Montessori and Educational Innovation

June 7, 2017

Some days astonishment takes my breath away. Pundits often write and speak about education, describing methods we have used at The Montessori School of Camden for 38 years, and which has been known as the “Montessori Method” for over 110 years, as if they are new ideas without even a nod to the genius of Dr. Maria Montessori.

Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews, for all I know, sent his children to a Montessori school. But his article last Saturday doesn’t show it. His column describes “mastery learning,” a program used in Washington, D.C. schools that allows students to work at their own pace. A high school teacher there, Rob Barnett, recorded all of his lessons, put them online, and let each student move through them at his or her own pace. “They must show they understand one topic before advancing to the next,” he said. “I think of myself not so much as a teacher but as a facilitator of inquiry.” Sound familiar?

Matthews admits, “This method is not new,” but instead of spelling the name we all know should be spilling out of his computer, he attributes it to a Virginia high school that tried it 20 years earlier. I’m sure they did, and even if they never heard of Montessori, either, addressing the same problem –that is, the unbelievably obvious fact that all children are not the same and learn at different paces (and, for that matter, in different ways—thank you Dr. Gardner, author of the concept of multiple intelligences)—they came up with the solution Dr. Montessori had pioneered 90 years before them. That’s over three human generations.

The article should have been about the news that an innovative teacher in the District (who even sounds like a Montessori-educated person) who used mastery learning for his students. Instead, it was about the fact that in Michigan, where the law allows educators to recognize the essential individual nature of the learning process (though not necessarily that of the teaching process), a very bright child who was between three and five years ahead of her peers through on-line math and science courses was forbidden to take Spanish 2 (which the twelve-year old thought would be fun and a nice break from 11th grade math!) and forced her to sit in the library for an hour a day. Why? The school district wouldn’t tell the columnist so we are left to imagine.

Who did it first matters. What would the people in the tall offices in Stuttgart say if a marketing guy at Ford announced that founder Henry had invented the automobile? How would a mother react if her child’s pediatrician casually mentions that he had discovered a way to prevent polio? Ignorance is not an excuse. Anyone taking on the mantle of teacher—in this case a newspaper columnist telling readers something they presumably don’t know—has a duty to look for origins in the subject. Each step in evolutionary think deserves recognition, but to imply that one hovers in the air instead of standing on the shoulders of previous innovators is either academically sloppy or just plain dishonest.

We can get cranky about this, but we shouldn’t. Instead, every time we hear someone applaud an academic innovation—multi-age classrooms, appropriate-size furniture, self-directed learning, recognition of multiple intelligences, embedded lessons, self-correcting didactic materials (just to name a few)—concepts that Dr. Montessori introduced before World War One, we should point out firmly that these “innovations” have been practiced, refined, and in many cases perfected through over a century of work in Montessori classrooms.

My proposal sounds easy but doesn’t always work. I experienced this a few years ago when I read a guest column in the local thrice-weekly Camden paper. The writer was decrying the problems in public education and called for new models to replace schools that are “failing our children.” I took two steps: first, I wrote a companion piece for the paper, pointing out that a new model exists, but the good news is that it’s not new! The publisher refused to print it—the only piece I have ever written that was not published—on the grounds that the piece benefitted my school. (He didn’t recognize that it would also have benefitted the children of our region if it moved the school district to embrace Montessori.) Not normal journalistic practice according to a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist friend of mine. So I was silenced in town (and published it in a bi-weekly two towns over).

Then I wrote to the author. In a very friendly response he agreed with me and said he had sent his children to a Montessori school in Charleston. Why didn’t he say so in the article? Not wanting to confront him, I didn’t ask. Besides, I was pretty sure I knew why: with a resonance to Montessori education, perhaps he hoped readers would increase the cry for “new models” and Montessori would have been discovered.

Montessori professionals need to be circumspect but persistent. We hold a beautiful instrument in our hands and have a duty to share it, even with those who won’t listen. Please look forward to another blog where I will explore appropriate ways to share our gift with others. And if you have any suggestions, please reply to msc@montessori-camden.com. Excuse me while I climb down from my soapbox.

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