Facilitating Movement in the Classroom

August 17, 2011

… the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning.

— Jensen (2005): Movement and Learning in Teaching with the Brain in Mind.

I’m setting up a new classroom this year. How it’s arranged is very important to me. Montessori classrooms are designed for open movement and having different things going on in different places at the same time. Unlike last year, I won’t have to manage the entire middle school in the same room for the entire day. Instead, middle and high-school students will come in for two-hour periods for math and science.

Two hours is a long time for anyone, so I don’t expect them to be able to sit still for the entire period. In fact, just like in last year’s middle school classroom, I intend that the class devolve into smaller groups for most of that time. Students will need to be able to move around freely and associate freely, so long as they respect each others ability to work. I’m trying to arrange the room to facilitate that.

So how to arrange the furniture?

I need open spaces for students to walk and move. Eric Jensen has an entire chapter of Teaching with the Brain in Mind dedicated to how important movement is to learning. His focus is primarily on the need to save time for recesses and PE in increasingly regimented school days, but he also talks about integrating movement into everyday learning: energizers to wake kids up; stretching for more oxygen; and so on. I certainly know that I do a lot of pacing when I’m trying to think.

David Walsh also sees movement in the classroom as particularly important for boys.

Adolescent boys can have five to seven surges of testosterone every day. … And because testosterone is geared towards quick release, adolescent boys are prone to follow any impulse that might release stress. [p. 62]

Some experts think that making students sit still at a desk all day isn’t good for either sex, but girls are better able to tolerate it. Boys are more likely to get frustrated by school and loose interest. [p. 100]

— Walsh (2004): Why Do They Act That Way.

So no rows of desks. Instead, I’ve tried to make different work areas.

  • There’s one big area with a set of tables along three sides of a rectangle facing the whiteboard; students can be inside or outside of the rectangle depending on their needs.
  • Another area is centered around the couch, which may seem highly desirable, but I’ll be curious to see how they use it to work.
  • Toward the back of the room, there’s a solitary, larger-than-normal desk for a larger group that need space from the big set of tables.
  • I also have a smaller table near the window, that I envision would appeal to smaller, quieter groups, or even individuals sharing the same table.
  • And, finally, there is a bank of individual work spaces along the back wall.

That’s the plan, anyway. Classes have not started yet, so we’ll see how it holds up when it meets the enemy students. I am always happy to let them rearrange things, but most often they don’t seem to want to spend the time and effort.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Facilitating Movement in the Classroom, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Molly Backes on How to Be a Writer

July 21, 2011

Molly Backes, an author of young adult fiction, considers the question from a mother about her teenager, “She wants to be a writer. What should we be doing?”

Her first answer was, “You really do have to write a lot. I mean, that’s mostly it. You write a lot.”

But then she thought about it, and that’s where it gets really interesting:

First of all, let her be bored. …

Let her be lonely. Let her believe that no one in the world truly understands her. …

Let her have secrets. …

Let her fail. Let her write pages and pages of painful poetry and terrible prose. …

Let her make mistakes.

Let her find her own voice, even if she has to try on the voices of a hundred others first to do so. …

Keep her safe but not too safe, comfortable but not too comfortable, happy but not too happy.

Above all else, love and support her. …

— Bakes (2011): How to Be a Writer

At the end she posts a picture of her collection of forty-two writer’s notebooks.

It’s a wonderfully written and well considered post that I’d recommend to anyone trying to teach writing and language, particularly if you take the apprentice writer approach. And, I’ve always been a great believer in the power of boredom.

Backes’ advice more-or-less summarizes my interpretation of the Montessori approach: create a safe environment and give students the opportunity to explore and learn, even if it means a certain amount of struggle and failure.

Jungle play area at the Skudeneshavn Primary School in Karmøy on the west coast of Norway is another great example of creating an environment that offers students the opportunity to explore.

It’s also interesting to note how differently writers and other experts think, yet how much their practices overlap. Mathematician Kevin Houston also recommends writing a lot when he explains how to think like a mathematician, but his objective is to use full, rigorous sentences to clarify hard logic, and less to explore the beauty of the language or discover something profound about shared humanity.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Molly Backes on How to Be a Writer, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

The meaning of life?

January 22, 2011

A key premise of the Montessori approach to education is that, given children’s innate drive to learn, learning is its own reward. Extend this to adults and you realize that the “work” should provide its own motivation. Cristin O’Keefe notes that in 1847, Thomas Dent Mutter pointed out:

The world is no place of rest. I repeat, it is no place of rest but for effort. Steady, continuous undeviating effort. Our work should never be done and it is the daydream of ignorance to look forward to that as a happy time, when we shall wish for nothing more, and have nothing more to accomplish.
–Thomas Dent Mutter (1847) via Cristin O’Keefe via Harriet via The Dish.

I sometimes wonder, with our adolescents being somewhere between childhood and adulthood, if sometimes neither set of rules apply. For some students, they’ve not yet discovered the “work” that inspires them and, without that overarching objective to drive them, can’t find the motivation for learning.

Adolescence can last a long time.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. The meaning of life?, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Montessori in the internet age

January 8, 2011

Sarah Ellison’s excellent article in Vanity Fair about the collaboration between the Guardian newspaper and Wikileaks in publication of leaked documents, has got me thinking about how teaching needs to adapt to the internet age.

The most interesting theme in Ellison’s article is the contrast between old and new media: Julian Assange’s web-based Wikileaks and the 200-year-old British newspaper, the Guardian (which, I will confess, has a wonderful football podcast).

The conflicts between the two organizations’ cultures has apparently lead to a lot of friction and miscommunication, but also resulted in a fairly effective collaboration. The Guardian has been one of the more active newspapers in exploiting the internet, but it provides the institutional integrity and journalistic tradition that seems to be able to temper some of the manic enthusiasm of Wikileaks’ zealous idealists.

It is no surprise that Wikileaks and Wikipedia share a core precept; transparent organizations work better (of course Wikipedia has put this into practice in its own organization, while Wikileaks aims to reduce the opacity of other organizations). And it should be no surprise that Wikileaks’ model has many supporters who are digital natives. What is interesting is how much the new media needs the old media, and how a forward thinking organization, like the Guardian, can adapt to, and take advantage of, the new opportunities that come from new organizations like Wikileaks.

Which takes us back to education and the internet. If we can agree with Daniel Pink and myriad others (like Ken Robinson) that traditional schooling is not effective at developing students’ creativity, and that constructivist approaches like Montessori do a much better job, then the parallel with the Guardian-Wikileaks collaboration, is that programs like Montessori are ideally placed to blossom if it can take full advantage of the new, developing, technological innovations (like Saguta Mitra‘s).

Like the Guardian, Montessori needs to embrace the new techniques the internet allows, but it is essential it is done with the same care and consideration that Maria M. applied her observations of what works in teaching. The Montessori method, has almost 100 years of tradition that needs to serve as ballast in an era when many are looking for new approaches to education, and we are trying to strike the right balance between what we know works and what we hope will.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2011. Montessori in the internet age, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

The Edible Schoolyard

October 16, 2010

Alice Waters has been in the news a lot recently with the recent evaluation of the Berkley School Lunch Initiative (full report).

Waters instituted a program that:

… offered cooking and garden classes integrated with selected classroom lessons along with improvements in school food and the dining environment. – Rauzon et al. (2010)

The report, which followed 5th and 6th graders into middles school, found that they knew more about nutrition and had greater preferences for fresh fruit and vegetables than students in comparable schools.

The researchers did not go into all of the ancillary benefits of gardening and cooking in the school, because the lessons tie into science and social studies curricula. Of course these benefits should be familiar to the Montessori community since Montessori advocated the erdkinder farm school for adolescents.

Diagram of squash flowers.

Diagram of squash flowers.

The Hershey Montessori School seems to be a good example of what Montessori was aiming for (as is the glimpses we get of child rearing in Mirable). We do a lot ourselves in our little program. I’ve noted before how our greenhouse and bread baking tie into math, science, social studies and art.

I sometimes think that the progression of education traces the evolution of culture and technology over the course of human history much in the way that embryonic development was supposed to recapitulate the evolutionary history of the species.

Ontology does not recapitulates phylogeny, and my observations are probably just about as accurate, but the psychosocial development of early adolescents, who are just discovering who they are and realizing their place in society and history, parallels the fundamental reorganization of human societies brought about by the emergence of agriculture.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2010. The Edible Schoolyard, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

What if everything we know about how students learn is wrong?

September 8, 2010

“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” — Pasher et al., 2008.

What if there was no such thing as learning styles? What if tests were a great way to help students learn? Benedict Carey has a fascinating article in the New York Times that reviews some of the cognitive and educational research on how students learn.

Among the more interesting findings are that there is practically no evidence that different learning styles make a difference in learning (though this is largely because there aren’t any good studies the met the stringent criteria of the authors’ of this review). The pattern of work in our Montessori Middle School program is designed around the idea that different students have predilections for certain types of learning. And my own anecdotal observations, of myself and of my students, indicate that this is the case. However, even if learning styles were not important at all, Carey’s article points out another observation that highlight the power of our approach.

The cycle of work. Within each subject area there are different types of assignments designed to provoke learning in many different styles.

First off, though we believe different students have different learning styles, the cycle of work is designed to expose all students to multiple learning styles. So the belief in learning styles is not stifling. If students do learn better from reading, they get the chance, but for any given topic and on any given week, they’ll see the same information in diagrams and get to talk it over with their small group. This ties into Carney’s observation that varying the study environment, and the information studied, aids learning. For example, in the case of identifying different painters by looking at their work:

“What seems to be happening … is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments …; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them,” — Nate Kornell (in Carney, 2010)

Overspecification is something I wonder about when I hear about the School of One program in New York City, which I discovered via the Freakonomics podcast. (I’ll post more on this intriguing program later).

Carney also points out the research that shows that testing helps students learn. But here the important point to highlight is that it testing is most effective when it’s used as a formative assessment, when it helps guide learning, and when it is used to reinforce ideas students are learning. This is how I use our cycle tests. Summative tests, like standardized tests, which try in one big lump to assess a student’s learning, are susceptible to so many small variabilities and are so prone to overinterpretation and overemphasis that it’s hard to say that their benefits overweight their problems.

It is important that, as teachers, we remain cognizant of the educational research. But it’s just as important the we not just jump on the latest fads or get overexcited about the latest research results. The Montessori Middle School program is constantly evolving, but it has a long and successful history, so it behooves us to approach the research with caution and to dig beneath the surface to see if the results are really fundamental at odds with what we know (at least in our experience) works.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2010. What if everything we know about how students learn is wrong?, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Classroom culture

September 4, 2010

One of the most powerful aspects of a multi-aged classroom is the institutional memory that develops and makes learning a whole lot easier than starting off, every year, from scratch. All the aches and toil of last year did not just disappear when the new crop of students started. The new kids look to the older students for cues about how to behave and it has been saving me a whole lot of time and energy.

That’s not to say that bad habits don’t persist too. But having a slew of new students mixes things up enough so that even the returning students are receptive to some change.

So now I have a bit more time and energy that I can now put into new projects and tailoring the curriculum to make life a little more interesting for one and all.

Well we’re on our first immersion now and I’m getting a little reflective. Probably because it’s close to 2 am and they’re still not asleep.

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2010. Classroom culture, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

Layered meanings

September 1, 2010

Daily life, for all its basic routine, is always popping up surprises. The human brain is attracted to mystery; it is after all just a fancy problem solving machine. David Mitchell gets up on his soap box to give a wonderful screed about how having sophisticated references tucked into childrens’ programming is a good thing and there should be more of it. Kids are naturally curious. If they’re interested enough they’ll look it up, and, in the age of the internet search engine and smartphones, the barriers to looking anything up are negligible. So include more Greek references in your discussions because although inciting curiosity in the internet age is a bit like opening Pandora’s box, you’re much more likely to get better results.

Binomial cube.

It also ties a bit into Montessori Philosophy. Students start “playing” with artifacts like the binomial cube in kindergarden, where the goal is to convey mathematical concepts is a solid, sensorial way. They don’t get into binomial formula until years later in algebra, but their familiarity with the cube allows them to take the step into the abstraction of algebra on familiar, safer ground.

This discussion also highlights one of the major advantages of using websites and hypertext for educational materials. References can be embedded in the text with links to credible sources even further reducing the transaction costs of the student having to search around the web trying to look something up. There is an argument to be had, however, on if hyperlinking is too distracting and reduces our ability to focus, but perhaps we need to work on study habits and using invisible hyperlinks rather than not using technology altogether.

(I discovered David Michell’s Soap Box via Somewhat in the Air, who notes that, “Few of David Mitchell’s posts are child friendly but the “Passionate about Sofas” is terribly funny, too.”)

Citing this post: Urbano, L., 2010. Layered meanings, Retrieved September 25th, 2017, from Montessori Muddle: http://MontessoriMuddle.org/ .
Attribution (Curator's Code ): Via: Montessori Muddle; Hat tip: Montessori Muddle.

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