Follow the Child or Follow the Teacher?Pinewoods Montessori School, North Carolina

As the Greek philosopher Sophocles observed in the fifth century B.C. “One must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.”

In the “Teacher-Centered” conventional approach, the child is a passive learner. The teacher has a dominant, active role in classroom activity and typically the child is a submissive participant. The teacher controls what the students learn and at what pace they learn.

In the “Child-Centered” Montessori Way the teacher has an unobtrusive role in classroom activity; the child is the active participant in learning. Teachers focus less on what they do and more on what the student does. By observing the children’s activity teachers are aware of how motivated the student is and how much time and energy the student devotes to the learning process. Instruction, both individual and group, is personalized to each student’s learning style.

Dr. Montessori believed that “the hands are the tools of the mind” and created an approach to learning which engages each child in the two-fold process of purposeful activity and intellectual development. In Education for a New World, Dr. Montessori recognized that,

” Mind and movement are two parts of a single cycle; and movement is the superior expression. Scientific observation shows that intelligence is developed through movement; …”

In this age of educational accountability there is an ever-increasing parent population who measure school success by test scores and advanced placement. This has been answered by a growing trend in conventional schools toward reallocating time in school to focus more academic subjects. This inherently means more time indoors, more time passive without physical activity, and less emphasis placed on a healthy amount of movement and experiential learning.

In schools across the nation homework has increased, curriculums have become more rigid, there are widespread cutbacks in physical education and sports programs and even recess has become a thing of the past. Recess always served as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. Outdoor time offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. The importance is so great that the American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.

The Gender Impact – Boys Behind, Girls Ahead

We have aligned the conventional educational system to emphasize the natural skills of girls and reduced the aspects of that education which capitalized on the skills of boys. These differences are more non-cognitive skills like attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. Girls tend to develop certain skills earlier than boys, like the ability to sit still and stay attentive. Our traditional school day now demands that students do just that — sit for long periods of time and listen attentively — or else suffer a lower grade or disciplinary action. In elementary-school classrooms, where teachers increasingly put an emphasis on language and a premium on sitting quietly and speaking in turn, the mismatch between boys and school can become painfully obvious. The result is girls are outperforming boys at all levels of the educational ladder, from kindergarten to graduate school.

The gender impact is borne out in the statistics. Women today are more likely than men to complete college and attend graduate school, and make up nearly half of the country’s total workforce. Between 2009 and 2013 women, ages 24 and up, earned four-year degrees 64 percent faster than men. More shocking is that, also in that five-year window, the number of professional and graduate degree-holders grew 120 percent faster for women, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That increase also can be seen in professional degree programs – women now account for almost half of students in law, medical and business administration graduate programs. During the 1960s, women accounted for about 10 percent of students in those programs.

Michael Gurian, author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and in Life, and many other authors and educational experts proclaim that we have a crisis in the education of boys in this country. Gurian’s book presents statistics that boys get the majority of D’s and F’s in most schools, create 90 percent of the discipline problems, are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD and be medicated, account for three out of four children diagnosed learning disabilities, become 80 percent of the high school dropouts, and now make up less than 45 percent of the college population.

“Girl behavior becomes the gold standard,” says Raising Cain coauthor Michael Thompson. “Boys are treated like defective girls.” These new pressures are undermining the strengths and underscoring the limitations of what psychologists call the “boy brain”, the kinetic, disorganized, maddening and sometimes brilliant behaviors that scientists now believe are not learned but hard-wired.

In the last two decades, the education system has become obsessed with a quantifiable and narrowly defined kind of academic success, experts say, and that myopic view is harming boys. Boys are biologically, developmentally and psychologically different from girls and teachers need to learn how to bring out the best in every one.

Our first born is a girl, relatively calm, consistent and at times contemplative. Our boy, on the other hand, is a bundle of kinetic energy who jumps from one thing to another effortlessly. I am a member of a growing body of parents that are concerned that boys are being forced to fit a failing approach to education that is better suited to girls.

In Montessori schools the children learn through interaction in the environment, learning environments that Dr. Montessori designed as “scientifically planned and methodically formed”. The teacher is a guide, and a part of the learning environment. The materials are not visual aids for the teacher, but rather tools for the students. In this same book cited above and written in 1946, Dr. Montessori was both prophetic and insightful, even for today. She said that activity in schools:

… must form part of education, especially today, when people seldom walk but go in cars or vehicles of some sort, so that there is a tendency to paralysis and sloth. Life may not be cut in two, moving the limbs for sport, and then the mind for reading. Life must be one whole, especially at an early age, when the child is constructing himself.

William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School stresses that changing teaching methods to accommodate boys does not mean hindering girls. Girls, he says, often enjoy the same hands-on activities. “We have the data about learning-style differences and behavior-style differences,” he says. “This is not a win-lose circumstance. It’s not teachers against parents, parents against schools, boys against girls. It’s a win-win. We recognize what we now know and use it.” In Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood , author and psychologist William Pollack presents his findings from almost 20 years of clinical work and his recently completed study examining contemporary boyhood and the ways boys manifest their social and emotional disconnection through anger and violence.

“ By addressing who a boy really is and what he really needs, a school can make a difference in helping him do well academically, feel positive about himself and develop a healthy sense of masculinity. A positive school experience, in short, can bolster a boy’s self-esteem.” 

“Boys have a unique learning style that is different from that of girls. Research suggests that, whereas many girls may prefer to learn by watching or listening, boys generally prefer to learn by doing, by engaging in some action-oriented task. I’ve observed boys who are so resistant to reading books in class that they’ll literally toss them aside to pursue more hands-on activities. I’ve also seen boys who, though identified as “lazy readers,” became active, proficient readers when given material on subjects that interested them, such as sports, adventure stories and murder mysteries. Most critically, I believe we must make absolutely sure that for every boy there is a “good fit” between what makes him thrive as an individual and what his school actually provides for him.” 

He could easily be making a case for the method of teaching at the Pinewoods Montessori School.

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