Monday, March 8, 2010

Applying Montessori principles in our home, part 1

I've been reading Montessori: The Science behind the Genius by Angeline S. Lillard. It pulls together various studies to determine how some of Maria Montessori's educational philosophies have been validated by recent science. The eight principles covered in the book are the following (from p. 29):

1) that movement and cognition are closely entwined, and movement can enhance thinking and learning;
2) that learning and well-being are improved when people have a sense of control over their lives;
3) that people learn better when they are interested in what they are learning;
4) that tying extrinsic rewards to an activity, like money for reading or high grades for tests, negatively impacts motivation to engage in the activity when the reward is withdrawn;
5) that collaborative arrangements can be very conducive to learning;
6) that learning situated in meaningful contexts is often deeper and richer than learning in abstract contexts;
7) that particular forms of adult interaction are associated with more optimal child outcomes; and
8) that order in the environment is beneficial to children.

It's fairly easy to apply the first principle in our own home--dd5 moves around a lot, so I let her. No school desks here. Any written lessons requiring a table are done while we sit (sometimes standing or wiggling for her) in various positions at the coffee table. I only admonish her to stay still when she has a word to read and, due to wiggling, is not even looking in the direction of the book. She must have a lot of excess energy, so why not let her move her body? It's not like she is disrupting a classroom full of other students.

The discussion of studies showing increased interest in and performance of freely-chosen activities was eye-opening. I am going to increase the amount's of choice in dd5's day. Until now, I've been requiring a small amount of formal academic time in the morning before she is free to choose her own activities. She used to be happily energetic in learning during that time, but she has definitely been losing motivation to work for even twenty minutes. So today I put the schoolbooks out on the table and didn't force her to do the work. As a result, she has only done her work in one of the four subject areas so far. It's only 11:30 a.m., though. I'll gently suggest we do the rest of the work throughout the day and see how that goes. In the meantime, she has dusted the living room (of her own initiative), read a story to dd3, made a tent, and started cutting up a box to make a boat.

The third principle helps me understand why "unschooling" can be so effective. While I accept as a premise that people learn better when they're interested in a subject, I think the studies cited here didn't adequately take into account the contribution of prior knowledge to learning performance. Knowing something about a subject both lessens the amount of working memory required to process new information about that subject and seems to increase the likelihood of finding that subject interesting. After all, don't your eyes skim right over headlines that deal with places you've never been and topics you've never learned about? Mine do. In helping my daughters obtain good educations, I need to make sure that--regardless of interest level--they have wide exposure to all kinds of topics, and then I should let them seek deep subject matter knowledge about subjects they find interesting.

I am still in the middle of the chapter on the fourth principle, but I am finding lots of food for thought. Apparently, rewards and evaluation tend to negatively impact motivation and performance. While I'm happy to see that I don't need to feel guilty for not giving my children gold star stickers for accomplishing tasks, I realize now that I could do even less to artificially motivate (i.e., bribe) them. Another interesting concept is that I actually hinder my children's learning to mastery by interrupting their work to praise, evaluate or even observe them.
Montessori said

Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched....The great principle which brings success to the teacher is this: as soon as concentration has begun, act as if the child does not exist.

I know I always hated to have my mother listen to me practice singing when I was internally motivated to sing a piece well. Her compliments were just as unwelcome as her constructive criticism--after all, I wasn't doing it for her. I think I need to apply that lesson to my own mothering style by being more "hands-off".


  1. My youngest, 6, I started making a check list of various things we do for academics and letting him pick which three we will do today. That helps sometimes. Its hard to do much academics without me when he's just an emerging reader, but he does like time4learning a lot, and thats totally independent, and he's starting to be willing to do some of the HWOT alone, as well.

    Also, sometimes I find they do better if the academics are interspersed with other things - some academics, then some play, then some academics, then a walk, then lunch, then a little more academics.

    I'm curious to hear more about #7! But then again . . . i'm usually struggling just to keep my head above water, changing the way I interact could be tricky. Tho I've been working on my parenting for 18 years now (before my first was born), you'd think i'd've figured some of it out by now.

  2. Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity. It seems a strange thing to say, but this can happen even if the child merely becomes aware of being watched.. ??

  3. Montessori practice is to have children work independently (and later in peer groups) at learning tasks. The teacher tells/shows what is to be done to complete the task then steps back and doesn't interfere.