Montessori schools are exceptionally successful

Montessori schools feature mixed-age classrooms that look the same everywhere in the world because everything in the environment has been thought out for very specific reasons.

Jul 20, 2018

Why aren’t there more of them?
The otherworldly quiet. This is how you recognise a true Montessori preschool, writes PASCAL-EMMANUEL GOBRY. For over a century now, it is usually the thing that strikes people first, and anybody who knows what children ages 3 to 6 are usually like can see why. In a school where the Montessori Method is faithfully applied, the decibel levels will typically be eerily, monkishly low.

The second thing that strikes a visitor is the orderliness. Children go about their tasks in quiet. They clean up after themselves. When they talk, it is politely and at a whisper — even when there is conflict, which is quickly and calmly resolved. Then there is the focus. The children apply themselves to activities with the sort of concentration most adults find hard to muster. It can be a transformative experience. It should be.

“For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with education. I have read about it widely and deeply, thought about it, investigated it, practised it in many settings. My research and experience have convinced me that what is improperly called the Montessori Method (more on “improperly” below) is not only superior to all alternatives but categorically so,” writes Gobry.

What is it about Montessori? In my experience, even most experts miss the crucial thing. Montessori schools feature mixed-age classrooms that look the same everywhere in the world because everything in the environment has been thought out for very specific reasons. Students can choose whatever activities they like from a prescribed list of options — the famous “materials” developed by Dr Montessori — and can work on them for however long they want. Those materials enable students to learn by using their hands rather than from direct instruction, a process that education theorists describe as the “constructivist theory of education.”

People often focus on the materials because they are what is most obviously distinctive about the Method, and it is true that they are clever in countless ways. Each activity is intended to be self-correcting and hands-on. They are (very) cleverly designed so that the child will discover step by step what she is supposed to learn. Each activity is a building block to the next. So when children learn to trace shapes inside metal insets that have various geometric shapes, they unwittingly practice the fine-motor skills that will enable them to pick up writing, which they typically do much faster than the average child. Equally well-conceived are the mathematics activities, which work with concrete materials like beads and demonstrate that anyone is able to become comfortable with math.

Dr Montessori’s theory of the child
Then there is Dr Montessori’s theory of the child. She pointed out that all infants learn how to walk and learn a language, but because it happens to all of us, we forget how incredibly difficult it is to do. Children expend tremendous effort to do it, with amazing stubbornness, trying over and over until they get it right, eagerly, and they do so of their own accord.This natural drive to learn goes on — unless it is snuffed out. Once a child is taught that she must learn only because of the threat of punishment or, as is more popular these days, the prospect of reward and encouragement, her most powerful engine of motivation is essentially wiped out, as if a new programme overwrote another in a computer.

Once a child is ready to walk, she will expend tremendous effort to do so, but only when it is the right time in her development. So it is with other skills. Trying to teach, say, writing, on a rigid schedule will only convince a child that she is unable to do so, sapping not only that endeavour but her self-confidence and willingness to learn more generally. We can all attest from our personal experience that we easily become frustrated and despondent whenever we have to do things that are either far too easy or far too hard; but when our work is right at the edge of our comfort zone, challenging but doable, not only are we better at tasks, but we often find them positively thrilling.

This natural drive is largely hardwired within us; and because of the freedom in a Montessori classroom, children will naturally pursue those activities that are right at that pleasurable edge of the comfort zone, where we have the most focus and energy. It is not just that they will learn, say, math much faster. The system is designed so that learning, effort and initiative are all associated with pleasure and success during the most formative years of life.

Montessori is often thought of as “progressive” — no grades, all that stuff about freedom — but other aspects of the method can seem rigid. There are rules; they are just very different from the rules in a typical classroom. The children have to clean up after themselves, whether by putting away activity tools once they are done with them, wiping up spilled juice or sweeping the classroom at the end of the day. But unlike a typical American preschool, the rules do not coerce “sharing,” since they are not an attempt to manage children according to the desires of adults. If Alice will not share with Bob, Bob will just have to learn to wait. Everybody loves the idea of children “learning through play,” and Montessori is sometimes described as encouraging this, but serious Montessorians react to such a formulation with horror.

The activities, it is emphasised, are work. Children have play time, of course, but classroom work is work. “Learning through play” is seen as an admission of defeat, an implicit statement that learning is intrinsically unpleasant and can only be made pleasant artificially. The Method is designed for the opposite goal, to teach that work is intrinsically rewarding; therefore it must protect children from external influences that might replace internal motivation for work. Hardcore Montessori parents will even — heresy of heresies! — refrain from praising their children for a job well done, since the idea of doing well to make Mom and Dad happy is already toxic.

As if to make well-to-do private school tuition payers run screaming from the room, and teachers’ union reps clutch their pearls, Dr Montessori wrote that the bigger the class size the better, since it meant more opportunities for students to figure things out on their own. She also wrote that uneducated people made better teachers than the educated ones, since they were less likely to try to deviate from the Method; and that the worst teachers of all were those with education degrees and previous teaching experience in the traditional system. The Method is sometimes criticised as too inflexible, and it can inspire comparisons to Steve Jobs, with his imperious obsession with aesthetics, minute detail and controlled environments. Most of a Montessori teacher’s job is presenting activities to children, and this is choreographed down to practically every word and every gesture.

If every activity in the Method must be presented in exactly that way, if every material must have exactly those dimensions, be exactly that shade of that colour, it is because Dr Montessori proved through countless experiments, over decades, on children from every background and on every continent, that those specific attributes produced the same results.

The idea that less-educated teachers are better because they take less initiative shocks us because we instinctively feel that teaching is, or ought to be, a creative activity in which teachers must deploy their spontaneity and innovative skills. But think about what that means. If you hear that a medical researcher working on an intractable disease has unleashed his creativity and thought outside the box, you will applaud. If you hear that your airplane’s safety officer has decided to throw the rulebook out the window and express her inner creativity, you will demand to get off the flight. Human civilisation advances not when a genius produces new knowledge but when novel insight gets translated into processes that enable non-geniuses to disseminate the product of that knowledge throughout society. It is not glamorous, but it is what actually changes the world. We know we have made progress not when a genius is able to do something new but when non-geniuses are able to repeat it. -- By Pascal Emmanuel Gobry

Source:  America Magazine

Continued next week

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