Energy or Entropy?

I spent the other morning in my son’s Montessori classroom. It’s a beautiful, old-school room with high ceilings, large windows and plenty of space, which is good because it’s filled each day with twenty-eight 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. No small task.

I’ve been in Montessori classrooms before, yet I was still surprised when the day was never officially called to order. Instead the children took off their shoes, found some work (or not), and began their day in twenty-eight different ways while their two teachers, Ms. Luz and Ms. Allison, surfed in between them to check in and gauge where each child was at on that particular morning – hungry, happy, angry, sleepy.

This flow of atoms continued for the next four hours. When it was snack time, rotations of five children ate in self-organizing shifts – the order determined entirely by the classroom’s five Mardi Gras-style necklaces. (If you weren’t wearing one, it wasn’t snack time.)

Sometimes, the teachers joined a student to inquire about his work or perhaps to add a wrinkle to what she was doing, as Ms. Luz did when my son took out a container of plastic animals. She stood by as he spread the animals out on a colored mat, and then quietly asked him in Spanish (it’s a language immersion school) to identify the different figures. When he found the right one, he would get up and cross the room to repeat the Spanish name of the animal to Ms. Allison, who would either help correct his pronunciation slightly or simply say, “Exacto.” Then he would return to the mat of animals, and Ms. Luz would be ready for the pattern to repeat itself, while all around her a swirl of similar teaching moments provided plot points for the classroom’s chaotic graph of individualized ebb and flow.

When the children gathered in a circle for their first all-class activity, at 11:15am, I watched Leo’s teachers to see how they were doing. I remember reaching this point of the day as a teacher and feeling enervated, parched, and desperate for a break in the action. But because Ms. Allison and Ms. Luz had hadn’t spent the morning trying to corral all 28 students into a single activity (or into a state of singular attention), they mirrored the spirit of the children – fresh, engaged, centered.

Energy vs. entropy. Corraling vs. allowing.

There is great wisdom in a learning environment that allows the motivation and self-direction of the participants to drive the activity, and in which skilled adults work with the natural flow of energy and attention to help children develop a sense of themselves, their interests, and their place in a community. Imagine how much better both child and teacher would feel if this sort of environment was the norm and not the exception?

Categories: Learning, Organizational Change, Teacher Quality

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4 Comments

  1. Posted April 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Sam, you’ve captured the magic of what’s happening when it works. Now to scale it!

  2. Sandy Piderit
    Posted April 7, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    My daughter attended a private Montessori school for 3 years (2 preschool, 1 kindergarten year). Mixed-age classrooms allowed young learners to advance at their own pace, some charging ahead with math, others with geography, and others with practical life skills. It was a wonderful experience for her.

    From my perspective, the best part was that each kindergarten afternoon was after the preschoolers went home, and so the teacher-student ratio was 1 to 10 or 12. That probably doesn’t scale in any affordable way.

    Now, we live in California, where 20% budget cuts to K-12 education over the past 5 years have resulted in kindergarten classrooms with 30 students, and no instructional aides. Teachers are retiring, and enrollment in teacher preparation programs has declined dramatically, since new teachers over the past five years have been repeatedly laid off.

    Sometimes there’s no way around the fact that education is expensive. The way to scale a high-quality program is to invest in the resources required to maintain its quality.

    @scumgmtprof.

  3. Posted April 7, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    It sounds idyllic. Compare that to my Title I public school kindergarten where my attempts to Montessorize my classroom are thwarted at every turn by state and Federal mandates, Common Core NATIONAL Standards, data-driven curriculum, forced fidelity of non-developmentally appropriate programs and practices, etc.

    Seth and Sandy are both right to mention scale. There are so many factors preventing this type of schooling from being the norm. But we are fighting for it.

  4. Posted April 7, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    We, in The Big-Brained Superheroes Club, are trying to balance these things in our after school program as well (only we call them structure and pandemonium). Possibly one of our biggest challenges is encouraging our young Big-Brained Superheroes become active participants in their own lives. They spend so much of their time being dictated to and reacting to their world that the proposition of active (and positive) self-propulsion seems only to confuse them. “Weird” is the word I’ve heard them use to describe that confusion. And yet, they seem to be making progress toward it over time. Which could be because our club’s reward structure is designed toward encouraging them to do so.

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