Our upper elementary class is building a tree house. They have a few basic tools, a modicum of materials and lots of ideas. From the drawing board to their own arboreal sanctuary they will have to employ math skills, science and engineering principles and a bit of technology. The project will take months to complete and every student will contribute. I imagine a few parents may be recruited before the project is safe for habitation. But when it is done the tree house will be something they have done together. It will be a true collaborative effort integrating and confirming many of their academic skills.

Dr. Montessori saw that children are in need of activity that applies their knowledge, tests their understanding and stretches their curiosity. The older they get the more complex the projects become. Elementary students typically cook together, run science experiments, create community art projects and garden. They may run a school store, create the school yearbook or host a school fair. By collaborating they are not only testing their own skills, but also learning from one another.

Lately the science and education journals have been full of ideas on how to convert teaching systems to a more concrete, collaborative approach in science, technology, engineering and math. Every teacher conference has a workshop on how to do this. STEM is a popular buzzword in education. It’s a catchy name for an idea Dr. Montessori spoke about in 1946;

“Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not acquired by listening to words, but by experiences in the environment.”

When introduced to the Montessori principles you learn about a woman with great wisdom, foresight and a keen talent for working with children. She travelled the world establishing schools on many continents, collaborating with Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Ghandi, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget. She observed that a classroom for even the very youngest child should not be institutional, but more like a museum, carefully designed to afford great inspiration. As a scientist she saw that the classroom should also be like a laboratory, providing precise equipment that offers learning by experimentation and giving the teacher the opportunity to adjust each child’s learning experience by calibrating the classroom environment accordingly. She presented the idea that the classroom itself should be a collaboration of ideas and philosophies designed to perform a specific function.

As Montessori collaborated with the great thinkers of her time she conceived a method of learning in which children learn from one another and where various subjects support one another. She saw the elementary student using her art, language and math skills to record observations of animals in her science journal, while relating the organism under study to the geography of its native environment.  The younger student would enjoy learning the crafts, cooking, songs and games of a continent as well as the endemic plants and animals. She saw that children must understand and appreciate the diversity and interdependencies of their world in order to become the peaceful citizens she hoped for. Although 106 years later the general public continues to notice the academic advantages of a Montessori education, we teachers still hold Maria’s core motivation close to our hearts, education for peace. The foundation of peaceful living comes from collaboration.

Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University (ASU), described in the October 2012 issue of Scientific American how the school has eliminated the departments of sociology, anthropology, geology and biology to develop more the collaborative schools of Earth & Space Exploration, Human Evolution and Social Change. I had to read the article several times to believe it since I was firmly entrenched in the biology department at ASU for years. I have fond memories of walking down the long halls in the Life Sciences building with the sun shining in through the atrium where the coyote lived…  and of the wild adventures we had as college students, trapping hawks, owls and foxes, climbing down tortoise dens and up ridiculously tall cliffs and blinds, staring down rattlesnakes and dissecting coyote scat. Good times. But right in the midst of all this Earth-saving fun the administration changed and many of the environmental programs were eliminated. We had volumes of important data that no one wanted. Perhaps there is greater perceived value in work coming from something as rich and deep as an Earth & Space Exploration Department rather than a Biology Department.

We hear all the time about how American students are slipping behind Asia and Europe in math and science. I was involved in a discussion on how to improve the science and math standards of a teacher education program at a local college. One person on the advisory board suggested that the standards be made less rigorous saying, “Teachers are afraid of math and science.”  I blurted, “That’s a good reason to make the standards tougher, so their students don’t become adults who are afraid of math and science.” More rigorous, more collaborative and introduced at an earlier age, I say. The administrators in their suits nodded. The teachers looked worried.

It is satisfying and exciting to see the world of education turning increasingly to more collaborative techniques. It gives me great hope that even Sesame Street is more focused on math and science these days. Maria was cutting edge and way ahead of her time. She left us with a methodology that continues to set high standards. We not only need more math, science, engineering and technology in American schools, we need it to be useful and to make sense to our students.  Along with rich classroom experiences every student needs frequent opportunities to confirm lessons in the real world. They need to do work that means something to them, work like building a tree house.

Duna Strachan, BS AMS
Executive Director
Soaring Wings International Montessori School
Park City, Utah USA

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