Superwoman Was Already Here

This is a guest post by Daniel Petter-Lipstein (bio at bottom). I “met” Daniel through blogging, and we got into some spirited, fascinating conversations about education. His children attend a Montessori school, and I was interested to learn more about the Montessori model and how it was working for his family. I asked him to write a guest post about it, and he sent me this fabulously thorough, characteristically eloquent, and clever piece in response:

Superwoman was already here.

And she gave us a superb educational model to end the “Race to Nowhere.”

Her name was Dr. Maria Montessori and in the first half of the 20th century she pioneered and refined the Montessori method of education. Today, there are over 17,000 Montessori schools worldwide including thousands of preschools in the USA and hundreds of Montessori schools in the U.S. at the K-8 level.

My children go to a private Jewish Montessori school in New Jersey called Yeshivat Netivot Montessori. After five years as a parent at Netivot, I now believe quite deeply that it is a national tragedy that Montessori is largely deemed to be an educational option only for privileged kids from families that can afford tuition at a progressive private school.

Millions more American children deserve access to a Montessori education.

There are about 350 public Montessori schools in the United States, a number that is shamefully small.

I am not writing to explain, “What is Montessori?” There are several good books, lots of internet videos and numerous websites to answer that question.

But I do want to offer three reasons* Why I love Montessori and believe that millions more American children could benefit from this extraordinary approach to teaching and learning:

1. Curiosity

In a Montessori classroom, questions matter more than answers and a child’s natural curiosity is welcomed, not shunned.

Newsweek ran an article last summer about America’s “creativity crisis” with this striking paragraph (emphasis mine):

“Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. Why, why, why—sometimes parents just wish it’d stop. Tragically, it does stop. By middle school they’ve pretty much stopped asking. It’s no coincidence that this same time is when student motivation and engagement plummet. They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.

(some kids getting all Montessori with shapes. source)

In a Montessori school, this dynamic does not happen because teachers “follow the child” and are always encouraging the kids to ask questions. The Montessori method cares far more about the inquiry process and less about the results of those inquiries, believing that children will eventually master–with the guidance of their teachers and the engaged use of the hands-on Montessori materials which control for error–the expected answers and results that are the focus of most traditional classroom activity.

My daughter’s lower elementary teacher (Montessori classes are typically multi-age, lower elementary is grades 1-3 together) recently told me that a few kids in her classroom were learning about the triangle and they asked “Can a triangle have more or less than 180 degrees?” In classic Montessori style, the teacher turned the question back on them and said, “Use the hands-on geometric materials and try and make an actual triangle that is more or less than 180 degrees.” So the children have their question honored and arrive at the proper answer by themselves.

This story also highlights the role of a teacher in a Montessori classroom as being a “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.”

(can you believe that I found this on the internet? source)

In a world where the amount of information is doubling every 2.5 years (with much of it available at the click of a mouse) and where the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not even exist in 2004, encouraging kids to ask good questions and giving them life-long tools to investigate those questions is far more important than instructing  them on how to produce correct responses. Even if those answers require some level of complexity, they are generally still straight-forward and predictable, which hardly prepares them for a world whose path is increasingly winding and unknown.

The culture of inquiry that is the hallmark of a good Montessori school is also a critical foundation for the creativity and innovation that America will need to compete in the 21st century. In December 2009, the Harvard Business Review published an article called, “The Innovator’s DNA” based on a six-year study of 3,000 creative executives including visionaries like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Ebay’s Pierre Omidyar and Meg Whitman, and P&G’s A.G. Lafley. In an accompanying interview (with two of the three authors of the study) entitled How Do Innovators Think?”, one of the professors that conducted the study noted (emphasis mine)

“We also believe that the most innovative entrepreneurs were very lucky to have been raised in an atmosphere where inquisitiveness was encouraged. We were struck by the stories they told about being sustained by people who cared about experimentation and exploration. Sometimes these people were relatives, but sometimes they were neighbors, teachers or other influential adults. A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity. To paraphrase the famous Apple ad campaign, innovators not only learned early on to think different, they act different (and even talk different).”

2. No Homework

(source)

Many parents ask themselves, “If my child is spending six, seven or eight hours in school, why does she get so much homework?” If she were alive today, Dr. Maria Montessori would definitely be asking the same question.

My children do not have any daily homework at their Montessori school. While this varies at Montessori schools, most Montessori schools do not give kids any kind of daily homework. They may have research projects or long-term book reports (as do the students at my daughters’ Jewish Montessori school), but no daily homework.

The effectiveness of the Montessori approach usually obviates the need for homework. As one father in our school noted to me, “My 7 year-old was in a traditional school last year and he learns more in a day at this Montessori school than he did in a month at his regular school.” Since children in a high-quality Montessori school learn mostly by doing and by using as many of their senses as possible, in-school time is extremely productive and there is little or no requirement for homework to review and/or build upon their daily in-school lessons.

Without the crushing burden of homework that most American kids face each night, kids in a Montessori school are free to do whatever they like after school: play outside, watch TV, read, participate in sports, etc. The daily emotional battles over homework that most parents know all too well are also largely eliminated.

And homework is a waste of time. The research has shown consistently that homework at the grade school level has virtually no correlation with academic achievement. See this article from Time magazine which summarizes the leading research.

3. Calm and Peaceful Classroom Environment

Good Montessori classrooms have a sense of calm and order that is amazing; a setting where all kids are consistently engaged throughout the day in activities that they find meaningful and fun. We are starting to fully grasp how critical this type of environment is for learning and development, regardless of age. In the past three decades, there has been an explosion of important research that documents the connections between stress levels and the ability of a person to function and thrive, whether it be at home, work or school.

In a wonderful new book called “Brain Rules for Baby” by Dr. John Medina, a brain scientist, some of this research is examined and explored. Dr Medina, in a chapter on how to raise a smart child writes:

First, I need to correct a misconception. Many well-meaning moms and dads think their child’s brain is interested in learning. That is not accurate. The brain is not interested in learning. The brain is interested in surviving. Every ability in our intellectual tool kit was engineered to escape extinction. Learning exists only to serve the requirements of this primal goal. It is a happy coincidence that our intellectual tools can do double duty in the classroom, conferring on us the ability to create spreadsheets and speak French. But that’s not the brain’s day job. That is an incidental byproduct of a much deeper force: the gnawing, clawing desire to live to the next day. We do not survive so that we can learn. We learn so that we can survive.

This overarching goal predicts many things, and here’s the most important: If you want a well-educated child, you must create an environment of safety. When the brain’s safety needs are met, it will allow its neurons to moonlight in algebra classes. When safety needs are not met, algebra goes out the window. Roosevelt’s dad held him first, which made his son feel safe, which meant the future president could luxuriate in geography.”

In Montessori classrooms, the methodology of engaging with children, the approach of the teachers and the way those teachers are trained all help build and foster this environment of safety where children can learn and flourish.

CONCLUSION

My commitment to my Jewish identity means that my kids need to go to a Jewish school so they can learn deeply about Judaism and their Jewish heritage. Every day I wake up grateful that an awesome Jewish Montessori school exists five minutes from my house in New Jersey.

But I am also an American who loves his country and cares deeply about all her children and their future, which of course will largely determine America’s future.

Our public education system needs radical transformation. Every child has gifts and talents that should be nurtured and we are wasting vast oceans of human ability and potential with our current system.

There are no silver bullets and I do not want to suggest that if every child went to a Montessori school, all of our educational challenges would be solved. Not every child is right for a Montessori school and Montessori is not right for every child.

But Montessori can be a great educational experience for many, many more American children and I urge all parents to spend two hours visiting a high-quality Montessori school, one that is certified by either the American Montessori Society (AMS) or Association Montessori Internationale (AMI)-USA.

There are an increasing number of public and charter Montessori schools. If your children do not live near one, then organize with other parents to demand that this approach be offered as an option in your school district. Get in touch with people from other cities who have found a way to provide this option to their children in a public school setting.

Superwoman arrived over 100 years ago and showed us how extraordinary school can be for all types of children. It is up to all of us to carry on her legacy and work. America’s children deserve nothing less.

(source)

*  *  *

Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein is the father of three children that thrive at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori, a Jewish Montessori school in NJ. He graduated from Harvard College and Columbia Law School and after a decade still finds satisfaction as a lawyer, though he sometimes wishes he could just take a month off and audit his daughters’ 4-6th grade upper elementary class where they are learning concepts like stellar nucleosynthesis and studying the history of marbles and creating their own marble games.

Additional notes from Daniel: The views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own. Not a single phrase, word or comma of this article was reviewed or approved by Yeshivat Netivot Montessori, AMS, AMI-USA or the Montessori Doughnut Plaza I plan to open in Laughing Waters, NY when I retire.

This article is dedicated in gratitude to Trevor Eissler, Montessori Dad and author of Montessori Madness, the best introduction and overview of Montessori available today (in my humble opinion). Thank you Trevor, for teaching me to embrace and cultivate my passion as a Montessori Dad.

*These are not the only three, just the ones that came together in my head as I wrote this article. There are dozens more, but Kate asked for an article/blog post, not a treatise, and she is my friend, so I listen to her.

33 comments to Superwoman Was Already Here

  • [...] Guest post from a really smart dad about the Montessori schools, over at Un-schooled. [...]

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Akevy Greenblatt and middlegrdreads, davidwees. davidwees said: Superwoman Was Already Here (and her name was Maria #Montessori) http://bit.ly/hgu5jc #edchat #unschooling [...]

  • Thank you for this insightful post – it made me wish that I had attended a Montessori school. I agree wholeheartedly with the points you made. It’s really such a shame that so many kids lose interest in school because it fails to capture the creativity and intuitive nature that people of all ages, especially young children, seek from the world.

    My favorite class I’ve taken was my 8th grade geometry class – it was incredibly challenging, but delightfully intuitive and highly visual. It felt tangible, something that I could touch and rearrange and change with my own hands. Now in my spare time, I try to create delightful geometry to share with the people around me, in the hope that I can inspire some of their interest, too. Everyone has a wealth of inquisitivity and creativity within them–even if years of uneffective classes have set those qualities dormant, as long as they are presented with inspirational material, their interest can be sparked again.

  • This post is great! It touches on some very important issues in education today.

    Curiosity – You said it here: “encouraging kids to ask good questions and giving them life-long tools to investigate those questions is far more important than instructing them on how to produce correct responses.” As a fourth grade teacher, I feel like the opportunities to allow my students this type of learning on a consistent basis is limited. The curriculum pressures of the district, state and nation are looming and so many teachers feel the need to teach rather than facilitate. It’s sad, really.

    Homework – I am a huge proponent of no HW! It does not do much good. In fact, you are right that is causes more stress in families than good. Besides, if students are taught how to utilize their curiosity in school, the natural extension would be for them to do the same at home. And most of them would…

    Calm and Peaceful Classrooms – wow! That would be nice. How often do teachers feel rushed and stressed and, in turn, impose that on their students. The test is surely to blame for this. The stress of the test and all its implications can put an unwanted drive in the room where teachers and students work to survive for the wrong reasons.

    I have not given up on the public school system. Ed reform is in the air and it needs to happen. There are so many teachers who want to work and reconstruct from within (including myself). I see the correlation of the Montessori method, use of the Multiple Intelligences and, my focus, arts integration. These are the strategies we need to implement in our classrooms, these are the philosophies that will save our schools, our children and the future of our country.

    Please continue to spread this word. Thank you for this article! The Montessori method is quite fascinating!

  • Shannon

    Thank You! Awesome title and I couldn’t agree more. The madness of the education reform has got to stop. The answer has already been found, Montessori.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by NAMFan, Craig Tobin. Craig Tobin said: Post on Montessori education for kids. Worth reading. How all schools should be moving: http://tinyurl.com/4b2z8af (via @thecobbschool) #fb [...]

  • Mere

    I may never send my children back to a formal school environment but I promise to be better at not telling my son to stop asking so many questions. (seriously though..asking the same question over and over even in different ways can get really tiring).
    Bad mother, bad bad mother.

  • [...] was just reading a post from Daniel Petter-Lipstein, who wrote a guest post on the Un-Schooled blog about his experiences with Montessori schools.  He made some very good points about how these [...]

  • Phil Petter

    Daniel, is my son-in-law and his three daughters along with my oldest grandson, now a 20 year old sophmore at Penn State and his sister, a high school senior have all benefited from the Montessori program at different schools. While I admit to having converns early on, the progress each of the kids made while progressing through the program has just amazed me. The children have a very broad educational base from which they have grown each year when they transferred back into the traditional edcuational system. Three cheers for the teachers who have taken the extra effort to be qualified to work in this enviourment

  • I worked in a Montessori preschool for a year. It was a great educational environment. I wasn’t a mom yet, so I didn’t take the notes I should have to put this into practice in my home.

    I looked at Montessori materials for homeschooling my kids but they are either terribly expensive to buy or very time-consuming to make. I wish there was an easy guide to homeschooling this way.

  • Fantastic post! I’m so glad my children got a Montessori foundation in pre-school and Kindergarten. Some of their fondest memories and best friends came from their pleasant little Montessori school. Now that we homeschool, I incorporate many of Maria Montessori’s ideas into our daily activities. The world would be a better place if all children (and adults) were taught “courtesy and grace!”

  • Jen

    This is a wonderful piece about the potential benefits of a Montessori education. I love Montessori’s ideas in theory and I thoroughly believe her pedagogy is applied faithfully in many Montessori schools across the world. I, unfortunately, learned a little too late that AMI certified schools tend to be more authentic in practice than AMS schools. The closest Montessori school to our home is AMS certified. After sending my children there for two years (one in Lower Elementary, one in Children’s House) I had to come to terms with the fact that that they just weren’t getting an authentic Montessori experience. There were aspects of the program I was heartbroken to have to walk away from, but sending first grade Montessori students home with worksheets for homework was a deal breaker for me. We now nurture our curiosity and creativity at home every day and we love it!

    • nomi

      jen,
      yoor negative experience is by no means due to the fact that the school is AMS certified. this has to to with the teacher him/herself, the head of school, and most probably the parent board.

  • I have read half this article (and will read the rest shortly) and cannot agree more. My two children went to a part-time Montessori daycare for academic reasons (I’m a stay at home mom in Toronto, Canada) and when the first one ‘graduated’ to junior Kindergarten at a public school so that the second one can benefit from the same Montessori environment (which was largely a financial decision) I was heartbroken.

    Actually heartbroken is an understatement.

    I sooooo so wish that my kids could remain with Montessori for at least the elementary grades. Benjamin has adjusted fine to public school, and the girl will follow him this coming September and will also be fine, but it still breaks my heart. Although the public school in our neighbourhood is ok, it just doesn’t compare to Montessori.

    All I can say is we must continue to get the message out.

    Very nice article. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    Javamom

  • Vanessa

    This was a great article. I went to Montesorri preschool and I still remember how much I enjoyed it. (I am in my 30′s now)

  • dennis

    A terrific post.

    I am writing from the American Montessori Society annual conference in Chicago. I am not Montessori-trained but for 22 years have published a quarterly newspaper called Public School Montessorian, which covers the whole Montessori community — public, private and charter.

    There are legitimate concerns about what is authentic Montessori education and there are several groups with which a teacher can affiliate. But most Montessorians who are part of national or international organization are really committed to children and do wonderful schools.

    That battle to win public acceptance is a big and long-running one and not always helped by conflicts over the education now endured by too many poor kids.

    There is an old Dewey quote that goes:
    “That which the best and wisest parent wants for his child, the whole community should want for all its children…”

    That may be the next challenge, as Trevor Eisler’s book points out.

    If you’d like to check out our paper it’s at
    http://www.jola-montessori.com/psm/90/index.html.

    Our new edition will go up next week.

  • Here is some more information on the variety of ways Montessori can be used for children – ideas for teachers in traditional schools and parents at home: http://montessori.edu/homeschooling.html

  • Tracy

    Note that dr Montessori was responsible for educating “street children” in Italy and it was through her work with them that her method developed.
    Montessori school is IDEAL for the general public and it is shameful it is mostly (though this is changing) for families with the means to send kids to
    Private school.
    There are schools in the US using her methods for marginalized kids. See the Mustard Seed school in Sacramento. Not purely Montessori, but lots there. And the school is for homeless kids. Perfect application!

  • I am very excited to see this conversation . I live in Seattle and have contributed a small part in bringing Montessori into the Seattle Public School System.
    Dennis , Publisher of The Public School Montessorian (see above) has a very informative newspaper that documents the history of Montessori in public schools across the nation. It is delightful to read this column. I appreciate that you invited Daniel to share his energy and talent to a broad audience.

    I would like to see more attention given to public Montessori Schools and programs that teach about her system. I want consideration for bringing this opportunity to high school students as well.

    I invite you to read about our innovative six year partnership with Family and Consumer Sciences in Seattle Public Schools.

    Our non-profit operated the first Montessori Lab school (for 3 to 5 year olds) as part of high school studies in human development and parenting. Many of the students were not familiar with seeing young children involved in introductory activities that interestingly corresponded with their high school studies in biology, language, mathematics, and music . You can read about our successes in the winter editionof The Public School Montessorian and previous editions as well. Thank you for speaking out. Thank you for connecting with Dennis. Gail Longo

  • James Moudry

    Montessori high school is in full swing in the USA!

    Many of these high schools have been operating for more than a decade with tremendous results. Get in touch with NAMTA (www.montessori-namta.org) for more information about Montessori for ages 12-18. There are hundreds of Montessori junior high and middle school programs and growing numbers of high schools (public and private).

    Please support your local Montessori schools to help them take Montessori all the way to age 18 and see these wonderful teens right off to college.

  • James, Perhaps some of the Montessori students from the high schools you mention could add their testimony to this page. It would be wonderful to add their perspective . I heard several of them speak at a NAMTA conference in Portland,Oregon last year. They were eloquent and inspiring to listen to. Perhaps you could ask David Kahn their names and get in touch with them?

  • Children are biologically mandated to learn and to learne fast. Thats WHY they ask questions. And they are expecting honest answers. They are expecting that adults will recognise and empathise with their desire to master themselves as competent useful members of their families and communities.

    It takes critical anlysis and effort to learn all the things that infants have to learn.

    John Holt wrote about this quite beautifully in “Learning all the time”. His insights were based on careful observation of children over 40 years.

    Aboriginal children become effective members of their community by age six. This is a biological necessity. Nature does not do stupidity.

    I mader a short (and amatuerish) video about the three questions (modes of question) and adult who wishes to help a child : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNMS1Xl3ehs

    I trust you will all enjoy it.

  • Erin

    Thank you for a wonderful and insightful post. My daughter attends a local Montessori school and I frequently say it is almost criminal that all children don’t have this as an option! In this economy it is tough to budget the money for this expense, but my husband and I are committed to the education for our girls. It’s a shame that the Montessori is the exception and not the rule!

  • Woo hoo! Great post Daniel. It iS a great diservice to our children that Montessori education is not as readily available as it could be. The are so many misconceptions as you pointed out, thank you for adding your insight and some great links as well. (Can’t wait to read “How Do Innovators Think?”)

    Oh how I wish I could have attended Montessori school growing up. I am doing my best to provide my children with the best Montessori inspired education as I can.

    Kudos for stepping out and standing up as a Montessori dad too! My hubby is sold on Montessori as well, and even implements a Montessori style when teaching guitar to his music students.

    Wonderful article Daniel, thank you for sharing it! This is definitely going to be recommended at my blog! Please feel free to stop by and guest blog over there too! I would love to hear more from you!
    -Sincerely,
    Susana L.

  • We are excited that the Houston ISD is opening 8 more Montessori public classrooms in our district. We now have 2 full Montessori Public Schools.

  • jessie

    as an AMI trained guide i could not agree more. the more parents talk to further our message reaches. i am lucky enough to work in a thriving and supportive school but am in the process of venturing out to start my own school to serve the children in my less affluent neighborhood.

    big thanks to dedicated Montessori parents and keep spreading the word!

  • Maria Montessori’s theories are timeless. Fortunately, it seems that Montessori is moving in the right direction of “winning” public acceptance with more and more recent media coverage. We just need to keep the momentum going!

  • Sheryl Morris

    Regarding: “Not every child is right for a Montessori school and Montessori is not right for every child.”
    I tend to agree with a variance of this statement. “Not every parent is right for a Montessori school and Montessori is not right for every parent.”

    Worth repeating, “There are about 350 public Montessori schools in the United States, a number that is shamefully small.”

    Daniel calls on parents to seek out like minded parents and do some demanding of their local school boards to establish public Montessori as a choice. “Get in touch with people from other cities who have found a way to provide this option to their children in a public school setting,” he says. This is an important part of attaining more public Montessori schools.
    How can we help every parent to become aware of Montessori?
    Daniel,
    Dennis,
    John,
    I, too, would love to hear about your ideas on public acceptance.
    Grandmother of two young children,
    and unemployed AMS Certified preschool teacher,

  • I am the Business Director at a small (and amazing) school in the US Virgin Islands – VI Montessori School. We go through Upper Elementary with Montessori (AMI) and added an International Baccalaureate Upper School over the past 10 years. My daughter started in the school at age 2 and has just moved from the Montessori school to the 7th grade and the International Baccalaureate. I’ve watched this program as a parent and a business woman. It is simply the answer. It boggles my mind that the U.S. is trying to figure out what to do for public preschools. Montessori is here. It is proven to be effective at educating and inspiring children. It is actually very cost effective – as materials are not consumed, but are purchased to be manipulated and studied and can be expected to last for decades (Montessori materials are typically very high quality). The desire for 30 students over three grade levels / class, with two adults – one certified guide and one assistant – also makes this a very cost effective from a staffing standpoint.

    Gee – high quality,extremely cost effective, data-driven, proven results. I guess I don’t understand why this is so hard to figure out.

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