The Future of Education Is Here (And Has Been For 100 Years)

by John Meredith Cox
Montessori School of Peoria

Educating the human potential could have profound consequences for the future.

There has been tremendous talk the last few years about the future of education. The same kinds of conversations that have been occurring since the time of Socrates about what and how our schools should be teaching our children have been suddenly thrust into the spotlight, lighting up screens with inspiring TED talks, discussions in prominent media outlets and education blogs, and New York Times bestseller lists. People are asking: What does the future of education look like?

Alarmed by comparisons of today’s schools with a factory model, in which students are processed as in an assembly line; faced with a decade of profound technological innovation and research into brain development; and being presented with new priorities and trends in the workplace of tomorrow, the discussion has been whipped into a frenzy. Education leaders, visionaries and policymakers are searching for, in the words of a 2013 Wired magazine article, “radical new ways for children to learn, grow and thrive.” They describe classrooms in which teachers prompt instead of instruct—where children find their passion while teaching themselves and each other. Phrases like “curiosity-fueled exploration” are being used to explain an alternative to teacher-centered classrooms.

What is it we want out of the schools of the future? The consensus suggests we want individualized instruction that gives students the abilities to think critically and creatively, collaborate, and develop executive functioning skills. We want schools that can adequately address the challenges the modern workplace will give our children when they reach adulthood. We want to take advantage of what we’ve learned about the child’s brain and how it learns. But how?

Well, there are those among us who have been proclaiming loudly that the future of education is already here—and has been for more than a century: Montessori.

What Is a Montessori Education?
Montessori schools—named after the originator of their “method,” Dr. Maria Montessori—employ a scientific pedagogy to help children develop to their fullest potential. Dr. Montessori, one of the first female physicians in Italy in the early 20th century, developed her unique method by studying what other educators and psychologists had done before her and combining it with her own observations and work with young children. Montessori’s method is one of the world’s only truly scientific methods of education—instead of modeling her system after theories about the child, she experimented with methods, developing and refining her theories of education upon the results of her observations.

Out of this work came a true child-centered approach to education based on the idea that children want to learn, and can do it best when they are able to develop independence and discover the intrinsic motivation in the work they do.

Montessori developed special learning materials that utilize the hands and the senses. Likewise, Montessori teachers act as guides in the classroom, preparing a learning environment and presenting materials to each child according to his or her readiness. Montessori classrooms are comprised of multi-age groupings, offering uninterrupted work periods, peer learning opportunities and a guided choice of work activities. Most Montessori schools offer programs for early childhood (ages three to six) through elementary; many offer junior high programs up to eighth or ninth grade. There are even a few Montessori high schools across the country.

On a typical day, children in a Montessori classroom are free to choose their own work, sometimes with guidance from a teacher. They can work by themselves or with a classmate or two. Along the way, they might help another student or seek such help—observers often see children helping each other solve math problems or spell words. Children are encouraged to revisit material as often as desired, giving them the opportunity to achieve mastery before moving on, and they are the ones who ultimately determine when they have mastered a skill. Montessori schools do not grade their work (until junior high), so mistakes are seen as an integral part of the learning process—steps toward mastery. In this way, and as the teacher observes rather than corrects, children’s intrinsic motivation to continue learning and exploring new things is protected.

What children get out of a Montessori education includes learning “the basics” of education in the way that suits their particular learning style. These children have learned to collaborate in a multi-age group setting and innovate while learning fundamental skills and exploring new ways of accomplishing something. They are engaged learners, actively seeking new aspects of the world to discover. Montessori students typically know how to think critically and be adaptable. They are also taught the importance of community—that each of us plays an integral role in the world outside ourselves. They learn there are big problems to be solved, and there’s nothing stopping us from working together to solve them.

Montessori’s complicated history in the United States helps explain why many parents and educators know very little about it. By the time of Dr. Montessori’s first visit to the U.S. in 1913, her method had begun spreading in popularity. With strong support from prominent Americans like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson, Montessori was able to begin the first U.S. teacher training course by 1915.

Yet, Montessori’s popularity in the U.S. quickly declined, due in part to public criticism from a few influential educational leaders, as well as complications and anti-immigrant sentiment surrounding World War I. By the 1960s, interest in Montessori began spreading once again, led by a new generation of parents and educators. Today, there are an estimated 4,500 Montessori schools in the U.S., around 450 of which are public schools.

The Classroom of the Future
While Montessori schools are growing in number and popularity, the vast majority of children in this country continue to attend traditional schools. Meanwhile, the conversation about traditional education—and how successful it has or has not been in preparing children for the 21st century and beyond—continues to churn on with no end in sight.

If we’re talking about the end of the factory model of education described by Sir Ken Robinson, then we’re talking about things like individualized instruction, inquiry-based learning and children finding their passion. We’re talking about making things, solving problems, collaborating, embracing mistakes and thinking critically. We’re talking about intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset.

When conversations like this lead to evidence-based change in the classroom, children can’t help but benefit. But what is perhaps slowing down the process of positive change is the conception that we somehow must reinvent the wheel—creating entirely new classroom models to teach kids in the 21st century. Many would argue that’s just not true. These strategies and classroom models have been around since 1909, and they’re regularly found in successful Montessori schools.

Read an article or listen to a soundbite from an education expert predicting what the future classroom looks like… and you’ll hear descriptions of Montessori. Do schools kill creativity? Not Montessori—Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin credit their childhoods in Montessori classrooms for helping them develop creativity and independence. So, by the way, might Jeff Bezos, Will Wright, Jimmy Wales and countless other creative Montessori graduates. Hear a description of Sugata Mitra’s work with children in New Delhi and you can connect it to the way children in a Montessori classroom learn: by working and experimenting with materials and experiencing the joy of discovery in a true child-centered environment.

Last fall, CNBC ran a story on the “Redesign of the Traditional Classroom,” giving a “peek of what the classroom of the future could look like.” It was no coincidence the majority of footage featured in this story was of a current Montessori classroom on a typical day. Why? Because they talk about classrooms in which students are interacting with one another and their environment, learning at their own pace, while the teacher works with individuals or small groups—core components of a Montessori classroom.

What Maria Montessori Already Knew
Experts who undertake the task of anticipating the “classroom of the future” look at the use and application of new technologies, the needs of the modern and future workplace, and a rediscovery of childhood learning theories. But doesn’t it also make sense that the future of education would be informed by what we’ve learned about how the brain works?

Fortunately, much of what has recently been discovered about neuroscience, brain development and optimal models of education was already anticipated by Maria Montessori, decades before the invention of the MRI. Dr. Steven Hughes, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology, has written and talked extensively about Montessori and brain development. He has suggested that “the Montessori method is like education designed by a pediatric developmental neuropsychologist.” Montessori’s method of education has already been designed to take advantage of these brain discoveries—some of them recent:

  • The three-year age grouping in a Montessori classroom follows the development of the brain, categorized by Montessori into planes of development.
  • The use of concrete materials in early childhood and elementary Montessori classrooms reflects how the hand is the child’s strongest link to the brain.
  • The introduction of sandpaper letters to teach sounds encourages the simultaneous use of the three brain functions known to be involved in learning to read.
  • The repetition of activity and multi-sensory materials are designed to solidify neural pathways while opening the way for new experiences.
  • The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobe reveals the logic behind Montessori’s classification of ages zero to six as the period of the “absorbent mind.”

These are just a few examples of how Montessori’s scientific pedagogy, developed in 1909, anticipated what we have now learned about the brain.

Educating the Human Potential

After decades of working with children and training others to follow her method, Montessori began lecturing extensively on the long-term, broad-scope benefits of helping children achieve their full potential. She discovered that by empowering children to be independent, to interact with their environment and others with respect and responsibility, and to discover who they are, the future of our planet can look much brighter. Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote—“If we are to teach real peace in this world… we shall have to begin with the children”—was in part inspired by his conversations with Maria Montessori. Together, they realized that educating the human potential could have profound consequences for the future.

Montessori classrooms are helping children achieve big things: higher-order cognitive ability, a sense of connectedness to the world around them, and a core set of skills that enable them to solve problems, deal with new situations and think critically. By doing so, and by working on the development of the person, they are helping create generations of people who are ready to tackle the world’s big problems. Doesn't that sound like the future of education? iBi

Founded in 1977, the Montessori School of Peoria teaches children in programs for ages three to 12. In 2017, it will open its junior high program for seventh and eighth grades. For more information, visit peoriamontessori.org. To learn more about Montessori, visit amshq.org/montessori-education.

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