The Human Brain and the Montessori Classroom

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAz1AAAAJGEwM2Y3ZGRmLTI3M2EtNGQ4My04NDg3LTM2MzRmYTIxYzcxMAThe discoveries Maria Montessori made over a century ago about the evolving brain of a child have been proven to be true by modern brain science. In Montessori education, students learn by doing. They learn in a hands-on way with educational materials scientifically designed to meet their brain development at different ages. Students learn in a concrete way and build concepts from interaction with their work and the socialization that comes with their classroom activities.

In a Montessori classroom the most important thing is the deep engagement of the students in the learning process. Maria Montessori called this “concentration”, but in modern terms we would call it “flow”. The ability of a student to be deeply engaged in their work leads to superior study skills, organizational ability and internal motivation. A major factor in developing this ability is the opportunity for students to have some choices in their learning process – and to pursue topics they are passionate about. A second major factor is to allow students the time to engage in an activity without being rushed and to be able to explore a subject in depth.

Our test driven culture too often results in a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” If we want true learning to occur we must understand that concepts are acquired when the learner makes an active choice to know something new – not when the learner is forced to memorize information that must be repeated later on. Knowledge is how each student puts together information into unique sets of ideas – it is not the mere gathering or storing of information. In this way, Maria Montessori was far ahead of her time – and her many discoveries and innovations are only now being truly appreciated as we strive to develop educational models that match the swiftly accelerating pace of change in our world.



Building the Schools of the Future: How Long Will We Wait?

“We need schools that provide young people with well-structured spaces in which to discover who they are and what they care deeply about. We need schools where adults prepare students for active citizenship and the 21st century work place. And we need schools to reinforce democratic practices that extend beyond the school’s walls, helping adults unite behind the shared belief that all children deserve to be seen and heard.” –Sam Chaltain American Schools – The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community

Sam Chaltain sums up succinctly and eloquently the change that is on the horizon for American schools – if we choose to embrace it.   We must rethink what school is for, and that requires us to revisit what we deem to be a life well lived. If we keep going down the current path, we will continue to graduate high school students who are all too often disengaged from their own learning and unsure of what the purpose of their education is. Moreover the stress they are under to meet perceived expectations in terms of college entrance requirements saps the energy and joy out of the high school learning experience. The hyper focus on grades, SAT scores and creating the perfect profile for university applications places the goal of education at some obscure distant point in the future rather than a process of human unfolding and personal growth.

We are at a crossroads in education in America. We need to choose between a pathway that unleashes the human creative spirit or a pathway that literally dulls the mind and deadens the heart. This crossroads demands we have the courage to abandon the constraining curriculum structures of the past and allow for more individualized and cross-subject learning. It forces us to pause and reflect how we can fashion standards that serve as useful benchmarks but don’t reduce the human learning experience to the tabulation of bubbles filled in by number 2 pencils. The signs at this crossroads implore us to answer several key questions: Why are we evaluating? What are we evaluating? And how are we evaluating?

Why are we evaluating? We should evaluate to find out if we are doing a good enough job in supporting students in developing their unique Talents and Passions. We should evaluate to check whether the internal motivation of a student is increasing and whether they are developing the Discipline and Drive necessary to achieve their dreams down the road. We should evaluate to help students know if they are on the pathway to becoming good citizens and to finding the opportunities they desire in the 21st century work force.

What are evaluating? I would postulate that the reason we evaluate is to determine if students are making progress toward goals they themselves have set and toward learning objectives that comprise both content and aptitudes. Information and factual knowledge is of course indispensable for students as they head toward the career path of their choice. However the complex world they are entering will require very refined skills in how to gather, verify, combine and share the myriad kinds of information.  In addition, students will be all the more successful and fulfilled in that complex world to the degree they have a personal ethical code and an understanding of civic responsibility.

How are we evaluating? For decades we have measured learning as if it were a lake that is a mile wide and an inch deep. New types of measures will be required to help schools and schools determine if aptitudes such as critical thinking, information literacy, innovation, collaboration and communication are being acquired. This will require teachers to learn new techniques that foster student self-reflection, peer-evaluation, digital portfolios, presentations and exhibits – as well as teacher to teacher professional development.  Such a shift in emphasis will in turn require that teachers be liberated from the pressures to teach to the type of tests that now drive so much of the curriculum and consume the vast amount of class time and school resources.

In his book American Schools, Sam Chaltain quotes Fred Givens, middle school principal of Bronx Prep Charter School in New York City: “Some of us have learned that – despite what intuition might suggest – structure actually creates freedom. Through experiences implementing democratic principles in the classroom and in the process co-creating our shared culture, it has become clear that the potential for looseness, play, free thought and creativity is generated when the structures are so elegantly constructed that they become nearly invisible. This has been a fundamental revelation.”

In other words, it is not that we need to abandon structure altogether in order to foster the creative thinking and love of learning we envision for the new fabric of our schools. Rather it is imagining new types of structures that allow the development of what I call USP™ – Unique Student Potential. Every student has a particular constellation of Talents and Passions. Understanding each student’s Talents and Passions and empowering him / her with the Drive and Discipline they need to develop them – should form the basis for the curriculum frameworks and evaluative mechanisms going forward. The rapidity of change in our world is staggering. The tide of the future is already here. Let’s give our students the tools to confidently ride the waves to the shores they seek.

The World Has Changed – Shouldn’t School? Two Things Every Parent Should Ask About Their Child’s School Experience.

The world is changing at a blinding speed. We all know that and can feel the impact of the pace of change upon our lives.  If we pause to reflect upon the last 35 years, the shifts have been cataclysmic and historic.  The Osborne 1 – the computer considered by most historians to be the first true portable computer – was produced in 1981.  The World Wide Web as we know it was introduced in 1991 by a computer programmer in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee.  The first mass produced cell phone was the Nokia 1011 made in 1994.  Facebook was founded in 2004.  Twitter was launched in 2006.  Instagram was created in 2010.   The Tesla Roadster was first delivered to customers in 2008.

Meanwhile over this same period of time, we have seen the automation of myriad jobs that used to be done by humans.  According to Forbes Magazine’s Wolfgang Lehmacher (2016), the U.S. has lost 5 million factor jobs since 2000 – largely due to automation.  Yet we rely on technology to make our lives easier and more comfortable – whether it be following our GPS to our next destination, making purchases online, reserving a table at our favorite restaurant, ordering an Uber, or finding a suitable mate.   We spend the bulk of our work time each day using electronic devices with screens, then most of us relax, read or get entertained via screens at home or at the movie theater.

In short,  how we work and how we play looks unimaginably different than it did in world of 1980.  There is perhaps no element of our lives that is very similar to what it was 35 years ago – except one:  School.  The experience of school, generally speaking, is remarkably similar to how it was back in 1980.  To be sure, most schools are now internet connected and students today have access in varying degrees to technology. Vast amounts of federal and state dollars have been spent on building school infrastructure, creating standards and tests, training teachers  and creating systems of  accountability.  The charter school movement has gained momentum as cities and school districts try desperately to increase test scores.

Yet despite money, the political rhetoric and the many attempts at education reform, including No Child Left Behind and Common Core – the Concept of school has remained – astonishingly – almost unchanged.  The vast majority of students, for example, still matriculate on yellow school buses to school, where they spend most of their day going from class to class when a bell signals that it is time to do so.  They sit in rows of desks and listen to a teacher deliver a lesson, the content of which may have nothing to do with the content in the class they just came from or the class they will go to next.  For each class the students must discern what the teacher will ask on the test – so they can master the material in the fashion that will result in the best grade.  In addition they must take numerous other state and national standardized exams each year – not really for their benefit – but so the school can meet administrative and parent expectations.

This is the way many of us experienced school, and either because of habit or out of fear of what might happen if we change, we send our children and adolescents off to a school experience that looks and feels the way it was for us a generation ago – or more.   This archaic school paradigm we are so attached to however,  is no longer viable in preparing our young people for life and work in the 21st Century.  According to the 2015 international PISA test, American students are still in the middle of the pack when it comes to reading and science proficiency – and the results in math placed them near the bottom of 35 industrialized countries. (Emily Richmond, The Atlantic Dec. 2016)

Meanwhile, school has increasingly  become a stressful and dehumanizing experience for most students.  According to a NYU study published in August, 2015, nearly half (49%) of all public high school students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis and 31 percent reported feeling somewhat stressed.  (The results for private high school students were not that different.)

The “arc of history” has been a long one for education in America.  It will take time for wholesale innovation to take hold – and that will come as a result of both bottom up initiatives on the parent and local school board level as well as continued visionary leadership from those who are charting a smarter, healthier and more student-centered  way forward.  Indeed there are a number of inspiring and trailblazing programs across the country, including High Tech High in San Diego, Mc2 School in New Hampshire and Montessori high schools such as Clark Montessori (public) in Cincinnati, Montessori School at University Circle (private) in Cleveland and New Gate School (private) in Sarasota.  We can look to these and other models for inspiration and guidance as we forge a pathway forward that supports the development of students as individuals.

In the meantime, regardless of whether your children attend public or private school, and regardless of the age of your child, there are a two key questions every parent should ask:

Is my child or adolescent learning how to think?  It goes without saying that learning how to fill in the right bubbles on a standardized test is not the ultimate preparation for life in the complex global society our young people will enter.  Teachers, administrators, schools and sometimes entire school districts are under tremendous pressure to meet testing requirements and to demonstrate improvement in test scores.  But what do thedr test results truly show us and what are the tests actually testing?

The development of thinking skills requires the ability to connect things – to see how one concept is embedded in another, to link ideas together and to integrate content in one subject with content in another subject.  The ability to think means the capacity to sort through information; to compare and contrast that information in an effort to determine what is most verifiable.  It also implies that one can listen to another point of view and appreciate the valid points in an argument which one might disagree with.  Most importantly, thinking skills are about creating ideas that are unique to the individual – ideas that nobody else could have because nobody has the same constellation of Talent, Passion, Drive and Discipline.

Ask your child or adolescent what they are learning at school – and ask them what the new concepts they are learning  mean to them?  Invite them to envision new solutions to problems.  Engage them in a dialogue based upon questions you yourself are interested in.  Encourage them to read and to investigate topics of interest to them.  Allow them to try out different experiences to see what might spark their minds. And above all, keep a dialogue going with your child / adolescent about learning itself and the other things you place at the top of your value system.

Is my child’s / adolescent’s heart alive ? When one has to sit passively,  day in and day out and year in and year out,  listening to information being conveyed by teachers who are mostly presenting in a lecture format, the excitement about learning can wane.  More often than not, the classroom experience is not set up to to give space to the things our child or adolescent might be most passionate about.  Only infrequently can they truly follow what they are interested in because curriculum targets have to be met – and as a result learning is often a “mile wide and an inch deep.” As a result students often arrive at university, if they get there at all,  not at all sure of what they really want to pursue – and all too many drop out after their first semester or year.

Our Passion is what keeps our hearts pumping.  It is like the air we breathe – and we must preserve the heart of our child / adolescent by ensuring it is still alive with Passion.  Passion means so enjoying an activity that we can lose track of time and place because of the sheer joy of doing that thing.  Our child / adolescent may well have a Passion for certain academic subjects, but at the same time what may really drive them could be an activity that is outside the realm of academics.  Ideally they can pursue that Passion during extracurricular activities at school – but if not, finding a way for them to pursue that Passion elsewhere could be key to their overall well-being and outlook for the future.  If they feel their Passion has to be delayed until other “more important” academic obligations are tended to, then they could be deprived of the soul-nourishment they need to gain the stamina to meet those obligations.

Check in frequently with your child / adolescent about how their experience at school is going – especially in regard to what truly excites them.  Pay attention to their “affect” when engaging with them about their day or their week.  Try to be a good listener without uttering too frequent judgements or criticisms.  Sharing your anxieties about their current progress is not bad as long as you express how much faith you have in them in the end.  Discuss with them their goals for their future and try to support those goals – however divergent they may be from what you may have wished at one time or another.  Remember that by being able to pursue their Passions they’ll have the enthusiasm and Drive to accomplish many things – and that without those opportunities, their heart will not have the nutrients it needs to thrive.

At the Oneness-Family Montessori High School of Washington,  we are developing the concept of USP™ – Unique Student Potential – the unique constellation of Talent, Passion, Drive and Discipline within each individual.  We’ve identified 15 Habits of Learning essential to the development of every student’s USP – including Thinking Habits, Social Habits and Personal Habits.  In the spirit of Maria Montessori our goal is for each student to find their voice and develop the gifts they came into the world to share. 

Learn more at

School Should Be Where Students Discover What They Love

At Oneness-Family Montessori High School, our aim is to create an environment where students can discover what they love. By nurturing the development of each individual’s Unique Student Potential™, students gain an understanding of who they are, where they want to go and what it will take to get there. We define USP as having 4 key components: Talent, Passion, Drive and Discipline.

Talent is a skill we are born with – something we are naturally good at. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences is a good frame through which we can think about Talent. Some of us are naturally good at numbers for example, while others may be strong linguistic learners. Certain folks are uncannily gifted with their hands and these kinesthetic learners are often good athletes and / or craftspeople. Most of us are naturally good at a few things – but we each have a unique constellation of innate skills. We are each smart in different ways. We can learn many new skills in the span of our lifetimes, but our natural born Talent will always be the center of gravity from which we learn and the place from which we can contribute the most to the world. Ideally, school should be the place where students identify their talents and also learn to build upon those strengths to improve skills in other areas they are not as gifted in. This is a core concept in Montessori education.

Passion is something we enjoy so much we can lose ourselves in the sheer joy of doing it. We may have a Talent for mathematics and at the same time have a Passion for Astronomy. A Passion is an activity that really excites us and captures our imagination. When we do that activity we enter a “different psychological space”. A good way to think of Passion is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his book Flow. We may have a passion for a number of different things in our lives, but when we are lucky enough to align our Passion with our career, we as human beings are at our happiest. Ideally, our Passion is the reason we get up in the morning; it is the thing we look forward to doing the most. School should not only be the place to help students identify their Passion, it must enable them to envision how to make their Passion a central part of their life plan – for that is where their greatest joy will derive.

Drive is what motivates us as human beings. Contrary to what we may think, in the long run the vast majority of us are not motivated by things such as material gain or status. According to Daniel Pink’s best selling book Drive, human beings are universally motivated by several key things – such as independence, mastery and purpose. All of us want to be free. We want to be good at something. And we want to have a sense of meaning in our lives. Maria Montessori may have been describing these very same things in different terms when she spoke of the importance of freedom in the classroom, where the students can work toward perfecting a task and can do activities that are meaningful to them. In the ideal school, all students should find regular opportunities to explore, to practice and master skills, and to reflect about why their learning is important to them. School should be where students are the Drivers of their own education.

It’s interesting to note that Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit, has combined Passion and Drive into one concept – Grit – which is defined as “a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.” At Oneness-Family Montessori High School, we believe one final element is necessary for an individual to begin to realize his / her Unique Student Potential and that element is Discipline. Discipline is more than just hard work, though hard work is always a common trait of successful people. More broadly, Discipline is a set of habits that will maximize our chances of reaching our goals. We may have Passion and understand Drive, but without Discipline we may give up on the road to our dreams. At Oneness-Family Montessori High School, we’ve identified 15 Habits of Learning we believe are essential as students aspire to reach their USP™. These include Personal Habits, Social Habits and Thinking Habits – and taken as a whole they comprise our concept of Discipline.

In Amanda Lang’s The Power of Why, she says: “Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it – and that, more than any specific body of knowledge, is what they will need to have in the future. The world is changing so rapidly that by the time a student graduates from university, everything he or she learned may already be headed toward obsolescence. The main thing that students need to know is not what to think but how to think in order to face new challenges and solve new problems.”

“Curious kids learn how to learn, and how to enjoy it.” The schools our world desperately needs are places where students can frequently ask the question “Why” – and are free to explore different answers to that one central question. We at Oneness-Family Montessori High School believe that by understanding the interplay of Talent, Passion, Drive and Discipline, students can develop their USP™ and put themselves on the pathway to success and happiness.

For an excellent article on related subject matter, visit the link below.

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