Tag Archives: executive function

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.

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Montessori Goes to Harvard

With Yale researching Montessori, I guess Harvard had to get in the game:

This is a new video from The Harvard Center on the Developing Child‘s InBrief series, featuring lots of great footage from a Montessori school.  It’s a big deal for two reasons.

First, the topic of the video is Executive Function: Skills For Life and Learning.  Executive function (wiki), which comprises planning, working memory, inhibitory control, and problem-solving, among other abilities, is having its moment in the news these days as educators and researchers focus on its importance in early childhood education—the Marshmallow Test being the pop-culture icon for the concept. Montessori Children’s Houses, with their emphasis on order, sequence, limitation of materials, and student-directed activity, are little laboratories of executive function, of course, and researchers have begun to take notice: Adele Diamond, on YouTube and at the Montessori Congress ($10), AMI Trainer Larry Quade, Dr. Stephen Hughes, and even at Harvard.

And that’s the second reason this is a big deal. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child, directed by national child development researcher and thought leader Jack Shonkoff, is so huge, influential, and pervasive in the child development world that it’s hard to know where to start (about, history, FAQ).  It emerged from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, now itself a program of the Center, along with the National Forum on Early Childhood Policy and Programs and the Global Children’s Initiative among others.  Partnered with the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the Center is enormously influential in the development of state and national policies and practices in education and child development.

A lot of important people are going to see this video, and although it doesn’t mention Montessori by name, they are probably going to be able to figure it out. And they are going to see that there’s something really special happening in those classrooms, and they are going to want to know more.

That’s the way to be in the conversation.

Bonus:  I learned that the video was shot at Three Tree Montessori in Burien, Washington, for the Washington State Department of Early Learning online training to provide information on executive function.  The training course, with additional video, is here.  Somehow—I’m still digging into exactly how—it made its way into the Harvard piece.

You’ll notice that Tools of the Mind is mentioned by name in the video, while Montessori is not.  A source connected to the video tells me that teachers were directed away from using “Montessori” in their interviews.  Interesting.