[This academic essay was written in Fall 2002, but the sentiments expressed herein still hold good.]
“Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.” - John Taylor Gatto (recipient of a N.Y. State Teacher Award) in Dumbing Us Down (1992)
The purpose of a school is to ensure holistic development of all its students by – enlightening them in an environment that fosters development of character and sense of self; empowering them with the ability to think (creatively and critically) so that they can realize their potential to the fullest and go on to become informed citizens of the world.
Unpacking this purpose
Holistic pertains to the whole child. This means focusing not only on the cognitive but also the physical, social and emotional aspects of the student’s growth. I use the term enlightenment to imply not just passive removal of ignorance but furthering a child’s existing knowledge in a manner that is meaningful - generative knowledge that functions richly in his/her life to help him/her understand and deal with the world (Perkins, 1992). It equates to Patricia Graham’s wit in her purpose of schools (Graham, 1984). Like her, I believe that of all the elements of the purpose, this is the most essential. For character, I borrow Graham’s Webster definition to mean “strength of mind, individuality, independence and moral quality.” Although “sense of self” in my stated purpose could be covered in the “individuality” and “independence” components of this definition of character, I state it separately for emphasizing the uniqueness of each child, which implies that this purpose must work uniquely for each child. There can be no “one size fits all” approach. Schools must nurture and celebrate their children’s individual differences. When all this is accomplished within a culture of thoughtful learning, we have students who think critically – daring to test out alternative propositions; and creatively – spinning out fantasies of adventurous projects (Lightfoot, 1983). I believe that by being enlightened and empowered in this way, students are equipped to be informed citizens and work at their intellectual and creative potential in their future lives. Finally, all these elements of my purpose of schooling are intertwined in the composition of each child and should therefore be stimulated and enhanced by efforts that are not entirely separate; they must all tie into the curriculum and pedagogy (Graham, 1984).
What informs my vision?
My beliefs for this purpose have been shaped by my own experiences as a student, as a parent, as a teacher and by my studies in the field of education. The “sense of self”, and “creative and critical thinking” aspects of my purpose are informed by my own K-12 education in a “Convent School” in India, which failed me in these key areas of personal development, (albeit helping me achieve academic excellence and instilling a strong sense of the moral values as defined by the Christian school and the Indian middle-class society). Like most schools in the country at the time, the curriculum and pedagogy of my school provided no room for creativity or self-expression. One could argue that it would be difficult to achieve this in a classroom of 40-50 students (which was the average class size in my K-12 years), but the truth is that a teacher or student rarely ever tried. The environment perpetuated a culture of passive acceptance and stifled one’s individuality and ability to even question the status quo. We did as we were told. Period. Having moved to the West since, I have struggled to develop an ability to think “out-of-box”, and question assumptions to make informed choices – qualities that I have felt a need for, that I have worked hard to acquire, that should have been nurtured through the formative years of schooling.
As a parent of 2 children aged 4 and 6, these past 3 years every time I have had to make school choices I have wrestled with the question “What type of school and education would be best for my children?” After our move to the Boston-area last year from Chicago where my older son had attended and absolutely thrived in a Montessori, (learnt to be fluent reader, while also learning a fair amount of writing and Math by the time he was 5), I sent him to kindergarten in Lexington Public School – a “high-ranking” school district in the state of Massachusetts. The school’s complete inability to recognize his individual abilities and further his academic skills and knowledge came as a shock and disappointment. In all fairness to the school, it did provide him with opportunities for social development. However, it failed in the most basic element of my purpose – of “enlightening” my son and helping him operate at his full intellectual potential. So, I was back to the drawing board - researching, soul-searching. While being a popular choice for pre-school, the Montessori approach is lesser known for grades beyond kindergarten. I realized that it took some courage to follow a path different from traditional schooling. But I finally reached the conclusion that Cambridge Montessori School was one that embodied my vision of what an elementary school ought to look like. In addition, the school, its teachers and classrooms embrace diversity in a manner I had not seen elsewhere. Being of Indian extraction, I felt it was important to have an atmosphere that would celebrate my son’s ethnicity and individuality.
Everything that I have seen, heard, read and experienced since have strengthened my belief that it was the right decision. I have heard the expression that students themselves are often the most compelling argument for (or against) the value of the type of education that their schools provide. My reaffirmation comes from watching my boy’s progress (intellectual and social) and the means by which this progress is being achieved. This paper will describe (with justifications presented concurrently) this small, Montessori, elementary school in terms of the 3 intertwined strands of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, as one that exemplifies my purpose of schooling. (I must add that by doing so, it is not my intention to imply that some traditional schools or other approaches to education cannot fulfill my purpose of schooling.)
The Montessori Approach
“The child should love everything that he learns, for his mental and emotional growths are linked.” This belief of Dr. Maria Montessori translates into “an individualized, educational approach, which aids the child to learn by doing at his or her own pace within a sequentially prepared, socially enriching environment that encourages creative learning” (Neubert, 1980). Some unique characteristics of this approach are: multi-age classrooms (6-9 years (grades 1 – 3), 9-12 years (grades 4 – 6), based on Dr. Montessori’s research of the developmental stages of a child); freedom of a child to choose his work; long work cycles (about 1-1/2 hours); the role of the teachers as a ‘guide on the side’; hands-on work with concrete manipulatives that are arranged in the classroom; mostly individual and small group work with some whole class activities; an integrated curriculum and portfolio assessment. In this environment children learn by doing, thus enlightenment is accomplished in an environment that promotes critical thinking. There are no textbooks (in the traditional sense), no rote memorization and regurgitation of facts (with a few exceptions, such as multiplication tables and sight words). The individualized approach of learning at one’s own pace treats each child as unique with his/her own unique needs and abilities. The freedom of movement and the self-directed activities cultivate a child’s sense of curiosity and self-confidence, and foster self-expression and creativity. By letting children think for themselves, they learn what they love and love what they learn. And also, quite literally, learn how to learn. The multi-age grouping means a child is not pegged to a grade (and curriculum) based on age. Group work here provides a rich environment for “lifelessons” in social skills. The respect afforded to a child in this environment, and the everyday lessons of courtesy and ethics, coupled with practical community service that is part of the curriculum instill values and build character. This, to me, is holistic development.
Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment
I began by devoting a separate section to each of these 3 aspects, but realized that in describing one I was often referring to aspects of the other two. I will therefore deal with all three together in the spirit of their interconnectedness.
“A large yellow scalene triangle” was a sentence constructed by my son as part of his language work that entailed making sentences using as many adjectives as he wanted to describe items he saw in box. The box contained different polygons of varied colors, sizes and materials. The Geometry section of the Math Area in the classroom currently contains various materials on triangles and other polygons and their distinguishing angular characteristics. In the artwork displayed on the walls outside the classroom, students have put together different polygons to form creative patterns. I was recently asked to do the traditional Indian art of “Rangoli” to share the celebration of Diwali (the most important of Indian festivals). The teachers were particularly excited because Rangoli involves the use of geometric patterns.
This is a simple example of the “integrated curriculum” approach that the school adopts. The subjects weave in and out of each other. This allows kids the latitude to explore a given topic or question from some vantage point that interests them. In Stirring the Chalkdust, (Wasley, 1994) the teachers observed that as they moved to this approach, they built a curriculum that “incorporated more choices for students”. Little surprise that it fits so naturally into the Montessori classroom. I concur with Wasley’s teachers’ opinions that “students need to have the capacity to understand the interconnected nature of knowledge, to unravel various aspects, and to combine pieces into complex wholes.” Such knowledge is more meaningful, allows for deeper understanding of the world and fits my definition of “enlightening” students.
Students explore the realms of Math, Science, Arts (art, music, foreign language), and Culture (literature, geography, history, anthropology and basic organization of human societies). Learning is a very hands-on experience through the use of materials presented in the classroom. The materials move from concrete to more abstract concepts, especially in Math, thus providing for a progression from visually represented concepts towards the ability to solve problems with pen and paper alone. Field trips are also an important part of the program, allowing for exploration beyond the classroom that extends classroom study.
The curriculum lays a huge emphasis on mastery of “basic” skills and core knowledge, and individually chosen research, in addition to broad curricular themes (that meet MA State frameworks). The basic skills resemble those in a traditional curriculum (such as math facts, spelling, study of vocabulary, grammar, creative and exposition writing, library research skills). Children here are taught how to get factual information and how to use it once they find it rather than spend time storing it in “short-term memories” (Wasley, 1994). Individual research encourages students to explore topics that they identify with and that capture their imagination, thus also allowing students to use entry points that suit their favored learning style or “intelligence” (Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory (Gardner, 1983)). Although the geography theme for the year is the North American continent, my son has found the time, resources and freedom to draw maps of India and her neighbors and also complete a “research paper” on the flag of India. Such an environment then leaves little room for any type of “culture of power” (Delpit, 1988) to play out. A Montessori, ipso facto, would encourage individual exploration in any type of school setting. This school would give a child from one of Anyon’s “working-class” schools the opportunity to explore the history of the American working class (Anyon, 1981). There are no prescribed textbooks (selected by someone far removed from the students’ lives) forcing a certain view of the subject on students.
The teacher in a Montessori classroom (which has no front or back) is trained to play the role of a ‘guide on the side’, rather than the ‘sage on the stage’. Given the integrated, hands-on nature of the curriculum described above, the teacher is not in the center or front, but moving around, observing and guiding, like a coach. The teacher is keenly tuned in to the unique personalities of her students and responds accordingly – a feat made possible by the intimate knowledge she/he has from being with each child for a 3-year period (seldom possible in a 1-year classroom relationship), and small class sizes. The teachers prepare the classroom with materials interesting to and appropriate for, their students. The classroom is a reflection of those within it.
When students voluntarily decide to learn something, they tend to engage in their work with a passion and attention that few students will ever invest in tasks that have been assigned. But this freedom comes with responsibility. Mastery of skills and knowledge considered “basic” is not negotiable. Montessori schools value a tradition of academic excellence that is transmitted to the students in the goals and expectations set by them and the teachers. The children work with a written work plan drawn for the day or week by the teacher (often with the child’s input) which lists the basic tasks they need to complete, while allowing them to decide how long to spend on each, what order they wish to follow. Beyond these, children have the freedom to explore topics of their interest. This empowers them to work at their potential.
Assessment of a child’s learning is done through close teacher observations and portfolios of student work maintained by the students and teachers. It resembles the authentic assessment being practiced by the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) in that students are assessed on “performances of understanding” that require engaging in experiments, conducting research, integrating and presenting knowledge rather than taking tests that focus on recall and recognition of facts (Darling-Hammond et.al, 1995). Progress reports prepared by the teachers are narrative and evaluate the student’s progress, current work, social development and mastery of basic skills. This is a culture that monitors student growth, focusing on change over time, and one that emphasizes shared responsibility for continual improvement (Wolf & White, 2000). Promotions are determined by an assessment of a child’s all-around growth, done by teachers and parents together.
Contrary to what one might imagine, children in this classroom who are allowed freedom of movement and choice, work amicably and productively together. The respect given to, and trust placed in, children to do what they feel right fosters a sense of responsibility. There is almost equal emphasis placed on individual and group work. There is also daily “circle time” when the teacher engages the class as a whole. These, along with the multi-age groupings provide ample opportunities for broad social development. The presence of peers of different ages and abilities builds a tolerance and appreciation of people’s differences. Such interactions contribute to character building and form the basis for responsible citizenship.
Montessori schools today are primarily small, private schools and as such are accountable not to the state but to parents. There is strong parental involvement that begins with education and buy-in of this approach. These schools go through grade 6 or 8, and ensure that they meet curricular goals set by the state. Limited research suggests that students graduating from these schools adapt well in traditional schools and perform well in standardized tests. Several public charter and magnet schools (of choice) have adopted the Montessori approach in recent years, and are accountable to the state. I cannot but see several similarities in this approach and that of the Coalition of Essential Schools. The transition of a Montessori student to a CES school would be much smoother than to a traditional school. Given that Dr. Montessori pioneered her work with mentally handicapped children and also worked successfully in the underserved sections of Rome lends support to the assumption that this approach would work for children with special needs (and it has indeed) and also in any socio-economic setting.
I would like to end this essay with a truism that deserves at least a mention when we talk of schooling and education. The onus of accomplishing the elements of my stated purpose (most everything besides the academics) lies not with the school alone, but to a large extent with the world outside the school. No school can succeed in its purpose if what it hopes to inspire in a child is not consistent with the way we as parents, neighbors, community and society behave with each other and towards our children. In Ted Sizer’s words, “children… learn much more outside of school than within it. The kids watch us all the time, learning from what they see, admiring (or not) what we do and how we do it, whether we are family members or neighbors or representations of people and places displayed in the media. If what is "outside" of school rewards a child and gives access to that which is valued within school, a symbiosis results.” (Sizer, 2000)
Anyon, J. (1981). Social class and school knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry.
Darling-Hammond, L., Ancess, J. & Falk, B. (1995). Authentic assessment in context: The
motivation for change. In Authentic assessment in action. New York: Teachers College Press.
Delpit, L. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Educational Review.
Gardner, Howard (1983), Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Graham, P. (1984). Schools: Cacophony about practice, silence about purpose. Daedulus.
Lightfoot, S.L. (1983). The good high school: Portraits of character and culture. New York: Basic Books.
Neubert, A. (1980). Is there an American Montessori model? In Montessori in Contemporary American Culture.(edited by Loeffler, M.).Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, Inc.
Perkins, David (1992). Smart Schools – Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: Free Press.
Sizer, Ted (2000). A Sense of Place. Boston Review. URL http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR24.6/sizer.html
Wasley, P. (1994). The interrelationship of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. In Stirring the Chalkdust. New York: Teachers College Press .
Wolf, D. & White, A. (2000). What do we mean by results: Charting the course of student growth. Educational Leadership.