Monthly Archives: November 2014

Montessori Class Size: Sam Chaltain Aks “What if?”

“National educator and educational change consultant” Sam Chaltain (Wiki) has an interesting piece on his blog (Democracy. Learning. Voice.), cross-posted at Huffington Post: In Trying to Reduce Class Sizes, Are We Trying to Solve the Wrong Problem? Interesting in part because it gives five paragraphs — a third of the post — to Montessori, citing The Absorbent Mind and Dr. Angeline Lillard.

Money quote that brings him to Montessori:

But what if we viewed school with a different set of guiding assumptions? What if, for example, the default mode of instruction didn’t depend on the transmission of knowledge via a single lesson? What if the philosophy of learning was that children should learn from one another as much or more than from any adult? And what if the model of discipline was not based on restricting a child’s movements, but on unleashing them?

Now, Chaltain is kind of big wheel in the education world: former teacher, author or co-author of six books, prolific newspaper, magazine, and internet writer, previously national director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, etc., etc.  And he’s written about Montessori before: (Energy or Entropy), and talked us up at TEDx.

And what’s that he’s saying in that first piece: “I spent the other morning in my son’s Montessori classroom.” Nothing like first-hand experience to inform the dialogue!

Testing, Testing…

It’s been a while since I posted…is this thing on?

This caught my eye: “States Listen as Parents Give Rampant Testing An F”

It says “States”, but it’s mostly about Florida, an early and eager adopter of high-stakes testing under the aegis of “accountability”, which is now joining the national movement (,, Facebook) to push back against standardized testing.  And no wonder:

In Florida, which tests students more frequently than most other states, many schools this year will dedicate on average 60 to 80 days out of the 180-day school year to standardized testing. In a few districts, tests were scheduled to be given every day to at least some students.

Of course, Montessori schools don’t have much use for tests and grades:

The bad marks with which teachers weigh up the work of girls and boys is like measuring lifeless objects with a balance, measured like inanimate matter, not judged as a part of life.  (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence)

And they are rarely to be found in Montessori schools.

But Montessori was a scientist, and we can’t turn our back on the science of standardized testing.  The math is unassailable, and it really does give you a detailed, unbiased picture of what you’re testing.  It just depends on what you’re measuring.  Montessori students are hard to measure accurately, for reasons discussed here.  One of the few solid studies we have is Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi’s 2003 work, which accurately compared Montessori and non-Montessori middle school students while filtering out demographic biases such as race and income.  And what did they find?  Montessori students:

  • liked school better
  • felt more active, strong, excited, happy, sociable, and proud
  • enjoyed themselves more, were more interested in what they were doing, and wanted to do schoolwork
  • reported higher interest and motivation
  • experienced more challenge

In the school I work for, at Elementary conferences, parents get a list of lessons the student has had.  Our guides use software which can record a “status” for each lesson—something like “presented, practiced, proceeding with guidance, mastered”.  We recently decided to use only “presented”, for several reasons.  First, the volume of data:  30 children averaging 5 choices a day gives 150 “work events” per day to record. The laptop would have to be out and humming every minute, and we just didn’t want that to be the center of the classroom.  No doubt guides would record less than that, but how could they be sure of a random sample?

Second, we wanted to represent to parents the reality of what our guides do, which is give lessons.  The work afterwards is the child’s responsibility.  Guides know each child’s work intimately, of course, and they would be happy to tell you how Jason followed up on his Viscosity lesson, or sit down with you and Amber’s work journal. That’s what the conference is for.

Some parents were concerned about what goes on to middle school.  And that got me thinking about the difference between what we do, and grades and test scores.

A grade or score says this:  We warrant that, on this day at this time, this child was able to say or do or calculate these things. It doesn’t say anything about what the child knows or can do today, because no one can know that.

What we do is this:  We warrant that, over the last three years, this child has had all these lessons! And we warrant that we gave them in such a time and in such a way that she could not help but to be inspired and awakened.  Don’t believe us?  Just ask her.

And that’s why content testing is always going to be a challenge for Montessori schools.  Sure, we teach content, and we have the public school requirements as part of our classroom environments.  If the testing requirements will recede to a saner level, we can probably still do most of what we do and our children will pass the tests because they love to know things

But our idea of the whole purpose and program of education is radically different.  In the conventional model, education is about delivering content.  Adults decide what content, and when, and how, and how much, and children stand by to receive and be tested for their successful retention of content.

In Montessori, education is about human development.  That’s it, really: the understanding that humans have an inherent optimal path of development, which includes intellectual curiosity and the acquisition of culture, and that development can be helped or hindered.  Devise a test that can measure that, and we’ll be sure to excel.