been academically directed earned significantly lower grades compared to children who had attended child-initiated preschool classes. Children’s later school success appears to have been enhanced by more active, child-initiated early learning experiences.

And he closes with this:

But the early education that kids get — whatever their socioeconomic background — should truly help their development. We must hope that those who make education policy will start paying attention to this science.

Indeed, education should be in the service of development, and proceed from a scientific basis. One way we can start is by calling it by name.

Embodied Montessori: Research Links Movement and Learning

**Update 3/29/15** Dr. Beilock has let me know that Schwartz’s article is a response to her book, “How the Body Knows Its Mind”, available at

The Montessori Research Interest Group Facebook page (a project of the American Montessori Society Research Committee) highlights a piece by Katrina Schwartz on NPR’s Mind/Shift blog: Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn. Schwartz is reporting on Sian Beilock’s work on “embodied learning“:

When students use their bodies in the learning process, it can have a big effect, even if it seems silly or unconnected to the learning goal at hand.

And then a quick shout-out to Montessori:

This area of study, called “embodied learning,” is not new to many educators. Maria Montessori highlighted the connection between minds and bodies in her 1936 book The Secret of Childhood: “Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

There’s more embedded Montessori further down the page: “When kids can explore their surroundings, all of a sudden, things change”—“There is evidence that our ability to use our hands affects the structure and functioning of the brain”.  And under the heading of “Environment Matters”,

Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that when students learn in highly decorated classrooms, their gazes tend to wander, they get off task and their test scores suffer. Limiting visual stimulus is particularly important for very young learners who are still learning how to focus, and yet kindergarten classrooms are often the most brightly and densely decorated in an effort to make institutional buildings feel more cheerful.

No surprise, really, though. Beilock has been onto Montessori since at least 2012, as reported here on TMO, along with her connection to Angeline Lillard.

Escuela Nueva in Colombia: Nothing Like it in the U.S.?

Update 3/1/2015:

As it turns out, David Kirp knows Montessori well, and thinks highly of it, and Dr. Cohen is “a serious fan”. They wrote to clarify that they were thinking primarily of public schools, where there are “few or very few” public programs, which is absolutely the case. So, my apologies to the good doctors for jumping all over a brief quote. I fell victim to the Montessorian’s wounded pride, which is a posture that does us no good.


Education policy heavyweight (see below) David Kirp (wiki) has a great piece in the NYT Sunday Review today about the Escuela Nueva schools in Colombia. Founded in 1975 by Vicky Colbert (who, like Escuela Nueva itself, desperately needs a Wikipedia page), Escuela Nueva is a chlld-centered educational model which puts “cooperative, constructive, personalized and active learning” over “memorization and passive learning” and empowers children as part of a self-governing community. First implemented in poor rural Colombian schools, the model has extended to 20,000 programs there and has been adopted in 16 other countries.

Here’s some of what Kirp saw in the rural one-room schoolhouse he visited. I’m quoting from his piece at length because it’s so striking:

In most schools, students sit in rows facing the teacher, who does most of the talking. But these students are grouped at tables, each corresponding to a grade level. The hum of conversation fills the room. After tackling an assignment on their own, the students review one another’s work. If a child is struggling, the others pitch in to help.

The “hum of conversation”: what a concept! We could do without the assignments and the arbitrary grade-level groupings, but they’ve only been doing it for four decades. More observations:

During my visit to one of these schools, second graders were writing short stories, and fifth graders were testing whether the color of light affects its brightness when seen through water. The teacher moved among the groups, leaning over shoulders, reading and commenting on their work. In one corner of the classroom were items, brought to school by the kids, that will be incorporated in their lessons. The students have planted a sizable garden, and the vegetables and fruits they raise are used as staples at mealtime, often prepared according to their parents’ recipes.

Second graders writing stories? The teacher moving around the classroom? A vegetable garden? What radicalism is this?

In the schools, students elected by their peers shoulder a host of responsibilities. In a school I visited in a poor neighborhood here in the city of Armenia, the student council meticulously planned a day set aside to promote peace; operated a radio station; and turned an empty classroom into a quiet space for reading and recharging. I was there last Halloween, when students put on a costume contest for their pets.

Responsibilities, empowerment, and peace—these sound like some elements we could stand to incorporate into education. But what about the research?

There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another. In a report last year, the American Institutes for Research concluded that students who attended so-called deeper learning high schools — which emphasize understanding, not just memorizing, academic content; applying that understanding to novel problems and situations; and developing interpersonal skills and self-control — recorded higher test scores, were more likely to enroll in college and were more adept at collaboration than their peers in conventional schools.

And then — the dagger to the heart:

“It’s really different and quite impressive,” David K. Cohen, an education professor at the University of Michigan, told me. “I know of no similar system in the U.S.”

No similar system.

(Just for the record, and to provide a good pull-quote, Montessori education is a proven, widely practiced, century-old educational student-centered approach that emphasizes student empowerment and choice, understanding over rote learning, peer learning through mixed-age groups, practical applications, and much more.)

So I know I’m being a little cheeky here. And I’ve got nothing at all against Escuela Nueva or Vicky Colbert and her life-changing work with children, or against Drs. Kirp and Cohen. But I can’t help feeling that they ought to know better. Professor Kirp holds the James D. Marver Chair at the Goldman School of Pubic Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has written numerous books and national articles on education and public policy, and served on President Obama’s Transition Team. Cohen holds the John Dewey (really!) Chair at the University of Michigan School of Education, and has authored numerous books and articles as well. If these guys haven’t heard of Montessori, who has? And really, whose fault is that: theirs — or Montessori’s? Could we possibly do a little better at getting our story out?

So. Comments are not enabled on the NYT article. Professor Kirp has a public email address at Berkeley. Professor Cohen can be reached at the University of Michigan. I will be sending them a link to this post (and Ms. Colbert as well!), and maybe next time Montessori will make the Sunday section.

Reading, Executive Function — and Montessori

An interesting piece by New Yorker science and psychology blogger Maria Konnikova How Children Learn to Read, doesn’t mention Montessori, but it should!

Here’s the gist: UC San Francisco researchers published a three-year longitudinal study (paywall) of the neuroscience of reading development. They followed 5 and 6 year olds from kindergarten through third grade, measuring phonological and reading skills, cognitive and expressive ability, direction-following, family behavior patterns including reading at home and screen time, and brain growth. Konnikova talks to researcher Fumiko Hoeft about the findings, which aren’t what you might expect (emphasis added):

When Hoeft took into account all of the explanatory factors that had been linked to reading difficulty in the past—genetic risk, environmental factors, pre-literate language ability, and over-all cognitive capacity—she found that only one thing consistently predicted how well a child would learn to read. That was the growth of white matter in one specific area of the brain, the left temporoparietal region. The amount of white matter that a child arrived with in kindergarten didn’t make a difference. But the change in volume between kindergarten and third grade did.

White matter (wiki), which we used to think of as “filler”, in fact allows for communication among different areas of the brain. For reading, it seems to help the brain combine sounds into words and imbue them with meaning. So how do we promote white matter growth during this critical (one might even say “sensitive”) period?

Hoeft looked at some outliers to tease out answers: “stealth dyslexic” children who have a hard time picking out sounds but learn to decode anyway, or who have a hard time decoding but still develop high reading comprehension. And here she found a development in a specific area of the brain: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (wiki), “responsible, among other things, for executive function and self-control”. Hoeft sees an intervention:

“If it’s superior executive function that is helping some kids develop despite genetic predisposition to the contrary, that is really good news, because that is something we do well—we know how to train executive function.”

Why yes! Yes, we do. The article continues:

There are multiple programs in place and multiple teaching methods, tested over the years, that help children develop self-regulation ability: for example, the KIPP schools that are using Walter Mischel’s self-control research to teach children to delay gratification.

Hm. I can think of another one. Well documented by pediatric neurospychologist and Montessori advocate Steve Hughes here and by researchers Adele Diamond and Kathleen Lee here, high quality Montessori in controlled experiments has been shown to increase executive function in children. (More links in my post on executive function here.) If Montessori education, rigorously practiced, could be shown to increase white matter — that would be big. Sounds like a dissertation topic!

Incidentally, Konnikova had another New Yorker piece that made the rounds in Montessori: What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades?. I would love for her to find out more about our work. Comments are not enabled on the New Yorker article, and there is no “contact the writer” feature. Konnikova has a website, and suggests that the best way to reach her is via Facebook or Twitter, so I will give that a try.

Stanford Daily: If Only Montessori Did High School…

What’s that you say? Erdkinder?

Alexandra Heeney, film critic at The Seventh Row and Managing Editor (Arts and Life) at The Stanford Daily, has an interview there with director Greg Whitely about his Sundance film Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary about the history and future of education. The film’s depiction of High Tech High, where students are “involved in multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects” makes her think of her own Montessori education, “an educational approach for elementary school students, which emphasizes independent learning and exploration.”

So she asks the filmmakers if Montessori ever came up while they were working on the project. Why, yes, they tell her — it kept coming up. I’ll just give you the whole quote:

“One of the key interviews in our film is [with] this economist named Andy McAfee, out of M.I.T. He was a product of Montessori schools. He gave us this great quote, where he tells this story that for the first few years of his life, [he] just developed this keen interest in x, y and z, because [he] was allowed to explore. [He] was allowed to poke at things and kind of learn in a way that Montessori celebrates. And then, because he aged out, or maybe because his parents moved, he went to a more traditional school, and he said, ’it just killed me. It was just so painful.’ ”

(Longtime readers will remember McAfee from this post. Furthermore:)

[Executive ProducrTed] Dintersmith added that there was an article in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago about the “Montessori Mafia” — people like Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia founder James Wales, and Google Co-Founders and Stanford Alumni Larry Page M.S. ’98 and Sergey Brin M.S. ’95 all of whom spent their formative years in a Montessori school. The “Montessori Mafia” found that Montessori was the best education experience of their lives. So, Dintersmith asked, “Why is it in 2015, when the world begs for the characteristics that get promoted in Montessori school, [why do] we send kids to this desert called middle [school], high school and college?”

Oh dear. Because Heeney also says this:

As someone who’s a product of a Montessori School — I attended one from kindergarten to grade six, when Montessori ends

Of course, Montessori is more than “an educational approach for elementary school students”, and extends from birth to age 18. Heeney may be interested to learn of the AMI training and classrooms for ages 0-3, developed in collaboration with Dr. Montessori, the proliferation of 3-6 programs, and of the recent extension into adolescent work under the auspices of AMI and NAMTA, as well as the many other Montessori programs extending their work into secondary education since the 1970s. Actually, she is probably aware of it now, since several Montessorians have piped up in the comments on the article. Heeney even referred to the responses on Twitter, so we know she still has that spark of life-long learning we can no doubt attribute to Montessori.


Montessori Mentions (This Is Not About Vaccination)

A couple of “Montessori mentions” in the mainstream media this week. Warning: discussion of vaccinations ahead. This post is not about vaccination and, for the record, Montessori does not take an official position on the subject (although, generally speaking, we believe in science).

With that out of the way: First, from Tuesday, an “info-for-parents” piece in US News and World Report’s Money section, “Can I Afford to Send My Child to Private School?”. It’s a light overview of private school options for the general public, but there’s Montessori, right after religious schools and before Waldorf, as if it’s something you’ve probably heard of. Here’s what the general public is hearing about Montessori:

Montessori schools are famed for fostering environments in which children become independent learners and problem-solvers.

Which is not bad for a one-liner. There’s nice quote and a reference to the North American Montessori Teachers Association (NAMTA) tuition survey (from 2009). Bonus points for the mention of public programs on the second page.

Next, on Thursday, in the Atlantic, in How Schools Are Dealing With Anti-Vaccine Parents, 2300 words about The Children’s House in Traverse City, Michigan, is handling un-vaccinated children. Again, the school is introduced as “one private Montessori school” with no further explanation: of course you’ve heard of that. The article is a sensitive treatment of how The Children’s House, as a private school, worked to balance children’s safety, public health, and parent concerns on both sides of this divisive issue. But some Montessori nuggets come along the way. “Montessori encourages children to ask questions, to seek out information,” says one parent. Further down, we’re told:

The idea behind Montessori schools is that they’re meant to mirror “the real world,” where individuals work and socialize with people of all ages. Mixed-age classrooms are one of the hallmarks of the Montessori teaching method, which means that infants, kindergarteners, and adolescents come into contact throughout the school day.

Which isn’t quite the core of Montessori, but, hey, mom, we’re in the paper! Maybe they’ll spell our name right next time.