Posts tagged Theory
A Planet Without Schools

Somewhere out there in the universe, I imagine there is a wonderful world where children don't go to school at all. They are not removed from the rest of society to be measured by the strengths and weaknesses of their age level peers. They are not force-fed facts. They are not tested on skills and judged on their abilities. In fact, no standards at all exist for knowledge acquisition.There are no lessons, no progress reports, and absolutely no teachers telling the children what to do. 

Does this sound a little bit like "unschooling" to you, my dear Montessori friends? Bear with me.

Somehow on this planet, the children learn everything they need to know to thrive in their world's delicate ecosystem and to become fully functional, sophisticated adults with a purpose for and enjoyment of their work. Burdened only by their innate thirst for knowledge, without universities or workshops or required professional development courses or pay raises, they continue seeking new experiences that expand their minds and hearts. They die of old age, knowing that they led full and happy lives. 

It sounds like a dream, but when a child is born, this is his world. Do we take the newborn babe and thrust lessons in speech and crawling at him? This would be considered ridiculous, of course, because we assume that he is just a little nothing of a baby, ineducable at this point because he doesn't even talk! We wait until he looks more like a small adult than a baby before becoming his "teacher", and then we get a little nervous. What if we aren't instructing well enough or often enough and the child falls behind his peers? And what if it's our fault for not being on top of our game?

We must take a look at what is accomplished in the first three years of life without us intervening at all. It is pretty incredible when you think about it. A newborn babe's body transforms miraculously from one that fits perfectly curled up inside a womb to a body that can walk and run alongside his parents and nourish himself when he feels hungry. Cries turn into babble and into words and sentences that can even navigate basic adult dialogue in his native tongue. If the child can learn so much on his own in the first three years, why can't he do it just exactly in this very same way for the rest of his life?

If we could let go of our preconceived notions about what children must know by what age and resist comparing them to each other...

If we could embrace every child and find the potential that exists...

If we could recognize that the child has far greater skills for learning than we do for teaching...

If we could stop talking about it and start watching instead...

If we could just get out of their way and trust them...

 You don't have to visit another planet. The natural instinct for learning self-sufficiency and life-long joy is already right here on Earth. The child has the power to teach himself! We just have to take a deep breath and allow it to unfold.

But don't take it from me...

"Supposing I said there was a planet without schools or teachers, where study was unknown, and yet the inhabitants - doing nothing but live and walk about - came to know all things, to carry in their minds the whole of learning; would you not think I was romancing? Well, just this, which seems so fanciful as to be nothing but the invention of a fertile imagination, is a reality. It is the child's way of learning."

- Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind

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I've Got 5 Minutes. Explain Montessori to Me.

As Montessori teachers and parents...

1. We follow the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori (1870-1952). She was a medical doctor, a teacher, a philosopher, and an anthropologist. Her progressive view of children was way beyond her time, and her writing is still very relevant today. Interested in reading some of her work yourself? You should! Try The Secret of Childhood for starters. Read more about her life and take the Montessori challenge for fun.

2. We understand that children of different ages have different needs and abilities. We study child development theory (for example, sensitive periods) and make sure that our classrooms and homes have developmentally appropriate activities and expectations. When something new is discovered about the growing brain, we are taking notes, ready to back it up with our educational practice. (More often than not, the research simply confirms the Montessori method!)

3. We observe our children. The child has so much to teach us about learning. By watching closely, we can modify our lessons and materials to best suit the child's interests and growth. We try to anticipate what the child will need next and make sure that this experience is available for when the child is ready to explore the subject or skill. We call this "following the child".

4. We believe that the environment itself is the best teacher, and we prepare it like a mama bird would craft a proper nest for her babies. Rather than dictating what a child should learn and when, we design the classroom or home to fit the needs of the child, rich experiences balanced by beauty and order. This takes a great amount of effort, but we are rewarded when a child enters and is inspired to learn. In a typical Montessori classroom, you would see objects in baskets, trays, or boxes arranged on a shelf attractively. Each work contains a purposeful work that is designed to teach a specific concept. (Pssst: We don't randomly select concepts to teach, remember? We base them on our observations of the child.)

5. We model grace and courtesy (good manners), treating our children as we wish ourselves to be treated. We use calm voices when teaching and speak with respect in regard to the children's feelings. We carry ourselves with poise and handle objects with care. We believe that the children are acutely observing us even when we aren't aware of it, and they will mimic our behaviors and attitudes. We know that humans aren't perfect, but we really try to bring out the best in ourselves.

6. We recognize that children are unique individuals who are not likely to master the exact same concepts or have the same interests at the same time. We celebrate this uniqueness and allow each child to develop at his or her pace. We believe that learning is a natural process that develops spontaneously. When we place our trust in the child, we are often surprised at the immense amount of learning that takes place through the child's interaction with his or her world.

7. We do not use rewards and punishments to force children to comply with rules or to combat ill behavior. We believe that each child is on the way to developing self discipline and that the rewards should be intrinsic (within oneself) rather than externally imposed. When a child misbehaves, we first examine the reasons why the child is exhibiting those behaviors (hungry? tired? overstimulated? testing boundaries?) and then we contemplate whether a change in the prepared environment would help or if we need to teach certain problem-solving skills to prevent another occurrence. Never do we use shame or humiliation. We try to help the child understand appropriate behavior in a social context in a gentle, firm manner.

8. We believe that children learn best when they are free to move their bodies throughout the day. Children have physical rights. They should not be constrained to desks. They should be allowed to move around in their environment, visit the bathroom as often as they like, and work in a variety of sitting or standing positions. We want to teach our children to respect their bodies and control their movements, and by allowing this freedom, we feel that this helps the growing brain learn more effectively. We encourage this independence, but also teach respect for others. No one's freedom should infringe upon another's right to concentrate.

9. We believe that the materials a child works with (one could just as easily call them "toys") should be carefully chosen to support the current developmental stage. With few exceptions, natural materials are preferred, and the works themselves should be arranged attractively on the shelf. Concrete experiences are always offered first and abstract thinking presented later, when the child has a firm grasp on the concept. Maria Montessori herself developed and sanctioned specific materials for learning that are considered classic and essential to a Montessori classroom.  You might want to take a look at the pink tower, the moveable alphabet, or the golden beads. Oh, and yes, we call it work and not play. Really it's just semantics, so don't let it bother you.

10. To Montessori teachers, presenting a lesson to a child is an art form. For example, for the 3-6 age child, we captivate the child's attention by talking very little during the lesson and instead making our movements slow and deliberate. This allows the child to focus on our actions and remember the little details that may be forgotten if we were speaking at the same time. One of the classic Montessori lesson techniques you might want to investigate is called The Three Period Lesson.

11. We believe that education can change the world for the better. We are advocates for peace. The children themselves represent a "bright, new hope for mankind". We feel that the work we do as educators, guiding children toward self reliance and compassion, is incredibly important in the grand scheme of future life on Earth. How our children are treated as babies is going to impact our entire civilization when they are all grown up and making decisions that affect others. We are humbled by the great possibilities that exist within the tiniest of humans, and we respect their inner wisdom.

Still confused? It's okay. Montessori philosophy is as vast and deep as the ocean. Start by going to the beach. Feel the wind on your cheeks and listen to the waves crash. It's okay that you don't get it all at once. Then pick something to study. Starfish. Dolphins. Jellyfish. It doesn't matter what you begin with because the animals inside the ocean are interdependent. As you do your research, you will begin to understand the power of the entire system.

Welcome to Montessori!

Surprising Ways to Encourage Cooperation

At one point or another, we all feel the terrible aftertaste of envy in our social relationships. We see the venal colleague who gets ahead or the layabout relative who repeatedly falls into success.

The resulting envy and jealousy is all too human, as Shakespeare well understood. Still, we don't have to reinforce the traits in children.  

Consider the classic parental headache - sibling rivalry. Siblings get jealous of the attention the other receives. They become intensely concerned with equity. They fight. This is all natural.

But we parents all too readily add fuel to the fire. We pit the children against each other and declare one the winner. We visibly reward the child who is on "good behavior" and punish the child who is "acting out." We allow them to fight with each other without intervention. We may even ask them, "Why can't you be more like your brother?"

Want two children who hate each other? Do these things.

(Need more evidence? Read Alfie Kohn's excellent No Contest: The Case Against Competition.)

No Simple Solution

Here's the really tricky part. We may not even be aware we're setting kids up for failed relationships. Imagine a parent who, with the purest of intentions, regularly praises her oldest child for his math skills.

Does the always alert younger brother understand that the intention is to build the older brother's confidence and sense of accomplishment or does he interpret the message to be "you're never going to be as good as your brother"?

And what if it is the latter? Should the parent forgo the praise? Doesn't the older child deserve the kudos? 

To praise or not to praise, that is the question -- a simple question without a simple "yes/no" answer. Ironically, our culture is rife with social rules, linguistic queues, non-verbal tics, and more emphasizing duality as the norm. It's either victory or defeat, right or wrong, good or bad. We learn this as kids and live by it as adults

Musical Chairs Isn't Fun

Teaching kids that there are winners and losers is so deeply engrained in our culture, it feels nearly impossible to root out. Think about that most benign of children's birthday party games -- musical chairs.

The very thought that musical chairs could be harmful may feel absolutely ridiculous -- the kind of hippy dippy nonsense destroying our world. And, true enough, to an adult observer, the game is a kind of old timey fun. 

But let's imagine you're not an adult watching the amusing, chaotic scramble. Instead, you are a five years old playing the game.

You're feeling a bit awkward as you nervously walk to the music. With each step, you steel your nerves. Suddenly, the music stops. You lurch toward the closest chair and crash into the seat, edging your best friend out.

Everyone laughs and yells your friend's name. You laugh too, but it's fake. You're a bit sorry your friend didn't get a chair, but gosh you are so much more thankful it isn't you!

A chair is removed. The music begins again. The anticipation builds. You get the hang of the game and intentionally hesitate with each step so that you are always in front of a chair, never in the middle.

More chairs are removed as your friends join the crowd of losers. You realize suddenly that there are only a few chairs left. You're starting to think about winning. Your confidence is high.

The music stops again, and you lurch for the nearest empty seat only to find that there isn't one. Everyone is laughing, and your face burns in humiliation as everyone is pointing at you and yelling.

You smile good naturedly, but inside your stomach is churning. You join the group of losers, and once you sit down, you are immeasurably relieved in the solidarity. Your best friend sits beside you, and you are equal again. You are both losers.

The positive skills taught through the game must outweigh the other, especially in their interactions with each other.

The Lessons We Teach

So is musical chairs destroying our children? Should we toss it and other competitive games out because it might hurt someone's feelings?

Not at all. Competition is natural and has pushed humanity to great heights -- funding the space race and Renaissance -- and great horrors -- fueling war and exploitation. 

By exposing children to healthy competition, we can arm them with the social skills they need to handle victory and defeat with grace and courtesy and guide them away from internalizing -- or worse yet, replicating -- its darker side.

But teaching healthy competition means being aware of the implicit lessons the game or competition is teaching. The positive skills taught through the game must outweigh the other, especially in their interactions with each other.

Consider what is learned from musical chairs.

  • It's okay to put winning above friendship.

  • Rooting for others to lose is socially acceptable.

  • Losing is humiliating.

The answer isn't necessarily to toss musical chairs, but we may want to do it differently. We want children to value their human bonds! We want them to root for each other! We want them to feel good about themselves! What would a version of the game look like that fostered those lessons?

We Make the Rules

The other day, our family got out a bingo-style game the kids had received for Christmas. The kids were excited to play it, but instead of reading the rules for determining a winner, they made up their own rules, making it a cooperative game.

We each used more than one bingo card so we would have lots of pictures to look at. We enjoyed matching the picture cards to the pictures on our bingo cards. We stacked them up when we got extra pieces.

When another player needed a piece, we noticed. It was the perfect opportunity to practice skills like generosity and what Montessori called "grace and courtesy" like this: "My brother needs a bat! I have this extra bat. Would you like to have it?"

Competition was alive and well in that moment -- the drive to complete the puzzle. But so was the cooperation. Not long after the game ended, the boys were back at it - arguing about who got the bigger apple.

The game didn't end the sibling rivalry, but it did reinforce a critical lesson. People may disagree, but when one wins, we all win.

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Please, Don't Spoil Summer Vacation

Sometimes the seasons come upon us shockingly quick. It's not just the weather and fashions. Our moods and ideas about what constitutes good living shift with the season as well. 

This is a good thing. We all need a good shake-up now and then. Besides, we are human animals - syncing with the natural world is only natural. 

But sometimes we find ourselves scrambling to accommodate the seasonal hype around us. We think we need to create an entirely new, seasonally appropriate routine for our children. 

The Summertime Blues

As I write this, summer camp registration is at full tilt. Anxiety, too. Hearts plummet at the thought that we may have missed a grand opportunity for our little ones because we were too slow to register. (Naughty parent.

And hot damn, those classes can be expensive! We find ourselves in a debate about what's the most worthy investment for our families and how much we can afford. 

Five half days of "art camp" + several hundred dollars + a preschooler who does enjoy painting but truthfully loves playgrounds more = money well spent? 

But if we don't sign them up for all this enrichment, aren't we depriving them of The Essential Summertime Experiences of Their Generation? Aren't we RUINING them? 

And besides, what else are we going to do with the kids? People have to work, you know? 

So what's a parent to do?

Over Scheduled

I know that many of you are filling up your summer bucket lists, contemplating vacations, and looking at your calendars thinking about how bored your kids will be unless you figure out how to fill the weeks ahead. 

Out of curiosity, I asked some of my friends for their favorite summertime memories. Take a look at what they said.

"Summers in the country... North Carolina at grandma's. Running down red clay roads. Eating berries off the vine and apples off the tree."

"Outside at the pool all day. At camp hiking and rock-climbing. Reading all day in the cool basement. Ice cream and frozen candy bars. Sailing." 

"Pool from the time I got up to the time I went to bed. Only stopping for adult lap swim."

"Swimming in the dark at night and eating my mom's homemade ice pops after hours of swimming in our pool. And pretending to be Whitney Houston while singing along with 'I believe the children are the future' on our record player."

Is it just me or are you noticing a theme here? I can see these children running around barefoot, fingers sticky and dark with berry juice.

I see them dive bombing into the pool from the highest diving board over and over screaming with anticipation as the dopamine floods their brains and the water cushions the fall. I see their frozen treats dripping onto hot sidewalks.

I see myself as a little girl melting play dough in the hot sun on my backyard slide. Warm thunderstorms, sitting out on the porch with my mama, swinging back and forth and cuddling.

Making up symphonies inside my head while laying under a Texas-sized ceiling fan in a house without air conditioning. That enormous geode my brother and I found in our yard and lugged up onto the porch only to shatter the thing into a million glorious crystals.

The Simple Things

If you ask your children this question twenty years from now what they cherished most about their summers, I'm hedging a bet that it will be something slow, long, lazy, and amazingly simple that you'd never think to put in your summer bucket list.

You can make this happen for them. Just try a little less hard to schedule everything, ok?

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Good Teaching Is Student Centered. Stop Depicting It Otherwise.

The first Tuesday of May is National Teacher Day, a factoid once known mostly by pedants and calendar completist, but thanks to Google's doodle celebrating the day of appreciation, the word may be getting out. 

Too bad they botched it.

Google Doodles have a long history of controversy, which says something about the company's brand and influence. The company has long insisted that the doodles are apolitical -- meant for fun and a way for staffers to express their passions. This may be true but being featured as a doodle is no small thing.

Literally. According to internet live stats, Google processes about 40,000 searches a second, or about 3.5 billion searches a day.

Even if you discount the people who won't see a particular doodle (Google varies them by nation), the number of impressions (or times Google shows it to a person) is huge.

An "A" in Good Intentions

So many, many people will see the doodle, and isn't that a good thing? Aren't teachers worthy of praise? Besides, how controversial could a teacher appreciation doodle really be?

Google Doodle for Teacher Appreciation Day (May 9, 2017)

Google Doodle for Teacher Appreciation Day (May 9, 2017)

Because this is the Internet, I'm not ready to discount the likelihood that someone, somewhere will find a way to make it controversial, but the doodle itself isn't particularly inviting of controversy; we're not talking Pepsi-level tone deafness.

Rather, it is skillfully designed if not somewhat banal and obvious. And therein lies the rub.

Google needs to create an image that catches the user's eye while conveying the idea pictorially. This means it has to be simple to understand. Enter the visual shorthand.

To wit, the doodle features six figures in front of a screen that flips through representations of various math and science subjects. The largest figure is the teacher. We know this because... well... it's teaching. Or at least teaching in the way we generally think about teaching.

Notice that it's much larger than the other figures (teachers work with children!); it has a book and glasses (teachers are academics!). And, most importantly, it has a pointer and half open mouth (teachers love pontificating on important things.)

Break the Stereotype

Aubrey and David Discuss the Whys and Hows of Student Centered Learning

None of these things are necessarily slams, but they SHOULD NOT BE shorthand for "teacher," especially the pontificator in chief. That they are says much about our profession and how people think of it... the sage on the stage, the professor spouting knowledge like a font.

It is exactly the kind of thing Maria Montessori warned against when she talked about treating children as though they were empty vessels to be filled. That was nearly a century ago. The image - and practice - persists.

Owning Our Narrative

Ultimately, this isn't Google's fault. They wanted to celebrate educators. Rather, the fault is ours as educators. We own it.

But always it is done collaboratively, with the emphasis on the learner’s journey, not the teacher’s knowledge

We have to flip the narrative so that when people think of teaching, they imagine a place dominated by students. The teacher guides, watches, helps, supports. But he does not only or always teach. 

Sometimes, the students teach; sometimes, the teacher learns. But always it is done collaboratively, with the emphasis on the learner's journey, not the teacher's knowledge.

This is the image we want to come to mind when people think of teaching. Teachable moments come in many forms. Google is creating one. Let's take the lesson to heart.

Montessori Education in the Internet Age

Walk into any quality Montessori school in the world, and you will see some of the most beautifully prepared learning environments imaginable. Wooden materials, carefully arranged shelves, observant teachers.

Chart: Pew Research Center

Chart: Pew Research Center

What you won't find, by and large, is a tech-heavy curriculum.

Though nearly every adult American owns a cellphone (see Pew Research chart), rare is the Montessori school where smartphones, tablets, or computers play a major role.

A Strained Relationship

The lack of computer-based assignments might surprise public school teachers given how gung-ho traditional schools are about technology.

Montessorians, by comparison, have a somewhat less enthusiastic opinion with technology - especially in the early years. In Montessori schools, the amount of technology integration depends on the educational philosophy of the teachers.

Some schools ban all technology, believing that children need to learn with their own eyes and hands and absolutely not while watching a screen. Some schools have a computer in the classroom but only allow it for teachers. Some classrooms have computers in the classroom and allow students to use them for internet research and to practice typing skills.

Occasionally you will find a Montessori classroom that embraces more than that in the elementary years, but at least in the Montessori 0-6 year old scene, you will find a near-absence of the digital. If you are a parent at home exploring apps on your tablet or smartphone, you may see apps for something like "Montessori Math" or "The Pink Tower" (a quintessential Montessori material). 

Don't fool yourself into thinking that if you download this app for your child, he is doing the activity that Montessori developed and adopted into her method. There's a reason for all those beautiful wooden materials.

What Changes, What Doesn't

Aubrey and David Discuss Healthy Technology Use

Maria Montessori was not aware of the enormous technological changes that would occur in the years after her death (1952), but she was adamant that the learning of abstract ideas begin with the child's own hands using concrete objects.

I suspect that Dr. Montessori would approve of some careful and limited use of technology were she alive today. How could she not be amazed by the global social connections? Today, a grandparent might video chat with a faraway grandchild. A parent-to-be might search for tips on preparing the home for a new baby. A student might research the Galapagos Islands not only by reading books but also by watching a video of a family on vacation describing what they see and feel. There are lots of interesting opportunities for us to use technology in a way that enhances our exploration of and connection to the world that most of us see as positive additions to a learning environment.

There is not An App for That

The problem arises when we attempt to replace a valuable hands-on experience with an abstract one too early. Take the pink tower, for example. To an inexperienced eye, the child simply stacks a set of ten cubes of varying sizes into a tower, with the largest on the bottom and the tiniest on the top. An app on a tablet could presumably replace this activity with a virtual representation of pink squares that can be dragged and dropped into position.

A child of preschool age can certainly learn to order these squares by size, but so much is lost in value! When the child carefully lifts each cube, its size is known by a myriad of sensory cues that go far beyond the visual. The shape and size of each smooth side is fully explored by little hands; the weight of each is compared to the next. A misplacement of the next-smallest cube is easily recognizable when the heavier cube on top causes the tower to wobble or fall.

Even the tower itself is subconsciously compared to the child's own body size and the mathematics of cubing in increments of 1 cm each is internalized in order to develop future algebraic thinking. Swiping the pink blocks on an app is about as realistic as a flight simulator is to flying an actual airplane.  

So How Do We Know What's Appropriate? 

No doubt, we have a ton of intriguing technological inventions at our disposal for use with kids, and as parents and teachers, it is up to us to decide how they may or may not fit in with our philosophy of education. We must be especially careful when simply regurgitating tried and true teaching techniques and manipulatives in a virtual format. What looks like the same activity may not actually nurture the child's full engagement of the senses, which is a non-negotiable in any quality material designed for early childhood.

Our children deserve for us to constantly question the educational validity of any of the techy stuff in their environment. There is only one path to collective knowledge of what is helpful or a hinder to a child's development, and that is through continued observation of the children themselves.

Let's Nurture Children's Intrinsic Joy of Work

You don’t have to look very hard to see just how deeply society links work and self-worth. Our fables teach children that work means life - the industrious ant survives the winter while the lazy grasshopper starves. We extol the virtues of labor in idioms like "an honest day's work" and sayings like "haste makes waste.” We equate hard word with spiritual worth in proverbs (literally in Proverbs) like “In all toil there is profit, but mere talk tends only to poverty.”

There’s a good reason we have these expression and stories; the community’s survival relies on people doing their jobs. It's why we've designed so many extrinsic motivators for work - from salaries and promotions to gold stars and letter grades. We want tangible proof that our work has value to society.

But beyond the fear of societal ruin, a job well done (another great idiom) just feels good. It is intrinsically motivating. And when the social benefit and the inner joy find balance - magic! Your body and mind feel good, born from the inner satisfaction of personal success and the quantifiable contribution to something greater.

The Daily Grind

But if work is so satisfying, why are an ever increasing number of Americans unhappy at work? For one, the nature of work has changed dramatically in recent decades, growing increasingly abstract. Consider - In 1860, over half of the American labor force was in agriculture. Now it’s less than 2 percent. 1860 may seem far off, but when talking about social change, it’s like an atomic blast - fast, hot, and destructive.

If you want to put it in the context of one person’s lifetime, in the early 1970s 1 in 4 Americans worked in manufacturing. Today, it’s less than 1 in 10. That’s fewer than work in healthcare, retail, or business. All told, over 80 percent of Americans work in the service industry, largely making intangible things that contribute to a bigger, slightly less intangible thing.

And as work becomes more and more intangible, the assigned extrinsic value becomes more and more important. I can’t point to the miles of rail I helped lay, but I can point to the money in my bank account or the size of my car.

Old Challenges Made New

To be clear, the paycheck is not a new idea; the concept of wages likely goes back to the Neolithic Period. Likewise, this isn’t a romanticized notion of a past where everyone owned the fruits of their labors. Historically, few people truly owned their work, just as few owned their land. Wealth inequity is as old as wealth accumulation.

But we underestimate the radicalness of social change at our own peril. Ultimately, it’s a matter of tempo. What is the tempo at which our biology can change versus to the tempo of change around us? When they sync, you have a music. When they don't, you have disharmony.

The measure of a Person 

The coupling of one person’s labor to a machine few understand and fewer control makes our tangible contributions to society so abstract as be practically invisible. Or, to paraphrase Eliot, we measure out our lives with coffee spoons.

Over the years, as abstraction has invaded our lives, we’ve come up with lots of ways to give it intrinsic definition. We talk about “climbing a career ladder” or “building a future.” No surprise that these idioms give the abstract (career, the future) physical properties (climbing, building).

And it all works fairly well. It’s not perfect. There are many workers struggling with the shift from more tangible industrial work to the service industry. But when you look at how many Americans have access to clean water, reliable food stocks, health care, education, and other living standard indices, society as a whole is in a better spot than it was in 1860. Plus, abstract work can be very fulfilling. The service industry creates many social goods.

But there is danger in the system’s complexity. What any one person does at work is a very small cog in the insanely complicated machine of modern capital and finance. And like all complicated machines, when something goes wrong, it's a huge task to figure out what broke, why it broke, and how to fix it (see also, subprime mortgage crisis).

And for more and more people, the machine is feeling broken, our faith in it misplaced or abused.

Finding Frederick

So what to do? To start, we must acknowledge - as a society - that meaningful work isn't always (or only) quantifiable on a spreadsheet. I'm reminded of Leo Lionni’s wonderful children's book Frederick about a mouse (the titular Frederick) who prepares for winter by collecting memories of the summer.

His peers (who are all collecting food) mock him for laziness until the dead of winter comes and the others find that Frederick's memories (expressed through art) have immeasurable value - helping keep the group warm through the very long, cold winter.

Perhaps more than ever, as the old tangible forms of work disappear, we need to weave this lesson into our social contract. We must build a society that values its Fredericks, and we must start by updating our attitudes about education.

Training children for jobs is practically a guiding tenet to schooling, but it must end. As Maria Montessori warned in The Absorbent Mind:

“The child is not an inert being who owes everything he can do to us, as if he were an empty vessel that we have to fill. No, it is the child who makes the man, and no man exists who was not made by the child who once he was.”

In other words, respectful education prepares children for life. It doesn't train children for job success; it nurtures their creative and intellectual powers, divorcing them from any external mark, and doing so keeps alive their intrinsic love of work.

A chance to get it right

If it's any comfort, these are not new problems. Lionni published Frederick in 1967; Montessori The Absorbent Mind in 1949. Eliot’s “Prufrock” goes all the way back to 1915.

But all the more reason that we must engage. This problem isn't going away on its own. Industrialization, automation, modern finance -- their effects aren't ending. But as parents and educators, we can play a critical role in helping society redefine its attitudes about work.

In fact, it could be our generation's truest, most authentic and important work.

Considering Homeschooling? Here’s How to Make It Work

Curious about homeschooling? You’re not alone. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 3.5% of school-aged children (and growing) are homeschooled. For context, the number of homeschooled kids in 1999 was about 850,000. Today, it’s over 1.7 million.

There is no one reason why people choose to homeschool. Likewise, while there are definite clusters in the data -- most homeschoolers are white, have three or more children, and are two parent homes where only one partner works -- there is also surprising diversity.

For example, parents’ educational level isn’t a differentiator; homeschoolers are evenly split amongst parents with some college, bachelor's degrees, and graduate degrees. The same kind of split holds for income levels and grade ranges.

"A Trial By Fire"

Whatever draws a person to homeschooling, one thing cuts across -- it can feel like a trial by fire. Even those trained in education and aligned with a homeschool-friendly philosophy can face times when they’re not exactly sure what to do. In fact, sometimes that educational training can work against the homeschooling parent.

As a classroom teacher, you learn how to manage a classroom full of similarly aged children. You try to find a happy medium between what works for all kids in the class and what each unique child needs. You try to design experiences that balance academic rigor and classroom control; your peers and supervisors tend to evaluate your quality against this balance. And you get to learn from your mistakes. You practice and repeat your lessons each year and get better along the way.

Homeschooling breaks everyone one of the rules. You may have children at wildly different development stages, not even bounded by age. Classroom control is not a thing. And there is no learning from repetition. No one has ever homeschooled Your Child at This Particular Age before. Ever. Including you.

The Grand Adventure

This doesn’t mean homeschooling is impossible, but it does require a commitment to experimentation. With every new stage of development your children pass through, you are learning anew, growing with them, changing your technique, curriculum, and relationship. You are on a grand adventure with your children, and although you will gain confidence, your approach will be uniquely catered to your child and your family.

If you want homeschooling to work, you have to be ready to experiment, fail, and experiment again. You must commit to education being an inseparable component of your relationship with your child. School is not a place; it is a journey. It doesn’t begin when your child reaches "school age." It starts at conception.

In other words, you've been building this education thing from the ground up all along.

Top Ten tips

So how do you make it work? Good curriculum and a solid understanding of education are critical, but every child-parent dynamic is unique. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring these ten tips for homeschooling success:

  1. Follow your child.

  2. Adopt a theory of education.

  3. Be a mentor, not a "teacher.”

  4. Study child development and psychology.

  5. Use local learning resources.

  6. Prepare a supportive home learning environment.

  7. Join a homeschooling community.

  8. Stay up-to-date on educational research and trends.  

  9. Contemplate your daily rhythm.

  10. Nurture yourself.

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The Journey to Adulthood: Age 12 - 18

This is part of a series about the four planes of development. Each plane corresponds to a significant period of human development, running from birth through early adulthood.


If you've ever thought that living with a teenager is like living with a toddler, you're not that far off. Adolescence, the third plane of development, is a time of great transformation that mirrors, in many ways, that of early childhood (the first plane).

The relative calm of the second plane (6 - 12) buckles under a surge of hormones, bringing with them a body on fire and a mind practically incapable of anything but looking inward.

The Inner Storm

During this time, when we observe young adolescents between the ages of twelve and fifteen, we often see them wallow in self loathing, leap without looking, and sleep until lunchtime.

They seem self-centered and egotistical -- the center of the universe. They are highly susceptible to both addiction and mental illness. There is a shockingly high risk of suicide.

These are children in a crisis of development.

A Four Letter Word for "Children"

Teenagers are hard. Little wonder that many adults roll their eyes at even the word "teenager." Compare it to the word "adolescent," which shares an ending (-escent) with lovely words like "effervescent," "luminescent," and "iridescent."

Roads go ever ever on, Under cloud and under star, Yet feet that wandering have gone, Turn at last to home afar. Eyes that fire and sword have seen, And horror in the halls of stone, Look at last on meadows green, And trees and hills they long have known.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

These words convey a general feel of a changing, a flickering, a movement, a shining. "Teenager" does not. It begins with a whine and ends in a raging growl -- two characteristics associated with this plane.

Yet "adolescent" is more accurate. Like the changing, moving effervescent spring, humans in the third plane are experiencing a period of intense, wild, and wonderful change.

The Second Half

By age fifteen or so, the fire is still burning, but the transformation is becoming more peaceful. The creative inner work that was done in the first half of this plane is being perfected. All of life shows this pattern. An ebb and flow.

Ages fifteen to eighteen are the "flow" of the third plane. You are likely to look at a seventeen year old and see a great gain in decision making skills and a resurgence in academic interest compared to a few years earlier. This is a sign that while not fully developed, the child is seeing himself more as an adult, looking outward into the world, the universe in its proper place again.

We have a tendency to think of development as something that happens to kids, petering out sometime after high school, but that is not the case. Development does not stop with the third plane (nor even the fourth plane). It is an endless journey, a road that goes on ever and ever. 

The Journey to Adulthood: Ages 18 - 24

This is part of a series about the four planes of development. Each plane corresponds to a significant period of human development, running from birth through early adulthood.

The first three planes of development (0 - 6, 6 - 12, 12 - 18) address age ranges that, by most contemporary definitions, fit neatly within our concept of "childhood." But what about someone in the fourth plan (18 - 24)? 

Before answering, consider this. Contemporary Americans would balk at the idea of a 11 year old in the workforce, yet in 1900 18% of the U.S. labor force was under 16. Today, billions are spent making and selling things to high schoolers, yet the concept of a teenager didn't exist before 1922

In other words, our definition of childhood is not an ever-fixed star. It is a social construct that changes to reflect the norms and standards of the time. 

The Endless Journey

Whatever we choose to label those in the final plane, we know it is a period of relative calm and maturity marked by a desire to find one's place in society. Montessori described it as a time "when the individual can develop the spiritual strength and independence for a personal mission in life." 

In keeping with the patterns of the first three planes, the fourth plane covers a six year period. However, the actual end of the fourth plane is a matter of debate. Some researchers argue it ends sometime between twenty-four and thirty. Others argue there is not an ending so much as a fading into older life. The aching and stretches of childhood simply become part of the past and are no longer relevant. 

The road to adulthood is long but the journey of the soul never ending. 

Let Spring Grow a Love for Nature

The winter is long. The grass dry. The wind biting. Fingers numb. We retreat to our warm homes and look inward toward each other, and we wait.

And then... a robin is sighted. Buds on trees give us hope. The emergence of a lone daffodil seals the deal, and we feel relief in our connectedness to the warm earth once more.

Spring is returning.

Young children are naturally inspired to go outside and explore during this time of year. Reading books about Spring, celebrating Spring holidays, and engaging in the ever-popular Spring cleaning ritual are great ways to acknowledge the seasonal shift.

However, if we are to truly nurture the whole child, we must stimulate all of their senses. 

The education which a good mother or a good modern teacher gives today to the child who, for example, is running about in a flower garden is the counsel not to touch the flowers, not to tread on the grass; as if it were sufficient for the child to satisfy the physiological needs of his body by moving his legs and breathing fresh air.
— Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method

Teach the Child How to Touch

April showers bring May flowers, the better to entice eager little fingers. The phrase "Don't touch!" may accurately reflect the parental instinct to protect fragile flowers from a toddler's grasp, but it is not a phrase that fosters learning.

The next time you see your child reach for a flower in someone else's garden, teach him instead HOW to touch - gently, with one finger, on one petal.

Whisper that the flowers are fragile. Convey the reverence for nature's beauty with your own brief caress. Feel the dirt and look up in the sky. Say, "These flowers are here for everyone to enjoy. We want to leave them just like this so that they can keep drinking water from the ground and reaching for the sun."

Find Opportunities for Fewer Rules

Asking your children not to disturb garden flowers is one thing. Asking children not to touch any flowers ignores their need to explore. Children need to engage all their senses (touch, smell, taste) and talk about the little green, growing things in the ground. This means being allowed to freely explore.

If you have access to an open space where children can pluck daisy petals and examine roots, seek that experience right away and return often! And don't overthink it. Even a patch of weeds in the cracks of the sidewalk can offer a satisfying experience to a child. What matters is that you've nurtured the child's natural curiosity.

Plant a Garden 

Long gone are the days when most children were told to go outside and play unsupervised. Likewise, modern farm technology and urbanization have significantly changed how most people conceptualize their source of food.

The nature deficit has dire consequences for humanity’s future

Ask ten adults what, say, a broccoli flower looks like and how to collect the seeds to plant more broccoli, and you are likely to get nine furrowed eyebrows. This nature deficit has dire consequences for humanity's future.

When we lose touch with how our vegetables are grown and meat is raised, we begin to make lifestyle choices that are not conducive to sustaining our physical lives here on Earth. 

Get Involved

Change begins with us. Together, examine the seeds in an apple. Spit a cherry pit into the grass. Roll an avocado's curious, ball-like seed across a table. Put a potato halfway in water and see what happens. Visit a petting farm. Look for ants.

Go to a farmer's market and let your children pick out something locally grown to taste. I promise it will be different (and better) than what you can buy in a grocery store.

Because nature can feel more and more remote from our daily lives, we must create hands-on outdoor experiences for their children. As Maria Montessori said, "place the soul of the child in contact with creation." 

And remember - you don't need to go crazy creating official gardening lesson plans. Simply set aside some time for puttering and weed plucking. If you can grow a whole garden of food to eat, that's wonderful. If you don't have the time, resources, or inclination for it, grow one herb in a small pot, and help your child tend it daily.

Small changes can lead to great things. Just ask the seed.

Note: I'm teaching a new course on introducing children to botany. Learn more here. 

Human Development is Messy. Montessori's Four Planes Helps.

Have you ever raised a litter of kittens? It's pretty amazing. Kittens are only kittens for a short time, little nothings with sharp claws and silky fur. Within just six months, they have changed into long, sleek, almost-adults capable of having litters of their own. 

Watching kittens grow -- or plants sprout -- makes development seem so orderly and straight. We ingest calories; we grow bigger. We acquire information; we get smarter. Inputs and outputs.

Not a Line But a Wave

The truth is that growth happens not in a steady trickle but in waves of passion, long periods of lethargy, occasional bouts of depression and changed interests. Growing is push-pull, grab and release, ache and exaltation.

To us, the cat is the miracle of life in miniature. In July, it's a kitten. By Christmas, it's having kittens. But to the cat, the journey is long and hard and begins before it takes a breath. The time spent in the womb and the effort made in his own birth are intense and miraculous.

We forget that when our kitten's eyes were sealed shut, it must have felt like he was seeking nourishment out of the darkness for ages.

We overlook the energy it required to learn the physical skills needed to hunt for food -- to try and lift his entire body into the air and - for the first time - pounce.

It is the same with humans, but since our childhoods are so much longer, so, too, the journey. By adulthood, we've lost our memories of the darkness of the womb, the ache in our muscles from learning to stand upright and walk. Even the long, painful years we spend yearning for independence yet subject to the whims of adults fade in time.

But these events shape us -- whether in our conscious minds or not -- and when we take it all in, from conception to maturity, we see it is a long road worthy of our admiration. Growing up should be celebrated.

The Four Planes of Development

Still, our drive to find linear order in growth is strong. To counter, we find guidance in Maria Montessori's work. She described human development as occurring in a series of four planes, or periods, and in 1951 developed a graphic to help explain the concept. Here's a version:



The flame at birth represents the beginning of life: the spark of existence. As the child grows up and passes into and out of each plane, different characteristics emerge. They are surprisingly consistent across all of humanity regardless of culture.

The graphic is powerful because it lets us see that development is not as a single, smooth line but rather like waves. It very clearly distinguishes the different planes of development from one another yet shows their balance and unity. Notice, for example, how infancy and adolescence mirror each other, as does the elementary child and the college age almost-adult.

Moreover, it captures the journey within each plane itself -- for example, the change at age 3 from toddler to preschooler. Growth and development become like waves within waves, a turbulent ebb and flow that captures the truth of the matter. Growing up is hard.

The Story Continues

For all it's strengths, no single image can really capture the complexity of development. The sharp points of the triangles and the heavy lines convey too much rigidity or structure. Growth is more like the gradual lift and decline of a hill, not the stiff peak of a mountain. (Maria must have felt the same hesitation because she later developed a more organic visualization).

None-the-less, thinking of child development in this way is truly powerful, for it simultaneously recognizes the ebb and flow of development while giving it an understandable structure. Like the kitten that seems to age before our eyes, the chart makes tangible what is abstract. The miracle of life in miniature.

Singing Together Is More Important Than You Think

Ever meet someone who claims they can’t sing? Maybe you even greet that person when you look in the mirror. Well, science has a message for you -- you’re almost certainly wrong.

Researchers estimate that only about 2 percent of humans lack the ability to detect differences between musical notes. Plus, music is found in all human societies and dates back ages (we’ve found 40,000 year old flutes).

In short - while the other 98% of us may not have a secret Diana Ross buried inside, we’re almost certain to have the ability to sing.

Circle Time is Good Medicine

Singing makes us feel feel good (promoting the release of oxytocin and endorphin) and is a critical tool for social bonding. In fact, singing may have evolved specifically for that purpose.

In other words, sharing music make society work better. The only reasonable conclusion is that daily circle time singing also makes our classroom communities work better.

And if all that’s not enough to convince you to sing with children, music is great for building up the brain. Researchers have positively linked college students’ access to music programs with their likelihood of graduation and shown that, for younger kids, intensive exposure to music at an early age improves cognitive outcomes.

Teaching Cumulative Songs

Because singing is basically as human as human can be, you don’t need a degree in musicology to make or enjoy it. However, a bit of knowledge about how music works might boost your confidence and get your creative juices flowing. You might even know more than you realize!

Case in point - if you’ve ever sung “Old MacDonald” or “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” you’ve sung a cumulative song. “Cumulative song” is a fancy way to describe a song where each verse builds on the last (i.e., the lyrics accumulate) in a repeating pattern.

Here's an example using the cumulative classic “The Green Grass Grew All Around”:

The Benefits to the Child

Cumulative songs are fun and beneficial. Because the singers must remember an ever growing list of items (e.g., birds, bugs, eyelashes), cumulative songs have a game-like quality good for sharpening memory.

Additionally, because they have simple, repeated structures, they’re easier to teach and learn, making them great for social bonding events.

Their predictability also make them great for improvisation. For example, try leading children in a version of the “The Green Grass” where you get absurdly tiny (e.g., a germ, an atom, an electron).

So get out there and sing with your kids. You may not be pitch perfect, and that’s perfectly okay! 

Ready to try it yourself? Check out our guide and printable for “There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.”

The Journey to Adulthood: Birth to Age 6

This is part of a series about the four planes of development. Each plane corresponds to a significant period of human development, running from birth through early adulthood. 

Unlike many of our mammalian cousins, newborn humans arrive essentially helpless -- half blind, completely reliant on others for food, no ability to escape danger. Some even consider the first few months of life more an extension of the pre-natal journey (a fourth trimester). 

Still, in the grand scheme of things, that early period of extreme helplessness is brief. Within months, baby has gone from an eating and sleeping machine with few communication tools to a curious toddler navigating the world.

A few years later, the toddler is a child running, playing, speaking, reading, doing math, telling jokes, and otherwise well on her way to becoming a regular, old human being. 

A Time Like No Other

Early human development may seem a snail's pace when compared to horses, who all but walk out of the womb, but don't let looks deceive you. While gross and fine motor skills may be crude (or non-existent) at first, there is a raging fire of growth and development inside that most complex of machines -- the human brain.

Consider - "Research has shown that half of a person's intelligence potential is developed by age four" and that the brain reaches "half its mature weight by about six months and 90 percent of its final weight by age eight." 

The First Plane: Birth to Age 6

While humans never stop developing, what happens in those very early years is unique, remarkable, and greatly responsible for shaping a person's entire life. The scientist and educational pioneer Maria Montessori defined this period as the first plane.  

Montessori work stems from an era when our understanding about how the brain works reached new heights (both Freud and Jung were contemporaries). A physician by training, Montessori applied her skills of observation and diagnosis to her studies of childhood development and learning. From this work, she was able to define and describe the qualities four distinct planes (or phases) of human development. 

The Absorbent Mind

During the first plane (birth to age six), the mind is like a sponge, greedily soaking up information and experiences primarily. Montessori describes the mind of a young child as "absorbent" with good reason.

Just how absorbent is the mind? Consider the gulf between what a one week old and a six year old knows and can do.

We can make sense of this epic journey if we think of it as a move from unconscious to conscious thought.

In the early years, the child absorbs information fairly unconsciously, primarily through the senses. At around age three, the child enters the second half of the plane, becoming increasingly susceptible to direct adult influence and instruction. Still, the two halves of the journey remain bound by the supreme absorbency of the mind.

Adult Mindfulness

Because first plane children are so absorbent and ready to learn, adult interactions require a high-level of mindfulness. What an adult says or does will have a lasting, perhaps permanent, effect on the child.

That said, the human brain is also incredibly malleable and never stops growing and developing. In other words - "Parents and teachers, you WILL make mistakes. The child WILL survive. Relax!"

The key to success with a first plane child is to follow the child's lead. If you provide the child enrichment, let her naturally curiosity drive the learning, and model with regularity (not perfection) the characteristics and behaviors you hope to foster, you will succeed. The child will learn and explore with a ferocity we adults only wish we could replicate.

Babies -- we could learn a lot from them.

The Garlic Peeling Work: A Lesson in Mindset

If you ever find yourself wanting to practice patience, I suggest no greater classroom than a house with a toddler. 

Case in point. One morning, as I sleepily stirred oatmeal on the stove, I glanced over to the fridge just in time to see the door fly open and my youngest son jump out clutching a bulb of garlic. I hear him "oooooh" and giggle mischievously to himself.

He brings the garlic over to his child-sized kitchen table, sits down, and begins to peel the cloves.

I think to myself, "Garlic?  Yuck. That's going to make a mess."

I close my eyes and imagine myself wrestling the garlic bulb from his baby fingers and then enduring the tantrum that will likely ensue.

Not worth it, I think.  I'll clean up the mess later.

So I just turn around and pour my coffee. The smell of garlic starts to mix with the smell of coffee. Gross.

The Work Finds the Child

The melange of oatmeal, coffee, garlic combine with frustration and helplessness. Then I turn around and see that the concentration on his face. With extreme care and focus, he's getting those papery garlic peels off with his itty bitty fingernails.

At this point, some part of my brain recognizes that this is his work. It is taking focused effort, and I see that he is using the pincer grip, developing his fine motor skills.

In fact, Montessori believed that this kind of fine motor skill practice was essential in preparation for writing.

The Garlic Peeling Work

In Montessori classrooms, you will see many different ways teachers inspire their youngest learners to strengthen their fingers.

I have never heard of the "garlic peeling work", but that's probably because it is very smelly and the entire classroom would end up smelling like my kitchen.

The child is very aware of the strong smell, too, and he loves it.  He rubs his nose all over the garlic.  He tastes it.  He sucks on his fingers.

He is very intense and not aware of me at all. He gets two cloves of garlic totally peeled, stands up, and rummages around in the kitchen drawer. He emerges with the cherry pitter and says, "This?"  

It dawns on me that he is looking for the garlic press.  I retrieve it from the drawer and exchange it for the cherry pitter.  "Yes, this!" he exclaims.

He returns to his table and proceeds to press the garlic cloves one at a time, squeezing as hard as he can.  I wordlessly set a bowl down on his table, and he carefully places the garlic cloves into the bowl, throws the garlic press into the sink, and races upstairs because he hears his brother.

Recreating the Lesson

The house is reeking of garlic, and I sip my coffee thinking... the garlic peeling work.  What a great Montessori idea. Except for the smelliness.

I think about how I would set it up in my classroom.

A tray, preferably easily washable.

Two little bowls on it. 

On the left, a bowl just big enough to hold the garlic bulb. On the right, another bowl for the peeled cloves.  

Maybe a red tray with little white bowls.

A garlic press between them.  

The teacher would model cradling the garlic bulb, probing it with her fingers and sniffing it. She would pick at the garlic and act surprised when she revealed the clove inside. She would demonstrate how to peel the garlic, press the garlic, and perhaps quietly suggest that the peeled, pressed cloves will be stored and used for cooking later that day.

She would show the child how to put the garlic skins in the classroom compost bin and make sure the tray is all clean and ready for the next person before returning to the shelf.  She would finish the lesson by washing her hands and drying them.

This is how I see "doing Montessori" as a teacher.   

Preparing the Environment

Do you know that in general, Montessori teachers spend hours thinking a simple work through like this - every single work in the classroom! The perfect sized tray is selected and the perfect bowls are chosen...the bowls that are the most functional and aesthetically appealing.

The teacher practices both the activity and the lesson several times to make sure no steps are left out. The work on the tray is set out from left to right, to mimic the way a person reads and writes. This is the teacher preparing the environment for the children.

Montessori is A State of Mind

When I talk to parents how to "do Montessori" at home, they are often amazed. In their minds, they're imaging the famously beautiful, prepared Montessori classrooms. This is not what they would see if they walk into my perpetually messy home. 

What they would see, though, is respect for the child's choice - a cornerstone of Montessori. Example:

  • In the classroom, the child chooses the garlic pressing work off of a clean, inviting shelf, takes it to his table, and performs the work with concentration.
  • At home, the child sneaks into the fridge, selects the garlic to work with, takes it to his table, explores it, retrieves the press from its home in the kitchen, and feels purposeful about it.

Different but no. In both, the adult is driven by a respect for the child's choice and his work. She honors this moment. She allow it. She recognizes that it is the child's real work and that is what makes you "doing Montessori" in your home, not because you have set up some pretty shelves with works on trays.

How do you see yourself  "doing Montessori"?  I bet it's more often than you realize!