Monthly Archives: March 2014

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.

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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.

Children’s Work

Just a couple of pictures:

mouse giraffe elephant

“mouse, giraffe, elephant”

salt dough Australia

salt dough Australia

Montessori: The Innovation Brand

There’s a piece going around from the Business Insider7 Tech Innovators Who Became Wildly Successful After Going To Montessori School.  It’s pretty much a rework of Peter Sims 2011 Wall Street Journal piece, The Montessori Mafia, where he identified “Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, videogame pioneer Will Wright, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales” and asked,

Is there something going on here?  Is there something about the Montessori approach that nurtures creativity and inventiveness that we can all learn from?

It’s been well-shared, and it’s well worth the read.  The Business Insider piece does a decent, if brief, job of explaining Montessori and lists the same tech giants as Sims did: Page, Brin, Bezos, Wales, and Wright, and two more: Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

Wait, what?  Ford and Edison went to Montessori school?  Hmm, Henry Ford (1863-1947) was 43 years old in 1907—a little old for the Casa dei BambiniThomas Edison (1847-1932) was 60.  Apparently Edison did say:

I like the Montessori method. It teaches through play. It makes learning a pleasure. It follows the natural instincts of the human being . . . The present system casts the brain into a mold. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning.

Which I did not know.

Interestingly, the WSJ article does mention Edison and Ford, but just as examples of innovative thinkers and inquisitive learners.

So this piece isn’t really news, and it doesn’t tell us anything new about Montessori.  But it does tell us something about the Montessori brand in the public consciousness.  Innovative.  Inventors. Outside the box thinkers.  Tech geniuses.  Creative elite.  If that’s what people are thinking when they hear “Montessori”, we could do a lot worse.

The Kingsolver Bounce

Apparently Barbara Kingsolver has quite a bit of crossover with the Montessori audience.

Seriously.  After I posted the Kingsolver piece on Saturday, I got 1944 hits on the blog, the most ever.  Most days I get about 100.  The Facebook page got 800 views and shot to 950 “likes” from under 900.  (None of this actually much by real social media standards, but still—Montessori represent!)  So thanks, sagebrush, setsuko, grace, indiwind3, emanate80, balletgirl1980, and all the rest.  I hope I can continue to meet your expectations.

All that is very gratifying, of course.  But that’s not actually why I do the blog.  (Well, not entirely. Vanity* is a Fundamental Human Need, after all.) The point is essentially to make connections—within Montessori, to be sure, but from Montessori to the rest of the world.  Let’s get our story out there.  And now we have a master storyteller in our camp.

Of all the people who clicked and liked and followed and shared in the last few days, surely someone has a connection to Ms. Kingsolver.  I would love for her to see the post, and hear how deeply her brief remarks resonated with so many people in our work.

I’ll send her agent a letter myself. There’s no email on her website, and apparently she gets flooded with correspondence and rather values her privacy.  I don’t want to impose on her.  But if someone out there wanted to pass the link along, she could do with it as she sees fit.  We would at least like to express our thanks for her recognition of the essence of our work, and the casual yet pithy mention.

* Not vanitas, as this post originally read.  My keen-eyed wife pointed out that the Fundamental Human Needs Chart should read “vanity,” but some versions say “vanitas”, which is a genre of Dutch painting from the 16th and 17th centuries.  TMO regrets the error.

Kingsolver on Montessori: “You Can Do Hard Things”

kingsolver-barbara-ap1credit-david-wood_vert-56a181b93590de67f321c2f8d36e5d8c1dc4d75f-s6-c30Barbara Kingsolver  (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Flight Behavior, among many others) does a wide-ranging interview in this month’s Sun Magazine touching on writing, climate change, food, and more.  The interviewer asks about perseverance:

How do you nurture people to work hard enough to move all that dirt? How do you do that with your own children?

And all of a sudden there’s this:

There’s something I have said so often to my children that now they chant it back to me: “You can do hard things.” I sent my kids to a Montessori preschool, and thank heavens I did, because most of what I learned about parenting came from those wonderful Montessori teachers.  They straightened me out about self-esteem.  There’s this myth that self-esteem comes from making everything easy for your children and making sure they never fail.  If they never encounter hardship or conflict, the logic goes, they’ll never feel bad about themselves. Well, that’s ridiculous.  That’s not even a human life.

Kids learn self-esteem from mastering difficult tasks.  It’s as simple as that. The Montessori teachers told me to put my two-year-old on a stool and give her the bread, give her the peanut butter, give her the knife — a blunt knife — and let her make that sandwich and get peanut butter all over the place, because when she’s done, she’ll feel like a million bucks.  I thought that was brilliant.  Raising children became mostly a matter of enabling them and standing back and watching.  When a task was difficult, that’s when I would tell them, “You can do hard things.”  Both of them have told me they still say to themselves, “I can do hard things.”  It helps them feel good about who they are, not just after they’ve finished, but while they’re engaged in the process.

Thanks, Barbara!