October 7, 2006

Leapers, Plodders, and My Montessori Odyssey

I've been reading again (everybody look out!) Since I've been starting the whole preschool-at-home thing, I wanted to look into the most famous preschools there are, namely, Montessori. I knew nothing about it except that it's supposed to be cool. I know a lot more now, and it *is* cool, but there are some things that really make me cringe.

I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so let's take a look at the baby (undeniably, unqualified good), the soap (some good, some that make me choke), and the bathwater (past its prime, at the least).

The baby: Maria Montessori had the radical good idea that all children, given the right opportunities, are capable of learning. ALL children. What a concept! She first championed the idea of centering learning activities on the children themselves; coming from an era of Dickensian schools (see Hard Times for details), this was both amazing and a saving grace for children everywhere. She also advocated kinesthetic learning, and to the extent that most little kids can't hold still, that is also a plus (more on it below, however, in soap). Those three things can be seen nowadays in almost any preschool worth its salt, "Montessori based" or not. That's a pretty good baby.

The soap: Montessori demanded that "nothing be given to the brain, which was not first given to the hands." This is the rationale behind the famous sandpaper letters: children first trace, feel the letters, before they attempt to create them themselves. As with so many of her ideas, I think this one is great...if only we could eliminate that restrictive qualifier, "nothing." That pretty well sums up all the soap, in fact: there are so many restrictions in terms of how to teach that I find myself irritated everytime I read another book about practice.

Matt and I have come up with our own classification of learning types, which don't necessarily connect to any of the standard personality profilers: there are leapers, and there are plodders (in case you're wondering, we don't really see a link to intelligence there, either; there are smart people of both kinds). Plodders go step-wise through their learning, building on previous knowledge, dutifully doing all their story problems in math, reading everything they're assigned, and know things thoroughly before moving on. Leapers are annoying (I would know! ;-) ) in that they do just that: they leap. Over some of the details, over some of the practice, over some of the useful information, and on to--somehow--intuitively grasping the knowledge, or at least as much as is needed for the moment. I'm a leaper. Matt's a leaper. Laura is a leaper by all indications; it's a little early to tell with Emily. The reason I mention this is that I think the Montessori strictures are very well suited to plodders. Some of them work for leapers, and some of them....don't.

The standard instruction process, from all I've read, for every Montessori lesson goes like this:
1. Direct instruction/demonstration. "Watch me!"
2. Guided practice. "Now you try. I can help."
3. Independent practice. "Go for it, however long you want."
This is great for things like, say, potty training. Definitely a "monkey-see, monkey-do" sort of thing. But there are also an awful lot of things that Laura has already learned through osmosis (and I imagine everyone does--as long as we're alive and awake, we're capable of learning) without any special direct instruction or drawing of attention to things. I can also think of several other kinds of instruction that can be effective. But good little Montessorians stick to the script. And that's just another reason for this to be soap: it doesn't take very much to draw a straight line between this sort of thinking and the horrible drive to "script" more and more of public school learning. It's not that the scripts themselves are evil, it's that they're not flexible (well, and of course, they're sort of insulting to the intelligence of the teachers who have to use them....). Who cares if there was a school shooting yesterday? The script says today we talk about Dickens. Etc. All of this leaves a sort of soapy taste in my mouth.

The bathwater: since Maria Montessori was doing her research and coming up with her theories and practices, there's been almost a century of exploration in neuroscience and learning styles. Nothing I have been reading--even those books published in the last five years or so--takes any of that into account. NOTHING. Since the authors of the books have all--to a person--taken a downright didactic tone (i.e., "You must do this; you must absolutely, positively, NOT do this, or terrible things will be learned that will just have to be corrected later." And we're not just talking about TV here, either.) it just blows my mind that they can ignore Howard Gardner, among others. (He's the guy who started the discussion about multiple intelligences.) Suddenly, the idea that kinesthetic learning is "the" way to go doesn't sound so hot. What if you're dealing with someone who's a strong verbal learner? Sure, you're still going to sing and dance with them, and maybe even give 'em fuzzy letters to fondle, but maybe they might be able to learn one or two things just by hearing about them?

In addition, as a teacher I tend to be a constructivist. Though there are several versions of this philosophy, I think a good shorthand for my position is "audience participation." I'm not much of a "sage-on-the-stage" as a teacher (though obviously I know how to lecture). I like the idea that people tend to internalize and retain more knowledge if they struggle while learning it. (That's probably why I remember "Ute"; I did take a Pacific Northwest History course, but I didn't really imprint with that word until I started doing crosswords: there aren't that many three-letter words beginning with 'u' that answer the clue, "Native American"). So I like to see students wrestle with problems; I like to have students write questions instead of just answering them; I like to make meaning with students, taking into account where they are and helping them get further, instead of just checking off my list of things I'm supposed to teach (even if they already know all the things on the list, and/or aren't ready yet for some of them). All of this has solid research behind it--not proclaiming itself to be the *only* way to fly, but certainly a valid and useful way to teach. What do the Montessorians say? Direct instruction, guided practice, independent practice. I can't help but think that Madame Maria would be rolling in her grave if she realized how much better they could be doing if only they'd loosen up a little and admit that perhaps we know more about learning now than she possible could have back in the early 20th century. Murky bathwater.

So, would I send my kid to a "Montessori-based preschool"? Sure, if I needed to. I don't think they're doing anyone irreparable harm, and there are--as I've noted--many things they do right and well. On the other hand, I sincerely hope that the people who extoll the legacy of Montessori will bend way over and remove the foreign matter from their rear orifices before writing any more books. It stinks!

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