Learning Culture: My Perspective as a Montessori Graduate

In America, we struggle with the culture of our classrooms. Students are dependent on teachers to give them clear directions of where to go, they compete constantly with one another for grades, and, in most cases, they don’t even want to be there. As a student in a Montessori school, this never affected me. The learning culture in Montessori schools is much better for students than what is seen in traditional schools. I attended a Montessori school from the time I was three years old until the end of eighth grade, just a few months ago. Our Montessori classrooms foster independent students who direct their own learning and don’t compete over grades because there are none. Students at Montessori schools are able to enjoy their learning.

In my school, students are encouraged at every step to be independent, relying on their own abilities, but they are also taught that when their own abilities are insufficient, turning to a classmate before turning to a teacher is the best strategy. As a result, students are able to be both students and teachers, learning from one another as well as their teacher. Dr. Maria Montessori, the founder of the methods used by Montessori schools, believed that we learn through teaching as much, if not more than we do through being taught. I myself often taught math concepts, which helped me understand them more confidently. Montessori classrooms are environments where each student is very aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths of others. I knew who to talk to if I was struggling with a certain subject, and they would always be happy to help me.

A prominent part of the Montessori class culture, especially at older ages, is Community Meetings. In a Community Meeting, the entire class comes together and discusses important issues in the classroom environment. Students propose and vote on solutions. In the Adolescent classroom (7th and 8th graders) they also make meaningful decisions about what is going to happen with the classroom businesses, pets, and outings. This gives us, collectively, a lot of control over what happens in the classroom, which makes us invested in the idea of the classroom as a community.

I was also allowed to be very self-directed in choosing which project I was pursuing at a given time. How the Adolescent classroom did this, for example, was to have a main unit that a group of people (usually about seven, though at times it was much bigger) were working in. This main unit would have a topic, for example, the Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Each person within that group would study one subtopic, for example, the Second Amendment. They would create some kind of written work on their subtopic, and they would also design a “Doing;” they’d do something out in the world and make something happen connected to their topic. This allowed us all to be working on something we enjoyed, even if it was within a topic we liked less. For these units we would all present together, meaning that the group would have to find ways to tie their different topics together again, enhancing the collaborative aspect of this work.

Students at traditional schools often lack that collaborative attitude. At best, it’s an attitude of commiseration, of shared suffering. Students really hate school. It’s a part of American culture at this point, but it’s a serious problem, one that many people overlook by dismissing students as lazy. I don’t think it’s laziness. At Montessori, people joked about disliking school, but we all knew that we were incredibly privileged to be in such a collaborative learning environment.

So the question is: How do we, people who are interested in making education better for students, help traditional schools adopt some of the things that made my education so far fantastic?

I think a critical step is to remove grades as much as possible. There are lots of approaches to this, and TG2 does a great job of making those resources available on their website, so I’m not going to spend time describing the logistics of how to do that here. The bottom line is that grades cause stress for students and incentivize them to do the easiest possible thing, or cheat, which harms learning. In addition, students inevitably compare grades, often leading to a competitive culture–not a good thing. As I mentioned before, in seventh grade, even my classmates and I began to get grades and tests. People’s outlook towards learning shifted. We began writing papers to get a good grade, not to write a good paper. The two things may seem similar at first, but they’re very different.

Many classrooms, for one reason or another, aren’t able to completely remove grades. School systems may require a semester grade to be given to each student. If we can’t remove grades fully, I think we need to remove tests. Tests are a broken way of measuring intelligence. When I went into seventh grade and began getting tested, a strange thing happened. Before tests, everyone was together intellectually, all with our different strengths and weaknesses, but with nobody meaningfully “smarter” than another. After tests, suddenly some of us were getting consistently higher scores. With grades, there were “smart” kids and “dumb” kids, and everybody felt that distinction. The “dumb” kids were ashamed of themselves and the “smart” kids had this feeling of superiority like they were the ones who were going to succeed. But it was the same group that, before tests, had all been just…kids.

I think another critical aspect is allowing students to teach one another. In classrooms where only one subject is taught, this is harder than in Montessori where all subjects are taught by two or three teachers with a student:teacher ratio usually less than 10:1, but there are still opportunities for students to teach one another in traditional classrooms. It’s not enough to allow that kind of cooperation; I think it has to be explicitly looked for and encouraged where it exists.

Borrowing further from ideas I learned in my time at Montessori, I think it would be amazing if teachers could use a system like the one I described above, where students get to do individual projects within a broader unit, especially emphasizing the “Doing” aspect, then present them together. This kills many birds with one stone. It builds cooperation since they have to present together, and it encourages students to apply their learning to the real world. It increases their sense of self-direction, allowing them to make important choices about their education, which allows them to be interested in things that they might otherwise find boring by letting them choose a subtopic.

I think that students need to be able to enjoy what they are doing. Too many people, teachers included, approach school as a place where facts must be stuffed into the students’ heads. While this may provide good test results in the short term, in the long term, it is not an effective or enjoyable way to learn. Contrary to people who approach school this way, I think students can and should enjoy their schools, and the responsibility for changing this toxic anti-school culture falls to everyone involved–students, teachers, administrators, and more.

There are two parts to the issue: classroom culture and learning culture, or the ideas students have about learning. Classroom culture in traditional schools would do well to borrow elements from the Montessori Method, but learning culture–that problem is a lot harder to solve. Improving classroom culture is a start.

I’m a student. I love to learn. But I am an outlier in the school system. People like me are a tiny, tiny portion of the total student body of America. Educators, parents, and fellow students all need to help change our learning culture. In order to change, the school system will need to place students, and not grades or numbers, more centrally in the learning model.

We have to change the school system so that students can make the major shift from hating school to loving it, from seeing Mondays as a return to the minimum-security prisons where we spend our days having information drilled into our heads and numbers put into our records, to seeing Mondays as a return to a place of learning where we can, along with our friends, learn more about what fascinates us.

Bennett Jester is a 9th grader and recent graduate of a Montessori school where he learned the value of independence and collaboration. He is @JesterBennett on Twitter, where you can check out his hashtag, #MyGradingStory, or website: https://bennettjester.wixsite.com/mygradingstory

What do you think? Sound off in the comments below or continue the conversation on Facebook. And please join #TG2Chat on the Second Sunday of the month at 9 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Pacific.

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