Monthly Archives: February 2015

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.