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.

 

Montessori Makes the “Meh List”

Meh ListSo, the New York Times Magazine has this thing called The One-Page Magazine which runs a feature called “The Meh List: Not Hot, Not Not, Just Meh.”  (“Meh”, Wikipedia tells us for those of us without teenagers in our lives, is “an interjection used as an expression of indifference or boredom.”)  Today’s list:

  1. Unsalted trail mix
  2. “ . . . is in talks with Yahoo”
  3. CNN ratings jokes
  4. Closure
  5. Dandelion greens
  6. Montessori schools (emphasis added)

Oh boy, are they going to get some letters! (magazine@nytimes.com)

You can see the kind of thing it is: started in 2011, it’s meant to be a weekly hit list of the bland—snarky, cheeky, and pitched to the in-crowd. Previous “Meh-listers” include Brita filters, the Seattle Mariners, and recently—and controversially!—pizza.  Here’s a “visual encyclopedia” of 126 entries if you want to get the sense.  Of course the list itself has made the list: did you think you were the first person to think of that?

But what does it mean to make the list? For its creator, Adam Sternbergh, the list was meant

to celebrate all those things in life that exist at the top of the fat middle of the bell curve of taste: neither adored nor reviled, but, simply, meh.

Elsewhere in the magazine, it’s been described as: boring, mediocre, just not interesting – overgood, but rarely great; fine, but seldom badall that is beneath our regard, a corrective to hype, excitement or outrage over things that are ultimately unimportant, unworthy of being discussed. Really, the list’s tagline says it best: neither hot nor not.

Now I know there’s nothing to be gained by getting all worked up about how we are so not meh!, but still: How could they get us so wrong?  Montessori is rarely boring, occasionally mediocre, always interesting.  It’s good, often great, and sometimes quite bad. “Beneath our regard,” “ultimately unimportant,” and “unworthy of being discusses are unbelievably condescending to childhood, but whatever.  And Montessori is definitely hot.

But that’s not really the point—the point is that they got us at all.  If only Montessori were as widespread and uncontroversial as Sierra Mist, elliptical machines, and pizza!  To be mocked as irrelevant by the style-setters of the New York Times Magazine is to have arrived in the cultural consciousness in a way no amount of advertising can ever acheive.  It might not be too much to say we’ve started to go viral.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley Gets A Taste of Montessori

The headline says it all: Governor Haley visited Coastal Montessori Charter School in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, as reported in the Coastal Observer.  It sounds like she got a pretty good picture of Montessori—the article mentions children working in mixed-age groups, at desks or on the floor, with large class sizes (“we like big classes”), using manipulatives that might have looked like games, and enjoying their work.  “The adult is not the center of attention; the work is.”

Coastal Montessori, like many public programs, is elementary-only, limited by state funding which doesn’t cover kindergarten or younger.  So it’s remarkable that they can have the quality of Montessori described in the article, and it show that it can be done.  Still, funding for Montessori Children’s House is an issue in many states.  Haley said she “”wouldn’t object” to it, but she didn’t make any promises.

The Governor’s visit  came about as part of Montessori Education Week, a project of South Carolina’s thriving South Carolina Montessori Alliance.  The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector’s Montessori Census lists 50 public programs in the Palmetto State, more than any other state listed.

New Research Backs True Stories

Not the most paradigm-shifting research, but one more for the “21st century researchers prove Montessori right” file.

Montessori Children’s House teachers have a bit of a bias against books for young children with talking animals, or as a friend of mine says, “a pig in an apron getting into trouble he never would have got in if he hadn’t had that apron on in the first place.” Now comes Frontiers in Psychology with a paper (Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals) showing that, in 3-5 year old children,

anthropomorphized animals in books may … lead to less learning [and] influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.

The Montessori idea is that children in the first plane of development, characterized by the absorbent mind, are fashioning their reality out of their direct sensorial experiences, and stories about talking animals will just confuse them. And what do you know, validated by science!

The study itself is long and dense, but there’s a very readable summary in Pacific Standard, coming my way via Andrew Sullivan of all people.

About the study: Frontiers in Psychology is an open access web based peer reviewed journal, which means authors pay a publishing fee (sometimes paid by their institution), and if an article passes peer review, it is freely available under an open license. I don’t know enough about the academic publishing world to evaluate the journal’s or the article’s credibility, but there are some good indications. The authors come from recognized universities, and the article is 57 pages long and packed with citations and statistical analysis. It’s really worth the read if this is your kind of thing. It’s a thorough, thoughtful, and scientific treatment of cognition, learning, and epistemology in young children.

Montessori: Autonomy and Choice With High-Poverty Students (This time ASCD Nails It)

Yesterday I wrote about a Montessori article in ASCD’s Education Update magazine, and I mentioned a post on ASCD’s In Service blog. It’s a pretty great post, and it’s public, and it’s just 500 words—I really urge you to go read it right now.

So if you read the post, there’s not too much else to say. This is how we like to see Montessori talked about.  It gets right to what’s great about Montessori and it addresses the real issues that are properly agitating the wider education world—poverty and inequality of educational outcomes. Look what’s in the first paragraph:

  • Student choice is powerful in poor communities.
  • Public Montessori is on the move.
  • Public Montessori favors “choice over direct instruction to serve low-income populations.”
  • There’s a thing called the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, and it has a Senior Associate and Research Director (yes, Jackie Cossentino again).

The rest of the post is essentially more of McKibben’s interview with Cossentino from the Education Update piece, packed with fantastic pull quotes which I will shamelessly excerpt here:

Most people think of Montessori as a middle class, white, affluent kind of thing. But in fact, it was designed initially and implemented in the slums of Rome, and it works really, really well [with disadvantaged students.

What Montessori does is flip that on its head by saying that if you really want to be successful, you have to learn how to regulate yourself. You have to learn how to think flexibly and how to control yourself.

Human beings learn by experimenting and exploring, and by having many opportunities for trial and error; they learn by making mistakes, and by correcting those mistakes; they learn by [making choices], and by making decisions that enable them to internalize concepts.

Students learn better and are more creative when intrinsically motivated.

But seriously, read the post, link to it, and add it to your talking points.

Montessori: “Hands-On” with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD; wiki), “a global community dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading” with 175,000 members in 100 countries, membership $29 to $189, is a pretty big deal. (Note to Montessorians: this is what an international educational organization looks like. It’s all about scale.)

So it’s great news that their monthly member newsletter, Education Update, has an article about Montessori education by ASCD Managing Editor Sarah McKibben, with extensive quotes from NCMPS’ own Jackie Cossentino. The article is behind a paywall, but I saw a copy and I can tell you a little about it. I’m afraid I have to be bit critical, which is a shame, as it’s not a bad piece and we’re always happy for the exposure. But it’s important to get things right.

The article gets some things mostly right, and a few things exactly right, but it also represents the general vagueness the education world has about Montessori. McKibben mentions student choice, which is good, and Cossentino gets in some early licks with the importance of the prepared environment. Children’s House areas are referred to as “stations,” which isn’t quite right, but it’s language conventional early childhood educators understand.

Montessori materials are described, and described well. But let’s remember: not just any “intentionally inviting,” “self-correcting,” and “multifaceted” objects are Montessori materials! There’s a deeply consistent, experimentally described set of materials that are designed with those characteristics in mind, to be sure. But you really have to say, it’s not really Montessori unless Montessori developed it.

The description of “the teacher as guide” is good, and guide Nancy Rawn of the Annie Fisher Montessori School gets a word in about developmental needs. The nature of the child’s work is less well-understood, as young children are being “tasked with wiping down tables” in order to “instill good habits.” Not much suggestion that children might want to wipe down tables for their own purposes, or of Montessori’s observational work which led to including practical life activities. Then again, it’s a short article.

When the article moves on to Montessori elementary, things get a little more vague, talking about “project-based learning.” Montessori elementary students take on projects, certainly, but there’s a lot more to it than that. A follow-up article about how the elementary really works, covering cosmic education, the great lessons, and work journals, would be a welcome addition. 90-minute blocks and projects with teacher-set parameters don’t really do justice to the elementary work. Is it possible to consider that children might develop their own standards of age-appropriateness and academic rigor, and that they might go much farther than what the adult might impose?

The article closes with ways teachers can “be more Montessori”: they might not be able to provide uninterrupted work time, but they can at least strive to be more project-based and hands-on (even if that means no more than having protractors and rulers available). Cossentino scores a few more points in the last few paragraphs as well, suggesting that teachers ask students questions, learn to listen and observe, and rethink the adult’s role in the classroom.

All in all it’s not a bad treatment, and certainly positive. You can’t help thinking that if teachers want to “be more Montessori,” they should take a training course, and that the article might have addressed the foundation of Montessori’s work, the Montessori landscape in the U.S. and around the world, and the training available. But I guess that’s why you have The Montessori Observer to turn to.

Note: McKibben has a follow-up piece on the publicly available ASCD blog, In Service, where she interviews Cossentino further about the effect of student autonomy in high-poverty schools. It’s great exposure for Montessori in low-income populations as well as research linking choice and student engagement:

Studies have also shown that teachers’ orientations that are supportive of autonomy contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation in students—and controlling orientations deter intrinsic motivation

So that’s good..

Bettelheim and the Montessori Research Agenda

A piece on the Huffington Post in January, “Doing Pre-Kindergarten Right”, by a (sort of) non-Montessorian, Dr. Ruth Bettelheim, points out that

Preschool children think and function differently than school-age children, which is why primary school typically begins at age 6 or 7 everywhere in the world.

She calls for educational experiences to maximize young children’s potential, going on to say:

This maximization requires different educational methods than those developed for older children. Fortunately, several methods have been developed during the past century to enhance learning for young children. Most prominently, Dr. Montessori developed her method by investigating which approaches could best educate the severely impoverished slum children of early 20th century Rome.

The Montessori Method systematically teaches independent problem solving, starting at age 18 months, using hands-on learning and the native interests of preschoolers. She demonstrated that, given adequate food, regular health checkups, and the right full-day program, virtually all of even the most deprived children could learn to an equal or higher standard than their more privileged, traditionally educated peers.

That sounds good!  She continues,

Other methods, such as Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Dewey, Abecedarian, and Bank Street, also address the unique needs of this age group. Unfortunately, sufficiently rigorous, longitudinal trials of these approaches have not yet been undertaken to determine which ones best serve the developmental needs of very young children.

Emphasis added.  So, what is necessary for “sufficiently rigorous longitudinal trials”?  How about a broad-based, comprehensive data set covering Montessori schools in the U.S.?  Such as the 2013-2014 USA Montessori Census, 1049 schools and growing, perhaps?  (You see how everything is interconnected…)

Biographical note: Dr. Bettelheim, a pyschotherapist, executive coach, writer, and lecturer, has written about Montessori before: Time For Schools to Stop Damaging Children.  Dr. Bettelheim is also the daughter of now-controversial child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) and his second wife Gertrude, who was a Montessori teacher in Vienna in the 1930s.  In fact, Gertrude apparently worked at the Montessori school started by Bettelheim with his first wife, Gina Alstadt Bettelheim Weinmann.  (Per The Creation of Doctor B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim and Suicide And the Holocaust)

Credit where due note: The piece came out in January, and I’m not sure how I missed it, but fortunately the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, the Montessori Madmen, Montessori Northwest (the AMI training center in Portland, Oregon), Montessori Partners Serving all Children (a project of the Montessori Center of Minnesota ,  the AMI training center in in St. Paul, Minnesota), and a number of Montessori schools were all over it.