04 April 2008

Transforming Education: Step Two

In conversation, my Sandi commented on my last post about education. Along with her education in education and child development, Sandi got certified in Montessori. She said that regardless of what is taught, we have to think about how it is taught. What is usually lacking is a context, or purpose, for what is taught

Montessori pre-schools are hugely popular. One of the many concepts underlying her teaching methods is the notion that children learn better if they start out manipulating things and then extract from these things (beads, say) the abstract notions of numbers.

Montessori high schools are rare. One of the key concepts behind her design of learning for teenagers is the notion that they need a context for what they are learning. She recommends, for example, that they actually run a business part time, extracting from that day to day operation more abstract notions of math, value, and translating ideas into action, into product. Lacking such a context, it is hard to engage students. Those who learn in traditional classes do so in spite of the design of education, not because of it. (Imagine a road designed in such a way that it was in spite of, and not because of, the design that cars avoided collisions.)

Russell Ackoff, one of my heroes, made this profoundly interesting point about our application of the analytic model to our world. If you analyze a problem, you break it down to its constituent parts and then work with those. The problem we analyzed about 500 years ago was the problem of life. We broke it into pieces - learning, work, and play all made separate. We have playgrounds and coliseums for play, schools for learning, and factories and offices for work. If you are in the classroom, you ought not to play and you are not going to work, to do anything productive (teenagers running a business as a way to learn?). If you are on the playground, you are not going to learn anything.

Ackoff is a systems thinking advocate and pioneer. For him the next wave of progress will come from adopting a worldview that looks at wholes and the relationships between parts instead of using analysis to break our world into parts seemingly easier to manage and solve. Instead of institutions that separate out our different selves, we should be designing institutions that accommodate our humanity. Why should we live our lives as tools of our tools or institutions? Why not make these tools adapt to us?

And taking such an approach may well have a more profound impact on the transformation of education than adopting or emphasizing any one new subject of study.

[And no, I am not turning R World into an education blog. But sometimes, thoughts just come in clumps, no?]


Anonymous said...

It is not just a business that teenagers could use as a learning tool. We have an array of social problems that they could get to work on - from homeless people to drug babies to litter. These would not have to be business projects.

- Sandi

Anonymous said...

I've long thought that math should be taught in the science classroom, not as an independent subject. Teach algebra, trig, and calculus as it is needed to understand physics, chemistry, and astronomy.

I know for me a lot of mathematics didn't really click until I had a real-world example of how it worked.

slouching mom said...

funny, i've just written a post about montessori for the online magazine to which i contribute.

you are preaching to the choir. jack graduates from his montessori in june. if it went up to middle school, i'd keep him there. hell, if there were a montessori college, i'd be all over it.

i am cringing at the adjustments jack will need to make this fall as he makes the transition to public school. most of these adjustments will force a loss of the independence -- the academic independence, the freedom of movement -- he's gained and so prizes.

Ron Davison said...

I'll talk to you later (and how cool is that?)

you suggest to me that one of the problems with our current school system is that it has a bias towards kids who need no context. No wonder our best and brightest so often seem something less than best or bright.

you've touched on what is for me one of the most important things about something like Montessori - the autonomy it encourages. Ultimately, that is what we are after - self sufficient adults.

Lifehiker said...

I beg to differ with Ackoff, based on my own pattern of life.

Because I'm retired, I have pretty much total flexibility with my time. However, I separate my activities voluntarily. I work, I learn, I play, I socialize. Although there are some minor interactions between these activities, for the most part I am intentional about doing what I intended to do at a certain place and time. I don't see myself as being different from others with similar freedom, and I don't feel that I'm a tool of institutions, since almost everything I do is voluntary.

Even companies like Costco, which eliminated walls in its corporate headquarters, expect employees to work when at work, despite giving them the appearance of more freedom.

Classrooms are places to learn. There may be many ways to foster learning by making classrooms more free, creative, and interesting, but at the end of the day the object is to learn in that space.

Am I missing something?

HRH said...

The Montessori system is revolutionary because they have figured out that learning is three dimensional. Hands on object with tactile input is so much more effective then the traditional two dimensions of paper and pen or teacher lecturing student. If you get into the neurology of learning pathways in the brain it becomes obvious why so many students suffer from distraction and boredom. They are only partially engaged. For some kids this is tragic because they are sensory learners and end up labeled with diagnoses instead of engaged in a way they would learn. One of the pioneers in sensory integration therapy, Carol Kranowitz said that left to his own devices a kid would seek the activity that he needed. This explains why my boys willingly haul large buckets of the pea gravel under our playset to the top of the slide over and over again. For hours they do what I would consider hard work for their own pleasure because that is the experience their bodies are craving. The Montessori system gives children (within some guidelines) to seek their learning experience. What an amazing way to use all of the brain.

jennifer h said...

What Holly (HRH) said.

Anonymous said...

The current education system is much like the saying "When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." It's possible to hammer a screw into wood, but it's potential as a fastener is greatly diminished.

Yet this is exactly what happens to kids in school: if you learn well from words spoken/written, you will probably shine; if you learn from hands-on/physical experiences, you will probably be considered a problem/lacking ability - the system will say you have failed to learn, yet in reality, it is the system that has failed to learn other modalities of learning.

The pervasiveness of words in education even goes to the level of what type of person is typically drawn to the teaching profession - those that excel at learning from words...

The concept of play is so central to early learning and is likely what maintains engagement - yet play as a teaching tool is quickly dropped. Both students AND teachers, for the most part have lost their engagement.

And before engagement was dropped, passion for learning had to be bludgeoned into numbness with the almighty clock: the bell rings and whatever subject being studied is instantly dropped; the lesson is this: time is more important than any subject. Yet in the real world, so often success is tied to passion and drive, the ability to stay focussed in spite of time or distractions.

The concept of failure as a teaching tool is completely subverted by the current system: failure is a bad thing. Yet how many children learn to ride a bike (never mind learn to walk) without falling: failure is integral to the learning process. How many things do we never attempt for fear of failing? (A favourite saying: "Learn from your mistakes... but don't over do it!)

In many ways, the education system is a totally artificial environment unsuited to learning - kind of like learning to swim without access to water. How many times in life do we work with only people our own age? How many times in life do we have a textbook to study and the secure knowledge that the teacher has the answer key with the "right" answer? How many times in life is the job done once we have written about it? To paraphrase Steven Wright: "I'm in to very abstract art - no brush, no canvas, I just think about it" - or maybe we could just blog about life and consider the job done...

I think this is no longer a comment and can be officially considered a rant - let's hear it for passion!!!


Gypsy at Heart said...

During my early years of education, I went to a very traditional Catholic school. There, information was always imparted without the opportunity to question. Everything was the way the nuns said it was, and no other way. My sister, by contrast, enjoyed a very different early learning experience. She was put into a Montessori pre-school here in the US. What I remember of her at that time was a child who always came home with her hands full of the things she had created during school time, who constantly begged for the kinds of toys she could manipulate and build with and which her imagination transformed into the kinds of things that I, who was the older sibling, never seemed even capable of coming up with. My relative passivity in my growing up years, branded Alex as a "precocious" child by comparison. Now grown up, without a smidgen of a doubt, I can say that my sister's Montessori schooling, however limited (she only went up to first grade) formed a somewhat different individual than me. She was naturally outgoing, excelled at anything spatially related (Masters in Engineering), was gregarious in character, and to this day, she never ceases to amaze me with her ability to look at a situation from angles so different from my own. In adulthood, she won so many scholarships that she had her pick of the crop for her university education.

Now, I'm not saying that the incredible individual she is today is ALL the result of 2 years of Montessori schooling but, it does give pause for thought doesn't it that if asked, she still remembers her Montessori experience as the "best and most fun" she's ever had at a school. Viewed through the lens of time, I can't help but wonder at how important a learning foundation the Montessori method afforded her. Unlike me, she almost always approached the opportunity to learn with bright-eyed eagerness. For my part, I remember constantly having to be prodded into it.