Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pangea and the history of artistic gymnastics

.....................................What do these items have in common?

  • The Berlin Wall
  • Phinneas Gage
  • The history of artistic gymnastics
  • Prince Karim Aga Khan
  • D-Day
  • Pangea and Alfred Wegner
  • The Big Bang
  • Puerto Rico

This is the list of research topics chosen by the 6th year students in one of our upper elementary classes. I asked each of them where their interest came from to pursue that particular topic. I'll bet you can match the explanation to the topic:

  • "I've been a gymnast for nine years."
  • "I'm going to Puerto Rico over spring break."
  • "My grandfather was in the army during World War II."
  • "I've always been interested in cosmology and theories of the universe."
  • "We had a lesson on brain damage. It was a random conversation during a geometry lesson. A lot of times that happens. We learn lots of interesting things that way."
  • "He's the spiritual leader of our religion."
  • "I was just looking through a history book and it looked interesting."
  • "I don't know." (And then one of her classmates said to her, "You've always been interested in Pangea and plate tectonics--ever since we watched that film in lower elementary.")

Wait a minute! What are these kids learning? Are we teaching cosmology or geography or world religions or European history or freaky happenings or sports? Actually, what they are learning is "self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion." Remember that from yesterday's reference to the "21st century skills" school reform movement , and the question "How do you teach that?"

The most concrete explanation is that these students are learning "research skills." As 6th year students, they are working on a "long research project," one requiring at least 60 note cards. The ability to locate and filter information from multiple sources in different media is a critical intellectual skill for 21st century students and adults.

Equally important is the skill of self-management. I say skill because it can be developed by giving students the opportunity to make choices to influence what they are working on, when they are doing it and under what conditions. When I joined these students today to talk with them about their work, one group was sitting at a peninsula-shaped counter drinking hot chocolate and working on their research projects. Another group was sitting at a table across the room. They were working on vocabulary words they had identified during a reading of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The classroom assistant was sitting at her table, being available but not intrusive. No one needed her help while I was there. The rest of the class, the 4th and 5th year students accompanied by their teacher, left this morning on a bus for San Antonio.

The scene I describe above is an archetypal one for Montessori upper elementary classrooms here at Post Oak and around the country. It works because these students have been groomed in the subtle balance of freedom and responsibility. They have learned self-management, and continue to expand their skills in this area as the projects become larger and more complex.

This is how you teach self-management, and it is why I said yesterday that traditional schools will need to renovate their fundamental structures in order to teach 21st century skills.

A little note about student choices: you could parse that list in different ways. How about the spectrum from concrete to abstract? How about the level of personal involvement and experience vs. generic curiosity? How about the germination of previously planted seeds? How about the pursuit of long-term interest?

There is no way that any list of topics chosen by the teacher could have anticipated the connections that led these students to the topics they chose. Teachers often ask, "How can I motivate students?" Evidently this is a common problem in schools. What teachers really mean is, "How can I get students to do what I want them to?"

It is not just school structures that must be changed in order to teach 21st century skills. It is also the role of the teacher, the expectations of control, and the relationship between the adult and the child.

Is it any wonder that Montessori grads are showing up as entrepenurial shapers of the culture? Once you learn to control yourself, you are positioned to take on the world.

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