Auto-Education: Too risky for older students? Will students learn only what they want
and not what they need to know?

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“It is therefore necessary that the environment should contain the means of auto-education”

Dr. Maria Montessori, The Advanced Montessori Method – I (1918/1991) p. 57

It invariably comes up in workshops with non-Montessorians or parents: “Don’t they have to be able to take tests for when they go to middle and high school? Will so much choice assure they will be able to get into a good college? (ie: when they go to real school that matters for their future?)

I suppose it’s taken for granted that families want what’s “best” for their children. They want to make sure that the education their children receive will give them plenty of opportunities and choices for their future. But when it comes down to the “how-to’s” the many different opinions about what works get into the weeds…if not into open conflict!

So how do teachers and parents confidently support their children to receive the kind of education that will help them be successful in adulthood?

Step 1: Define “success”

As a product of the 1960’s and 70’s, my college years were filled with education classes that encouraged new systems of education. The examples were perfect for our carefree spirits: Summerhill and free-schooling appealed to those of us who were frustrated by the establishment, whether in school, government, or politics. Like many “revolutions” however, the vision of an education that also offered personal freedoms appeared to lack both outer and inner discipline. It felt like “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” and the outcome wasn’t a better education.

In those days, and even in those since, education continues to struggle with what successful education really is, or what “successful education” even means.

Success is personal. For some families, success means following a prescribed path to an adulthood that offers “riches and fame,” not necessarily in the literal sense, but certainly in the security that specific professions provide. As a result, well-meaning parents may push their child along a path of accelerated goals. When their child struggles to meet the goals, they may even be labeled in negative terms that the child might internalize for a lifetime of feeling inadequate to the task or, if not explicitly, somehow simply deficient.

In the eyes of “no child left behind,” schools have even said that a child who doesn’t read at a certain level by a certain time will never be able to succeed. This kind of thinking limits not only the individual, but also all those around the child who may fail to see their genuine potential, even failing to continue to fully support the child’s growth and development.

Step 2: See the Child Before You

Maria Montessori encouraged adults not only to meet all the physical and emotional needs of children, but to learn to see the humanity in them; to see the “man who exists as a silhouette around the child, a duty towards this man of tomorrow.”*

Montessori school, once I delved into it, offered both the freedom to pursue one’s passions and interests while providing the structure and systems for learning that appealed to the human spirit. Children in Montessori appeared to be truly engaged in pursuing their own learning path, and, once established, had the discipline and understanding of how to go about acquiring the knowledge they needed so
they could move forward in life.

It didn’t happen without careful preparation of a learning environment that went well-beyond the practical set-up of the classroom. The preparation included preparation of the spirit. Dr. Montessori called it the psychic growth of the individual. It didn’t’ happen without a guide who understood how to connect students to their inner purpose. It required teaching ideas and concepts that were often left out of traditional curricula.

Clearly, we have a social duty towards this future man, this man who exists as a silhouette around the child, a duty towards this man of tomorrow. Perhaps a great future leader or a great genius is with us and his power will come from the power of the child he is today. This is the vision which we must have.

Step 3: Teach Goal-setting and Support Students in Making Their Own Goals

Prioritizing is a skill that requires learning about prioritization, discerning how to make prioritizing decisions, and then practicing making those decisions and seeing if they work. Determining what one wants and needs to do, making sure progress in taking place, and enjoying the journey takes time, reflection, and discernment. Mostly it takes time, along with a lot of patience on the part of the adult!

  • Give mini lessons and have short discussions about what it means to want to learn
    something, gain a skill, or meet a requirement.
  • Ask students about the difference between wanting to know something (like everything
    you could know about cats) or needing to know something (like being able to read).
  • Help them to identify the difference between practicing a skill for mastery and being
    engaged in learning something new…while learning the value of both.
  • Revisit goals that are set, taking stock, revising, and staying the course!

Step 4: Help Students See Their Learning: Make it Visible

Making Thinking Visible** changed my thinking about teaching. The ideas and exercises designed to create student awareness of how they think, as well as what they think about their thinking sparked an idea for me: How can I help my students better perceive their learning…make their learning more visible?

I knew that my elementary students were well-beyond the absorbent mind period when they learned through osmosis, and they talked incessantly throughout the day because of their growing sociability and innate desire to be part of the group. I knew I wanted to allow them to be who they were, but I also wanted to have them talking about their learning projects and their growing knowledge base.

I knew that I needed to teach students ways to work together that would bring obvious learning results.

For example: I taught students how to do math work together. First, I taught how to record their process and check the answer; then, how to correct their mistakes. This could be a multi-step set of mini lessons that could be given to the entire class. My older students, who’d already successfully learned this also gave the lessons and worked with the newer, younger students in our class. In time, teaching this method paid off not only in math accuracy and acquisition of growing skills, but it also saved me time because the students were independently in charge of making sure they were learning. Their conversations began to be more focused on those subjects that were occupying their thinking throughout the working/learning period, and they were excited about that!

I say “YES!”

After seeing all the success in learning that came about through these processes, I whole-heartedly believe that all children can become successful in their learning for now and in the future if given the opportunity, support, and trust to do so.

And that’s where the hard part for adults comes in: Letting go and Letting Come. This concept, put forth as Theory U by Otto Scharmer*** , requires the adult to have faith in the children, allowing them to reveal their authentic selves by letting go of prescriptive definitions of success that look a certain way by a specific time. Teasing out the difference between progress and deficits can be a real challenge. We must keep in mind that our adult job is to continually support the child with an eye to the silhouette of the man that surrounds him.

*Maria Montessori, The 1946 London Lectures, p. 140

**(Ritchhart, 2011) Making Things Visible, by Ron Ritchhart, et al.

***(Scharmer, 2009; 2016) Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges

Next Week: Learning to Trust While Making Steady Progress

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