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* Cross-posted from MontessoriPublic as this is not strictly speaking a public Montessori even — but look for Part II later this week.

Wildflower.  DandelionMarigold.  Snowdrop.  Wild Rose.  You may have seen them sprouting up in your Facebook feed or your Montessori network, but what are they?

Sep KamvarWildflower Montessori is the inspiration of Sep Kamvar, professor of Media Arts and Sciences and director of Social Computing at the MIT Media Lab, as well as an artist, author, entrepreneur, and former engineering lead at Google.

Kamvar’s journey to Wildflower has been a bit of a garden path, but as often happens, it has Montessori at one end and young children at the other.  He mentions in passing that he went to a Children’s House in Torrance, California, for a few years before his family moved to New Jersey, but that he doesn’t remember much about it.  (And yet, he went on to become an independent,  innovative thinker who worked at Google…) After he graduated from Princeton in chemistry and went on to Stanford for computer science, he wrote a seminal paper in 2003 on managing trust  in peer-to-peer networks.  The same year, he launched a “stealth startup” personalized search engine which was acquired by Google a few months later.  Kamvar went to work for Google that year as the head of personalized search, a now-universal Google feature which shapes search results with information associated with a user’s location, search and browser history, and social networks.  (Users can turn this off by using private browsing or the methods described here.)

Kamvar earned his PhD from Stanford in 2004 and stayed with Google through 2007, and in California through 2011, as a consulting professor for Stanford, as well as launching a venture capital firm and a line of men’s clothing, mounting an installation at the Museum of Modern Art,  publishing two books, getting married, and continuing his explorations of social connectedness and data aggregation,  In 2012 Kamvar returned to the east coast, joining MIT’s media lab as the LG Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and head of the Social Computing research group, where, among other projects, he wrote a  programming language and developed You Are Here, an data visualization project that maps data sets such as transit efficiency, street greenery, or food deserts onto city maps, to “help people to make their city a better place”.

Throughout his career, Kamvar has explored how technology, data, and social interactions can come together to drive behavior.  His 2003 paper used individual social interactions to build up a trust system in file-sharing networks.  His work with Google used data from individual choices and social networks to deliver better search results.  His art projects have gathered and visualized emotional and relationship data from thousands of blog posts and dating profiles to offer new and unexpected insights. The mapping project uses personal experiences and broad data sets to give people new information they can use to improve their environments.  In 2013, Kamvar turned this interest, along with his research and analytical skills, towards choosing a school for his two-year-old son. The result, not surprisingly, was a data-driven, non-hierarchical, action-empowering network

Kamvar started out doing a lot of reading and looking at a lot of schools, and he came to two conclusions.  First, he knew he wanted Montessori.  As a scientist, he appreciated its observation-based, developmentally grounded, constructivist approach, and he was captivated by the peacefulness and independence of the children in Montessori classrooms.  As he read more of Montessori’s work and joined a parent-child classroom, his respect for the approach grew.  Second, Kamvar had some ideas about teacher autonomy, observation, and scale, among others, that weren’t expressed in the programs he saw. The school that matched his emerging vision didn’t yet exist.

wildflowerSo Kamvar decided to start one, and the first Wildflower school, Wildflower Montessori in Cambridge, was born.  Before long, interest in the school overran capacity, and Kamvar and his team launched the a project to put the principles and organizational materials online, where anyone could access them and start a school along the same lines. Several more schools opened last year, growing to six in Cambridge, one in nearby Haverhill, and three in Puerto Rico.

Wildflower schools are intentionally one-classroom operations, staffed by two “teacher-leaders” who share teaching and administrative responsibilities.  The Wildflower project offers financial and consulting support for teachers to start schools and makes resources such as school handbooks and sample budgets available under an open source model on its website.  Schools in a city or region join together in a loose network, or “hub”, to provide mutual support and feedback.

Wildflower schools are organized around nine principles, articulated on the website:

An Authentic Montessori Environment: providing a peaceful, mixed-age, child-directed learning environment.

Wildflower steps carefully around the delicate subject of Montessori authenticity, but seeks out Montessori practiced according to consistent high standards.

A Shopfront, Neighborhood-nested Design: committed to remaining small, integrated in the community, and responsive to the needs of the children.

The model envisions one-classroom schoolhouses in storefront retail locations.

A Lab School: serving as a research setting dedicated to advancing the Montessori Method in the context of the modern world.

asterThis principle doesn’t really spell it out, but a key element of the Wildflower model is augmenting traditional pencil-and-paper observation with ceiling-mounted cameras, wearable sensors, and software analytics, inspired by Kamvar’s interest and expertise in technology and data visualization.  Kamvar feels strongly that Montessori, as a scientist, would have welcomed such innovations.

A Seamless Learning Community: blurring the boundaries of home-schooling and institutional schooling by placing high priority on parent education and giving parents an integral role in the classroom.

Parent education is integral to the model as well.  Kamvar observes that he spent nine years training to be a professor, but his preparation for being a father consisted of reading a few books, purely as a personal choice. His time in the parent-child class showed him how transformational Montessori could be in his parenting.

An Artist-in-residence: bringing richness to the learning environment by giving the children opportunities to observe and interact with adults doing day-to-day creative work.

This principle brings a working artist into the classroom, ideally making her less of a specialist teacher and more an element of the prepared environment.

An Attention to Nature: emphasizing the nonseparation between nature and human nature through a unique living-classroom design and extensive time in nature.

As one-room storefronts in retail neighborhoods, the schools have to proactively bring natural elements into the classroom and work to extend into available urban spaces such as parks and gardens.

A Role in Shaping the City: working with the community to improve local parks, streets, and establishments to create an urban environment that is healthier for children.

Consistent with Kamvar’s work using data to empower social activism, Wildflower schools, by integrating children and families into their neighborhoods, can drive urban environmental transformation.

A Spirit of Generosity: seeing school as a change agent for society, and reflecting a spirit of generosity to all stakeholders, to children, to parents, to those in need, and to the local community.

wild roseMost of the current Wildflower schools are private, tuition-based programs, and the “spirit of generosity” principle has not so far been very effective at creating programs accessible to lower-income families.  An initial idealism about the willingness and ability of individual families to support a diverse population has not been as successful as was imagined.  Wildflower’s organizers have a commitment to development in this area.

An Open-source Design: advancing an ecosystem of public and independent Wildflower schools that mutually support one another.

The two complementary sides of this principle — independent, and mutually supportive — are really the distinctive features of the model.  Wildflower does not administer, organize, or oversee the schools – they are independent entities, with their own non-profit statuses and their own boards. This was a key motivation for Kamvar in his exploration of schools. He told me,

In a traditional (non-Montessori) school, there’s a board of directors, who’s the boss of the head of school, who’s the boss of a level director, who’s the boss of the teachers, who’s kind of the boss of the children.  Montessori articulated beautifully that this doesn’t work very well.  Why can’t we model Montessori non-hierarchical learning onto the school structure?

At the same time, the network of mutual support is critical, allowing schools to get economies of scale where they are available (in purchasing power, professional development, observation and support, for example) while keeping small the things that don’t scale as well (interactions between adults and children).

There’s something a little puzzling about Wildflower—even with the comprehensive website, it raises more questions than it answers.  The names run together: there’s Wildflower Montessori, the school; a project called Wildflower which has offered financial and operational support and hosts; and a newly formed Wildflower Foundation.  The decentralized, one-room schoolhouse model raises some “How does that work?” responses.  Where does the money come from to start a school?  What about zoning, occupancy permits, ADA bathrooms, DHS approval, the fire marshal, and all that?  Will classroom teachers really want to take on the admissions, marketing, regulations, hiring, facilities, etc., issues that administrators handle, in the hours after a day with children?

Kamvar had answers to many of these questions.  Wildflower, the project, has offered some financial support for startup, but founding families also typically play a role, as well as taking responsibility for finding an appropriate site and getting regulatory approval.  Acting as a “teacher-leader” for a one-classroom school is admittedly, “not for everybody” and “a lot of work”.  Some of the administrative work can be shared with schools in the area network.  And the model envisions two “teacher-leaders” for each school, filing between them the roles of guide, assistant, and administration, so the burden is shared.

But that brings it back to the money.  Tuition for 20 or fewer pre-schoolers is not a lot to cover salaries for two people who can fill those roles, along with materials, furnishings, rent, and other overhead.  And if tuition is set at a level that covers those costs, where does that leave the “school as a change agent for society”?

Yet the schools are there and thriving, and the model is growing.  In fact, Wildflower is at an inflection point in its growth.  There’s been an organizational change in the last few months, with Kamvar becoming Board President of a newly launched Wildflower Foundation, and a new and influential figure from the public education world coming on board as CEO, bringing with him organizational and fundraising expertise and an explicit mission for social justice.  For that part of the story, look out for next week’s post on Wildflower’s next moves.

Jane (Wife of Bernie) Sanders Mentions Montessori

Jane Sanders, formerly President of Burlington College, currently with the Vermont Economic Development Authority, and spouse of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, briefly name-checked Montessori this week in a conversation with education wunderkind Nikhil Goyal.

Goyal is a 21-year old education writer and advocate for progressive education with two books to his name: One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, written when he was just 17 and still in high school, and Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice, out this year.  In an interview with Sanders, he brought up Montessori:

Goyal: Who do you think are some of your most influential heroes in education? Who are the people you’ve most been inspired by in your scholarly work?

Sanders: [John] Dewey, [William Heard] Kilpatrick, Robert Coles. One of the things I like are the people who focus on philosophy as the underpinning of their work.

Goyal: People like Maria Montessori, Dewey, Rudolf Steiner.

Sanders: I was a strong supporter of Montessori when my kids were very little. I homeschooled for a year, and then we did public school all the way through for the kids.

So there you have it.  Sanders’ three adult children are from her first marriage, they aren’t public figures, and we don’t know much more about their education (not that we should). But it sounds like she got them off to a good start.

Montessori Goes Public

MP-LogoBack in February, The Montessori Observer announced the inception of a “new voice” in the public Montessori world: the aptly named “MontessoriPublic”.  Since then, the publication, sponsored by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, has been working tables at the AMI and AMS annual conferences, making connections and building relationships in the public Montessori world, and visiting schools and programs to find out what’s happening and report back.

Today the site is going live, with a great piece about Alder Montessori in Portland, a wealth of information and resources, and much more to come.  If you like The Montessori Observer, I think you’ll love MontessoriPublic and the great work they’re taking on.

Famous Creative Montessorian in the News (this time, it’s Beyoncé…)

A colleague tipped me off (not to Beyoncé, I’ve heard of her) to an American Public Media Marketplace piece about the business of Bey, which cited her curiosity and habit of life-long learning.  I remember hearing that too, although it’s not in the transcript up at  Also not mentioned was the pop star’s time through 3rd grade at St. Mary of the Purification Catholic School, formerly St. Mary’s Montessori School and still offering at least a Children’s House Montessori program.  But could we attribute some of that “life-long-learner” attitude to Montessori?  Yes, I think we can.

Beyoncé is on that widely-shared, often poorly-sourced list of “famous Montessori alumni” you can find on almost every school’s website, including:

I’m always a little skeptical of these lists.  Did they really go to Montessori school?  (Jimmy Wales says no.)  How Montessori was it? How long were they there?  Did it really make that much of a difference?  (The Google Guys say yes.)  What about the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Montessori children who did nothing more remarkable than go on to lead fulfilling, well-adjusted lives and contribute to their communities.  (And how long before the name gets linked to some kind of high-profile disaster or scandal?  Will it be good press then?)

And it’s hard to track down the references, since Google just brings up all the lists people have already posted, citations sorely needed.  But I have come across a pretty good list, with links to (at least!) the relevant Wikipedia articles.  It’s here, at the Post Oak School in Houston*.  For whatever it’s worth.

* Beyoncé’s home town, so put her on the list of famous creative Houstonians, if that counts for anything…

Zuckerberg? Robot? Montessori approved?

I thought the same thing when I saw the headline: “Randi Zuckerberg backs wooden, Montessori-approved programming robot”.  Which I guess is the point of headlines — to pull you in and get you to read the story.

So here’s the story: Randi Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media (a “boutique marketing firm and production company”) and DotComplicated (a “digital lifestyle website”), who happens to have a famous brother with a well-known digital media property of his own, is an investor in Cubetto, an adorable wooden robot which can be programmed, by placing colored tiles on a wooden board, to move around a floor map representing various environments (solar system, ancient Egypt, cityscape, etc.). The activity is hands-on and doesn’t require reading, billing itself as “hands-on coding for 3 and up”.

But “Montessori-approved”? Cubetto touts Montessori no fewer than six times on its Kickstarter page. A couple of highlights:

Cubetto combines Montessori learning principles with computer programming concepts.


A playful programming language you can touch. Montessori approved, and LOGO Turtle inspired.”

and then this (click through for the whole pitch):

How is this Montessori?

It’s non-prescriptive – Cubetto gives children the ability to solve problems within the world they create..

It’s child-centered – All they need to get started is a nudge in understanding that blocks = actions. After this point, even the discovery of what each block does can be led by the child, leaving adults to observe and only help when needed.

It’s auto-didactic – Solving problems with the blocks is about trial and error. Once a sequence is sent to Cubetto, the result is immediate and non-abstract, giving children concrete grounds on which to self-correct without adult intervention…

It’s designed for scaffolding – When a problem is too complex, the right sequence is easily pooled from collective knowledge of children in the play session. Each child can in turn add a block, or a suggestion, layering in their individual competence to the solution in small steps.

So, two things about this. One is, as much as we may shudder at three year olds “learning to code”, it sounds like someone got us about right. “Gives children the ability to solve problems”? “Adults observe and only help when needed”? “Concrete grounds to self-correct without adult intervention”? Almost as if our message is getting across.

And the second thing is, someone thinks Montessori is a selling point! And not just “Montessori-equals-primary-colored-blocks-on-a-tray Montessori”. The tech-and-hacker community is full of smart people who value independence, creativity, exploration, and hands-on learning. That’s how a lot of them got to where they are. If they want to get to know us better, it sounds like it might be an interesting conversation.

Puzzle Map…

I don’t know if Randall Munroe, creator of the mind-bending webcomic xkcd and author of the brilliant and engaging What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and Thing Explainer, has any connection to Montessori — but then there’s this:


You know you want to try it:n023600

Public Montessori and MontessoriPublic

MP-LogoHow many public Montessori schools are the in the U.S., do you suppose? Where are they clustered? What challenges do they face? What successes have they had? How can I get one going in my town, city, or state?

There are places to go where you can get answers to those questions. The National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS), covered on The Montessori Observer here, has been doing a fantastic job of gathering and sharing information. The Montessori Public Policy Initiative (MPPI), the AMI-AMS collaboration (!) covered here has information and resources as well.

Now public Montessori has a new voice: MontessoriPublic, dedicated exclusively to public Montessori news and information, bringing Montessori into the public conversation.

Or is it a new voice after all? Montessorians may remember Public School Montessorian, the quarterly newsprint publication, beloved by many, largely the tireless work of the late Dennis Shapiro, who passed away in 2014. NCMPS worked with Dennis’ family to take over the publication and relaunch it as a print, digital, and social media communications and advocacy platform for public Montessori in all its forms.

MontessoriPublic was all over the AMI Refresher Course in Long Beach this weekend, passing out buttons and collecting subscriber emails, and you can look for the publication at the AMS Annual Conference in Chicago March 10-12. There’s nothing at the website yet except a place to sign up for email updates, but if MontessoriPublic can bring Public School Montessorian’s reporting into the digital age, it should be a great resource.