13 Insights from a Montessori Middle School

I had my first glimpse into an adolescent Montessori classroom recently, a wonderful experience full of great ideas for the broader field of education. While I’ve seen Montessori schools for younger students in the past, this was the first time that I had a chance to learn more about how Montessori principles might inform the education of middle and high school students. While I was only there for a few hours, it was enough time to walk away with thirteen promising practices and perspectives.

1. Respect for the Learner – It is wonderful to witness deep respect for the learner. Since Montessori schools are learner-centered, there is a great deal of respect for the learner’s choice and voice. I can’t tell you how many schools I visit where the room is dominated by the corrective  voice and dominant choices of the teacher, a clear contrast to the way that learner independence is respected in the Montessori classroom that I visited.  While the teachers are clearly present, and they offer both boundaries and support, I saw a wonderfully authentic type of conversation between teachers and students. There were at least five different types of furniture configurations, allowing for ample choice on the type of environment that a learner might want to use on a given day, and almost everything but the massive conference table was mobile or able to be configured in multiple ways (like adjusting the height of a tabletop or quickly moving items around for a different activity).

The second room had a mobile device cart (with a combination of Macbook Airs and Ipads for students to use as they see fit). The room also one wall painted blue for blue screen video capabilities, a mobile video conferencing station for large group or individual use, a stationary computer for higher end video editing, and some more flexible furniture for individual work.

2. The Subtlety and Quiet Center of the Montessori Teacher – Have you ever visited a classroom where it seems like the teacher is holding the reigns of a team of fidgety horses or conducting each nuanced movement of students like a conductor with an orchestra? That is nothing like the role of the classroom in the Montessori school that I visited. The room is truly not centered on or visibly orchestrated by constant commands of the teacher. The teacher talks less and observes more, playing a valuable and understated role in the learning environment. It is clear that the teachers have a deep understanding of the learners. They offer support, guidance and direction; but do so in a way that does not feel like a teacher-centered community. Students get up and move when the choose to do so. You don’t see people raising their hands for permission to go to the bathroom. There is a truly authentic community feel to the classroom.

3. Living as Learning – We learn by simply living. Learning is not something that we have to force. Young people don’t need to be forced to learn. However, the teachers, the physical environment, and the experiences of the young people will influence what someone learns. As I understand it, that is essence of the Montessori philosophy. There are clear boundaries in the classroom that I visited and students do not have 100% freedom to do whatever they want. Yet, it still feels like a school in the sense that learning is a dominant theme of the community. Yes, there is a natural flow to the interactions and the movement of learners. This classroom, for example, had a kitchenette, and I witnessed several students simply take the initiative to get a drink just like what you might experience with a group of family members in their home.

4. The Value of the Physical Spaces – The environment in which one learns is a critical part MMS1of the Montessori philosophy, so I was interested to see what it would look like in an adolescent classroom. For the 22 7th and 8th graders, there were two primary rooms divided by a carpeted hallway that felt more like a third room with a couple of comfortable spaces for independent work (or a place for 2 or 3 people to gather). In the largest room, there was a beautiful and massive conference table made of a tree that fell down in one of the student’s yards. This was large enough for all students to gather for seminar (I’ll get to that in a bit). Along many of the walls were tracks to hang portable whiteboards (huddle boards from Steelcase.com). These lightweight boards can be quickly removed from the wall for individual or small group use, easily rearranged, etc. It made for one of the more flexible classroom spaces that I’ve seen. Other parts of the main room had comfortable (and varied) seating conducive to individual work or small group conversations as well. Most of the chairs in the room were stackable Cachet chairs that adjust to the way everyone sits, having a practical physical purpose but also speaking to the overall philosophy of the classroom.

MMS2They had also recently put up a simple greenhouse, with a second one on the way. Given that this school was in the heart of Milwaukee, and Montessori’s ideal vision was a farm-like environment, the teachers and students are creatively capturing part of that vision with these new spaces combined with other activities, like the fact that their last week of the school year will be spent in the outdoors of North Wisconsin.

5. Auto-education and Project-based Learning – Auto-education is a key concept in the Montessori philosophy. Allow students to take ownership for their learning. Provide the time and flexibility for students to follow their interests. In the school that I visited, part of this was done in the form of 6 6-week projects throughout the year. Students had ample choice but there were some limits. For example, one project has to be tied to math, another to language arts, etc. One of their projects needed to be written and presented in Spanish, and the final project of the year is shorter, but seems to have fewer limits than some of the other projects.

MMS36. Time for Depth – Where many classrooms are broken into 45-minute class sessions, time is much more flexible in this school. One of the teachers explained to me that these students have grown to a place where they can work independently on a project for upwards of three hours, and they create large blocks of time for this, understanding that some of our best thinking doesn’t emerge if we are always breaking everything into 15-minute segments. This is a great contrast to other schools that try to break up classroom time into small segments to keep the attention of learners. In this school, students learn to manage their own time, work for extended period, maybe even to experience the joy of losing track of time while working on a personally meaningful project.

7. Mixed age classrooms – Mixed age classrooms is a common part of Montessori classrooms, often three ages together in a classroom. The class that I visited was a bit of a deviation from this in that they had only 7th and 8th grade, but it seemed as if there was still opportunity for peer learning across those two grades.

8. Montessori’s Four Planes / Stages – Montessori taught that there are four stages or planes of about six years for students, each leading to a different form of independence: functional and physical independence (0-6), intellectual independence (6-12), emotional independence (12-18), and economic independence experience (18-24). She wrote, “The essential reform of our plan from this point of view may be defined as follows: during the difficult time of adolescence it is helpful to leave the accustomed environment of the family in town and to go to quiet surroundings in the country, close to nature” (From Montessori’s Childhood to Adolescence, p. 67). So, this class clearly showed students embracing physical and intellectual independence, and there was clear evidence of developing emotional independence, coming to a point of being able to state that, “my social independence does not depend upon what other people think about me.” These are middle school adolescents, so common social challenges and the like were present. However, one of the joys of my visit was seeing how much the students honored and helped one another through the challenges of progressing toward emotional independence, like the encouraging way they treated one another during emotional moments.

While economic independence is described by Montessori in the 4th plane, this is also part of the vision for the middle school classroom that I visited. One of the teachers explained that they were working on a grant to have a student-run coffee shop for the community, and that their gardening efforts might have economic benefits that students can use for an exciting class trip next year to China!

9. Seminar – The conference table that I mentioned is the dedicated space for seminar, a discussion-based approach to learning about different topics on a frequent basis. I did not get a chance to see seminar, and I’d love to learn more about this part, but it obviously plays a valuable role of fostering learning in community. They explore everything from Spanish to literature to math concepts using seminar.

10. Spanish – Speaking of Spanish, this particular class had a Spanish teacher, and all students learn Spanish, even having the requirement of conducting one full project in Spanish.

11. Art – They didn’t have art class. Instead, they have a full-time resident artist on the campus, available to work with students when they want. I was informed that many of the students turn to the resident artist for help when creating some sort of culminating artifact for their projects.

12. International Travel – I know that I mentioned this before, but I thought it noteworthy, that they are working toward international trips to India and China next year, and they have a plan to do it at no cost to the families. Instead, students will raise the money through projects like the ones that I mentioned above.

13. Guest Speakers – They have video conferencing capabilities and mobile devices with Internet access, which makes a world of experts available to the class. These are leveraged for individual projects, but they also try to build connections with people from around the world or with unique perspectives throughout the year. Instead of going for one-time guest speakers, they make the effort of building connections where they can interact with the same person multiple times over two weeks or longer.

As I stated at the beginning, I was only at the school for a bit less than half a day, so there is so much that I didn’t see and learn. However, they were wonderful hosts and as you can see, I walked away with a number of great ideas worth exploring in many of our schools.

Posted in blog, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).

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