Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Applying Montessori principles in our home, part 2

I finally finished reading Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, by Angeline S. Lillard. It is a meaty book filled with discussion of many interesting ideas and studies.

Chapter 6 deals with learning from peers. In Montessori schools, children are grouped together in 3-year age groupings (e.g., ages 3-6, 6-9, etc.), and they are free to interact with each other in constructive ways as they work on various learning tasks. The research cited by the author indicates that children are more likely to imitate peers than adults, so younger children gain by being able to observe and copy slightly older pupils. I've been amused to note how my dd3 wants to do everything she sees dd5 doing, so I don't doubt the research findings on this point. Unfortunately for children in traditional schools, they are nearly always with peers of exactly the same age until they hit high school, which means they have only each other to imitate instead of being regularly exposed to slightly older, more advanced children.

This chapter discusses peer tutoring, which is naturally part of a Montessori education as the pupils can interact and the teacher can't work with every student individually all the time. From the research presented, it appears that more effective tutoring happens when the tutoring is specific and structured (Montessori tasks are very structured) and done by peers who are just a bit more advanced than the tutees. Peer tutoring is something that is already being incorporated in traditional schools, but my impression from anecdotes and parental complaints over the years is that its usefulness in that setting is hindered by children's ego issues (at least where tutor and tutee are of the same age) and lack of mastery by the child tutor.

The last part of the chapter focuses on collaborative learning. I admit, I'm not a fan of collaborative learning for younger children. I recognize its usefulness when dealing with adults or advanced students who have learned some material on their own already, but I don't think younger pupils in traditional US schools have enough in their heads to make group work worth the time it takes. Perhaps my negative attitude towards group work comes from the first major group project I ever did, a "Pharaoh project" in my sixth grade class for which much of the grade came from making a life-size stuffed-pantyhose dummy of our assigned Pharaoh; I had a traumatic experience trying to make the stupid thing myself late at night only to realize when they were all displayed that most other groups had clearly had their Pharaohs made by mothers, not sixth graders. (Also, I got a "C" on the project, and that was after the mother of one of my team members remade the dummy. Grrr.) Or maybe my negative attitude towards collaborative learning comes from remembering how in school I often felt like I was doing most of the work for the group and wondering what the point was of other children receiving credit for work they didn't do and didn't understand.

Interestingly, according to Lillard, collaborative learning becomes more beneficial with age; she says it appears not to provide much benefit before age 5. Other factors that affect whether collaborative learning helps include children's level of usage of interpretive statements, readiness to learn the task being taught, and the degree of friendship among collaborators. The freedom of the Montessori class setup allows children to choose to work in self-chosen groups on tasks for which they are ready. However, traditional schools do not have this freedom, and Lillard reports that some studies have found that "performance under no-reward conditions is no better than in whole-class teaching arrangements." (p. 219) Since my oldest child is now five, I expect I will have the chance occasionally to observe her learning in self-chosen groups, and maybe I will grow to appreciate collaborative learning in such optimal conditions. For now, though, I am not bothered by the fact that as a mostly-homeschooled child, she will be spared regular, mandatory group projects for the next few years.

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