Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Grade School Utopia?

By Dana Ernst

A Montessori Observation

Towards the end of April, my wife and I spent an hour observing our boys' classrooms at Haven Montessori in Flagstaff, Arizona. Wow. We sat in the corner and just watched for 30 minutes in each classroom. My younger son (age five) is in a Primary Classroom, which is for children three years to six years (including kindergarten). My older son (age seven) is in Lower Elementary, which is for first through third grades. Both of our boys started Montessori in January of this year, and we have been thrilled with the outcome. We were hesitant to transfer them in the middle of the school year, especially after having moved to Arizona from New Hampshire less than a year ago, but we have no regrets about our decision.

This wasn't my first observation of a Montessori classroom, but each time I do it, I am blown away. Here are a few quick observations:

·         All of the students were working quietly and respectfully.
·         Students were working either independently or collaboratively with another student or two.
·         There were a variety of different things going on at the same time.
·         Students moved freely about the room, but were always focused on their respective tasks.
·         Students were smiling and enjoying themselves but not goofing off.
·         Students appeared to be working on stuff because they were genuinely interested.
·         There were no incentives and no grades!
It seems like a utopia. If you've never seen a Montessori classroom in action, I encourage you to go check it out. I'm sure the success of each classroom has a lot to do with the teacher, so we are tremendously grateful that our boys ended up with great teachers. 

(photo courtesy of Anna LaBenz)

What is the Montessori Method?

So, what is MontessoriDr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was an Italian physician (the first female to earn a medical degree in Italy) who formulated the Montessori Method of education. Dr. Montessori opened her first school in Rome in 1907. The hallmarks of the Montessori method include multi-age groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choice of work activity that often involves the use of specially designed manipulatives.

The mixed-aged classrooms feature three-year age ranges. The intent is for older students to act as leaders and mentors for younger students while the younger students gain experience working with older students. 

Unlike a conventional classroom, a Montessori teacher does not stand at the front delivering the same information to 30 students while trying to keep everyone on the same page. Instead, teachers move around the room, working with students one-on-one or in small groups. Also, in a traditional Montessori approach, there are no grades, no exams, and no homework.

Connections to Inquiry-Based Learning

In my view, there are a lot of similarities between Montessori and inquiry-based learning (IBL), which is the approach that I take when teaching mathematics classes. All of the wonderful things I witnessed during my observation are exactly the kinds of things I strive for in my own classrooms: creativity, collaboration, and critique of ideas.  

IBL is a learner-centered mode of instruction that engages students in sense-making activities. Students are given tasks requiring them to solve problems, conjecture, experiment, explore, create, and communicate. All of this is exactly what Montessori strives to do! If you want to know more about IBL, check out our blog post titled "What the Heck is IBL?"

Are There Any Cons to a Montessori Approach?

Montessori isn't all rainbows and unicorns. My wife and I believe that the approach is working for my boys right now. Would we be so thrilled if one or both of their teachers weren't as good? I doubt it. Will the Montessori approach continue to be successful for both of my children as they grow older? Time will tell. 

I've met a few people who have reported negative experiences with Montessori schooling. Maybe a poor teacher was to blame or the Montessori approach was not a good fit for the child. This is similar to students having a negative IBL or Moore method experience in a college mathematics class. It can happen.

Some people have concerns about the lack of homework and exams in a traditional Montessori approach. I worried about this initially, but I don't anymore. When my older son wasn't enrolled in Montessori, he regularly had homework to do. He would always do it without complaint, but he definitely did not enjoy it.  Now, neither of my kids has homework. But they are more fired up to show off what they have learned at school and to learn things at home than they ever were before. They are constantly concocting "research projects" to work on. One of the recent ones entailed learning about Mars. They made up a list of questions and then set about finding the answers. Will this enjoyment of learning continue? I sure hope so. 

(photo courtesy of Anna LaBenz)
How smoothly will my boys transition out of Montessori when they enter high school where homework and exams are the norm? I'm optimistic that this won't be a problem, but I won't really know until we get there.

Some Final Thoughts

While I was observing my boys' classrooms, I kept daydreaming: "What if students were provided with this type of experience throughout their entire education?" In particular, I spent quite a bit of time pondering my last observation above about grades and incentives. 

As a teacher, I try to de-emphasize grades as much as possible, but they are so entrenched in our educational system. The overjustification effect may partially explain some of the problems that we see in conventional education. According to Wikipedia:

The overjustification effect occurs when an expected external incentive such as money or prizes decreases a person's intrinsic motivation to perform a task. According to self-perception theory, people pay more attention to the external reward for an activity than to the inherent enjoyment and satisfaction received from the activity itself.

Is it possible to eliminate the need for incentives?  Is there something that happens in our development that diminishes our curiosity flame?


Katherine Barker said...

what sort of area do you live in? montessori children come from families who have chosen that education - in your area, is there a homogeneity of parents who want enquiry-led, unpressurised learning? i live in a notoriously pushy area, where montessori schools are used as springboards for parents who want their children to go on to exclusive private schools later - so they are way more rigid than the m method might suggest (tho' it does have some surprising rigidities when looked into more closely)- the art particularly is generally awful

great it works for you and yours

Unknown said...

Katherine, thanks for your comment.

In the United States, most Montessori schools are privately owned. A growing number, however, are part of public school systems. In particular, the school that my kids attend is part of Arizona’s charter school system. In Arizona, charter schools contract with the state or district to provide tuition free educational services.

Where I live, there are a lot of small charter schools, some of which are Montessori-based. Most (probably all) of these schools have waitlists. I'm not sure how representative the student population is at the charter schools, but my impression is that many involved parents are enrolling their kids in the charter schools and not in the local public schools. (I have no data to back this up and I could be wrong.) As an interesting statistic, every math education faculty member in my department with school-aged children has their kids enrolled at a charter school.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by "pushy." Also, when you way "exclusive private schools," I am guessing that you are referring to secondary schools. Again, I have no data to back this up, but I'm pretty sure that a very low percentage of children where I live attend private schools. There aren't really any nearby.

I agree that art and music are generally not Montessori strengths. However, I am grateful that the school that my children attend is trying to address this.