As it turns out, David Kirp knows Montessori well, and thinks highly of it, and Dr. Cohen is “a serious fan”. They wrote to clarify that they were thinking primarily of public schools, where there are “few or very few” public programs, which is absolutely the case. So, my apologies to the good doctors for jumping all over a brief quote. I fell victim to the Montessorian’s wounded pride, which is a posture that does us no good.
Education policy heavyweight (see below) David Kirp (wiki) has a great piece in the NYT Sunday Review today about the Escuela Nueva schools in Colombia. Founded in 1975 by Vicky Colbert (who, like Escuela Nueva itself, desperately needs a Wikipedia page), Escuela Nueva is a chlld-centered educational model which puts “cooperative, constructive, personalized and active learning” over “memorization and passive learning” and empowers children as part of a self-governing community. First implemented in poor rural Colombian schools, the model has extended to 20,000 programs there and has been adopted in 16 other countries.
Here’s some of what Kirp saw in the rural one-room schoolhouse he visited. I’m quoting from his piece at length because it’s so striking:
In most schools, students sit in rows facing the teacher, who does most of the talking. But these students are grouped at tables, each corresponding to a grade level. The hum of conversation fills the room. After tackling an assignment on their own, the students review one another’s work. If a child is struggling, the others pitch in to help.
The “hum of conversation”: what a concept! We could do without the assignments and the arbitrary grade-level groupings, but they’ve only been doing it for four decades. More observations:
During my visit to one of these schools, second graders were writing short stories, and fifth graders were testing whether the color of light affects its brightness when seen through water. The teacher moved among the groups, leaning over shoulders, reading and commenting on their work. In one corner of the classroom were items, brought to school by the kids, that will be incorporated in their lessons. The students have planted a sizable garden, and the vegetables and fruits they raise are used as staples at mealtime, often prepared according to their parents’ recipes.
Second graders writing stories? The teacher moving around the classroom? A vegetable garden? What radicalism is this?
In the schools, students elected by their peers shoulder a host of responsibilities. In a school I visited in a poor neighborhood here in the city of Armenia, the student council meticulously planned a day set aside to promote peace; operated a radio station; and turned an empty classroom into a quiet space for reading and recharging. I was there last Halloween, when students put on a costume contest for their pets.
Responsibilities, empowerment, and peace—these sound like some elements we could stand to incorporate into education. But what about the research?
There’s solid evidence that American students do well when they are encouraged to think for themselves and expected to collaborate with one another. In a report last year, the American Institutes for Research concluded that students who attended so-called deeper learning high schools — which emphasize understanding, not just memorizing, academic content; applying that understanding to novel problems and situations; and developing interpersonal skills and self-control — recorded higher test scores, were more likely to enroll in college and were more adept at collaboration than their peers in conventional schools.
And then — the dagger to the heart:
“It’s really different and quite impressive,” David K. Cohen, an education professor at the University of Michigan, told me. “I know of no similar system in the U.S.”
No similar system.
(Just for the record, and to provide a good pull-quote, Montessori education is a proven, widely practiced, century-old educational student-centered approach that emphasizes student empowerment and choice, understanding over rote learning, peer learning through mixed-age groups, practical applications, and much more.)
So I know I’m being a little cheeky here. And I’ve got nothing at all against Escuela Nueva or Vicky Colbert and her life-changing work with children, or against Drs. Kirp and Cohen. But I can’t help feeling that they ought to know better. Professor Kirp holds the James D. Marver Chair at the Goldman School of Pubic Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has written numerous books and national articles on education and public policy, and served on President Obama’s Transition Team. Cohen holds the John Dewey (really!) Chair at the University of Michigan School of Education, and has authored numerous books and articles as well. If these guys haven’t heard of Montessori, who has? And really, whose fault is that: theirs — or Montessori’s? Could we possibly do a little better at getting our story out?
So. Comments are not enabled on the NYT article. Professor Kirp has a public email address at Berkeley. Professor Cohen can be reached at the University of Michigan. I will be sending them a link to this post (and Ms. Colbert as well!), and maybe next time Montessori will make the Sunday section.