Quantifying Observation

Observation has always been one of the primary tools—indeed, a hallmark—of the Montessori Method. Teacher preparation courses emphasize it. Montessori guides rely on their powers of observation on a daily basis to estimate when each student is likely to be ready for the next lesson, to be sensitive to unspoken emotional needs or to anticipate and resolve an impending crisis. Most of the “tools” of observation are the eyes, perceptiveness, and interpretive skills.

I asked the Institute for Guided Studies, where most of our teachers are prepared, about the extent of observation curriculum and practice. I learned that the first course for the Early Childhood (Primary) Director, of 45 contact hours, in teacher preparation, which we also use as the paraprofessional course for assistants, includes 6 hours of instruction on observation and 12 hours of practice observing and recording their observations. Three other courses (also of 45 hours) each include 12 more hours of the same work. During the internship adult learners spend 175 hours observing and recording. Small wonder observation is integral to the Montessori Method.

While I have complete confidence in the observation skills off the faculty, I recognize that in our “quantify-everything” culture we have difficulty sometimes communicating these observations into words that colleagues, parents, or special education professionals can understand. “Knowing” and “putting into words” are not the same thing, much in the way the beauty of da Vinci’s famous smile cannot be described in a satisfactory way.

In The Advanced Montessori Method I (1991) Dr. Montessori gave us a magnificent tool to track across the morning the degree of concentration of a child. Using descriptive terms for levels of concentration, an observer can graph at periodic intervals the degree of concentration to depict how any child concentrates, from a +3 (complete concentration) to -3 (complete distraction). We have not made the best use of the Interval Observation Tool for staffing reasons that will be resolved as a charter school, but simply by understanding how it works the faculty makes observations in that context.

Recently, however, MSC invested in more recent, iPad-based tools that allow us to measure what we do. Montessori professionals often speak of “normalization” in the classroom—the point where children are self-directed, self-regulated learners in a calm busy work environment. We know it when we see it, but until now we couldn’t measure it. The Developmental Environmental Rating Scale (DERS) allows us to do just that. Using an iPad with an application designed by the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, a certified observer can note the existence and frequency of environmental and behavioral qualities proven to support executive functions, linguistic and cultural fluency, and social-emotional development. The DERS software identifies 60 research-based environmental attributes as well as observable adult and student behaviors. This tool gives a classroom director valuable feedback that can confirm his or her own assessment as well as lead to changes in the classroom that can be measured by another assessment—providing a continual feedback loop to build classroom environments that continually improve. MSC engaged in the training for DERS in its pilot year, and several of our faculty members are among the first 80 certified DERS observers in the world and when we have completed the training six faculty members and a Board member will hold a certificate.

Linked closely with the classroom assessment tool is the Minnesota Executive Function Scale (MEFS). This tool changes the focus from the classroom to the individual child, assessing the foundations of early learning such as attention, memory, impulse control, and flexible thinking. It predicts school readiness, social functioning, academic achievement, socioeconomic status as an adult, and even mental and physical health. Personal point of view: these attributes are more important than math or language scores, and if we get them right the academic performance will follow naturally. MEFS was used by Dr. Angeline Lillard of the University of Virginia to confirm (what Montessorians already understood instinctively) that children in Montessori classrooms tend to have much more developed skills in these areas (Montessori: Science Behind the Genius, 2008) because they practice them every day. A trained MEFS observer can administer the iPad-based assessment to children ages 2 and older in about four minutes. We will use this tool in a diagnostic way, and will be able compare scores as each child ages, not only to give us measurable clues to a child’s personality but also to be able to share progress with parents.  Our faculty members are in the process of completing this training (I’m probably farthest behind) and will in the next few weeks be able to assess the level of executive function of each child in the school.

We’ve known what we were doing for many years. But we can sense a vast difference between, “my class is ‘normalized’” and “I’ve seen a 5 percent increase in the normalization since the beginning of the year.” With these new tools we will be much more precise and much more nimble as we move toward best practices and well-adjusted children.

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Headmaster: Dr. John Moncure

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