The words we use ought to make sense.
One of my great joys at Evergreen is pointing out that in a Montessori environment words like “play” and “work” don’t make a whole lot of sense. Children are born makers, doers, touchers and learners. I frequently say that working and playing are merely adult constructs. To a child, there is only the imperative: figure out the world around him. Such activity is stimulating, gratifying, and vital. It can’t quite be called work, and it can’t be called play.
Imagine your life if you found work to be satisfying and meaningful. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. In the Montessori world, all children are confronted with compelling tasks, challenges and puzzles just at the right level of difficulty. We need a new vocabulary to describe what children do here.
Likewise, words like “materials,” “objects” and “toys” don’t make sense at Evergreen. Should an interesting mineral in the rock jar a called a toy? Is an anatomy puzzle a toy? A map puzzle? A button frame? Or a paint brush? These are things to be touched, explored, considered and mastered— enjoyed like toys and used like tools of learning.
In the same vein, two other terms that don’t add up at Evergreen are “structured” and “unstructured” learning. In a traditional classroom, there is a great deal of obvious structure. Every child has an assigned seat at a desk that faces in the same direction as all other desks: toward the teacher and the whiteboard. There is one lesson (or learning objective) for all children. The classroom structure is as psychological as it is physical. Uniformity is valued.
What about at Evergreen? At first glance, our classrooms look unstructured. A few children here using alphabet letters to build words and sentences. A few children over here making landforms with water and clay. Children over there counting or sewing or tracing or painting. Here, difference is valued. There are many different activities happening at once—does this mean there is no structure? Here structure is found in the classroom norms, procedures and rules. Learning is child-centered and child-directed, but follows a logical progression set up by the teacher. For example, learning letter sounds proceeds learning initial word sounds.
For us, it starts with our faith in each child’s natural desire to learn and understand. As Maria Montessori said, “Above all it is to be noted that the child has a passionate love for order and work, and possesses intellectual qualities superior by far to what might have been expected.” The key is to ensure that the environment is conducive for the free child to make good choices. When every choice is a good one, it will be much easier to make good decisions. And freedom within the classroom is one of freedom within limits.
When Montessori schools break from the constructs of traditional education and rewrite its central vocabulary, we achieve more harmonious classrooms and deeper learning. It’s the “magic Montessori fairy dust” that enables us to soar. What we once considered “limits,” we now call “possibilities.”
The first thing you notice is the quiet. What you can’t hear is the sound of children discovering their capacity to learn.
Stepping into our Elementary classroom invites you to whisper. Why is it so quiet? It takes a few seconds to register that this isn’t perfect silence; there are sotto voce conversations all around the room. These discussions are serious, focused and calm. Standing in one of the out-of-the-way niches, I hear two children talking about multiplication. Two others talk about a frog’s anatomy. And I hear Mrs. Sesko giving a lesson about nouns. Mrs. Hatziyannis soundlessly reviews a child’s addition work. Other children are working alone, mostly in silence. One hums. It is clear, these children are using what we call their indoor voice.
The learning here is more that cataloging facts or acquiring data. In this mostly quiet, self-directed classroom, affective learning—the kind that fundamentally shapes the way children view themselves and their capacity to learn—is taking place. If I could think of a better place to learn, I’d tell you.
There is a peaceful buzz in the Elementary classroom because children are engaged in activities that are meaningful, motivating and personal. Affective learning has been described as the fuel that students bring to the classroom. (**) It connects them to the “why” of learning. Mrs. Sesko and Hatziyannis understand that motivation is as important as acquiring facts. Affect goes beyond simple enjoyment, and it plays a part in the development of persistence and deep interest in a subject. Teachers who emphasize skills and knowledge to the exclusion of emotion, turn off students and create adversarial relations with their students.
As you watch these Elementary students working, you will see that something extraordinary is happening. This just isn’t like other classrooms. Trevor Eissler, author and Montessori advocate wrote about his experience in a traditional classroom, “I remember two noise levels in [my] elementary school: very loud and very quiet. When the teacher’s back was turned, or she was out of the room, pandemonium broke out. As soon as she turned around or came back in the room and shouted, “Quiet! NOW!” there was a terrified hush. The noise bounced from one to the other: loud, quiet, loud, quiet, loud, quiet—punctuated by the teacher’s occasional shout.”
Why is our Elementary classroom different? Simply put: it is because the classroom culture is different. Mrs. Sesko and Mrs. Hatziyannis believe that their students are naturally interested in learning. Their role is to build upon their interest or at least preserve it. The teachers have filled the room with age-appropriate challenges that their students want to master. And rather than demanding that children submit to their will, the teachers have set up an environment that respects the child’s and channels it. The class culture builds each child’s self-concept of a person who is competent, capable, and self-directed. Being a multi-age classroom, of course, supports the idea that each child isn’t in a race or competition with each other, but is learning upon a path that is as customized and individualized as it is interesting and motivating. This is respecting the child.
The notion of respect turns the typical teacher/student relationship on its head. Mrs. Hatziyannis and Mrs. Sesko do not rule the classroom like authoritarian dictators. They are facilitators. Children have to ‘do the thinking’ to get the learning. As teachers, their goal is to create the opportunity for the children to think. There is not cat-and-mouse game of rule setting/rule breaking. There is a team mentality and a sense of community and cooperation. As Eissler describes a Montessori classroom that contracts the one he grew up with, “The [Montessori] teacher was like a chess grand master. A grand master is one of only a handful of elite chess players so accomplished they can play five, even ten chess matches simultaneously. They stroll around a room of tables, each with a chess board and a determined challenger, glance at each board in turn, make a move, and stroll to the next board. This teacher reminded me of that type of demonstration. She had keen skills of observation and quick analysis. She glided about the room giving a nod here, a whisper there, a glance, a suggestion. Then she would sit on a chair and observe the room, taking notes.”
Ask yourself: what are the most important goals I have for my child in his or her elementary years? Chances are your list will include the following: I want my child to…
- Be inquisitive
- Enjoy learning
- Have a positive self-image
- Have confidence about his or her capacity to learn
- Acquire the skills and facts necessary for academic success
As I observe the quiet buzz of our Elementary classroom, I am delighted to see our children fulfilling our hopes. It is worth a look yourself. Just use your indoor voice.
**Teaching Every Student in the Digital Age: Universal Design for Learning (2001) Chapter 6
David H. Rose & Anne Meyer
If you are luckier and wiser than me, then you haven’t spent too much time fretting about the latest book by Tiger Mom Amy Chua. As described in Time Magazine, “Chua’s most recent book, The Triple Package… looks at success in America—specifically why certain groups (Jews, Indians, Chinese, Iranians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Cubans, and Mormons) succeed. In a recent New York Times article, they offer a synopsis of the book, citing what they regard as the three pillars of success: (1) “a superiority complex—a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality”; (2) “insecurity—a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough”; and (3) “impulse control”—essentially self-discipline.”
It would be nice if Chua defines ‘success’ as achieving a loving and generous self-concept and inner peace, but I suspect she’s talking about outward signs of success like social status, wealth and achievement. Never-the-less, her three-item hypothesis seems to capture (and then super-size) some of the habits of character we emphasize at Evergreen. That is, if a ‘superiority complex’ means ‘self-confidence’; a feeling that what you’ve done is not good enough means ‘drive or curiosity‘; and ‘impulse control’ means ‘patience,’ then her assessment may align with our school values. At the end of the day, though, I suspect her book may leave us wanting a child-friendlier, unconditional-loving and more humane style of parenting. Let’s see.
I will download my Kindle edition tonight.