What do you think is the state of education in your community? In our country? What was your experience with school?
Real quick open a new tab and type in the words “school makes me” … and take a look at the Google search predictions. Is this what you also found?
In his TED talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley,” Sir Ken Robinson tell us that, “in some parts of the country, 60% of kids drop out of highschool.” Thankfully, the graduation rates have increased since Sir Robinson gave his talk a few years ago. But as he points out, the dropout rate is only part of the problem. What about all the kids who are still in school and hating it? Is our education system helping these kids truly reach their potential? Do kids flourish in school? Does our education system allow life to flourish, or is it a valley of death?
Three Conditions for the Flourishing of Life
In his talk, (which is actually really humorous) Sir Robinson outlines three principles he believes are necessary for human life to flourish. These are individuality, curiosity, and creativity. Once we see how necessary these principles are we can have a better idea of what good education looks like, and we can see how a certain method, the Montessori method, offers a path forward for good education. Let’s take a look.
“Human beings are naturally different and diverse.” Yes, we have the same nature. But do we have the same talents? Do we have the same interests? Current education operates as though we do. The same standardized tests are used to evaluate the intelligence of students, but these tests cover only language, math, and science, and so they can only measure intelligence in these areas. And all to often, teachers teach ‘to the test.’ They focus only on language, math, and science. Are these subjects important? Of course they are. But what about kids who are not good at math or science? Does this mean they are not intelligent, or that they cannot flourish? What about artistic and physical intelligence? Sir Robinson says that “the arts aren’t just important because they improve math scores, they’re important because they speak to parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched.”
“The arts are important because the speak to parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched.”
– Sir Ken Robinson
Education must reflect all the diverse gifts of humanity if it is to help all human life to flourish.
Humans are made to learn, this is one thing we all have in common. The more we truly learn, the more we grow, and the more we flourish. And what is the one thing that always drives us to learn? Interest. Curiosity. Sir Robinson calls it, “the engine of achievement.” While many teachers do strive to engage their students, to keep them interested, the final importance is placed on compliance. ‘If I can’t find a way to get this child interested in his numbers worksheet then too bad he’ll just have to sit and do it anyways.’ The result is that curiosity is stifled and the child, instead of growing to love learning, learns to hate school.
Human life is creative. Both Sir Robinson and Maria Montessori speak of the unique human ability to create one’s own life. Sir Robinson says, “We all create our own lives through this restless process of imagining alternatives and possibilities, and what one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop these powers of creativity. ” Creativity is not awakened through most ‘creative exercises.’ You cannot tell a child to sit at a desk with a pencil and paper and come up with something creative. True creativity is based upon rich experiences and is awakened through freedom. Not through compliance.
Sir Robinson concludes his talk (which ya know what just go listen to it right now and then come back. It is just so so good.) by encouraging us that given the right conditions, life will flourish. It has to. It is like a dormant seed, waiting.
How Montessori Can Help Change the Climate of Education
Montessori education, for those who are not familiar, is a beautiful method developed by Dr. Maria Montessori nearly 100 years ago. It is based upon the philosophy that each child contains the seed of development within himself, and that this seed will flourish given the right environment.
Sounds a lot like what Sir Robinson was talking about, doesn’t it?
In fact, I believe that the Montessori method fulfills perfectly the three requirements for the flourishing of life.
Montessori and Individuality
One of the first Montessori phrases you hear is, “follow the child.” What it means is, follow this child, observe this child, use your knowledge about human nature in general to help you attend to this child, right in front of you. What interests him? What is she good at? How does he express himself? What seems to frustrate her?
Montessori lessons do follow a basic, brilliant plan, with the next lesson following the last in a particular order. Yet it is up to the teacher to observe each child, to see when he is ready for each lesson, to present it in a way that is interesting to that child, and to suggest following exercises that he might like. For example, the teacher sees that a child is ready for a lesson on non-phonetic words, or puzzle words. The teacher can invite the child help choose a poem that interests her, and gives the lesson through a fun game involving the child and the poem. If the child is competent with a pencil and paper, she can practice writing out the poem, if she wants. Or if she is not competent with a pencil and paper, she can use movable alphabet letters to spell out the new words she just learned. Or she she can simply look at the words in the poem. It all depends on what that child is ready for.
Another way that Montessori encourages individuality is through freedom. A Montessori classroom is set up so that each child is free to choose his own work, provided he has been given a lesson on it. Available work includes painting, mathematical games, books, hammering, sorting, spelling with the movable alphabet, molding clay, etc. This encourages the children to work on tasks that develop their own unique gifts.
Montessori and Curiosity
Another Montessori phrase is “invite the child.” A Montessori classroom is designed to be as enticing as possible. Each material is beautiful and in perfect condition. Each material is treated as if it were a treasure. When giving a lesson, the teacher invites the child “to see something”, using expressions like, “I have something to show you.” This piques the curiosity of the child: what could it be?
Many lessons give the child an introduction, or a key, to a world that is their’s to explore. For example, the Botany cabinet shows the child several leaf shapes, and he is invited to trace them and work with them and explore them. He is invited to look at the trees in his yard to see what shapes he finds in their leaves. But they child is not given the name or shape of every single leaf in the world. He is given just enough to interest him, and he is allowed the excitement of discovery when he finds that the leaves in his yard have a whole different shape than the leaves at school!
This joy in discovery is given space in every subject in the Montessori classroom. In math, the child is allowed to discover the connection between addition and subtraction. He is encouraged to read about whatever interests him. The teacher never gives the answer, but she does give the key to find the answer.
Montessori and Creativity
I mentioned above that Montessori believes that each child creates himself. He takes in what his environment offers him, and uses it to shape his personality and character. If his environment is rich, he will have a wealth of experiences to draw upon. If he is allowed to make choices, he will develop the will that he needs to draw upon these experiences, “to imagine alternatives and possibilities.” It is this double team of reality and freedom that gives rise to creativity.
A Montessori environment surrounds the child with reality, in all its goodness. There are colors, and smells, and textures. The books are about real stories, real animals, real countries. The child is invited to examine his surroundings, to act upon them, to draw similarities and notice distinctions. These experiences stay with the child and shape the child, forming the base for imagination and creativity.
A Montessori environment also allows the child freedom. Not freedom in the sense of ‘do whatever you want,’ but rather the freedom to make good choices, to choose between this lovely book and that interesting numbers game, to choose between apples and carrots for snack, to choose whether to join an activity or to watch. By making choice after choice, the child develops his will and becomes more and more able to act consciously upon what he has absorbed from the environment. And thus conscious creativity is born.
Was that an earful or what? If you can’t tell, I am very passionate about education, and about Montessori education in particular. I find it so fascinating in the way that it appreciates individuality, instills curiosity, and develops true creativity. It is rightly called an education for life.
What do you think a good education looks like? Have you experienced individuality, curiosity or true creativity in an educational setting? What else can we do to encourage true growth in our schools and homes?
I truly want to hear your thoughts. Go, shoot.