I want to challenge you to question your assumptions about school. About children. About learning.
What makes the Montessori approach to education unique, is that Maria Montessori developed her theories of child development and her practices for the classroom together in an iterative process. Moreover, as far as we can tell from modern science, she got most of her theories about children right. She didn’t start out with a rigid theory of learning or child development and blindly build a school based on that, nor did she start out with a specific set of practices or structures (e.g. school standards or single-grade classrooms) and then try to shove her new ideas into that structure.
Instead, she built her theory and her practice iteratively. When she built her first Children’s House (preschool), she did start out with more or less the standard assumptions of the day about children and learning, but she wasn’t particularly wedded to them. She started by giving the children toys, but when she noticed that the children stopped using the toys in favor of real tools, she concluded that children preferred doing real things. Over time, she took the toys out and replaced them with activities that let the children do real practical tasks.
When she saw children concentrating so deeply that people could dance and sing around them and they wouldn’t be disturbed, she concluded that children were capable of far deeper concentration than people assumed. When she saw how peaceful and satisfied those children seemed when they naturally finished their focused activity, she concluded that something crucially important must be happening during those periods of concentration. So she began using that as one of her criteria for deciding what should be in the classroom: did it catch the children’s interest and inspire intense concentration? Only then did it belong in the classroom.
Montessori classrooms are radically different from traditional classrooms on every level. It’s far more than just the iconic materials and lack of toys. The structure of the day, the teacher’s role, the physical classroom, the expectations of children, are all organized from the ground up to support the children’s development.
I want to share those radical differences with you to challenge you, whoever you are, to reconsider your assumptions about schools and about the nature of children. Some of those assumption might include: that learning is a result of teaching, that the job of a teacher is to “teach”, that it makes sense to group children by age, that grades and tests are necessary for learning, that children won’t learn if they aren’t “forced” to, that young children can’t concentrate on one thing for very long, that young children need pretend play, that higher “standards” will lead to better learning, that there are “good” kids and “bad” kids, and that doing well in school is a necessary prerequisite to living a good life.
You may not agree with my conclusions and that’s fine. I admit to a great deal of bias: I’ve lived most of my life in the world of Montessori education, and I think it’s the optimal way to educate children. It may or may not be. Maybe there isn’t any one optimal way. But I hope I will get you thinking. I’m pretty sure most people would agree with me that our current standard isn’t working very well. Less well off children aren’t getting reasonable opportunities. Better off families are frazzled from constantly feeling the need to run their children around from activity to tutoring to another activity. Teachers are frustrated by being treated as problems, not professionals. Children are miserable. And everyone is constantly anxious about tests and pointless homework. To my mind, little tweaks like doing away with high-stakes testing will certainly limit the damage, but that’s really just redecorating. Education—and more precisely, children—have the power to transform society, if only we allow it.
Please join me in a journey toward a different kind of childhood.