Monthly Archives: May 2013

Montessori, Play, Lillard, and Empirical Research

Dr. Angeline Lillard, professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, as well as several academic articles on Montessori, and Montessori speaker and advocate, has a new article in the American Journal of Play: Playful Learning and Montessori Education.  It’s long, dense but readable, and bristling with objectivity, academic citations, and peer-reviewed research.

Because the world of public education depends on academic studies and research, the article has all kinds of implications for the expansion of Montessori Primary to many more children.  It also offers a lot of theory and data for conversations with curious or skeptical non-academics.  This one should be on the coffee table in the admissions office at every Montessori school out there.

I encourage readers to read take the time to read the whole thing. Here’s the executive summary:

  • Play, as opposed to didactic learning, is a big deal in the world of Early Child Education.
  • Montessori has been generally considered anti-play (when it is considered at all).
  • Which seems strange, since freely chosen, open-ended activity is what we do!
  • In fact, Montessori has many of the elements identified as part of playful learning (to wit, structure, objects, interactive lessons, free choice, peer interactions, intrinsic rewards, and fun).
  • What Montessori doesn’t do is pretend play, such as dress-up, toy kitchens, and fantasy.
  • When you look at the research, the evidence for pretend play (as opposed to play in general) isn’t all that strong one way or the other.
  • Consequently, we don’t really know if adding pretend play to Montessori environments would help or hurt.
  • But we can look to see if the other elements of “playful learning Montessori style” is helpful to children’s learning.
  • This can be problematic because Montessori is practiced under a range of interpretations.
  • But if we control for certain elements of “high-fidelity” Montessori, we see improved social and cognitive outcomes.

That’s a very condensed summary of a thorough and detailed article.  Why is this so important?

Dr. Lillard bridges two worlds that don’t communicate much or understand each other.  Montessorians often don’t get why we’re not more widely adopted, especially in the pubic sphere.  Academics often don’t seem to ‘get’ Montessori, or find it relevant to their work.  There are two reasons for this state of affairs.

One reason we have stayed on the sidelines is the play question. The academic world sees us as didactic rather than play oriented.  But ‘play-based’ is the gold standard in early child education.  The article lays that perception on the table and takes it apart point by point.  It give Montessorians a way to talk about, and answer, the kinds of questions outsiders will ask.  Consider handing this to the smart and skeptical parent who wants to know “what the research says.” It also opens the question of pretend play on both ends, challenging Montessorians to consider our biases, and asking the academy to put up some solid research on why it belongs in schools in the first place.

(Recently D. Lillard has taken on exactly that question.  She has an article questioning the research supporting pretend play, followed by a fascinating exchange of comments, in the Psychological Bulletin 2013, 139/1)

More generally, the world of public policy, where funding and curriculum decisions for schools, Head Start, and early childhood education programs are made, depends on peer-reviewed, quantifiable, replicable research. Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of this .  That’s because of selection bias (it’s hard to get a control group of families who would have chosen Montessori but couldn’t) and because the topic has seemed so nebulous—how can researchers know what  they’re measuring when they measure Montessori?  What Lillard does here is outline a research framework—defining Montessori, translating our practices into technical, researchable topics, and laying pout enticing possibilities for further work.

Dr. Lillard told me that she wrote this paper primarily for an academic audience.  But it carries a challenge for Montessorians as well. There are legitimate issues around measurement and testing, to be sure, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  That is the language they speak where the decisions are made, and if we want to bring our voice to the conversation, we would do well to learn to speak it as well.  And if we can tell our story in language they can understand, we will get our story out to many more children and adults.  If not, we will remain an mostly exclusive niche.

Slate Magazine Calls Out Grades, Cites Montessori

An article today from Slate.com: The Case Against Grades, by Michael Thomsen, spells out everything that’s wrong with   the 116-year old A-B-C-D-F system, in no uncertain terms.  I’ll quote liberally from the article because it’s so good, but please, click though and read the whole thing.  A sampling:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn…

With data:

I was all set to comment about Montessori, as the largest (by far) organized pedagogy which explicitly rejects grades, when I got to this in the meat of the article:

The most famous example are Montessori schools, noted for their lack of grades, multiage classes, and extended periods where students can chose their own projects from a selected range of materials. The schools have educated many of today’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, including Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales, business management legend Peter Drucker, and video game icon Will Wright.

It goes on, citing Angeline Lillard’s widely cited 2006 article Evaluating Montessori Education:

A 2006 comparison in Milwaukee found that Montessori students performed better than grade-based students at reading and math; they also “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.”

But isn’t Montessori just for those who can afford it?  Thomsen is way ahead of you:

Some contend that Montessori schools attract more affluent and successful parents, who give their children an inherent advantage, but the Milwaukee study was built around a random lottery for Montessori enrollment. All the children in the study came from families with similar economic backgrounds, with average incomes ranging between $20,000 and $50,000.

He goes on to describe Summerhill and free schools modeled after it, and I think that’s just fine.  That’s the company we want to be mentioned among.  Go ahead with the full free school philosophy if you’re ready to go that far.  If you’re looking for something equally progressive, a touch more accessible, and quite possibly in your neighborhood or coming soon, check out a Montessori school.