Everything Matters

Montessori had a number of major, radical breakthroughs in the field of education. What is usually charted up as her most notable is the idea that we, as adults, must learn to follow the interests of the child. We must meet them where they are, not where we think they should be. From this original, powerful insight stem so many other branches, outgrowths quintessential to truly understanding the revolution Montessori enacted. A revolution, we should add, that is still being played out today.

In our estimations, the single most underappreciated development by Montessori is the idea that how children learn is in direct relation to the environment in which they learn. Montessori understood that the presentation of the materials, for instance, must be neat, orderly and carefully fashioned. This is not to make things look pretty for adults, or prospective parents, but to entice and support the sense of wonder and discovery that children embody. Who wants to engage with an activity that looks disheveled, unorganized and out of place. 

As spring approaches, we put together a few refresher style thoughts centered around the idea that the environment itself is a work of art. It must constantly be attended to, nurtured, and ultimately prepared in such a way that it will come to take care of and usher in the instigation of learning initiated by our students. As you may have heard us articulate before, we believe that, “schools should be machines in the ways in which they are run, not in the ways in which they teach”. 

What we mean by this phrase is captured rather eloquently by Buckminster Fuller, the great American designer, author and inventor, in a little known text called, Education Automation (2010:75). Writing in the early 1960s on the future of education and the changing needs of students and society, no less than the systems in which they operate, he states:

“Real education will be something to which individuals will discipline themselves spontaneously under the stimulus of their own ticker tapes…No two persons have the same appetite at the same time. There is no reason why they should. There is no reason why everyone should be interested in the geography of Venezuela on the same day and hour unless there is some “news” event there, such as a revolution. However, most of us are going to be interested in the geography of Venezuela at some time - our own time - but not all on the same day. Simultaneous curricula are obsolete.”

While traditional approaches to education often offer the type of single curricula that Buckminster Fuller describes, teaching the same thing at the same time to every student, despite their abilities or interests, Montessori focuses on the total educational experience. Traditional styles of education, then, are machines in the way they teach - and, everything else is just, well, everything else. For Montessori, however, “everything else” matters because it’s a direct indication of the entire learning experience.

Setting Expectations

We recently had a wonderful conversation with a prospective parent on the value of one-on-one education. As this individual observed the classroom in action, an almost serendipitous encounter for anyone, and one we would highly recommend, a discussion coalesced around the role that the teacher plays in the Montessori environment. 

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Observing Ms. Wood present a new lesson to one of our four-year-old students, we were prompted to converse about the need to foster independence, and how that is, arguably, the primary task of Montessori guides. [We call them guides, instead of teachers, to denote that learning isn't solely about instruction, but more about putting the child in touch with their own abilities.] Of course, from the conditions of that independence, beautiful things start to arise, such as concentration, confidence, and the joy of learning that accompanies completing a task on your own.

After Ms. Wood had presented the work, she confidently reassured the student that he could handle the challenge. Then, she gracefully, and with a certain tact, removed herself from the situation, leaving the student to the activity at hand. As Montessori writes, “Once the children’s interest has been aroused, the teacher withdraws into the background, and must be very careful not to interfere - absolutely not, in any way.”

As adults, we often have the tendency to want to interrupt, whether that is to praise or unnecessarily assist, but we must try our best to set a different set of expectations. Montessori, for her part, explains that “well-meant praise is enough to do damage; the child will not look at work again for weeks.” One of the most important things to keep in mind, then, is the type of environment that is created, one in which independence is allowed to flourish. Our observer was really impressed with this approach, commenting on how pleasantly surprised she was by this individual attention.

As we diligently observed Ms. Wood, she kept a careful, watchful eye on the progress of the student, taking note of his interactions as she looked on from across the room. If a child completes the task with ease, or has difficulty with aspects of the activity, or the activity itself, Ms. Wood will take note of these successes, or challenges. She will then address them next time she presents the work, whether to utilize the material to evaluate progress, or to reinforce the original presentation.

Interruption, whether praise or correction, disrupts the learning process. In such instances, the child is not allowed to make mistakes, or develop the confidence that only a sense of discovery and exploration can afford, in the moment. The challenge for the teacher is knowing the exact, individual level of each student, always keeping them right at the limit of their own abilities.

Observing a Montessori Classroom

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One of our absolutely favorite things to do is to showcase our classrooms. We believe in transparency, thinking that the more people can see, the more they’ll come to understand. In our estimations, a lack of transparency has been one the greatest obstacles to the success of Montessori, and it’s our desire to try to open things up. Having the opportunity to see a Montessori classroom in action can be an incredible experience. In the least, it prompts a number of questions, both simple and complex. Ultimately, and this is our greatest hope, it can help observers make an informed decision, not only on the education of their children, but also on the perceived societal value of early childhood education.

We encourage current parents to schedule a time to observe, keeping them up to date through photographs and daily conversations, but we do not make it a requirement. With prospective families, however, especially those with no previous experience of Montessori, we do make it a condition of acceptance. Of course, the way we see it, it’s not about us, but it’s about them. Primarily, we want to ensure that Montessori is the right fit for their family. It also, and at the same time, provides a wonderful opportunity and insight into how people think about education.

With anything, the further down the hole you travel, the harder it gets to try to keep that surface perspective. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this is the only way to do things. We must always try to keep in mind that different families have needs, expectations and desires that might exist outside the parameters of what they envision as Montessori. It’s not our task to tell families what to do, but merely to showcase what we do, seeing if it’s the right fit for them.

Meet Ingrid Geiger

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We have some really exciting news to share!

After literally scouring the planet for a teacher, one that would compliment our unique ethos at Baan Dek, we are very pleased to announce that Ingrid Geiger will be joining our team. Ms. Geiger, a trained Association Montessori International directress, will be relocating from Germany, starting at Baan Dek in late February.

How did this come about? Is she really from Germany? Yes!

Here's the story: A few years ago, and rather out of the blue, we received a lovely email from Ms. Geiger. She came across our website, having read a few of our blog posts. She really identified with what we were doing. She loved our culture and said that she would be honored if we would consider her for a position.

Of course, at the time, we weren't quite ready to hire a teacher, and knowing that she was from Germany, well, we were a bit apprehensive about the entire immigration process. After years of back-and-forth exchanges, staying in touch over email and getting to know each other over Skype, we finally made Ms. Geiger an offer in November. To our delight, she excitedly accepted.

Ms. Geiger received her Association Montessori International training from the prestigious Montessori Internationales Ausbildungszentrum e.V. training center in Munich, Germany, in 2006. Upon graduation, Ms. Geiger spent a few years in Mexico, helping to establish ‘Ecomundi Montessori Preschool’ in Chalmita, Mexico, before returning to teach in Munich.

Ms. Geiger is fluent in three languages: English, German and Spanish. She has two children, Marvin and Jamie. Ms. Geiger will become the lead teacher in the Bamboo Room, where Mrs. George will stay on hand, to help ensure a smooth, gradual transition.

In growing a school the greatest challenge that we have faced is finding quality individuals who are committed and passionate to the profession. We're extremely excited that Ms. Geiger will be join us at Baan Dek.

We're planning an Open House, so everyone can get a chance to meet with Ms. Geiger. In the meantime, please feel free to send her an email: ingrid@baandek.org

If you have any questions, please don't hestiate to let us know.

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.