Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Owning one's mistakes

Last night I went to hear Trevor Eissler speak at my 2-year-old's Montessori school. Eissler, an Austin, TX-based pilot, wrote a book called Montessori Madness: A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education. Eissler is certainly a Montessori enthusiast, and regaled us with tales of the great happenings in Montessori classrooms. I do think there are great things that happen in such classrooms, though there is always the correlation vs. causation issue. Though Maria Montessori may have tested her theories in a slum, in this country, at least, many Montessori schools are private. In the case of the one my son attends, it was actually written up in Philadelphia magazine as being the snootiest pre-school in the area (Note: I am not paying $12,000 a year for it, but then again my kid only goes 2 days a week). So...I am not sure it is entirely fair to compare it with schools that have to take all kids, where some kids are showing up hungry and may have stayed in three different places in the past month. While I also like discovery-centered education in theory, I have seen constructivism done horribly. Bad teachers could make a mess of Montessori too. Private schools have more control over who they hire.

But one concept I have been intrigued by, educationally, is the idea of learning from one's mistakes. One of the problems of traditional education is that you take a test, then learn several days later what you got wrong. You may not even know why. Sometimes you get a chance to redo wrong problems, but the feedback isn't immediate, and the consequences are artificial (bad grade) rather than natural (the toy house you're building falls over when you measure the pieces wrong). Done right, the Montessori method aims for immediate feedback and natural consequences.

Of course, Montessori isn't the only way to get at that concept. One of the great promises of digital learning is that you not only meet the child at his level, you give immediate feedback. The child can learn from his mistakes in real time, seeing what works and what doesn't. In general, we fear errors too much. Sometimes there are bad consequences (medical mishaps come to mind). But trial and error is a great way to make new knowledge, and once you own your mistakes, knowing why things went wrong, you know how to do things differently in the future.


Trevor Eissler said...

Laura, Thanks for letting me know you posted this blog. Ha! Loved the "snooty preschool" article. Here are two Montessori schools I've recently discovered that are at the other end of the spectrum that might be interesting to look at more closely:
East Dallas Community School Drummond Montessori
These school have incredible student outcomes, serving disadvantaged populations. Drummond is public and even has a 1,900 student waiting list.
I don't disagree that many private Montessori schools in the U.S. are only available to the wealthy. My purpose in advocating for more Montessori education availability is not to shift it away from wealthy families, but to open it up to all families. Montessori schools should be free, public, and offered to every child who wants to attend. There is nothing inherently expensive about the method. In fact, if you look at the numbers, per-student costs in Montessori schools are less than per-student costs in conventional schools! In my state of Texas it's about 25% less. We could cut the state education budget by 25% and send every child to one of these "snooty" Montessori schools. By the way, the method has it's earliest roots in the education of special needs children, followed shortly thereafter by the education of children in slums in Italy. It has since spread to almost every country on the planet. This is not some recent fad for rich families.

Aidan McAuley said...

There are real problems with children who come to school hungry. Maslow's hierarchy of needs clearly demonstrates that when a child is hungry, he is not interested in learning. This however, is not an education issue as much as it is a social issue and we should be careful not to confuse the two. When a child's basic needs are met, the question becomes which method of education is best suited for a particular child. Along these lines, an education that follows a child's interest works for ALL children. We don't need children who can memorize and process facts as much as we need children who can discover new facts and find useful ways to apply them. The Montessori method allows children the opportunity to discover knowledge, all day long. They are not viewed as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge by an adult who "knows". The purpose of a Montessori education is not to get children to know facts, therefore, but to encourage them to discover them on their own..and in the process nurture the confidence and determination that they will take with them on this journey called life.
My favorite quote ever is by Plato: "Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”
Each child IS a genius...and our jobs as educators should be trying to uncover this genius, to develop and nurture it. Authentic Montessori education does this.

Twin Mom said...

What teacher:child ratios are appropriate in Montessori? My son will be attending a public kindergarten next year. This year, the class has 34 students and I expect next year will be similar. He can already do kindergarten academics (i.e. count to 100, read small words, etc.)

Can Montessori work with 34 kids of varying abilities in a standard size classroom? I honestly don't know much about it.

Susan Picard said...

There is a chapter in Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide that speaks to the idea of learning from mistakes where he explains the neuroscience behind the importance of this. I use Destination ImagiNation in my pull-out situation and it accomplishes the same thing albeit not on a daily basis. Still very hands on, interdisciplinary with immediate feedback to whether things are working or not! (And no interference from parents or teachers in finding/creating solutions!) This is the hard part for teachers. We want our students to be successful and sometimes watching them make mistake after mistake is difficult.