A Qualitative Education

We hear so many wonderful stories. 

Not only from children, as they learn to navigate their world, so new and wondrous, but also from parents, as they observe their children, with such pride and amazement. One of our very favorite recent accounts involves a former student of ours, and an amazing description of her independence, fortitude and ultimately, accomplishment, as relayed by her mother.

This particular student, whom some might classify as being extremely modest, often exhibited timid tendencies, especially when she engaged with new activities. In our estimations, it wasn’t necessarily the outcome that she was apprehensive about, as there was nothing that she tried and couldn’t achieve. Rather, it was her willingness to divorce herself from her own expectations and dive right in to unfamiliar situations. Said differently: this five-year-old student was afraid to try new things, because she was worried that she might fail. 

Our task, as guides, was to nurture her development.

Over the Summer, this student took swimming lessons. The instructor was exceedingly supportive, especially physically, as she braced her unsteady, uncertain movements. Essentially, and from our understanding, the swimming instructor would place her hands beneath the student, to guide her and keep her afloat. The reassurance in the water meant everything. 

Then, one day, after weeks of practice and subtle encouragement, our five-year-old student turned to the swimming instructor and confidently said, “I think you should let me go. Otherwise, how can I learn to swim on my own”? Years worth of support and furthering suddenly buoyed forth. An exhibition of independence and a willingness to engage the world was demonstrated. Needless to say, the student quickly became the captain of the pool. 

There are so many lessons to be learned from this account, one of which leads us to an important and timely question. Namely, how can you teach, let alone measure, qualitative results? By qualitative, we mean, creativity, independence, determination, patience, perseverance, compassion, dedication, humility, modesty, collaboration, etc. The intangibles that often comprise a constructive life.

Which is to say, what type of educational system, or characteristics, would account for these types of metrics? On top of that, how would you stimulate, as opposed to suppress, their delicate growth? How can you say, “By the age of x, your child will tell their swimming instructor to let them go?” A different system is at work.

While some individuals think these qualities can’t be assessed, others argue that we simply need a new set of terms by which to have the conversation. A new vocabulary, so to speak, and, ultimately, a new type of yardstick by which to measure the output. How would you quantify the independence that the five-year-old exhibited with the swimming instructor? As usual, Ken Robinson is particularly helpful on these matters.

The traditional system of education, which most of us are familiar with, since most of us attended, was primarily set up to assess quantitative outcomes. These may include, but are not limited to, timed tests, pop quizzes, multiple choice questions, and other standardized evaluations. Everything is centered on this method of examination.

The ambition of this type of educational system was put into place to quickly ascertain results across a large swathe of students, and compute those results against local and national averages. Understandably, perhaps, it wasn’t designed with the individuals ability or interest in mind.

As a product of the Industrial Revolution, one can easily see, through a certain lens, how this type of educational system made complete sense. Education wasn’t about the pursuit of interests, or even passions, it was about the preparation of basic, fundamental, technical skills, the mastery of which was needed to enter the work force. Yet, as we all know, this way of thinking about education, no less than the economy, is completely changing. For some, it has already, irrevocably, changed. 

What about qualitative assessments, then, which often take time to manifest? As demonstrated in the swimming lesson example above, how are those types of qualities fostered? How are they nurtured, not to mention, measured? How do you assess, in good faith, creativity, for instance? By what standard are these types of practices evaluated? In a wonderful, almost paradoxical statement, it’s as Lewis Carroll says -

You can’t measure Alice growing, only her growth.

Where does this leave us? Moving forward, as a society, it becomes a question of where we choose to place our emphasis. What values do we want to place on qualitative traits? We would love to hear your thoughts and learn about your stories. We’re sure you have them too. They might make for a wonderful conversation.


Empower and Collaborate

There are a couple of things we always talk about at Baan Dek. The first, which is a powerful lesson of life, is to never hold children back. The second, which is just as meaningful as the first, is to try our best to act as collaborators, to participate in their early learning adventures. We would love to take this opportunity to elucidate.

Let’s start with the first lesson, on never holding children back. Knowingly or not, most of us fall into this category. At one point or another, we have prevented a child from exceeding our expectations. Which is to say, as adults, it’s easy for us to make assumptions about what children are capable, i.e.: they shouldn’t use glass, they’re not ready for silverware, etc. Yet, we’re so surprised when they actually accomplish a task. Why are we, as adults, the ones setting the expectations?

Children are capable of much more than we think. Our motto is: Let’s not hold them back. Let’s give them more than we think they can do. Or, rather, to speak more carefully, let’s create a safe, nurturing environment in which they feel confident enough to explore their own limitations. As adults, and especially as Montessori guides, this is where our responsibility lies. Let’s not give children what we think they can do, let’s allow them to show us of what they are capable.

We have a wonderful, somewhat related example that transpired over the summer. We were working with a student on crafting a bird house. Once the edifice had been adequately constructed, and the four walls had been tightly fastened together, this soon to be five-year old boy proceeded to paint it. However, he decided not to paint the outside, but rather, the inside. 

Our reaction was one of, “What is he up to?” “Why is he choosing to do this?” “Is he willfully veering off the task at hand?” Come to find out, as he later explained - and at our chagrin - “since the birds will live inside the house, I want them to see the beautiful colors, too". Our expectations of children are so often aligned with our judgements of what we think they are capable of, and the ways in which we think they should execute upon these ideas. Often, they are in no relation to what that child can achieve.

The second example, which is just as meaningful, and directly tied to the first, is to try our best to act as collaborators. If we become active, supportive participants in the journey of education, at a remove from judgements and assumptions, and of making decisions and completing tasks for children, everything starts to look just a little bit different.

In the Absorbent Mind, Montessori writes, in a rather candid passage: “To recognize this great work of the child does not mean to diminish the adults’ authority. Once they can persuade themselves not to be themselves the builders, but merely to act as collaborators in the building process, they become much better able to carry out their real duties; and then, in the light of a wider vision, their help becomes truly valuable. The child can only build well if this help is given in a suitable way.”

One of the advantages of a mixed-age classroom is that other children, especially at this age, have an entirely different set of expectations of other children. Whereas an adult might inherently make an assumption, based on the child’s age, demeanor, etc, other children are less likely to make those exact same assumptions. They have a unique way of making connections.

We have a visual example, illustrated through a series of photographs, that we would love to share with you. Namely, when a younger student, who had just entered the Primary classroom, after having graduated from the Toddler environment, observed an older student working with the "taking care of plants activity", she was completely mesmerized. She patiently observed, taking mental notes.

Then, something magical happened. The older student, who had been carefully demonstrating how to use the activity, almost as if the other student didn't exist, identified, or sympathized with her new friend's interest and decided to mentor her on the exercise. With the precision of language with which she was first introduced to the activity, the primary student gracefully, and with a certain eloquence, showcased the work. 

When the activity was complete, and both students were completely satisfied by the experience, the older student empowered the younger student to return the work to its proper place. She had, in effect, become a collaborator in the process. Not only had she served as a role model, without exhibiting judgments or assumptions, she had inspired her new friend in the "building process" with the assurance that only someone who believes in you, can provide.

That sense of empowerment and collaboration. There's nothing like it.

Back to School

The Basics:

As everyone prepares to head "back to school", some for the very first time, we thought we would take this opportunity to offer a few tips to help ensure a smooth transition. Whether you are a new family, or a currently family, hopefully these suggestion will help provide some guidance. We can't wait for the new year to start. It's going to be an amazing one!

Talk positive about school.

We recommend employing phrases like: “You get to go to school tomorrow!” Often, the idea of “going to school" can be subjected to negative connotations in our society. As adults, the same thing could be said for, "going to work". To combat this cultural orientation, and to foster a positive appreciation of school, you can use favorable expressions like, "Next week, you get to go to school!”. 

Learn More 

We recommend a quick drop-off and pick-up. 

While it can be difficult, we strongly recommend a quick drop-off. We know it can be the hardest thing in the world, but the longer a parent stays, the harder the separation becomes. Lingering can create anxiety for both children and adults alike, and this is never a good start to a day. Instead, children relish the reassurance that you have confidence in them and their day.

Learn more 

Relate your own childhood experiences. 

There’s nothing more reassuring for children than to hear from their parents or loved ones that “everything is going to be okay”. When children have something to relate to, from someone they trust, they can feel more assertive and confident in their new experience. A possible phrase to use would be: “I loved school. I was always so excited to go to school and meet new friends and learn new things.”


One of the most important things for children is consistency. They thrive off of the routine, as it offers them stability and confidence, a sense of strength in their relationship to the world. Try to establish a routine that works for your family, which includes lunch preparation, bedtime, wake-up time, morning departure for school, etc. The more consistent the routine, the less deviation children experience. Of course, there are always hiccups, but consistency will help to alleviate them. 



Ensure that you keep your child apace of any changes to their daily activities. If there is a change in their routine, let them know by explaining the situation and providing reassurance. "Your mother will pick you up today." If children are apprised of what will happen, they will be less startled or surprised when the routine is interrupted. This will provide comfort and a better ease of transitions. It will also allow them to focus on the task at hand. In this case, exploring Europe!


Let your child help you prepare for the next day. Whether it's letting them set out their clothes for the morning, or allowing them to assist with the preparation of their lunch box, children love the responsibilities they are given - and, it helps builds their independence. Preparation also plays an essential role in the classroom, as children not only prepare work for other students upon completion, but also ready themselves for new tasks by going through the necessary process. Above, you'll notice that our student is cleaning the paint brush and tray, making sure that when she returns it to the shelf, it'll be just as she found it.


One of our strongest suggestions is to ensure that you arrive to school in a timely fashion. This is not for the convenience of the school, but for the benefit of your child. Late arrivals can interrupt routines and disrupt the classroom that's already in-progress. It can also create a sense of unease and apprehension for your child. As adults, we all know what it feels like when we enter a meeting that’s already started: we feel disoriented, anxious, and constantly struggle to try to catch up. We continually ask ourselves, “What did we miss?”. Additionally, for those who were interrupted, it can be difficult to return to that state of concentration.

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If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out. We're always here to help.


Montessori on Making Mistakes

Maria Montessori had so many original and wonderful insights into early childhood education. One of the most under appreciated, and subsequently misunderstood, is the idea of mistakes - of having the space, confidence and ability to make them - and the power of determination that comes from within. When you overcome your mistakes to accomplish a task, you build the moxie and fortitude to, well, accomplish just about anything.

Of course, everyone has probably heard, in one form or another, this fundamentally sound, inspirational, and often conciliatory phrase: “making mistakes is important.” Many of us might even recall a specific conversation with our parents, teachers, or friends, as they consoled us on a failed achievement. - “There’s so much you can learn from this experience,” they motivate. “These types of mistakes will make you stronger,” they empower. “We made the exact same ones,” they confide. - Some of us even have our own favorite quotes. Here’s ours, from Alexander McQueen. “You can only go forward by making mistakes.” 

Yet, why are mistakes important? Why do they help us go forward? Is it a cliche to say there’s value in mistakes?

Montessori: “While the progress the children make seems wonderful, it can only be attributed to the freedom they have in exercising themselves. With methods in general use, teachers must very often correct children. Each time they make a mistake, the teacher must correct them. We, on the contrary, advise that children should not be corrected, that they should be free to make mistakes, not in an absolute sense, but only in their spontaneous efforts for perfection.”

Perfection, to be sure, should not be read in terms of some sort of geometric exercise in which everything must line up just so - which creates anxiety, frustration and, some might say, complacency of thought. Rather, perfection should be understood in terms of the effort required to improve: the sense in which confidence is continually acquired to better our abilities and expand our way of thinking about the world. In this sense, perfection must be thought of in terms of the attainment of one’s interests, and not the correction of an ability. As Montessori says, it’s more spontaneous than calculated.

While traditional approaches to early childhood education are often structured in such a way as to prevent mistakes, Montessori says the exact opposite. Mistakes are important, she relays, not because they are mistakes, but because they allow the freedom to experiment, discover and ultimately explore. As she explains, “If we interrupt to correct, we may distract the attention which has just awakened, the phenomenon on which we must rely if they are to perfect themselves.” If we interfere with the process, in the name of the product, we limit the capacity to create. At the end of the day, what matters most is the passion that is developed in accord with one’s interests. 

At the same time, Montessori extends this observation, and takes the idea of making mistakes one step further. By way of example, she elucidates the capabilities that are required to have the opportunity to make a mistake in the first place, and expounds on the processes involved. In an instructional instance, in which she cites the color tablets exercise, Montessori writes: 

“As an example of an error easily made is when children are placing, let us say, eight shades of the same color in an incorrect order. They put the light where the dark should be in this given order of shades. In our lesson we make children understand how and in what gradation of color they must place the shades. If they do not place the shades all in order, it means that they have not acquired the power of perceiving these slight differences in the gradation of colors.” 

The irony of mistakes is that you can’t make them if you don’t have the space to experiment, but you can make them if you don’t yet have the ability to accomplish the task. Hence, the vital import of teachers, or what Montessori affectionately referred to as ‘guides’, who put the children in touch with the materials. As such, guides are trained observers, educated and empowered to respond to the individual needs of each and every child. Without imposing their will, they serve children by following their interests.

“The teacher must learn, not to teach, but rather to observe.”

Which is to say, as Montessori does: “If we were to correct them, we would attain the superficial goal of the children putting the shades in line, in order of gradation of color, but we would not succeed in giving the children what they lack, namely, the ability to distinguish between these different shades. It would take a supernatural power to make children see what as yet their eyes cannot see, to give perfection as if by miracle to one who still lacks ability and must gain it only through their own efforts.”

What this instance affords, then, is a rather comprehensive question that could easily be applied to a number of cases where mistakes are on the line. Namely, how do we provide the optimal conditions for children to discover their abilities and pursue their interests? Here, the question is specified to our current example: “What must we do so that children may succeed in putting this colors in order of gradation?” 

The traditional response would be to show the children their errors, identifying where and how the mistakes were made, and entrusting that they won’t make the same mistake twice. This approach, of course, smacks of familiarity. This is the way most of us were taught. For Montessori, however, different approach is required. As she writes, the goal is not to have us correct their mistakes. Rather, the ambition is to “keep their attention fixed in these exercises in such a way that they will continue the exercises themselves until they have developed the ability to distinguish the shades”.

Montessori: Map Work

Greetings from Baan Dek! Hope everyone is having a joyous Summer. We thought we'd take this opportunity to introduce our fourth book in our Montessori series from Abrams Appleseed. It's called, Montessori: Map Work, and it just might be our favorite. It's now available to order from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.


Here's a little bit more about the book:

As with all things Montessori, students begin with the concrete and move to the abstract. When learning geography, students first develop an understanding that the earth is a round globe, made up of land and water. They then manipulate the shape of each continent before addressing its name and location. 

Montessori: Map Work introduces readers to the seven continents via textured edges to trace with their fingers, modes of transportation between each one for spatial context, and illustrated native animals for relevant and meaningful associations. Young children will absorb the age-appropriate geography and gain a better sense of their place in the world.

We sincerely hope you enjoy. It was so much fun to put together.