Tag Archives: Maria Montessori

Montessori and Raising Original Thinkers

In a recent article in the Atlantic, and in his book Originals, award winning educator and bestselling author Adam Grant describes how we can raise “ original thinkers”.

He says, “Too much structure, order, and discipline can constrain creativity, but so can too little.  In a classroom with extensive constraints, kids don’t learn to think for themselves. Give kids all the freedom in the world, and they can get caught in choice paralysis, lack frameworks for figuring out how to approach a problem, or develop plenty of novel ideas but fail to implement them.   I think balance comes in alternating different pedagogical approaches.  Lecture for 10 minutes, then let kids develop their own way of teaching the lesson learned and present it in small groups”

When I read this it struck me that these words could have come right out of one of Maria Montessori’s books.  Montessori’s concept of freedom is frequently misunderstood and sometimes misapplied.   Montessori believed strongly in a balance between freedom and structure – or more precisely she believed in freedom within structure.

Dr. Maria Montessori envisioned an order in the design of the classroom where everything has its place and where there is a clear sequence of what comes next.  The order she promoted was also to be found in the trust and relationship between teacher and student in regard to an agreed-upon set of goals.  And she believed that there was a self-organizational principle at work in each of us – a drive to be masters of our destiny.

Contrary to what some people think, Montessori did not believe in unfettered freedom.  She did believe that students needed a significant amount of choice in order to develop the life skills of planning, goal setting and self-discipline.   Today in Montessori (or non-Montessori) schools across the country, we see that when students are allowed some measure of choice in selecting their work – as well as some choice in when they want to do it and with whom – they are able to develop building 21st century competencies such as organizational skills, big picture thinking, creative problem solving and collaboration.

And it seems that Adam Grant concurs with another central tenet of Montessori philosophy – the vital role of curiosity.  In his book Originals, Grant says that curiosity is the driver of original thinking, and that this ultimately leads to a questioning of why things are the way they are. “When we become curious about the dissatisfying “defaults” in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them were created by people.  And this awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

According to Maria Montessori, if students are told what to do each minute of each day, there is no room for them to explore their key interests and passions – and this takes the very heart out of education.  It also kills curiosity – and blocks possible pathways to learning and social change that curiosity may naturally open.

Indeed if we look at the current testing culture of most public schools, what is being tested is usually not the higher order thinking skills students will need to succeed.  Perhaps even more concerning is that the current testing culture is anathema to the kind of innovative thinking and creative problem solving needed to advance our society and bring solutions to the challenges we face as a species.

In Montessori, facts are important as they relate to other facts – and students build higher order thinking skills by connecting facts into concepts.   So assessment in a typical Montessori school is reflective of these goals and is more complex than a simple test of content covered.  In the Montessori approach, how facts are organized and presented is as important as the knowledge of the facts themselves – and this how is where the originality is fostered.

Montessori evaluations may include presentations with peer feedback as well as exhibits, projects and portfolios.  This is in addition to quizzes, exams and standardized tests that Montessori schools may implement.  In the end, what is central in a Montessori classroom are the ideas of the student – and what is valued most is when these ideas can be expressed in a cogent and effective fashion.

Parents whose children attend Montessori schools can be conflicted about their choice. On the one hand they love the fact that Montessori is fostering their child’s passion for learning and his/her innate curiosity – and that their child is in a value based program that advocates for the voice of each child to be heard.  At the same time parents rightfully want to ensure that their child will not be left behind in an achievement gap and that they will be able to perform well on traditional tests to enter the best colleges and universities.

It turns out that parents are not the only ones faced with this dilemma.  Adam Grant points out that that high achievement and originality are not always in alignment.  In Originals he says for example that “child prodigies, it turns out, rarely go on to change the world.  When psychologists study history’s most eminent and influential people, they discover that many of them weren’t unusually gifted as children.”  “Although child prodigies are often rich in both talent and ambition, what hold them back from moving the world forward is that they don’t learn to be original.”

As an educator of 30 years, I have worked with super high achieving students for whom academics came easy –  as well as students who had to work extremely hard to make it through academically.  I have seen both kinds of students – and those in between – find success and make a positive impact on the world at the same time.  My advice to parents is to support your children in achieving as highly as they are capable, but always be vigilant to keep their flame of curiosity burning.  Honoring the originality of our children will always be the most important kind of support we can give them.

Maria Montessori was far ahead of her time, and today’s scientists and thought leaders are now re-discovering the power of her ideas and observations – especially when it comes to unleashing the power of the individual.

-Andrew Kutt

For more on Adam Grant’s interview and publications see the link below to the Atlantic article on Educating an Original Thinker or read his great book Originals published by Viking




Celestial Light Illuminates our Fragile Lives

Right now, people are faced with crises all over the world. While the people of the Middle East fight a life and death struggle to overcome tyranny, while the world is still recovering from natural disasters in Haiti, Kashmir and Pakistan, and while we grapple with global warming and a teetering world economy, we seem to be feeling vulnerable and more fragile than ever as individuals and as a species. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who has studied vulnerability for the past decade explores this feeling very poignantly in a recent TED presentation.

In her presentation, Brown encourages all of us to “embrace vulnerability” – a key ingredient to becoming what she calls “ wholehearted” people. Her research indicates that the vast majority of people who are happy, feel a deep sense of worthiness. Brown goes on to describe the key components of this sense of worthiness: People who have it tend to have the courage to be imperfect. They have compassion – first toward themselves. And they are able to cultivate and keep a sense of connection. Brown says we’d all be better off if we “let go of who we think we should be and become more of who we are.”

In reflecting on this video—which to be honest moved me to tears—I can’t get past the thought of how vulnerable we all feel at this time in history. Moreover, it seems that rather than confront our vulnerability and explore why we feel this way, we might well prefer to deny it or think we can escape the feeling altogether.

Ironically, while we have a full plate of crises and challenges here on Earth, humanity is taking a renewed and keen interest in planets far away and other celestial phenomena. In other words, if the here and now is too painful, why not just focus our attention on something else— the further removed from our current situation, the better?

For example, there is the plight of Pluto. According to a recent CNN.com article, “ For one of the farthest, coldest places in the solar system, Pluto sure stirs a lot of hot emotions right here on earth.”

It was three years ago that the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from one of the nine planets in our solar system to a diminished dwarf planet classification— a decision that clearly raised the hackles of its fans and which they are fighting to this day with fierce determination. Among the various initiatives of “Plutophiles”, earlier this year the Illinois Senate adopted a resolution declaring that Pluto was “unfairly downgraded” and demanded restoring it’s “full planetary status”. Not to be outdone by another state, New Mexico’s House of Representatives proclaimed on February 18, 2009 “Pluto is a planet in New Mexico Day.” If you want to join in on these pro-Pluto efforts, there are numerous ways to do so including printing out a Pluto Fan Club card, which allows you to declare, “ In my heart, Pluto will always be a planet.”

Meanwhile, there is the announcement of the recent discovery by NASA of five habitable Earth-size planets in the galaxy.

Moreover, NASA has discovered 1,200 other possible planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way. This historic announcement was the result of the initial phase of the Kepler mission, a space observatory that covers only 1/400 of the sky and is only four months old. Extrapolating the numbers over the 3-½ year lifespan of the mission suggests there are about 20,000 planets in the habitable zone within 3,000 light years of Earth. “For the first time in human history we have a pool of potentially rocky habitable zone planets,” Sara Seager of MIT told the New York Times. “ This is the first big step forward in answering the ancient question, “ How common are other Earths?”

For me, the NASA discovery raises more questions than just the perennial “Is there life on other planets?” question. For one thing, if we did find intelligent life on another planet and we were able to communicate with them, what would we say? “Hello there, please understand that things are a bit untidy on Earth right now, but we are in the process of cleaning things up.” How would we feel about a set of alien eyes, and presumably a whole new planet’s collective moral sensibilities evaluating our evolutionary progress? Would such an occurrence inspire us to right our wrongs and strive toward reaching a higher standard as brothers and sisters of one human family? Would the discovery of some hipper, more savvy and more prepared civilization cause us to cash in our chips and forsake our Earthly home for better digs? Or would it inspire us to renew our commitment to each other and whip ourselves into shape?

As a huge Star Trek fan, or “Trekkie” who was fascinated with astronomy since childhood, I have nothing against space exploration, though I wish it would not cost so much. However, these days I am much more interested in what’s going on here, right in our own backyard of the galaxy. With my work at the Oneness-Family School, I am trying to do my small part to ensure that if that day of reckoning comes— and we come face–to-face with our alien counterparts— we will have a harmonious, clean and vibrant planet to show them. Empowering students to “find their own voice” is the goal I work toward every day. Because I believe, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, that the “greatest gift we can give the world is a portion of thyself.” In other words, if we can help a child to reach toward his/her fullest potential, then I know the planet will automatically become a more beautiful place.

Brown also shared in her TED presentation the four key choices that whole-hearted people make:

  1. They let themselves be deeply seen.
  2. They love with their whole hearts.
  3. They practice gratitude and joy.
  4. They feel, “ I am enough.”

I daresay if we practiced these four things we’d be taking some serious steps in the right direction toward individual “wholeness” and planetary harmony. And regarding “embracing vulnerability”, what other choice do we really have—as individuals or as a collective humanity?

Maria Montessori provides valuable insight on the role and impact of education, “The education that will lead the way to a new humanity has one end alone; leading the individual and society to a higher stage of development. This concept involves many factors and may seem obscure, but it becomes clearer if we realize that mankind has to fulfill a collective mission on Earth, a mission involving all of humanity and therefore each and every human being.”

As if to add a poignant exclamation point on all this otherworldly talk— and to shine a celestial light on the fragile planet we share—a recent meteor streaking above Harvard Square in Boston was actually photographed (accidentally) by photographer Brad Kelly of Somerville, MA.

“I was a little awestruck,” Kelly said, “It took my breath away.” Kelly didn’t realize he had taken a photo of a meteor, thinking it was a weird lens reflection. It wasn’t until he used his iPhone to take a photo of his camera’s display and posted it on his twitter page, that feedback poured in that others had seen a meteor in the sky at the same time and place.

Kelly’s experience and stroke of uncanny good fortune remind us all that standing here on planet Earth and gazing upward toward outer space is indeed a pretty cool experience. This particular planet is the only habitable one we currently know about for sure. Moreover, it is the only one we are in charge of keeping. So, I say let’s get going and make Mother Earth the envy of this corner of the galaxy! But as we collaborate anew, let’s be mindful that recent solar flare eruptions on the sun could make telecommunications difficult. 🙂

The Web of Imagination: What John Lennon, Daniel Pink and Maria Montessori Have Taught Me

December 8th is the birthday of my dear brother Joe – the second oldest of five.  December 8th also happens to be the anniversary of the death of one of my heroes, John Lennon. Last December was the 30th anniversary of his tragic passing.

I admired John Lennon for his commitment to world harmony and peace, which never wavered throughout his life. Lennon said that the songs that were most meaningful to him were the ones he wrote that directly expressed his sentiments on life and the problems of the world.  He said, “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”

There two other touchstones of John Lennon’s life and work that have been particularly important in shaping my own educational philosophy– his belief in the power of the imagination and his trust that children had great wisdom and insight to offer the adult world.

When I founded the Oneness-Family School, I wanted to create an inspiring and fun environment for children that would stimulate their imaginations.  From the design of the classrooms to the methods of instruction, I wanted to foster the natural awe with which children are born.  I also wanted to create a place where children could be children and be happy and safe.

Perhaps no creation of John Lennon epitomizes his believe in the generative power of the imagination than his song “Imagine.”

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world.

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one.

It turns out that what Lennon intuitively knew about the value of imagination is now being borne out by modern research.  In his bestselling book, “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink talks about how “right brain” thinking is becoming more and more important in our quickly changing and interconnected world.  In fact, the subtitle of the Pink’s book is “Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.”

Pink says, “R-Directed (right brain) thinking is suddenly grabbing the wheel, stepping on the gas, and determining where we’re going and how we’ll get there.  L-Directed (left brain) aptitudes – the sorts of things measured by the SAT and deployed by CPA’s – are still necessary.  But they’re no longer sufficient. Instead, the R-Directed aptitudes so often disdained and dismissed – artistry, empathy, taking the long view, pursing the transcendent – will increasingly determine who soars and who stumbles.  It’s a dizzying – but ultimately inspiring – change.”

In designing the curriculum at the Oneness-Family School, my vision is to create a learning framework that encourages students to make connections across subject areas and to ask natural and important questions.  I also designed a direct and constant link between the arts and academics – between the creative/right- and logical/left-parts of the brain.

Pink sites a plethora of research and documented trends to back up his conclusions.  What John Lennon sang about, social thinkers like Daniel Pink are articulating as a major, cultural shift taking place right before our eyes.

There is one other aspect of John Lennon’s legacy that has pollinated my own thinking – his childlike approach to life and his appreciation for the gifts of children. He said, “When I was 5-years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Children don’t have to define happiness; they live it. They know what happiness is when they feel it. For children, happiness is it’s own definition, but as they get older they get told that happiness is conditional – dependent on something else – money, status or other rewards.  This is where we adults can often get off track.

According to Maria Montessori, “All other methods of education have taken the work of certain adults as their point of departure and have sought to educate or teach the child according to programs dictated by adults.  For my part, I believe that the child himself must be the pivot of his own education – not the child as people ordinarily think of him but rather his innermost soul.”

John Lennon’s commitment to peace and harmony, his belief in and practice of imagination, and his childlike approach to life have helped lead me down a path of following my own heart and of helping children follow theirs. The threads linking John Lennon, Maria Montessori, Daniel Pink – and me – are like the fibers of a finely crafted web that I am now beginning see more clearly – as if in the light of a new day.

OK  – one more John Lennon quote for the road:

Reality leaves a lot to the imagination

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