Tag Archives: research

New Study: Co-Operation and Problem-Solving is Good For You

Thanks for still being there, loyal readers.

The New York Times and National Public Radio pick up on a major study (funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) in the American Journal of Public Health:Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness.

Basically, kindergartner’s “prosocial skills” — such as sharing, cooperating, and helping others — strongly predicted their “key young adult outcomes across multiple domains of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health”.

I mean, we know these things, but when they are borne out by an impeccably designed, exhaustively controlled, ten-year study, we really know we know them.

There’s so much in the NYT summary that it’s hard to pull out just one things. But there’s this:  At the beginning of the study,

the teachers were asked to assign each child a score based on qualities that included “cooperates with peers without prompting”; “is helpful to others”; “is very good at understanding feelings”; and “resolves problems on own.”

The findings:

predicted the likelihood of many outcomes: whether the children would graduate from high school on time, get college degrees, have stable or full-time employment as young adults; whether they would live in public housing or receive public assistance; whether they would be held in juvenile detention or be arrested as adults. The kindergarten teachers’ scores also correlated with the number of arrests a young adult would have for severe offenses by age 25.

And it’s not just happy talk.  Public programs are implementing social and emotional learning in districts from Anchorage to Nashville.

This, obviously, is our wheelhouse.  We know intuitively that Montessori does this work — and we’ve known since 2012 that high-fidelity Montessori Primary programs deliver

significantly greater school-year gains on outcome measures of executive function, reading, math, vocabulary, and social problem-solving”

cited right here on TMO.

It’s not like Montessori gets a mention.  But there’s always the comments section…

New York Times Discovers Play-Based Learning, Pretty Much Stops There

The New York Times Sunday Review has a bit of a drive-by take  (picked up by Diane Ravitch among others) on early childhood education that, I’m sorry to say, I’m going to have to send back for revisions if it’s going to get a passing grade.

The gist of the piece is in the title: “Let the Kids Learn Through Play”. I usually say, go read the whole article, but I think I can do it justice in a short summary here with some bullet points and a couple of quotes. Essentially:

  • 20 years ago, there was a lot of play in schools (a bold statement without much citation, but let that go)
  • formal, didactic instruction has worked its way down to preschool (sad but true)
  • research suggests that this may not be such a good idea

Here Kohn quotes an authority:

One expert I talked to recently, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., describes this trend as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.” She regularly tours schools, and sees younger students floundering to comprehend instruction: “I’ve seen it many, many times in many, many classrooms — kids being told to sit at a table and just copy letters. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking indeed. If only there were body of theory and experimental work in how young children learn, that could be broadly applied with predictable results across cultures and classes…

Kohn goes on to ask a question:

As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

Which kind indeed? Sergey Brin. Larry Page. Jimmy Wales. Montessori and innovation. If only there were a method…

Kohn touches on a few other points: Common Core, Finland, inequality, and (at last) cites some intriguing research: The “Marcon Study”, by Rebecca A. Marcon  at the University of South Florida, which compared didactic, child-initiated, and “blended” pre-school models. Kohn doesn’t actually come out and say it, but Marcon found the strongest support for child-initiated preschool programs. From the abstract:

By the end of their sixth year in school, children whose preschool experiences had been academically directed earned significantly lower grades compared to children who had attended child-initiated preschool classes. Children’s later school success appears to have been enhanced by more active, child-initiated early learning experiences.

And he closes with this:

But the early education that kids get — whatever their socioeconomic background — should truly help their development. We must hope that those who make education policy will start paying attention to this science.

Indeed, education should be in the service of development, and proceed from a scientific basis. One way we can start is by calling it by name.

Embodied Montessori: Research Links Movement and Learning

**Update 3/29/15** Dr. Beilock has let me know that Schwartz’s article is a response to her book, “How the Body Knows Its Mind”, available at sianbeilock.com.

The Montessori Research Interest Group Facebook page (a project of the American Montessori Society Research Committee) highlights a piece by Katrina Schwartz on NPR’s Mind/Shift blog: Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn. Schwartz is reporting on Sian Beilock’s work on “embodied learning”:

When students use their bodies in the learning process, it can have a big effect, even if it seems silly or unconnected to the learning goal at hand.

And then a quick shout-out to Montessori:

This area of study, called “embodied learning,” is not new to many educators. Maria Montessori highlighted the connection between minds and bodies in her 1936 book The Secret of Childhood: “Movement, or physical activity, is thus an essential factor in intellectual growth, which depends upon the impressions received from outside. Through movement we come in contact with external reality, and it is through these contacts that we eventually acquire even abstract ideas.”

There’s more embedded Montessori further down the page: “When kids can explore their surroundings, all of a sudden, things change”—“There is evidence that our ability to use our hands affects the structure and functioning of the brain”.  And under the heading of “Environment Matters”,

Carnegie Mellon researchers recently found that when students learn in highly decorated classrooms, their gazes tend to wander, they get off task and their test scores suffer. Limiting visual stimulus is particularly important for very young learners who are still learning how to focus, and yet kindergarten classrooms are often the most brightly and densely decorated in an effort to make institutional buildings feel more cheerful.

No surprise, really, though. Beilock has been onto Montessori since at least 2012, as reported here on TMO, along with her connection to Angeline Lillard.

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.

New Research Backs True Stories

Not the most paradigm-shifting research, but one more for the “21st century researchers prove Montessori right” file.

Montessori Children’s House teachers have a bit of a bias against books for young children with talking animals, or as a friend of mine says, “a pig in an apron getting into trouble he never would have got in if he hadn’t had that apron on in the first place.” Now comes Frontiers in Psychology with a paper (Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals) showing that, in 3-5 year old children,

anthropomorphized animals in books may … lead to less learning [and] influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.

The Montessori idea is that children in the first plane of development, characterized by the absorbent mind, are fashioning their reality out of their direct sensorial experiences, and stories about talking animals will just confuse them. And what do you know, validated by science!

The study itself is long and dense, but there’s a very readable summary in Pacific Standard, coming my way via Andrew Sullivan of all people.

About the study: Frontiers in Psychology is an open access web based peer reviewed journal, which means authors pay a publishing fee (sometimes paid by their institution), and if an article passes peer review, it is freely available under an open license. I don’t know enough about the academic publishing world to evaluate the journal’s or the article’s credibility, but there are some good indications. The authors come from recognized universities, and the article is 57 pages long and packed with citations and statistical analysis. It’s really worth the read if this is your kind of thing. It’s a thorough, thoughtful, and scientific treatment of cognition, learning, and epistemology in young children.

Bettelheim and the Montessori Research Agenda

A piece on the Huffington Post in January, “Doing Pre-Kindergarten Right”, by a (sort of) non-Montessorian, Dr. Ruth Bettelheim, points out that

Preschool children think and function differently than school-age children, which is why primary school typically begins at age 6 or 7 everywhere in the world.

She calls for educational experiences to maximize young children’s potential, going on to say:

This maximization requires different educational methods than those developed for older children. Fortunately, several methods have been developed during the past century to enhance learning for young children. Most prominently, Dr. Montessori developed her method by investigating which approaches could best educate the severely impoverished slum children of early 20th century Rome.

The Montessori Method systematically teaches independent problem solving, starting at age 18 months, using hands-on learning and the native interests of preschoolers. She demonstrated that, given adequate food, regular health checkups, and the right full-day program, virtually all of even the most deprived children could learn to an equal or higher standard than their more privileged, traditionally educated peers.

That sounds good!  She continues,

Other methods, such as Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Dewey, Abecedarian, and Bank Street, also address the unique needs of this age group. Unfortunately, sufficiently rigorous, longitudinal trials of these approaches have not yet been undertaken to determine which ones best serve the developmental needs of very young children.

Emphasis added.  So, what is necessary for “sufficiently rigorous longitudinal trials”?  How about a broad-based, comprehensive data set covering Montessori schools in the U.S.?  Such as the 2013-2014 USA Montessori Census, 1049 schools and growing, perhaps?  (You see how everything is interconnected…)

Biographical note: Dr. Bettelheim, a pyschotherapist, executive coach, writer, and lecturer, has written about Montessori before: Time For Schools to Stop Damaging Children.  Dr. Bettelheim is also the daughter of now-controversial child psychologist and writer Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) and his second wife Gertrude, who was a Montessori teacher in Vienna in the 1930s.  In fact, Gertrude apparently worked at the Montessori school started by Bettelheim with his first wife, Gina Alstadt Bettelheim Weinmann.  (Per The Creation of Doctor B: A Biography of Bruno Bettelheim and Suicide And the Holocaust)

Credit where due note: The piece came out in January, and I’m not sure how I missed it, but fortunately the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, the Montessori Madmen, Montessori Northwest (the AMI training center in Portland, Oregon), Montessori Partners Serving all Children (a project of the Montessori Center of Minnesota ,  the AMI training center in in St. Paul, Minnesota), and a number of Montessori schools were all over it.

New Research Supports Montessori — Or Does It?

Child Develpment coverThere’s a new study out in Child Development (a leading peer-reviewed journal in the field), and covered in the Washington Post, that goes straight to Montessori’s complicated interaction with the world of academically recognized empirical science.

The study challenges the commonly held view that children under six do not understand place value in multi-digit numbers.  Instead, the authors found some understanding, most likely gleaned from environmental experiences hearing and seeing such numbers, in children as young as three.  Children were able to identify and compare spoken numbers, choosing among written representations, images of base-10 blocks, and clusters of dots, with an accuracy significantly greater than chance.

This is great news for Montessori teachers, since we have been presenting place value and operations with four-digit numbers to four and five year old children for more than one hundred years.  There’s that smug little affirmation we get when solid research bears out something we already do.

But that’s not the only result the study found.

The authors went on to give children instruction in identifying and comparing multi-digit numbers using two different methods: decimal block manipulatives (similar to Montessori golden bead material) and abstract symbols (single digits on cards).  Surprisingly (to Montessorians), the manipulatives instruction was much less effective at improving numeral recognition.  In fact, children who were instructed with decimal blocks scored lower on testing after instruction.

What are we to make of this?  As Montessorians, we’re a little prone to smugly identifying published research with confirms our preconceived notions and our century of practice.  We sometimes speak of “the science catching up with Montessori.” But we’re not always so quick to point out research that points the other way.  There’s no denying it: we cherry-pick the science.

This piece throws that practice into sharp relief. All in the same article, a scientific affirmation of Montessori and — a challenge. Now, it’s easy to attack the conclusions of the second finding.  “What kind of manipulatives?  What kind of instruction?  Ours is better!  Our approach gives the child real understanding of the decimal system, not some pointless superficial ability to get the right answers.”

Well, maybe so.  But we don’t get to accept the first finding and throw out the others just because we have a gut feeling that they’re wrong.  These are empirical claims, and if we are going to hitch our wagon to empirical science (which we should and must, following Montessori-as-scientist), we need to get out there and prove them.  That’s how science is done.  One study by itself isn’t the end of the story—it’s the beginning.  But to be part of that story, we need to be represented in the academy, and to be willing to put our claims and methods to the test.

Comments are open on the Post piece here (scroll down, log in).  You can contact the authors of the study through their institutions:  Kelly S. Mix  and Jerri Stockton at Michigan State, Linda S. Prather and Richard Prather at Indiana State.

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.

Montessori in All But Name: Scientific American

I had that feeling again today when you read an article about education and think, “In Montessori, we already do this.”  And I’m a little tired of writing this same post over and over. But here we go again.

Scientific American.  Scott Barry Kaufman’s Beautiful Minds blog: Profiling Serial Creators.  Kaufman is a psychologist at NYU specializing in intelligence and creativity, a broadly published academic, and a popular science writer.

The article opens with this premise:

Every single day, all across the globe, extraordinarily creative and talented students sit in our classrooms bored out of their minds.

Great, I thought—this has got to be about Montessori.  It was another case of everything but.  The piece is worth reading in full, but here’s the outline.

Creative children are not being well served.  Creative children are bored in school.  We don’t have good ways to identify and measure them.  Portfolios are ann imperfect instrument, and there are issues with the standard creativity test, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT).

What we should be doing: We can look more carefully at IQ tests.  We can use checklists. But our best be might be profiling: looking for children who have the characteristics of creative adults.  It turns out that Barbara Kerr at the University of Kansas has done this work.  Here’s how she described creative students (bullet-pointed for easy reading):

  • Creatively gifted students may be spontaneous, expressive, intuitive, and perceptive, with evidence of intellectual sophistication and childlike playfulness. 
  • They are very likely to be curious, open to new experiences, and innovative in many areas of their lives. 
  • They may express originality in thoughts, and are probably unafraid of what others might think of their ideas. 
  • Most likely, these students have a wide range of interests and abilities, and may be comfortable with ambiguity and disorder. 
  • Likely to be unconventional, creatively gifted students are imaginative, and may challenge the status quo. 
  • By late adolescence, truly creative individuals usually have significant creative accomplishments that have earned them recognition by experts in their domain. 

Umm, sound like any students you know?

The piece goes on with some excellent studies and interventions aimed at identifying and supporting these students, which is great.  Here are some selected characteristics:

  • love of play
  • openness to experience
  • prone to flow experiences
  • high levels of affiliation, nurturance, and agreeableness

 And some final observations:

These creative adolescents appeared to be very friendly, socially oriented, and socially well-adjusted.

An intriguing possibility is that the current generation of creative youth is more connected, community oriented, and affiliative than prior generations.

Déjà vu.

By this point I couldn’t help thinking what I hope you’re thinking, too:  How can you talk about all this and not mention Montessori?  Instead of digging through our current system to find the children like this who we’re not even serving very well, why not design a system that support these characteristics from the outset!  

OK—I got a little heated there. But, really. The article goes on with interventions “to help the students see their real authentic selves and the narrative of their lives, instead of focusing on the results of a standardized profile.” I just had to stop. There’s work to be done.

I Google-scanned Kaufman’s other work, and I didn’t find Montessori anywhere (or mentioned on any Scientific American blog, for that matter). But that’s not his fault, and there’s nothing to be gained by acting like it is. I’m going to send him an email and some links at sbk334@nyu.edu, and you can too. Tell him about Stephen Hughes, Angeline Lillard, and Sian Beilock, and the Montessori connection to Csikentmihalyi’s Flow theory. Maybe his next piece will bring us in.

Montessori Mention at Psychology Today

ImageA throwaway Montessori mention today: Montessori Had it Right: We Learn by Doing, by Dr. Sian Beilock, a professor at the University of Chicago, in Pscyhology Today.  (She has a new book out: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.)

The article describes new research that shows that, in fact, writing development precedes and improves reading development in the brain.   Toddlers who practiced letter shapes had better letter recognition than those who practiced naming words, and brain imaging showed faster development of the fusiform gyrus, which is involved in letter recognition.

Who knew? Beilock casually mentions Montessori in the headline, but it’s not just “learning by doing.” As many Montessorians know, writing comes before reading in the Children’s House classroom because that’s what Dr. Montessori observed working with children.  Nice to see the brain research catching up.

Interestingly, Beilock and Montessori turned up together in a 2008 piece on Boston.com, Don’t Just Stand There, Think, talking about “embodied cognition.”  This is the idea that “we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies.”  At the time, this was a “young field” in the world of psychology, although:

Some educators see in it a new paradigm for teaching children, one that privileges movement and simulation over reading, writing, and reciting.

Really?

The article cites a study by Beilock, and at the end he brings in who else but Dr. Angeline Lillard!

While embodied cognition remains a young field, some specialists believe that it suggests a rethinking of how we approach education.

Angeline Lillard, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says that one possibility is to take another look at the educational approach that Italian educator Maria Montessori laid out nearly 100 years ago, theories that for decades were ignored by mainstream educators.

A key to the Montessori method is the idea that children learn best in a dynamic environment full of motion and the manipulation of physical objects. In Montessori schools, children learn the alphabet by tracing sandpaper letters, they learn math using blocks and cubes, they learn grammar by acting out sentences read to them.

As it turns out, Lillard cites Beilock in the American Journal of Play article I featured on this site last week, and they’re all over together in psychological bibliographies.

So this is what it looks like to be in the conversation.  More and more brain-based stuff for us to point to.

Hat tip: Montessori Madman Daniel Petter-Lippstein.