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October 1st, 2017
I think that the question “Have you finished your homework yet?” is such an indispensable part of our family life and school life (I am talking about the Czech environment and probably also the European as well as the non-European Western cultural environment to a certain extent), that it cannot go without a reaction when posed to any adult or schoolchild. A substance responsible for a specific emotion always begins to be produced fast or the neurons make a connection related to the phenomenon of homework long ago. Obviously, there are people who remember homework with joy (nevertheless, according to my subjective observations, there are not many), others still suffer from terrible nightmares, and the majority luckily falls in between these two extremes, closer to one end or the other. In any case, a family with at least one schoolchild is rarely free of the worries related to homework, and even though as the children grow older, the responsibility is gradually shifted on to them, the above-mentioned question can practically be heard around until they reach maturity. Nevertheless, there is the exception of schools where there is no homework.
Our school doesn’t belong to those (and I think that in our educational system school with no homework are rare exceptions), and there are some good as well as less than great reasons behind that. Anyway, before this school year began, we discussed this topic intensely again (last year, we also discussed it with parents) and wondered if we should make any changes to our system. The core of the problem that complicates the discussion and its conclusions is that the opinions of all participants are very varied. Moreover, the dividing line between these opinions does not lie between teachers and parents but teachers and teachers as well as parents and parents. We had had some clear and extreme requests for a complete cancellation of homework as well as requests for an increase in both the volume and the frequency of homework (in this case, expressed mainly by parents).
I must add that Montessori schools in general tend rather to eliminate traditional homework, and research and scientific findings show that especially with small children, homework has practically no influence on their successes at school. On the other hand, there is a number of teachers who (completely understandably) worry that without home preparation and practicing concepts in the children’s free time, some knowledge and skills might not be solidified enough for them to be really mastered (usually, math operations, grammatical phenomena, etc. are mentioned). Sometimes, I also hear arguments that “a child has to get used to having duties outside of the school as well, they need to prepare themselves and study independently” but I consider these to be quite meaningless (due to a lack a space, I will not go into detail now). Parents often demand homework, as to them, their existence is a sign of the school being “normal” or everything being in order, or it is a tool of control over both the child and the school. Homework is an opportunity to find out what the child is currently studying at school and what they should have learned. It serves the purpose of verification that the school meets the curriculum etc. I am convinced that all of these functions can be served by different means and that on order to feel secure we do not have to go through all that drama that is often a part of completing homework.
To draw this article to a close – no, we haven’t decided to abandon homework at our school. We have decided for a Montessori take on them (after all, what else can we do, if we want to be a Montessori school J). We want to give as much freedom to our teachers as possible while having a clear school-wide policy at the same time. We want to free all families of children crying and grinding their teeth above homework and keep space for truly meaningful home work of the children, or work that is natural and supports their learning at school. This shall not be achieved through traditional homework that everybody remembers from the time we attended school ourselves (I will put aside the specifics of children in upper elementary who are preparing for the entrance exams to high schools).
These are examples of what might be assigned instead of “homework” (our parents have a full list of activities):
Even though we have made progress in the discussion about homework, I believe we will be coming back to this topic. This topic stay alive forever :-)
September 1st, 2017
At the beginning of the school year, I think I could share the priorities we have set for ourselves this year publicly. Such priorities are usually considered to be the school’s internal subject matter, that is probably how it works for companies as well, but as I am thinking about it, we undoubtedly already are “mature” enough to be able to share the topics publicly. This way, I would also like to appreciate our teachers, who got the change to set these priorities, and they did an extraordinary job. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that the school and its management do not have any other goals and tasks ahead of themselves but the 3 main priorities were pointed out as something that is current and important and something we all want to work on.
The first priority is building school community (some people may associate the word “building” with specific historical contexts but we shall return to the original meaning of the word). This surely is something we have been working out throughout the whole history of the school – by any means, school community is created and solidified through any common activity, through the life of the school as such. However, we are now more aware of the fact that the community that we aim for does not simply come into being; we have to take care of it patiently and systematically, to support it, and think about what we want it to be like. In relation to that, we came up with a number of topics we want to deal with intensely: openness, honesty and mutual support, peace education (one of the core topics of the Montessori philosophy, that shall be explored in more detail sometime in the future), support of sharing, interconnectedness between the school and the after-school center, the parents’ and children’s involvement in the life of the school, clarification of rules, or provision of a peaceful environment for everybody.
The second priority of this year shall be “outdoor learning”. We are mainly thinking about our garden, which presents great opportunities for using the area during instruction time in the future. We want to work on it gradually so that it becomes another part of the Montessori “prepared environment” and the teachers and children as well as the after-school center are able to use it as a place where learning can happen. In this moment, we are looking for inspiration of various sorts, collecting ideas, and our goal is that all classes use the garden during instruction time in the course of the year. However, in broader terms, “outdoor learning” does not only mean teaching outside instead of inside but also taking advantage of the world outside of the classrooms. These, in our school, create a beautiful environment supporting the learning process. Nevertheless, they cannot replace everything that can be found “out there”.
The third priority is supporting children with special education needs. It may seem that this priority is directed to a small percentage of children with “officially recognized” special needs. We are creating a special manual for the education of these children, and we want to improve cooperation of all experts available to our school and their efforts (teachers, psychologists, special education teachers). Teachers themselves are very interested in further education in the area of special education. Nevertheless, it would be a great simplification to think that this topic only relates to those children the adults have set a diagnosis for (or, they reached the conclusion that a diagnosis can help in their particular case). There is a number of other children who have “special” needs and if we learn to understand those, we will be able to help those children more (in a sense, we all have our special education needs – I myself am aware of mine every day :-) ). Moreover, only when we are able to support each child so well that we compensate for their disadvantages and teach them to respect the disadvantages of others and help others, will we create a just and equal school community. Thus, we are back with the priority number 1! :-)
April 11th, 2016
Somebody who came for an observation in class recently said: “The visit was great, thank you so much for organizing it – we were in Lower as well as Upper Elementary and for me personally it was a mind-blowing experience. Honestly, as I actually had only experienced traditional education, I couldn’t really get my head around out how well this works. Clearly, there’s hell of a lot of work behind it.”
About one third to one half of parents who show interest in their child being admitted to our school have already witnessed what Montessori education looks like in practice: some of them in a Montessori preschool (although the word “education” feels somewhat inappropriate in connection to preschool, in reality the way children learn there is quite similar to the way they learn in the elementary), some of them by various ways of fate which brought them to Montessori pedagogy or to a Montessori school (possibly abroad). However, those who come to us without any prior experience often cannot imagine the reality of a Montessori classroom and application of Montessori principles in practice.
We always try to provide these parents with all information available; we show them around the school, we explain things... Nevertheless, although we try to describe everything faithfully, it is still only words. Probably the most effective way of showing what happens in a Montessori classroom, what the role of a teacher is and how children learn, is to show people some relevant part of the day – live. Everybody, having spent 1-2 hours in a functioning Montessori classroom, gets a very good idea which cannot be conveyed by any explanations.
That is why we allow observations in classes, so that parents (as well as interested public) have the chance to see everything with their own eyes, to experience their own “Montessori morning”, even before they send us a binding application form on behalf of their child. After these visits, we see most our visitors experiencing the “effect of discovery”, as they suddenly realize what the essence of the Montessori program is and how very different the organization of a class is when compared to a traditional school. After that, is becomes much easier to explain the details and at the same time, much more insightful questions that go into more depth are posed to us.
After the first couple of years, when we allowed observations basically any time by arrangement, we had to – because of the ever growing number of people interested – introduce some regulation after all. We have concentrated this opportunity into 1-2 days a month. These dates are specified in advance for the whole year in the school calendar. All participants sign up in advance in the office and on the given day visitors are divided into groups that visit the individual classes. Visitors receive rules of observation; the observation lasts 1-2 hours followed with a short time for explanations and questions. This year, we have had around 80 visitors in classes already. It is quite demanding for the school but it is probably the most effective way of explaining what we actually do at the same timeJ!
Your School Director
March 16th, 2016
Once, a parent of a child that was applying to the school surprised me with a couple of systematic questions dealing with the topic of individualization vs. collective education in Montessori. They stemmed from feedback he got from his friends, many of whom shared the idea that the Montessori system of education artificially keeps children on the same level in order not to compare them among themselves. Thus, there seems to be (at least to a certain extent) an opinion held by parents that in the Montessori system, schools actively prevent some children from showing significant differences in their results, advances in learning, knowledge and skills – basically prevent a group of children from having diverse results. I had not come across this interpretation until that conversation. However, the parent was very interested in how we actually proceed and claimed that he had met a number of people with this opinion. Thus, it seems that we can list this idea among other myths that exist around Montessori which we need to talk about when trying to popularize our educational system.
I was taken by surprise a little by the absurdity of the idea. As it happens with myths, there is something true used as a basis and wrong conclusions are drawn from it. The awareness of the fact that we do not compare children in the Montessori system is the valid basis here; we inhibit competition and focus on the individual learning progress or the comparison of results of the same child in different points in time (the extent and areas of progress are compared with the previous state). However, there is a wrong conclusion being drawn – in order not to compare children among themselves, in order for us (and the children) not to be tempted to do so, we are trying to keep the group as homogenous as possible, or to make sure that the children’s results are not significantly different from each other and their progress is about the same. It is paradoxical, that by doing so we would seemingly also achieve the goal – there is no reason to compare, all children are the same.
However, in reality we are doing quite the opposite! By establishing a learning process with high individualization, we focus on supporting each child to reach their personal maximum (at a given time), and we also create an environment where the child’s attention is not diverted from learning to comparisons with other children’s performance; it focuses on the child’s own abilities and interests, on their inner motivation and comparison with themselves (i.e. on the progress that has taken place in time). We are stemming from the presumption that learning is not a discipline for competition. It is not about winning over others (that would only be a relative success, as it depends on the performance of the others and not on how good I am myself), but about good inner feeling caused by having learnt something new. In Montessori, each child has their own individual plan of development and the opportunity to advance in a pace set by their ability at the given time. And we see every day that children go deeper and deeper with great interest, plunging into the topic that caught their interest. There is no reason for us to hold any children back in anything, as they perceive the differences among themselves as natural and are not motivated to look for comparison criteria (and the teacher does not encourage them to do so, for example by giving them grades, which as a matter of course always turns attention to comparisons). If a child sees that their classmate knows more than them in some area, it can lead to admiration and ambition to get to the same place once, but rarely to the feeling that says “I am worse than somebody else”.
With that I want to say, that our pedagogical goal is to guide each child as far and as deep as possible. We know that there is the right time for everything with each child and the fact that their level of knowledge and skills is very diverse does not pose a problem to us (besides, there are children from 2-3 grades in each class!). We are put under the obligation to reach certain minimum knowledge by the state curriculum; it is up to us and our children to reach the maximum…
Your School Director