Montessori Kindergarten

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Over the weekend, we held a parent education workshop on the Importance of the Kindergarten year in Montessori. After some really fruitful, engaging conversations with parents, we decided to put together a few of our notes from the discussion. More than anything, we wanted to share with you some of the many wonderful points that were raised. We really want to stress that we feel strongly that this is a personal decision, and in no way are our comments meant to pressure families. Our intention is merely to present the information.

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The discussion was primarily centered upon the benefits of staying in the Montessori environment for the Kindergarten year, without trying to negatively differentiate Montessori from public or private school alternatives. [As a side note, Baan Dek does not currently have an elementary, but it's something that we're actively exploring as we continue to grow.]

With the above in mind, we pointed out that Montessori, with a mixed-age classroom, was specifically designed to accommodate children between the ages of three to six years old. This isn't an arbitrary age classification: it's based on the developmental needs of children. As you may have heard us say before, the main idea is that everyone learns differently and at their own pace, so just because you are three doesn't mean that you are like every other three year old.

What is remarkable about this experience is that when you enter Montessori, you are the youngest. You turn to your older peers to help you with your tasks and with your daily activities. The older students serve as your mentors and role models. Of course, when you reach the Kindergarten age, you now become the leader, remembering exactly what it was like to be in the position of the youngest student in the classroom.

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What this model fosters is a method of collaboration as opposed to competition. Instead of children working on the exact same task at the exact same time with peers their exact same age, Montessori allows children to work independently, at their own pace, following their own interests. Children receive help and support from their fellow classmates. In Montessori, it's okay to help someone out, because you're not competing against each other, you are competing against yourself.

Academically, the Montessori classroom was created to accommodate a spectrum of interests and abilities. It wasn't designed to teach to the median. It was designed to teach to the individual. With a broad range of capabilities, the later Montessori math work, for example, is actually the equivalent of a third grade pubic school education. Needless to say, this doesn't mean that every child will reach that level, but the structure exists in case they do. 

Academics, of course, are important, but Montessori is predicated on an entirely different set of assumptions. Academics are not the sole focus. They are the outcome of careful preparation. Which is to say, in Montessori, we focus on the total experience of the child. In a phrase: we believe that social success will lead to academic success. If a child is happy and wants to learn, they will learn. You don't need to force them. We're all born with a sense of curiosity. We just need the space, or what Montessori called the "prepared environment," to follow our interests.

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After a short conversation on the highlights, or the positive benefits of why the Montessori Kindergarten year is important, we received a number of questions. We thought it might be helpful if we pose the hardest and most difficult questions and their responses, to provide you with a better frame of reference for the discussion. Certainly, each school will have their own set of specific inquiries, but hopefully this can serve as a context in which to jumpstart a conversation. 

The two main questions posed were: 

1. How will my child adapt to public school? Is it better to go ahead and send them to public school for their Kindergarten year or will it be the same transitional experience for first grade?

2. Are there any long term studies to validate Montessori? What does the research say? Can you point us in the direction?

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1. How will my child transition to public school?

In our experience, Montessori students are extremely adaptable. They thrive on new situations, primarily because they have strong foundations. Having come from an environment that encouraged social interactions and personal achievement, they are ready to meet new challenges. They are prepared, both academically and socially. Adjusting to a new system, however, no matter the circumstances, is always a process.

The point we would like to emphasize is that Montessori students develop a special characteristic: a life long love of learning. Why? Well, they've never been told what or when they need to learn. They've just been passionately following their interests. When they discover that they've been working on multiplication, for instance, they are proud of their achievement, but they're also just as excited to keep on learning. No matter the task, or the level of difficulty, there are always ways to find joy and excitement. It's also important to note that Montessori students know how to follow instructions. They, just as all children, only need an explanation for why they are supposed to be doing what an adult told them to do. A little explanation, goes a long way. In this case, we could say, "Told you so!".

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When hard pressed to answer the difficult and at times sensitive question, "Should my child leave Montessori and start Kindergarten instead in the public or private school system?", "Will it be easier to adjust if we make the transition now?", our answer is pretty straightforward: it depends on your family. Every family is different, having their own needs, expectations and questions. We're merely here to help talk through these issues and support your decision. The last thing we want to do is to pressure, let alone tell, families what to do. Nothing could be further from the spirit of Montessori.

With that said, we believe that the greater the foundations the greater the success. Developmentally, we learn more in this window, from 0-6, than we do in the entire rest of our lives. In our estimations, it's this period, the period Montessori recognized as essential, that will help pave the way. This is what leads Montessori to write, "There are many who hold, as I do, that the most important period of life is not the age of university studies, but the first one, the period from birth to the age of six."

Kindergarten was originally created by Frobel to serve as a transition between home and school. It was implemented to help acclimate children and better prepare them for the start of their "real education", which would begin in the first grade, at the age of seven. Montessori, however, recognizing the biological importance of the period 0-6, envisioned the Kindergarten year as arguably the most important, as it was the completion of a learning cycle - based on the developmental needs of children. 

2. Are there any long term studies to validate Montessori? 

We thought we would provide a short list of references that we've found to be helpful. For starters, we would recommend that you take a look at the videos of Dr. Steve Hughs, a board-certified pediatric neuropsychologist. There's also a wonderful study on the Outcomes for Students in a Montessori Program, and a wonderful collection of essays that will help you get started.

We hope this post has been insightful. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out. Your child's teacher can also be a helpful resource in this important family decision.

Trust in the child

Watching a process unfold allows you an opportunity to see how the results were achieved. In a society driven by results, we often fail to address the inner workings of just how something came to be. Needless to say, we all lead busy lives and the more convenient something is the greater value it seems to hold. With this, we couldn't agree more. Except, of course, when it comes to learning. Optimizing time may optimize results, but it doesn't necessarily optimize the process or the happiness to be discovered in the repetition of learning. Taking the time to practice, or allowing the process to unfold, is often what you see in the results, but don't completely grasp or witness in the process. It's where the joy of learning takes hold, often accompanying you for the rest of your life.

One of the many brilliant insights that Maria Montessori gleaned was to understand that everyone learns differently and at their own pace. With this observation, she created a mixed-age classroom which she called a "prepared environment", realizing that just because you are three doesn't mean that you are like every other three year old. The message Montessori imparts with this approach is that everyone is special.

Now, in traditional approaches to education, which do not necessarily adhere to these insights and principles, if a child misses a lesson or doesn't fully understand a concept, the class progresses, despite the lack - or lag - in comprehension. The system just isn't designed to accommodate that which overflows or supercedes its structure. We all know the stories. Many of us have our own.

What is evaluated in the traditional model is not the process, with qualitative implications, but the results, with an emphasis on the quantitative. Essentially, no matter what end of the spectrum you are on, you are at great odds with the interests of the middle. What an entirely different message. Even the pace of instruction is geared towards that of the median. How? By measuring the results of the averages. How are these determined? More often than not, by age.

The logic behind this method runs something like this. "We've seen hundreds of thousands of children go through this system. It works. We have the data. We understand exactly where children are in relation to their peers and where they should be in relation to their class." What they fail to take into account, however, is where they should be in relation to themselves.

Classifications, no matter their nature, always produce cracks. If, for example, a child in the traditional system is not at a certain level, at a certain time, steps are taken to focus on how to improve the results, to get the student up to speed with the rest of their class. "We don't want anyone falling through the cracks," we hear the administrators say.

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So, what is often recommended is personal, customized tutoring, allowing a child the opportunity to receive the individual attention that they need, focusing on a very limited, precise set of tasks and problems, i.e.: concentrating solely on carrying over numbers while doing addition. While this highly specialized attention no doubt leads to greater, immediate results, it's also at a total remove from the development of the whole child.

This raises a number of interesting questions. What sort of message does this send to a child? In our estimations, instead of offering positive, constructive, daily feedback, based on the "whole child" and their individual development, a child in this traditional approach is instantly introduced into a negative system of learning, where the joy of the process is sacrificed for the success of the result. "Let's make sure you know how to do x - so you can go back to class with the rest of your friends." 

To be sure, personal tutoring is important as an outgrowth of the traditional model, but it's part of the same cycle. It helps obtain results, when, in fact, what needs to be concentrated on is the processes neeeded to obtain the results. It's not that Montessori, and other alternative forms of education don't care about the products of education - nothing could be further from the truth - but what matters is how we get there. Ironically, this is also why Montessori students often achieve such great results. 

If we create an environment in which process becomes the focus, as opposed to product, trusting children to accomplish tasks for themselves, at their own pace, based on their own abilities becomes the conditions of that education. More than anything, it gives children the confidence to achieve the precision needed to perfect themselves. Why? Because they know we trust in their abilities, because they trust in them too.

It's a question of environment. Not a question of age.

 

Montessori Guide

We're very pleased to introduce you to Montessori Guide, a new initiative by The Association Montessori Internationale. As an online resource tool for Montessori teachers, Montessori Guide strives to serve as an innovative catalyst to support teachers "in their daily work to meet the neeeds of children". Through a series of instructive videos, Montessori Guide serves as an excellent tool to serve and promote Montessori standards and practices. As Montessori continues to grow, one of the greatest challenges the community faces is quality. Montessori Guide is a really wonderful way to get a glimpse into quality Montessori education. We highly recommend that you peruse the videos.

Here's a brief quote from Siliva Dubovoy, who speaks throughout this video: "We have a been trained or conditioned by society to see children in a certain way. There is a different way to see children. To get rid of preconceived ideas about childhood. About certain things we do about judgement of the child. Criticising the child or looking at the child as someone inferior or someone small." We particularily like the tone and perspective. There's a lot of work to be done. We're excited to be a part of this conversation.

Exploring Gravity

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We observed a pretty magical thing today. One of our students took out the pouring pasta exercise - yes, that’s a real thing! There are many purposes to the activity, one of which is to develop an appreciation for, and experience of, the role that gravity plays in our lives.

As this student attempted to carefully and equally distribute the pasta into the three smaller, equally-sized glass containers, something unusual happened. A few of the pieces of pasta got stuck on the bottom of the pitcher. You should have seen the look on her face.

Now, immediately, as if in succession, she started rattling off possible explanations, trying to deduce exactly why the pasta couldn’t be removed. It was a total mystery. As she was going through possible scenarios in her head, she shook the pitcher, gently pounding on it with the side of her hand, almost like one would try to coax ketchup out of the bottle.

Then, turning to her guide for thoughts, together they worked through a few different possible reasons, before finally arriving at an interesting solution: somehow, water had found its way to the bottom of the pitcher, causing the pasta to stick.

As we witnessed this experience, we suddenly remembered something that Steve Jobs said: "The elements of discovery are around you. You don't need a computer to know..I mean, here..(Steve Jobs picks up and objects and let's it fall to the ground)…Why does that fall? You know why? Nobody knows why. Nobody in the entire world knows why that falls. We can describe it pretty accurately, but no one knows why. I don't need a computer to get a kid interested in that. To spend a week playing with gravity and trying to understand it, and coming up with reasons why. You do need a person."

Just In Time

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Happy New Year! As Amy Weber dropped her daughter off for school today, she shared with us a few valuable insights, insights that she had gleaned from her own childhood. We twisted her arm, twice to be exact, (don't worry, it's not broken) and asked if she'd be willing to share her observations with a much larger audience. She agreed! When you finish reading, be sure to leave Amy a note in the comments! It's her guest blogging debut. (We think it should become permanent.)

"We all look forward to the New Year in different ways and for different reasons. As a teacher, new years usually started in mid August with each new school year and ended again in late May as the year closed. To me, January always felt more like the middle of a year, and I really wasn't one to celebrate January 1st---until this year.

This year, the roles in our household changed a bit, with me taking a sabbatical from my teaching to stay at home with my children. This year, I'm the lucky one who gets to drop off and pick up my daughter from BaanDek each day. This year, I'm the one who gets to share the conversations about what work she'll choose and who her lunch partner was. This year is truly a New Year for me and my family and I couldn't be more excited.

On our first morning drive to school, I asked Emerson to tell me a little bit about the routine of her day. What happens after you shake hands with your teacher and put your lunch away? Her response was, "I choose my work." Of course came my barrage of questions like, What will you work on? How do you know what you will pick? It was her simple response that really struck me: "It depends on what's available."

You see, I remember my own dad bringing my brother and me to school each morning, but I don't remember the conversations we had. What I remember is anxiety--a feeling of dread and worry that I'll be late again, as we sometimes were. Even "right on time" caused me stress. What if everyone had started without me? What if I missed attendance and was counted tardy, or worse, ABSENT.

I started thinking about Emerson and her pride and excitement when it comes to her learning and work at BaanDek. What if there was a particular activity she loved to do, but it "wasn't available" by the time she got there? What if she too, had an anxiety about arriving late? In such a well structured learning environment like BaanDek, where my young learner gets the CHOICE in her learning and the feelings of excitement and ownership in "choosing her work," I am the most excited about getting her there on time, so that she never has to feel what I remember feeling. Instead, she can "choose the work" she loves and start her day off on the right foot, from the moment she walks through the door."

Excited about this NEW Year, Amy Weber