Tag Archives: research

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.


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.

Montessori, Play, Lillard, and Empirical Research

Dr. Angeline Lillard, professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, as well as several academic articles on Montessori, and Montessori speaker and advocate, has a new article in the American Journal of Play: Playful Learning and Montessori Education.  It’s long, dense but readable, and bristling with objectivity, academic citations, and peer-reviewed research.

Because the world of public education depends on academic studies and research, the article has all kinds of implications for the expansion of Montessori Primary to many more children.  It also offers a lot of theory and data for conversations with curious or skeptical non-academics.  This one should be on the coffee table in the admissions office at every Montessori school out there.

I encourage readers to read take the time to read the whole thing. Here’s the executive summary:

  • Play, as opposed to didactic learning, is a big deal in the world of Early Child Education.
  • Montessori has been generally considered anti-play (when it is considered at all).
  • Which seems strange, since freely chosen, open-ended activity is what we do!
  • In fact, Montessori has many of the elements identified as part of playful learning (to wit, structure, objects, interactive lessons, free choice, peer interactions, intrinsic rewards, and fun).
  • What Montessori doesn’t do is pretend play, such as dress-up, toy kitchens, and fantasy.
  • When you look at the research, the evidence for pretend play (as opposed to play in general) isn’t all that strong one way or the other.
  • Consequently, we don’t really know if adding pretend play to Montessori environments would help or hurt.
  • But we can look to see if the other elements of “playful learning Montessori style” is helpful to children’s learning.
  • This can be problematic because Montessori is practiced under a range of interpretations.
  • But if we control for certain elements of “high-fidelity” Montessori, we see improved social and cognitive outcomes.

That’s a very condensed summary of a thorough and detailed article.  Why is this so important?

Dr. Lillard bridges two worlds that don’t communicate much or understand each other.  Montessorians often don’t get why we’re not more widely adopted, especially in the pubic sphere.  Academics often don’t seem to ‘get’ Montessori, or find it relevant to their work.  There are two reasons for this state of affairs.

One reason we have stayed on the sidelines is the play question. The academic world sees us as didactic rather than play oriented.  But ‘play-based’ is the gold standard in early child education.  The article lays that perception on the table and takes it apart point by point.  It give Montessorians a way to talk about, and answer, the kinds of questions outsiders will ask.  Consider handing this to the smart and skeptical parent who wants to know “what the research says.” It also opens the question of pretend play on both ends, challenging Montessorians to consider our biases, and asking the academy to put up some solid research on why it belongs in schools in the first place.

(Recently D. Lillard has taken on exactly that question.  She has an article questioning the research supporting pretend play, followed by a fascinating exchange of comments, in the Psychological Bulletin 2013, 139/1)

More generally, the world of public policy, where funding and curriculum decisions for schools, Head Start, and early childhood education programs are made, depends on peer-reviewed, quantifiable, replicable research. Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of this .  That’s because of selection bias (it’s hard to get a control group of families who would have chosen Montessori but couldn’t) and because the topic has seemed so nebulous—how can researchers know what  they’re measuring when they measure Montessori?  What Lillard does here is outline a research framework—defining Montessori, translating our practices into technical, researchable topics, and laying pout enticing possibilities for further work.

Dr. Lillard told me that she wrote this paper primarily for an academic audience.  But it carries a challenge for Montessorians as well. There are legitimate issues around measurement and testing, to be sure, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  That is the language they speak where the decisions are made, and if we want to bring our voice to the conversation, we would do well to learn to speak it as well.  And if we can tell our story in language they can understand, we will get our story out to many more children and adults.  If not, we will remain an mostly exclusive niche.

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.

Talk to Your Baby: Now With Science

Once again, from the New York Times: Providence, Rhode Island has won a $5 million prizefor a large-scale implementation of the well-established finding that talking to your baby and toddler is critically important to language development.

A little background:  We know that, by 12 months poor children have fallen behind middle-class children in ability to talk, listen and, learn, and this gets worse every year.  There’s no consensus, but no shortage of theories, on why poverty is a leading indicator of poor learning ability.  Recently, attention has focused on exposure to spoken language for children from birth to 3.  The research, by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, has been around since at least 1995.  From the article:

the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental. (emphasis added)

But language exposure has been difficult to quantify.  Now, using new digital tools (they have their place in child development, just not in the hands of toddlers!), Providence, R.I. will use that $5 million to  reach two thousand families each year  in a project to improve talking and conversation and to gather lots of data.

Now, if only there were an early childhood education model that emphasized spoken language, building narrative through question and answer dialog, and development of vocabulary…Rhode Island Montessori schools, are you listening?

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.”