What Do a Dead Guinea Pig and a Lemonade Stand Have to Do With Real Learning?

This post originally appeared on Next Gen Learning in Action on Education Week.

By Sara Cotner, Founder & CEO of Montessori For All in Austin, TX

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It was hard to miss. All the flowers and the multiple tombstones were quite conspicuous. Upon closer inspection, it became more clear what I was looking at: a student-built gravesite for a guinea pig named Cocoa. There was a drawing of Cocoa posted along the fence right near the grave and profuse words of affirmation and appreciation.

To the left, another group of children was taking full advantage of the attention-grabbing nature of the grave by posting a sign of their own: an advertisement for an upcoming lemonade sale fundraiser they were putting together.m4all_rip-thumb-300xauto-26194.jpg

A couple of days later, another sign appeared farther along the sidewalk, attached to a stake and stuck inside one of the PK3, PK4, and kindergarten garden beds. It read: "Please don't pick our flowers. These are La Lila's flowers."

This incredibly complex, nuanced, and interconnected series of vignettes is exactly the kind of thing we look for as indicators of success at our public charter school--Magnolia Montessori For All. Our school seeks to fully implement the Montessori model alongside strategies from high-performing charter schools to ensure academic success for all children. We seek to cultivate diverse leaders of the future who find meaning and joy in their lives and advocate for others to be able to do the same.

While children need to be able to do well on academic measures of proficiency in order to have true agency over their lives, they also need a whole host of other skills. As Montessori guide, Lesley Williams, explains, children need to feel like: "I have the tools I need to successfully navigate my world. I have my own opinions and interests, and I can communicate those ideas to others." They need the ability to generate ideas and backwards-map the smaller steps that will enable them to bring the idea to fruition. They need to be able to assess how their progress is going, analyze the data, and make adjustments. They need to be resilient and confident when things don't go as planned. They need to collaborate with others and resolve conflicts as necessary. They need to feel empathy for others and advocate for themselves and for equity in the larger world.

When a class pet dies, we want children to feel sympathy and spontaneously decide how to address their grief, such as by writing poems, constructing tombstones with words of affirmation, and decorating with flowers. We want them to notice that something is eye-catching and seize the moment to advertise for another endeavor. When they feel upset that others are taking things from their garden without permission, we want them to feel empowered to advocate for themselves.

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To truly cultivate these skills in children, you cannot simply treat them as "add ons" to the academic curriculum. These skills are part and parcel of the curriculum; they have to be woven into the very fabric of children's experience each and every day. Children have to cultivate their intrinsic motivation, grow their ability to weigh options and make choices, reflect on their choices, self-direct their activity, and interact socially and emotionally within a community. And to fully develop these skills, they can't be commanded or directed by a teacher. These skills have to be allowed to unfold from within the child.

So how do we do this at Montessori For All and other Montessori schools?

  1. The most fundamental thing we focus on is teaching children how to handle "freedom with responsibility." Because that's what life is!
  2. We personalize the learning experience so every child's learning path looks different based on their interests and their current level of performance.
  3. Personalized learning experiences mean that children get to practice making choices and self-directing their learning all day every day.
  4. Our teachers function as "guides on the side" versus "sages on the stage" as they coach children to make increasingly responsible choices with their freedom.

It's not a coincidence that several members of the "creative elite" graduated from Montessori schools, which have been personalizing learning for over 100 years: the founders of Google, Yo Yo Ma, Anne Frank, the founder of Amazon, Beyoncé, and Gabriel García Márquez--just to name a few. It is also not a coincidence that Maria Montessori developed the first prototype of personalized learning in between the two major World Wars. She believed that if we are ever going to create a more peaceful world, we have to start developing independence, self-direction, and respect in our children, as opposed to obedience, compliance, and competition.

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If we want to build "next gen" schools that create leaders, innovators, humanitarians, artists, scientists, etc.,--in addition to creating a more just and peaceful world for all--we have to shift the responsibility and freedom to think, plan, and decide in the classroom from the adults to the children. They are capable of so much if we just give them the chance.

Photos by Montessori For All.


Sara Cotner is founder & CEO of Montessori For All in Austin, TX. Follow the school on Twitter @Montessori4All.


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