The Joy of Responsibility
I wrote recently about sharing the public school standards with children, and putting the children largely in charge of ensuring they each meet the standards. I can hear the objection, too: “but then they’ll never do them!”. In my experience, that’s not at all true.
For the majority of children, the standards really aren’t that hard. In a Montessori classroom, nearly all of the standards are incorporated into the everyday lessons and activities in the classroom, so meeting the standards doesn't involve much extra work. They are also very basic in comparison to the work that most children are doing.
But more importantly, the work of young people is to become capable adults who can take their part in society. Children are eager to take on societal expectations. They want to be responsible, and when they are given the message that they can be, most will jump at the opportunity, and take their responsibilities quite seriously.
Of course, this is a point of arrival. Most Montessori children have been working towards this sort of independent responsibility since they were 3 or so, and they have learned to take initiative, not wait for an adult to tell them what to do. This comes about through choosing one’s own activities, but also being asked to be aware of how one’s behavior influences others and being given a lot of space to sort out problems. I suspect that handing over the standards to a group of children in a conventional classroom would require a much longer process of developing initiative, and responsibility, as well as developing tools the children can use for taking responsibility for their learning.
Even in a Montessori classroom, we don’t just drop the standards on the children and say “this is your responsibility.” Taking full responsibility for meeting the school standards, and for one's own learning in general, is a point of arrival. Of course, as their guide, it's my job to provide enticing lessons and materials to make learning the topics in the standards possible, and to inform the children of which lessons are part of the standards (meaning they must follow up on them). It’s also my job to encourage and inspire their sense of responsibility so that they see the standards as an opportunity to take on a responsibility, rather than as a burden.
Here is approximately what I tell the children when I introduce the standards.
Here in our school, you are very lucky because you get to choose how to spend your time. Many children don’t have that choice. You can choose what to work on, who to work with, where to work, and when to take a break. But those choices also come with responsibilities. As you know, some of those responsibilities are to make wise choices about what you choose to work on, and to treat yourself and others and our classroom with care. But there’s another responsibility you may not know about...
Our society expects that all children will learn certain things. Part of having the freedom to choose your work is the responsibility to learn these particular things. We have some tools here in our classroom to help you. On our shelf are the “School Standards,” which list what you must know and be able to do. They are grouped into two parts: things to master by the time you are 9, and things to master by the time you are 12. You can always use this material to check in on how you’re doing, and of course, you can ask me if there is something you’re unsure about. I will also tell you when a lesson is part of the school standards. When it is, that means you must follow up on those specific presentations so that you can master the school standards.
You may like to look at the standards and choose a few to work on, or request a lesson. You will find that you already know many of the topics in the standards, and that there are materials in our classroom for nearly all of them. We can look at them together during your conferences and you can ask for any help you need. Of course, I will be here to help you meet society’s expectations, but my job is to help you take responsibility for them yourself.