Friday, February 19, 2010

Wimpy or hefty?

“Montessori comes across as wimpy.” That grabbed me. Made me mad. I leaned forward in my chair to hear more. Sitting in a room with more than 100 Montessori school leaders, I was listening to Trevor Eisler, a pilot of business jets, a flight instructor, triathlete, husband, and father of three Montessori children. He is also the author of Montessori Madness! A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education.

“Montessori is not wimpy. Far from it. We need to counter this impression.” He went on to recount examples he has observed in his children’s school: of a young child struggling mightily, willingly and willfully to carry an object nearly as large as himself; and of an older child tackling a project much larger than any teacher would dare to assign. These typical examples of Montessori children made him recall John Kennedy’s speech about the Apollo moon project, “We do these things because they are hard, not because they are easy.”

“Think about how hard kids work,” Eisler said, “—what difficult tasks they take on. Montessori is about challenging work, tough things, and about perseverance. That’s not wimpy; it’s hefty. We need to get that message across.”

Ever watch primary children counting out the number chains? Each classroom has chains for both the squares and cubes of the numbers from 1 to 10. The longest square chain goes up to 100 (that’s 10-squared) and the longest cube chain goes up to 1000 (or 10-cubed). Every child’s goal is to complete the 1000 chain—because it is the longest one.

At the elementary level, we encourage students to write their own math problems. This morning I spoke to two third grade boys whose division problem was too large to fit on a sheet of paper. In fact, it required 16 sheets of paper taped together. No teacher would ever assign a problem that size, but students willingly assign it to themselves because they want to do work that is challenging.

First graders begin doing research projects. They also love animals. Since November a group of first grade boys has been researching every kind of dinosaur. Almost every day they work on their project. They have a deep and growing pile of paper documenting their work: reports and charts and drawings. At the same time, a group of first grade girls is similarly passionate about dogs. In the weeks before an outing to visit a veterinarian, these girls learned about 45 different kinds of dog.

When I spoke with upper elementary students they told me about a variety of projects they are working on: presidential biographies, reports about the countries of Africa, and science experiments. The latter is a good example of how students look to do more. In discussing the write-ups of their experiments, students suggested publishing a journal of their work. Look for it soon. Two girls spoke of a long story they have been working on since August, one writing and the other illustrating. Would you believe sixty pages?

And no conversation of hefty efforts can leave off the Post Oak Peddlars: thirteen middle school students (plus alumni riders and parents) are now training to ride the MS150 bike ride from Houston to Austin. Those of you who have done this ride know what is involved; those of you who haven’t can only imagine. Wimpy? No, heroic. But done in a Post Oak way. Rather than aiming to beat one another to the finish, they are supportive and encouraging, applauding one another’s efforts and, like the marines, ensuring that they leave no one behind. Montessori kids learn the meaning of hard work, and to stretch their personal limits. That’s hefty.


  1. Awesome! Kudos to you and Tim for sticking up for us hefties.. and for speaking out! : ) The examples, such as counting the bead chain, and participating in the MS150 - two huge undertakings - are great and they really put the idea of wimpy vs. hefty in perspective.

    Truths about how the examples are not teacher-assigned gives credence to the significance of internal motivation versus external motivation.

    I have a strong feeling that if a teacher did dare to assign such tasks, the entire experience would be dramatically different for the child..and the teacher!

  2. Thanks, Deidre, for your comments. Glad that struck a chord with you. John

  3. I'm a new dad evaluating education options for my child. My sister swears by the Montessori philosophy. I'm still evaluating. After hearing about the exciting things happening at Post Oak, I will take a closer look. I'll also send my sister a link to your blog. She lives in New York.

  4. Thanks for your kind comments. I encourage you to find an AMI Montessori school to observe. First-hand experience will help you in your decision making. John