A different approach to education

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 78 views 

One of the best-kept secrets in Fort Smith is a non-traditional approach to learning created by Italian physician, Dr. Maria Montessori, in the early 20th century. Educational goals for students at The Montessori School of Fort Smith include igniting a child’s natural love of learning and helping them develop the 21st century learning skills that are critical for success.

With a strong interest in psychiatry and child development, Dr. Montessori studied the work of pioneers like Itard and Seguin, Freud, and Jung as she honed her theories and educational methods. Her early work included developing programs for children with special needs. Utilizing hands-on manipulative teaching materials that she created and modeled from Itard and Seguin’s work, Dr. Montessori’s approach to education sharply contrasted the industrial model of most European schools at that time. In fact, much of it contrasts our own public education model today.

The “official” start of the Montessori movement came when Dr. Montessori’s school, Casa dei Bambini, opened in a low-income district of Rome in 1907. Word of the school’s success spread outside of Europe and Dr. Montessori traveled the world training teachers and giving lectures on child development and the importance of educating the “whole child” until her death in 1952.

In the United States, Montessori education caught on early with proponents such as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. However, the enthusiasm faded and it wasn’t until Nancy McCormick Rambusch started the American Montessori Society in 1960 that it gained a strong foot holding. Today, there are more than 4,000 private, public charter, and public Montessori schools in America. Outside of Montessori circles, though, few people truly understand the essence of the approach.

The Montessori School of Fort Smith has its roots at St. Scholastica. Started by Sister Kevin Bopp in 1969. The school is one of the oldest in the country. When the sisters decided to close it in the late 80’s, a group of parents who understood the importance of Montessori education opened the non-profit, Fort Smith Montessori School Inc. This year marks the 46th year of Montessori education in Fort Smith. We educate children age 3 through the 6th grade with plans to open a “Middle School” (or junior high) in fall 2017.

Above anything else, the focus of a Montessori classroom is the child, not the adult. All furnishings are child-size and laid out in a manner that excites and pleases the child. There are no assigned seats in a Montessori classroom, including for the teacher. I often describe it as a beehive. When you enter, you’ll see children busy with their work, while the teacher moves about providing lessons, answering questions, and offering guidance. In essence, the teacher has two key roles: to inspire “awe and wonder” in a child so they are drawn to learning and to observe everything about the child.

The humanities are always an important part of the Montessori classroom, but in elementary they take on an even stronger role. “Cultural work” – history, geography, zoology, and botany – form the foundation of the Montessori curriculum. Dr. Montessori believed they should be taught in a manner that helps children understand the interconnectedness of our universe. Young students utilize the Montessori materials for math and language. As they get older, math and language can also be learned through the cultural work.

It often surprises people that we do not give grades in our elementary program. The truth is that Montessori-trained teachers can learn everything they need to know about a child’s progress and academic standing by observing them work. Every aspect of the child is important – their social interactions, the way they approach a challenge, how they respond to that challenge, and their academic progress. Dr. Montessori’s theories were based on careful, scientific observations of children in the classroom. Today, what she learned through observation is proven by modern brain research conducted with fancy and expensive equipment.

Walk into a Montessori classroom and you will find children at all different points in their learning. Each child moves at the pace that is appropriate for him or her.  Lessons are given on an individual, small group, or large group basis. Only after a child demonstrates mastery on a piece of work, are they allowed to move on to the next lesson. A child who learns quickly is able to move forward with their lessons without waiting on the rest of the class. A child who learns more slowly is able to take the time they need to understand and master the materials. Because they must master a lesson before they progress to the next, there is no reason to give them grades. Everyone would get an A.

While we do not give grades, we do utilize standardized testing each March. Testing is not discussed in the classroom until the week before they are administered. Then, we simply ask our students to do their best. The low-key approach as well as the solid foundation of knowledge students build in the classroom, results in strong test scores.  Our 2015 test scores demonstrate the impact of the Montessori approach to learning. The median grade equivalent for third-grade students was 5.6 in reading; 4.2 in math; and 5.9 overall. Fourth grade students scored a median grade equivalent of 10 in reading; 6.3 in math; and 8.1 overall. For fifth grade students (our smallest group), the median grade equivalent in reading was 6.6; 7.2 in math; and 7.3 overall.

Before you think our test scores are the result of a school full of privileged children, I want to point out that our socioeconomic and cultural diversity is the one of our schools best strengths. We have families from every background imaginable and several other countries.

It is hard to truly understand a Montessori school on paper. Even if you don’t have children but would like to learn more about this approach, visit our website. You’ll get a fascinating insight into the minds and abilities of children.