What we inadvertently create when we teach

I recently read an article from BBC about the impact of environment on the way humans perceive things (https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170306-the-astonishing-focus-of-namibias-nomads). Members of the Himba tribe of Namibia who continue to live a nomadic existence without modern artifacts see differently than their counterparts who have moved to town. It seems the Himba are more focused on the particular. They can see the broader context, but their focus is on the particular. However, even a limited exposure to a town setting, visiting once or twice, changes their perception.

This led me to muse once again about the impact the environment we provide our children has on their development.  From visual perception to social mores, our children are changed even more deeply by their environments than we adults. It’s a topic that has intrigued and troubled me for some time.

Covid-19 has demonstrated unequivocally the magnitude of responsibility we give to our childcares and schools in the upbringing of our children. In most modern families, parents are at work and grandparents and significant others live in different households. Our children spend the majority of their time in childcare and school, shaped more and more by these environments and, of course, by the online world that often impacts whatever waking time they have at home.

As we educate our children’s intellects, we are impacting their entire being. Have we given this enough thought? Do we know what we are creating? Is it what we want for our children? Is it what our world needs from the adults our children will become?

Having been a Montessori teacher and head of school, I know first-hand the impact Montessori environments have on behaviour and well-being. The more closely we adhere to supporting the individual young person’s development with a carefully prepared physical, temporal and mentored environment, designed to meet not only the young person’s intellectual but social, physical and emotional needs; the calmer and more focussed the young person, the fewer the disciplinary challenges, the deeper the learning, and the greater the joy for both adult and youth. The emphasis is always on supporting the individual young person – following their lead, interests and developing abilities. There is a curriculum framework but the young person’s path and speed through that curriculum is theirs alone. And this occurs in a social environment of mixed ages, usually three grades together, where the emphasis is on supporting one another in challenges, and acknowledging everyone’s successes – where you are valued for being you within a community.

Whenever a Montessori teacher succumbs to the pressure to push the curriculum, to emphasize it over the needs of a student, the spirit of the classroom dissolves – as quickly as a bubble bursts with a touch. The impact of environment does indeed seem to have a much more powerful influence than we generally acknowledge.

In spite of the challenges that Covid-19 is causing for education, or maybe because of the creative opportunities in these challenges, I am led again to ponder:

When we educate our children’s intellects, whether in a Montessori environment or in a more traditional setting, we are impacting their entire being. Have we given this enough thought? Do we know what we are creating? Is it what we want for our children? Is it what our world needs from the adults our children will become?

CHANGING A CHILD’S EXPERIENCE OF LIFE

Each morning’s news – conflict after conflict. A reflection of our culture, our upbringing, our educational experiences. How difficult it is for us to hold both sides of a situation, to hear all the voices, to feel that the persons represented are more like us than different. How easy it is for us to see the other as separate and wrong – someone or some group to be vilified, put down, ridiculed. Perhaps this is just human nature, our natural inclination to protect ourselves by gathering around a common fire and keeping others at bay. But does it have to be? Is this helping our development as humans? Is it making the world a better place? Do we not long for a more peaceful world with less fear?

The aspect of this that bears down on me is the role that education plays. I’m not talking about the knowledge we are taught or the academic skills that we learn but the underlying values and ways of being that we learn in the many hours we spend being schooled. In conventional schooling, we are trying to fit into the mold that is designated by the adult, slowing down for a lesson that others still need or trying to grasp the concept being offered that we unfortunately lack the underlying knowledge for. In conventional schooling we are often in competition with one another, actually or in our perceptions. Are we at the top of the class, or the bottom? Did we get as good a mark as others? Is that related to our worthiness? Would we be more worthy, more valued by the adults in our lives if our marks were higher?

Can we change the way we interact with one another by changing the way we educate children – not just the academic curriculum but the way we have them spend their days?

What if we grew up living an experience of doing our best in the company of others, offering others what we know ourselves and gratefully accepting what others know as we explore and develop side by side, moving forward by interacting and learning to value knowledge perspectives that are not our own.

There is an educational system that encompasses this culture of a learning community in both its broad structure and its detailed day-to-day interactions – Montessori. It is an entirely different paradigm. Students work together in a multi-age class, each driven by the natural human tendency to explore and become competent, and guided by an adult who gives them the lesson they are ready for or, even better, puts them in touch with a fellow student who can give that lesson or the assistance needed in that moment. A Montessori classroom is a place where being exactly who you are, with all your abilities and challenges, is welcomed and indeed celebrated. And where the expectation is that everyone has value and, while everyone’s ideas about almost everything may be different, there is more to gain by trying to understand the other’s perspective than shouting about how right our ideas are.

When children are schooled in this way, they have a different way of being in the world and perhaps that is just what our world needs as it becomes smaller and smaller, and our human way of being in and on our world requires greater and greater care and cooperation.

Montessori’s Different Approach to Teacher Training Leads to a Different Teacher

So true. The experience of Montessori teacher training is like a visit to a foreign land – everything is seen through a different lens, everything is interlinked and every where you turn holds a new perspective.. No one aspect or quick glimpse can capture the complexity and richness. But neither can one ever to return to not seeing. Once you have visited a well run Montessori community, it will become one of the lenses through which you view all other educational experiences.

Margaret Whitley

Montessori’s Different Approach to Teacher Training Leads to a Different Teacher

Margaret with StudentsThe teacher, when she begins to work in our schools, must have a kind of faith that the child will reveal himself through work.

                                                                        Dr Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

No other year in my life was as intense as September 1985 to June 1986-no, not either of my children’s first year of life-no, not my first year of teaching or even my first year as head of school.  My post-graduate Montessori teacher training in Italy transformed me by regularly upending conventional beliefs about children and education that continues to this day.

Accredited teacher training requires rethinking a teacher’s (or guide’s) role while consuming large amounts of philosophy and specific methodology.   The Montessori method demands deep faith in a child’s potential and inner drive to learn.  It requires letting go of the adult perspective that we need…

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School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 4)

Dr. A.S. Lillard provides a thoughtful review of the challenges specific to Montessori education being more fully embraced in her article for Educational Psychology: Shunned and Admired: Montessori, Self-Determination, and a Case for Radical School Reform, specifically her chapter on Challenges: Montessori’s Incommensurability with Common School Culture. https://rdcu.be/b1X92 How do we move from tinkering to ‘radical reform’? Thank you for contributing to our understanding of the challenges and possibilities.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Every school reform is a solution to a problem. How a problem is identified (e.g., unilaterally, multilaterally) and who does the framing of it (e.g., policymakers, practitioners, parents), of course, matters. The cartoonish superintendent (or elected official) sees the problem in test scores declining the longer students are in school. His solution: allow 3 year-old toddlers to start school.

Poking fun at the screwy logic of this solution to an identifiable and well-known problem is easy to do. What’s harder is to figure out amid the never-ending flood of school reforms past and present, why some are adopted by districts but stayed mired in a protected corner of the system. And other adopted reforms spread to all schools in a district.

District officials are on the look out constantly for reforms that solve problems they face in school governance, organization, curriculum, and instruction. But these niche-based adopted programs (e.g., charters…

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School Reforms That Are Persistent And Admired But Marginal (Part 3)

You’ve provided a wonderful description of Montessori education. I believe one of the challenges, in addition to the internal disputes mentioned in Educating Human Potential comment, is the inherent challenge of describing a system that appears simple at first glance but is underpinned by a balance of opposites. Freedom within limits, independence within community, etc. In many ways it has to be seen to be believed, or experienced over time to be understood.

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

Who am I quoting here? Hint: Quotes come from person born in the 19th century.

If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?

The ancient superficial idea of the uniform and progressive growth of the human personality has remained unaltered, and the erroneous belief has persisted that it is the duty of the adult to fashion the child according to the pattern required by society.

If you guessed John Dewey, you were wrong. The quotes come from Maria Montessori (1870-1952).

Born in Italy, Montessori became a physician –one of few women to do so at the time. In 1906, she was appointed as head of the Casa Dei Bambini where she…

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The Strike: Something Needs to Change

It seems there is growing consensus that something needs to change in the field of education. The conflict between teachers and the Ontario government is an example.

Teachers are demanding more, not less, assistance as their responsibilities increase in terms of not only educating children but raising them. In more and more families, both parents work long hours. Children and youth are spending more and more time in school; in care programs; in adult-directed clubs, teams and lessons; or in front of screens. The influence of parents has diminished, and the role of educators has increased. It is no wonder that teachers need more resources.

The government for its part has limited resources and everyone wants and needs more – more educational funding, more physical and mental health services, more services for seniors, more social services, more security through policing and justice, more infrastructure – more, more, more!

Both sides of the teacher-government conflict have valid points; so, in addition to looking for a short-term solution, we should also be taking a longer, broader view to find a viable solution that will see our educational system into the future.

We need a system that provides more than just academic education. We need a system that provides for the whole development of each child – physical, intellectual, social, and personal. We need a system that by its nature supports children in becoming adults prepared for a democratic, globally linked, fast changing future; a system that provides the teachers with a proven means of using their skills effectively.  We need a new system that naturally supports these needs rather than a system trying to provide for the child’s whole development in spite of being designed to educate the past’s industrial, assembly line worker.

There is an educational system that has been proven to meet these needs. It is built around the development of the whole child. It places the teacher and the student at the intersection of three equally important constructs: the child’s development, the skills and knowledge needed for the future, and the learning environment. The system is Montessori – it works; it is proven to work. Given a chance it could give educators the tools they need for the larger role they play with today’s children.

Increasing funding for a system that is challenged to meet the needs of today’s students and teachers is one way forward, but why not also consider how to implement an alternative, proven system that can better meet society’s needs? Can Montessori solve the challenges of Ontario’s education system immediately? No, but it can provide a way forward. It can provide hope for both sides and, more importantly, for our children and our future.

For one explanation of Montessori education: https://amshq.org/About-Montessori.

We’re unique

Every child and every student, every adult and every teacher, is unique. Wouldn’t it be grand if schooling could make use of this quality?

Emily was 3 years old, a quiet, uncertain little girl who stood at the fringes and tried not to be seen; a little girl who hesitated to try anything, ever, especially if anyone was watching. Adam was 4 years old. He was also not likely to be doing anything. Most of the time he watched what others were doing – the adults, his classmates. But he was watching intently. After a lot of observing others doing an activity, he would take it out himself, and do it perfectly.

In a Montessori classroom, I could work with both of these children, and all the others, in the way that made best sense for them. I could choose something to show Emily that I knew she could be successful at and then gradually introduce it to her.

“Oh, Emily, I think you might really enjoy doing this. One day I’ll show it to you.” Then walk away.

Next day: “Look at these lovely colours. I bet you’ll enjoy handling them. Maybe I’ll have time to show you tomorrow.” Walk away.

“Emily, why don’t you come with me. I’m going to use that material I showed you and I thought you’d like to watch. Will you carry it to the table for me? See this is how I use it.  . . . Would you like a turn? No. . . That’s okay. Would you like to help me put it in the box? Can you put it back on the shelf for me?”

Next day, “Emily, why don’t you come and watch me again? Here, can you help me take the pieces out? This piece goes here.” And so on, until Emily felt confident enough to take the work out by herself. Every time she was successful, every time she got to choose when to be involved, made the next activity easier to introduce until her reticence slowly faded into the background.

Adam I could leave to his observations. I was confident he’d jump ahead many steps and I watched, keeping track as he leapt far beyond what most would think him capable of achieving. Emily needed my intervention every day – slowly, carefully, nurturing her capacity to believe in herself until she too needed me less.

In a Montessori classroom I had the freedom and the means to work with every student as the individual they were while they were still a part of a diverse community. They experienced that it’s okay to be who they were and to learn in the way that was best for them.

What do you think about students being interacted with as the individuals they are?

Joining the conversation

As the oldest of seven children, teaching came naturally but, as an adult, teaching in a traditional school setting did not. Fortunately, in 1973, on a rainy lunch break from my banking job I picked up a biography in the local library, Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, and the rest, as they say, is history — I was hooked. I went to see a Montessori classroom in action (not believing that what I had read could really be true), signed up for teacher training for 3 to 6-year-olds, and began teaching that age group the following year. It’s forty-five years later, and here I am, still considering the role that education and Montessori have in creating the future, the future that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

Along the way, I’ve raised two sons who have blessed me with four grandchildren. I’ve taken training for teaching Montessori to elementary-aged students and adolescents, and training to be a Montessori Head of School. I’ve taught at wonderful Montessori schools in Ontario, been head of a large urban Montessori school (OMS Montessori in Ottawa), opened a Junior High and then a High School program, taught Montessori teacher trainees in the States, visited amazing Montessori schools throughout Canada and the US, run workshops, and made presentations. I’ve been privileged to work on the boards of, and chair, the Canadian Association of Montessori Teachers and the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators (CCMA), and to work as a visiting team member for the CCMA accreditation process. So many Montessori professionals, students and parents have touched my life, it leaves me in awe!

Having recently retired from being head of OMS Montessori, I have taken some time to ponder, “What next? What do I want to do with all this experience?” I still believe that Montessori has something unique to offer the world – a means to educate our young in the skills and knowledge needed for today’s high-tech world while developing a sense of community, connectedness and responsibility through direct experience rather than through being told. I remain passionate about the importance of helping every child discover the unique gifts and talents each has to offer their place and time.

How can I help make Montessori available to more families, so parents can choose this type of education regardless of their socio-economic status? What stands in the way of Montessori pedagogy being more accepted, more in demand? What do I have to offer? What can I do? Let’s see . . . .