Tag Archives: education reform

Escuela Nueva in Colombia: Nothing Like it in the U.S.?

Update 3/1/2015:

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.

Montessori With Finnish Characteristics

Finland broke out on the education scene in 2010 after the controversial film Waiting for Superman (wiki) publicized that country’s surprising strength in international rankings with an education system founded on equity, serious teacher preparation, and a striking absence of testing. From the Finnish National Board of Education, helpfully provided in English:

The main objective of Finnish education policy is to offer all citizens equal opportunities to receive education. The structure of the education system reflects these principles. The system is highly permeable, that is, there are no dead-ends preventing progression to higher levels of education.

The focus in education is on learning rather than testing. There are no national tests for pupils in basic education in Finland. Instead, teachers are responsible for assessment in their respective subjects on the basis of the objectives included in the curriculum.

Other elements include critical support for early childhood education, formal education beginning at 7, a homogenous culture, and centralized control in a small country. (Finland has a population of 5.4 million, about the size of Minnesota.)

The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Smithsonian, among many others, took notice, and Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg’s 2012 book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn about Educational Change in Finland? covered the system in detail.

And Finland is still hot, although they have slipped in the rankings.

Now Sahlberg has a post picked up by Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss: Five U.S. innovations that helped Finland’s schools improve but that American reformers now ignore.  (With a follow-up comment from Howard Gardner!) The essence: Finland’s system is driven by innovations researched in the U.S. but not adopted here. And what are the innovations? Some of them sound strangely familiar…

It’s a long piece—read the whole thing here. Edited, highlighted, and annotated:

Finland’s Innovations in Education

1. John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education

[I]n an ideal classroom, pupils speak more than the teacher. … It is understandable that the pragmatic, child-centered educational thinking of John Dewey has been widely accepted among Finnish educators. … Many Finnish schools have adopted Dewey’s view of education for democracy by enhancing students’ access to decision-making regarding their own lives and studying in school.

Dewey (father of progressive, constructivist education) has a bad name in Montessori because his follower W. H. Kilpatrick publicly slighted her work in 1915, but at a one hundred year remove, they have a great deal in common. She merits 20 sensitive, detailed, mostly positive pages in his 1915 book Schools of Tomorrow. But that’s another post.

2. Cooperative Learning

Unlike in most other countries, cooperative learning has become a pedagogical approach that is widely practiced throughout Finnish education system. … The 1994 National Curriculum included a requirement that all schools design their own curricula in a way that would enhance teaching and learning according to constructivist educational ideas.

3. Multiple Intelligences

This part leans heavily on Martin Gardner’s work, but take out the jargon and here’s what’s left:

[S]chool reform in Finland included another idea …: development of the whole child. The overall goal of schooling in Finland was to support the child’s holistic development and growth … schools have a balanced program, blending academic subjects with art, music, crafts, and physical education. This framework moreover mandated that all schools provide students with sufficient time for their self-directive activities.

4. Alternative Classroom Assessments

Without frequent standardized and census-based testing, the Finnish education system relies on local monitoring and teacher-made student assessments. A child-centered, interaction-rich whole-child approach in the national curriculum requires that different student assessment models are used in schools. Furthermore, primary school pupils don’t get any grades in their assessments before they are in fifth grade.

5. Peer Coaching

Peer coaching—that is, a confidential process through which teachers work together to reflect on current practices, expand, improve, and learn new skills, exchange ideas, conduct classroom research and solve problems together in school

This doesn’t really have anything to do with Montessori. But, it sure sounds like a good idea!

There’s been a lot about what we can’t learn from the Finns, and how their small, homogenous, welfare-state system isn’t relevant to our situation. But what if there were already a well-developed model, available here, that was founded on the same principles…what would that look like?

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.

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..

Kindergarten Testing and Education Reform

Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss (who has written about Montessori, as noted on TMO) has picked up an oregonlive.com op-ed about kindergarten testing in Oregon. Oregon five year-olds were able to name 19 letters out of 100 in a one-minute test.  Strauss is appropriately appalled about intensive timed testing of young children, and she goes on to detail the increasing focus on academic content and testing in early childhood education.  (Comments are still open on her blog.)

But from the Montessori perspective, it’s also appalling, or at least disappointing, that preschoolers are arriving in kindergarten without the ability to recognize letter sounds.  Because we know literacy in young children is developmentally normal and can emerge spontaneously in the appropriate environment without traditional adult-directed instruction and intrusive assessment.  It happens every day in Montessori Children’s House classrooms all over the world.

Strauss goes on to describe an ideal education model:

Research shows that children learn best when they have hands-on learning experiences, engage in structured play, experience facts within meaningful contexts, invent their own problems to explore and solve, and share their own solutions. The current emphasis on standards and testing has led many schools to over-focus on assessment at the expense of meeting children’s developmental needs and teaching meaningful content. Play and activity-based learning have been disappearing from many early childhood classrooms, and – along with them – children’s natural motivation and love of learning.

Emphasis added.

Finally, Strauss wraps up with a list of early childhood education practices to address the absence of this model.  Here’s her list, annotated with observations from our world:

Program practices:

1. Promote programs that are based on current research on how young children learn best.

Montessori: Not “based on”, but in line with.

2. Promote meaningful, hands-on learning experiences in classrooms for young children.

3. Work to ensure that teachers provide well-thought out educational experiences that demonstrate knowledge and respect for each child.

Montessori: check, and check.

4. Work to ensure that children have literacy experiences that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and acting out stories rather than activities that isolate and drill discrete skills.

True Stories.  Literature. Reading Analysis.  Check.

5. Help teachers skillfully build curriculum from what children can do and understand instead of direct teaching skills that are disconnected from children’s understanding.

Essentially describes the first principles of Montessori pedagogy.

8. Work to ensure that teachers who have specialized training in early childhood education are placed in classrooms for young children.

Emphasis added.

Assessment practices:

1. Encourage policies that protect children from undue pressure and stress and from judgments that will have a negative impact on their lives in the present and in the future.

Respect children and their natural development.  Check.

2. Promote the use of assessments that are based on observations of children, their development and learning.

Emphasis added.

3. Work to ensure that classroom assessments are used for the purpose of improving instruction.

4. Support efforts to eliminate testing of young children that is not intended to improve classroom practice.

5. Eliminate labeling and ranking of children based on standardized tests.

Not a lot of classroom assessment, testing, and ranking in (mixed-age) Montessori environments.

What family members can do at home

1. Provide young children with space and time to play at home and in the neighborhood.

2. Read good quality children’s books and limit screen time.

3. Resist reinforcing the school’s agenda – drilling for skills – and replace it with opportunities for meaningful learning

Key features of parent education at many Montessori schools.

Strauss is appropriately worked up about the way reform is pushing content and testing that’s not appropriate.  But we in Montessori have a time-tested approach that brings together almost all of these elements and introduces the academic content without force-feeding or intrusive testing.  There is a national push on for “high-quality” early childhood education, and we have something really valuable to add to the conversation.

More in the next day or two on how we can do that.

Montessori Great Lessons in the Washington Post

This one is a little complicated but worth following.

It starts with an New York education blogger at @TheChalkFace posting a 1st grade vocabulary list from the NY Common Core website—70 words from cuneiform to synagogue and all points in between.  Outrage ensues in the comments, mostly about how the list goes way over the heads of most 6 year olds.  Well.  I don’t know about that, but there’s a list of 81 goals from the same website that’s pretty over the top:

  • Explain the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the use of canals to support farming and the development of the city of Babylon.
  • Explain the ways in which a leader is important to the development of a civilization.
  • Explain the significance of gods/goddesses, ziggurats, temples, and priests in Mesopotamia.

Next up: acclaimed cognitive psychologist, author, and widely published researcher Daniel Willingham picks up the post on his own blog, arguing that the material can’t be developmentally inappropriate for a 1st grader because stages of development don’t really exist.  (Willingham has made this argument at greater length in this Scientific American article.)

He goes on to offer evidence that ancient civilizations can so be taught to first graders, giving two examples: the Core Knowledge curriculum (full disclosure: Willingham is on the board of Core Knowledge), and his daughter’s Montessori elementary class.  His post gets picked up by Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss, and that’s how Montessori elementary and the five Great Lessons make it into the Washington Post.

But here’s the twist. Willingham is no stranger to Montessori—his wife is a Montessori teacher, his daughter goes to Montessori school, and he has presented at a national Montessori conference.  So it’s a little surprising that he cites Montessori in an argument against stages of development. Take away the Montessori’s stages of development (she called them “planes”), and the whole thing sort of falls to pieces, as the fundamental insight of Montessori education is that children have innate drives towards education through interaction with the environment, and those drives function very differently at different stages of life!  In fact, the very reason the Great Lessons he cites are given to six-year olds, and not before, is that they appeal to the powers of reason and imagination that become active around six or seven, and not before.

Now, blog posts are not exhaustively footnoted dissertations, and I’m sure Willingham knows that Montessori is a developmental model.  (If he didn’t before, I bet his wife has filled him in on it by now. If he still has questions, this page on TMO, the Wikipedia article, or the Washington Montessori Institute at Loyola in Baltimore, not far from the Willingham’s home university, the University of Virignia, are excellent sources of info.  Or he could check with his colleague Angelline Lillard.)  And we always appreciate a prominent mention.  They’re spelling our name right these days—they’re just still a little fuzzy on the details.

Slate Magazine Calls Out Grades, Cites Montessori

An article today from Slate.com: The Case Against Grades, by Michael Thomsen, spells out everything that’s wrong with   the 116-year old A-B-C-D-F system, in no uncertain terms.  I’ll quote liberally from the article because it’s so good, but please, click though and read the whole thing.  A sampling:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the rigid and judgmental foundation of modern education is the origin point for many of our worst qualities, making it harder for many to learn…

With data:

I was all set to comment about Montessori, as the largest (by far) organized pedagogy which explicitly rejects grades, when I got to this in the meat of the article:

The most famous example are Montessori schools, noted for their lack of grades, multiage classes, and extended periods where students can chose their own projects from a selected range of materials. The schools have educated many of today’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, including Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales, business management legend Peter Drucker, and video game icon Will Wright.

It goes on, citing Angeline Lillard’s widely cited 2006 article Evaluating Montessori Education:

A 2006 comparison in Milwaukee found that Montessori students performed better than grade-based students at reading and math; they also “wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.”

But isn’t Montessori just for those who can afford it?  Thomsen is way ahead of you:

Some contend that Montessori schools attract more affluent and successful parents, who give their children an inherent advantage, but the Milwaukee study was built around a random lottery for Montessori enrollment. All the children in the study came from families with similar economic backgrounds, with average incomes ranging between $20,000 and $50,000.

He goes on to describe Summerhill and free schools modeled after it, and I think that’s just fine.  That’s the company we want to be mentioned among.  Go ahead with the full free school philosophy if you’re ready to go that far.  If you’re looking for something equally progressive, a touch more accessible, and quite possibly in your neighborhood or coming soon, check out a Montessori school.

Montessori and Day Care

The New Republic has a grim piece up: The Hell of American Day Care, by Jonathon Cohn. The article centers on the story of Kendyll Mire, a toddler killed in a fire at an in-home day care in Houston in 2011, and you should know before you decide to click that it is pretty gut-wrenching.

But Cohn does a good job of filling in the social and historical context of how pre-kindergarten child care is provided and regulated in this country—in contrast to many other countries where child care is seen as a national priority.  From the article:

  • About 8.2 million children under five are in some kind of care.
  • In 2011, the median  salary for a child care worker was $19,430.
    (For comparison, full-time work at $12/hour is about $24,000.)
  • Full-time licensed child care can cost as much as $15,000 a year.(National averages are $11,666 for infants and $8,800 for preschool)
  • Very poor families can get a tax credit worth up to $1,050 a year per child.

(There’s a wealth of detail at Child Care America’s National Report.)

Kendyll’s story is harrowing, but Cohn’s bleak picture of the U.S. chid care market is a reality we  Montessorians need to face if we are to bring our work to children and families who need it most. Many of us work in a different world, and we don’t really understand the scale of what’s  happening outside our (frankly) boutique niche. Here’s what the article makes clear:

  • Many households, often headed by single mothers, need child care so they can work.
  • Many child care choices are poorly regulated, don’t respond to child development, and can’t pay practitioners well or attract educated skilled workers.
  • Yet these programs are barely in reach of the families who need it most.

And here are some facts about Montessori

  • Although elementary and adolescent work is thriving and expanding, most Montessori is taking place at the child care level, especially worldwide.
  • Montessori has a fantastic but little-known child-development based model of infant-toddler and preschool level care.
  • Our programs are not necessarily that expensive. You can look up your state here (pdf), on page 36. You may find your program  $1000 or so of the state average.

So? If schools can find a way to reach these families, and to bridge the affordability gap, with financial aid, tax credits, and  state subsidies that may exist, we could serve a lot of children who really need it, and be a bigger part of the child development and child care conversation in society.  This is our growth opportunity.

Finally, some observations about child care programs in public life:

Kendyll’s world is the world our regulators see. It’s the reason for ratio and inspection rules we sometimes chafe against. As we join the ongoing conversations in many states about standards and practices—and we need to be there—this has to inform our message:  We understand where you’re coming from, what you see.  Montessori is different.  Come see for yourselves.  We might even have something to offer.  Come see for yourselves.

High profile articles like Cohn’s don’t happen in a vacuum.  Obama’s State of trhe Union put preschool and child care on the national agenda for the next few years.  The conversation is going to be about Quality of Care, High-Quality Preschool, and it’s happening already, in Oregon, in California, in Florida, and likely in your state as well.  And it’s not about better private preschools for families who can well afford it.  It’s about serving children and families who can’t. If we’re going to reach more children, we’re going to have to start reaching where the children who need us actually are.

Montessori’s Got SOLE

Yesterday, I wrote about Dr. Sugata Mitra and self-directed learning.

Dr. Mitra won the one million dollar  2013 TED prize to build “The School in the Cloud,” a virtual school based on his work.

His lesson structure is called a Self-Organized Learning Environment, or SOLE, and there’s a contest to implement one and write it up in 500-1000 words.  Up to three winners will get tickets (for two!) to TED Youth 2013* in November. Instructions and Guidelines and here.

Montessori elementary teachers should submit entries to this contest.  Here’s why.  You already run ten of these a day, concurrently.  Here are the elements of the SOLE, from the guidelines:

  • the adult poses a motivating question
  • students choose their own groups of four
  • a student is designated as “helper”—a sort of facilitator
  • movement permitted
  • collaboration and borrowing from other groups is permitted
  • changing groups is permitted
  • groups develop substantial responses to the questions and share them with the whole class
  • Dr. Mitra’s work often involves groups sharing a PC and using the internet heavily, but this is not specified in the guidelines
  • 40 minutes are allowed for investigations, and 10 to 20 for review

So like the Montessori elementary! Except, in Montessori:

  • the motivating questions are embedded in a holistic structure and supported with brilliant charts and materials
  • multiple questions are being explored by different children at any time
  • groups are not limited to four 
  • computers and internet use are often minimized
  • group roles typically emerge spontanesously
  • movement and collaboration are of course permitted 
  • hand-on experiences, books, and student-directed visits to outside resources, (“Going Out”), are emphasized as sources
  • time limits are much broader than 40 minutes, and projects may extend over several days

Dr. Mitra needs to know what we do. I know it’s an extra hour or two of work to really write it up well, but why not get credit for what we’re already doing? 

The deadline is next Friday, the 12th. 

Those links again:

Instructions • Guidelines (pdf)

* From their website: “TEDYouth is a day-long event for high school students — with live speakers, hands-on activities and great conversations.”

Self Organized Learning (Re)Discovered—Million Dollar Prize Awarded

This is a complex story with a lot of angles: self-directed learning, technology in the classroom, Montessori rediscovered yet again, education for very poor children, TED, and lots more.  And, because it is strongly pro-computer and takes Montessori for granted, it’s going to irritate some people.  But hear me out.

Education researcher Sugata Mitra (website, Wiki*) has been awarded the one million dollar 2013 TED Prize to fund development of a “School in the Cloud,” based on what he calls Self Organized Learning Experiences, or SOLEs.  He has challenged parents and teachers to implement document, and submit their SOLEs.  Three winning submissions will receive a weekend trip to the TED Youth  conference in November.

Mitra, a scientist and education researcher, is known for his Hole-in-the-Wall (website, Wiki*)experiments and later work in self-directed learning among children aged 8 to 12.  Here’s what he did.

In 1999, while working for an IT training company in New Dehli, Mitra, curious about technological literacy in very poor Indian children, cut a hole in the wall of his office facing into the adjoining slum, and installed a computer, a trackpad, and a video camera.  He was astonished to observe children spontaneously working in groups to become fluent internet navigators without being taught by adults.  He has since replicated and extended the experiment in hundreds of locations around the world, observing children learning computer skills, teaching themselves English, finding and using information from internet sources, and exploring motivating and open-ended questions such as “Do fish feel pain?” and “What is altruism?”

Mitra has made some observations which will be familiar to Montessori teachers. Children in the experiments:

  • displayed spontaneous activity, self-educating themselves without prompting
  • naturally formed groups to work together
  • worked better when the number of computers was limited and sharing was necessary

The experiment worked best:

  • with children aged 8 to 12
  • when children had freedom to move around their environment, to choose their own groups, and to collaborate
  • with a supportive adult who gave encouragement but not direct instruction

Now I know you’re all saying, “Great! He rediscovered Montessori philosophy and the second plane, but with the internet instead of the Great Lessons!”  But let’s keep a couple of things in mind.

First, one of Mitra’s key early insights was this: “There are places on earth where, for various reasons good schools cannot be built and good teachers cannot or don’t want to go.” We’re not anywhere close to sending an army of Montessori elementary teachers to those places, and if those children can have authentic self-directed learning experiences now, while they’re still children, I’m all for it.

Second, if there is solid research showing that what we do works, and a million dollar prize for it makes the news, I’m all for that, too.

That’s enough for today.  I encourage you to check out Mitra and his TED talks.  Tomorrow I’ll post about how Montessorians can get involved.

TED 2007 •  TED 2010 • TED 2013

* The Wikipedia articles are not up to the usual standard for the site, but they’re a good place to get started.