Thursday, December 24, 2009

miracle on 34th street

I watched the 1947 version of "Miracle on 34th Street" last night. Hadn't seen it since the year our boys had their moment of doubt about Santa. After watching the film that Christmas, Santa had a one year reprieve in the Long house.

But I guess I was so focused on my sons' existential moment that I failed to notice something else. Who are the bad guys in the movie? They are legion and led by the forces of creeping consumerism as portrayed by the Macy's toy department manager. Then there are the agents of cynical, populist politics represented by the judge in the Trial of Santa Claus. I was most sensitive to two other villains that grabbed my attention: the psychologist and the "progressive school" the little girl, Susan, attends.

The psychologist is a wreck, a wretched little man who, because his own life is a wreck, crusades against the Macy's Santa, our hero, who is either (a)The Real Deal or (b)a harmless delusional saint.

In one scene, The Psychologist lectures the children and parents of Susan's school about the myth of Santa and why it is bad to fool children. This echoes Susan's mother who takes great pains to demystify life for her so that she will not be disappointed when she learns that myths are untrue. The heart of the movie is Susan's conversion from Santa Skeptic to True Believer. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

The Psychologist and the Progressive School (read non-traditional) are demonized. They are the unknown; the different; the new and strange and disruptive.

Beginning in the 18th Century, "progressive education" presented an alternative to the rigid, one-size-fits-all, abstract, two-dimensional, teacher-driven, factory-model schooling that we now call "traditional".

Back in 1947 and still today the Fear Mongers enlist Santa Claus to battle the forces of change, to protect anything and everything dubbed "tradtional", and to protest any idea labeled "progressive". We've always done it that way.

On this topic we could go as deep as the salt mines under Cleveland (did you know that Cleveland used to be the sea bottom?), or as far afield as the once open grasslands of the American plains (..."where the buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day."). Instead let me say this:

I like Santa Claus. I loved my sons' love of Santa and their faith in the essential goodness of the universe that he embodies.

Look at the history of Santa Claus and the history of Christmas itself to understand how thin a veneer "tradition" represents. The history is much richer, more nuanced and controversial than most of us understand.

My cat is afraid of change. You should have seen her the day the Christmas tree went up: sniffing the tree, sniffing the light cord, her tail straight up in the air, twitching.

People are afraid of change, too. But without change we'd still be living in caves. Beware the fear mongers. They want to keep you in your cave.

Yes, there are other approaches to education. If you were happy with your own education and think that approach was good enough for your children and will prepare them for life in 2025, fine. Enroll them in a school just like you went to. An old fashioned school.

If not, if you think there must be a better approach, look for an alternative. Just don't get Santa involved. He's got no dog in this hunt.

Friday, December 18, 2009

As peaceful as it looks

Here's an e-mail exchange I had this morning with Post Oak School parent Stephan Kinsella:

I love hearing about the conversations you have with Ethan. I also continue to be amazed by the depth of thinking children display. Most adults don’t give them enough credit. That’s why Montessori said that children are our only hope for peace.

John, I thought you might like this one! Stephan

The earth is not as peaceful as it looks
via by Stephan Kinsella on 12/18/09

I was driving my 6 year old to school this morning. We somehow got into a conversation about how laws were made. I started explaining to him the distinction between law formed by courts, and law artificially made by legislation. This led into a brief explanation of the British system, the role of the king or queen and parliament, how parliament is bicameral, and Britain’s “unwritten” constitution, and to a contrast with our own system with a President instead of king, a bicameral congress, and a written constitution. And so on.

During this Ethan blurts out, “I wish they would make a law against war.” So, this led to a discussion of the United Nations and treaties, and the attempt to limit warmaking in the UN charter. He asked me if it worked. I told him it hasn’t worked very well. He says, why? I say, well, if you are a powerful nation then you are sometimes tempted to use that power to get your way, and so on. So we still have wars.

Ethan is silent for a minute, and then mutters, “The earth is not as peaceful as it looks.” It kind of creeped me out.


"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge."— Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

An appeal from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Mark Berger, friend and colleague, Head of School at Corvallis Montessori School, passed this along. I'll paraphrase what he said: Jimmy Wales is a Montessori grad. We brag about his work and the impact Wikipedia has had on the culture. He is an exemplar of the inventive, iconoclastic, entrepeneurial spirit engendered by Montessori education. Here's our chance to support a Montessori endeavor.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

General Douglas MacArthur's Mom, Pinky, moved with him to West Point and took an apartment near campus so she could watch him with a telescope...

In "The Backlash Against Over-Parenting"
Time magazine takes on

helicopter parents,



and fear of failure.

Mistakes are good...
so is boredom...
and so are fewer toys.

(Thanks, Stephan, for sending me this article!)

Friday, November 20, 2009

"They're Montessori Kids"

I visited the Montessori High School in Cleveland with two parent-trustees from my school. We were inspired by what we saw. Those little 3-year olds do grow up.

One of my companions said of the high school students, "They're Montessori kids."

I asked what she meant.

"They aren't trying to impress each other. They're comfortable in their own skin. They are kind to each other and respectful of the adults. They're engaged in their work."

That doesn't just happen.

But it happens consistently in Montessori schools. Magic? No,design.

Friday, November 13, 2009

relentless positivity


Thanks so much. "Positivity Reconsidered" (scroll down to find it on p.3) is very powerful and very subtle – and not so coincidentally (because it is one of our relentless themes…and a spirit that we aspire to) ties in perfectly with my lead story in this week’s newsletter.

Relentless positivity does not mean that you ignore errors, just that you avoid “going negative”. I loved this sentence: “A coach who can have hard conversations with kids while remaining positive and optimistic will be more likely to get them to change their behavior.”

And it contains humbling reminders for me as a leader, and for all of us as leaders of kids. Thanks for sending me this,


Friday, October 30, 2009

...and sat down beside her.

Jimmy came over and hugged his teacher.


Quite out of character.

A nine-year-old boy? Also out of character.

Hugged his teacher?

It seems she had given the class as a special Halloween treat zoology lessons on "The parts of a bat" and "The parts of a spider."

Montessori kids are different.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Get down on the floor

Baby Einstein?

Build IQ through video. Or computer use.


Check it out. Get your refund.

"...getting down on the floor to play with your child is the most educational thing you can do."

Real engagement.

Real experience.

Three dimensional.



Tuesday, October 27, 2009

13 ways of looking at a blackbird

You Tube:

Watch this short video.

The comments remind me that there are 13 ways of looking at a blackbird.

What grabs you from this video?

I love the collaboration that went into this project, the students working together. The creativity. And the engagement.

Not everyone responds to the same ideas.

Some may think that technology is the solution. Of course the video addresses that:

"The inventor of this system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind."

What system?

The chalkboard. Go figure.

Technology alone is not the answer. Active engagement in your own education is the key.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Think diffferent

Innovators think different, act different, (even talk different).

And many went to Montessori school. Check out this story in the Harvard Business Review.


"Attention is our most essential stepping stone to happiness."


That's Maggie Jackson,author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. You can read a short interview here.

This is the same conclusion reached by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ("call me Mike") in his book Flow: the psychology of optimal experience -- a book that is one of the landmarks of Positive Psychology.

According to Mike, "The best moments of our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times--although such expeeriences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to achieve them. The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen."

Maria Montessori understood that, too.

She added this: learning the pleasures of concentration actually transforms the personality. The child changes. Becomes a different child.

Well, wouldn't it change you to discover the secret of happiness?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"My class"

"Whose class are you in?" the eleven-year old asked the three-year old. Upper elementary students help walk new primary students to class during the first weeks of school, until the younger ones learn the way to their rooms and get comfortable walking there independently.

"My class," she replied.

I broke out in a big grin. Was this answer a statement of philosophy? Eleven-year olds are eminently practical, so the upper elementary student rephrased her question. "Who's your teacher?" She got the answer she needed and the two of them walked into school hand-in-hand.

The current issue of Education Week deals with this as a philosophical response. In Joan Goodman's article, "Anything a child can do, a teacher shouldn't," she talks about ways to shift perception, so that children come to feel that the school is "mine rather than theirs."

What is she reacting to? In schools that impose, "a rigorous curriculum along with strict behavioral regulations ... The cost of achievement is submission by all."

Is this a nightmare or an educational ideal? Wouldn't this result in well-behaved students who learn what we want them to learn?

Or is this the key to a mystery?

When I asked a group of business people how many consider themselves entrepeneurs, most hands went up. When I asked how many are told what to do when they go into work in the morning, every hand went down.

I asked who gets excited about learning a new skill or some new bit of information. Every hand went up.

Then I asked who liked school. Nearly every hand went down. Down.

Why is it, I asked them, that a group of adults who love to learn, disliked school?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Danger: don't read this blog

"If you want people to perform better, you reward them. Right?"

That's Dan Pink speaking. He goes on to say that there is a gross mismatch between what science knows and what business does. What? Because in answer to his question he reveals that

actually dull thinking and
block creativity.

"Rewards don't work and often do harm."

"This is NOT philosophy. This is NOT a feeling. This is a fact--or as we say in Washington DC,

'a true fact.'"

Dan Pink has a new book coming out: DRIVE. It is about the science of motivation.

Two friends sent me links to Dan Pink's TED talk on the same day: Bubba Levy here in Houston and Tom Larsen in San Francisco. And a few days later, Emily Hansen sent me this from the New York Times: "When a parent's 'I love you" means "do as I say.'"

Same idea.

I guess most of us got the idea at home from our parents and pass it on to our children, so it is no wonder that we run our businesses this way and describe it as "The Real World".


Does motivation really mean getting your child or your employee to do what you want him to do?

Dan Pink quotes the scientific research. Rewards only work to improve performance if the task is simple. If it is complex, or requires creative thinking, "rewards don't work and often do harm."

And what harm do rewards and punishment do to children? Check out the Times.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why don't students like school? a book by Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

"Kids are naturally curious, but when it comes to school it seems like their minds are turned off." That's on the dust jacket. It reminds me of a presentation I made several years ago to the "Men's Business Breakfast Club".

I asked, "How many of you like learning something new?" and every hand went up.

Then I asked, "How many of you liked school?" and almost every hand went down.

This morning one of the dads was walking into school with his young daughter. She was skipping down the hall. He said to me, "Never before have I seen a child who was happy to go back to school after summer vacation." I smiled and said, "Yes, I know we're different."

Another dad, a third-year medical student, noted that a classmate wrote on her Facebook page, "Two words for today: yuck! and yeah! Yuck because school has started again; Yeah because I'll be done at the end of this year."

I've never met that med student. I wonder whether she is going into the wrong career, or whether she is crying out about how poorly schools fit students?

Another physician on another day, Dr. Montessori, a woman who went to medical school after deciding she did not want to become a teacher, took one of life's strange turns and dedicated her life to working with children. She approached the task the way a scientist would. After all, she was a scientist. She began by observing children, by finding out how they learn, and then began designing learning materials. This led to the creation of learning environments and the redefinition of the role of the adult. And when she was all done, the children rediscovered the joy in learning.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

E-mail to Fast Company

Wonder whether education really matters?

It does, but not in the way common knowledge suggests. Ivy League? MBA? Technical training?

What do the following people have in common: Sergei Brin, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Will Wright, Jimmy Wales, Sean Combs, and Julia Child?

If you said they are all creative, entrepeneurial, shapers of the culture, I'd agree.

They also attended Montessori schools as children, and note that approach to education (hands on, experiential, self-directed) shaped them.


John Long
Head of School
The Post Oak School
Houston, TX

Friday, August 7, 2009

Julia Child

I'm going to see the new movie about Julia Child because ... she was such a character (I remember watching her on tv cooking with a blow torch!)...and I truly admire Meryl Streep (who plays Child in the movie)...and I love to eat...and I love what changes she provoked in the American diet since my boyhood days when canned chop suey was considered adventuresome (at least in my family)...and because she was a Montessori child.

That's right, Julia Child attended Montessori school and credits that education (in her book Julia Child and Company)for her love of working with her hands.

Actually, I see much more Montessori than that in Mrs. Child.

Several Houston chefs were interviewed about Julia Child for a story in today's Houston Chronicle.

Michael Cordua (chef and owner of Cordua Restaurants) said, "Julia was a role model to me in that she broke away from the homogenization of the American diet in the '50's--white bread, canned veggies, etc. She was a pioneer in taking an ethnic cuisine center stage and paved the way for the rest of us to express our culinary heritage to mainstream America."

A pioneer. Montessori kids have the courage and the creativity to be pioneers. How about Montessori kid Jimmy Wales who invented Wikipedia? He reinvented the old fashioned book-based encyclopedia written by experts and revised every couple of years. Everyone said everyone can't collectively write an encyclopedia. It will be worthless...

Ryan Hildebrand (executive chef at Bistro Don Camillo and Bistro Provence) said, "I remember watching her show with my mom. Her character added a sense of fun to cooking, which generated an interest in me. She made an omelet look fun. It didn't look like work. She showed you could spend your day in the kitchen and it was a fun and happy place to be. She put a happy spin on what can be a very taxing career."

A sense of fun. It didn't look like work. When a group of parents and teachers sat down together to describe Post Oak graduates, one of the characteristics was, "They are fun to be around. Their enthusiasm, civility, and respect for others are contagious."

Stacy Crowe-Simonson (executive chef and owner of Chez Nous) said, "Her history of going into the kitchen so blind and becoming such a master of it definitely gives women an inspiration. It did for me....She takes the fear out of trying something new."

Montessori wanted kids to develop "a friendly relationship to error,"--to understand that mistakes are a normal part of learning, and that to learn, you must be willing to make mistakes, and then to move forward. Unfortunately, traditional schools are more concerned with knowing than with learning. And when that is your concern, mistakes are an embarrassment, a red mark on the page, a poor grade on the report card. And the result is resentment, shame and fear--rather than encouragement to accept mistakes as the price of admission to the steep part of the learning curve.

Robert Del Grande (chef/owner of RDG + Bar Annie) said, "Julia was the same person on TV or in front of a group or having coffee with her. There wasn't a stage persona. If you were talking to her one on one, it was the same as if she were on a TV show. She had no pretense at all. She was completely genuine."

Del Grande's observations echo loud and clear another characteristic our parents and faculty observed in Montessori grads: "They are comfortable in their own skin. Post Oak grads have grown up in a nurturing culture that encourages self-motivation, independent thinking, and the experience of taking on big challenges—all great preparation for whatever life has in store for them."

Popcorn anyone?

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Wrong Stuff

“We’re teaching the wrong stuff.”

Who said that? Some wild-eyed education critic in 2007 or Dr. Maria Montessori in 1907? Neither. That conclusion comes from an engineering professor at the North Carolina State University. Is he calling for more calculus and physics? No, he is calling for engineering schools to move away from “…traditional ‘I talk, you listen’ pedagogy toward the active, cooperative, problem-based approaches that have been repeatedly shown to equip students with the skills...” graduates will need to be employable in the 21st century American job market.

Sounds like a Montessori classroom.

What are the personal attributes Professor Richard Felder believes schools must help engineering students develop?
• creative and entrepreneurial mind set;
• holistic, multi-disciplinary thinker;
• strong interpersonal skills;
• language skills and cultural awareness;
• self-directed learner.

That list sounds like the portrait of a Post Oak School graduate; universal characteristics that Montessori schools across the country consistently report observing.

You can read Felder’s brief article on Tomorrow’s Professor Blog, a partnership between Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Mount Evans

I had read the book. In fact, I read two of them: Road Biking Colorado and Riding Colorado's Mountain Passes. Both books gave route descriptions and other practical details along with romantic descriptions of the scenery and the sense of exhilaration awaiting the intrepid bicycle rider willing to take on Mt. Evans. I had already ridden Colorado’s second most monstrous climb, Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, not once but twice this summer. I had done everything I could to ready my mind and my body to pedal to the top of that mountain. And still I was not truly prepared.

I am both a reader and a writer, and yet I must confess that books could not prepare me. Books are two dimensional abstractions, and Mt. Evans is an enormous three dimensional reality. An artful author touches the reader’s imagination in reporting his own first-hand impressions, but in the end, one person’s experience is never congruent to another’s.

Even my own experience riding many other mountain roads did not prepare me for this mountain, this road, this day.

Mathematics helps us understand: how many miles of climbing, at what speed, at what heart rate, for how long, at what gradient, to what altitude, at what temperature and wind velocity. But even all of my measurements failed to describe the personal challenge of propelling my bike upward and onward each moment, and the recommitment that came with each pedal stroke to give one more stroke, and then another, and another.

There were dark moments: halfway to the summit I doubted I was up to this challenge, but I pushed the doubts aside. I said to myself, “I have topped other mountain roads before, some real, some metaphorical; I know I have both physical and spiritual strength; I know I can do this.” Self-confidence based on experience, and self-knowledge helped me conquer those moments of doubt.

And then it got harder. The mountain answered my renewed resolve. The road got steeper as I reached higher altitude; the air got colder, and the wind grew stronger, much stronger. And then my authors betrayed me; the National Forest Service betrayed me. Everywhere it was written that the ride was 28 miles from Idaho Springs, 14 miles from the park entrance to the summit. There at the side of the road was mile post 14. And still I looked upward toward the summit. Several more switchbacks on the road. I wanted to stop. To complain. I don’t know what I wanted. I was mad.

At that moment I remembered: I chose this path; I chose this ride; I chose this challenge because it is hard, because it is the ultimate ride in the mountains, and that I was getting everything I wished for and more. I smiled. I laughed at myself, at my weakness, and I pushed on.

Mountain goats greeted me at the summit. Coasting across the highest parking lot in the United States, I saw snowy peaks in every direction. I was electrified with joy, with the sense of accomplishment that comes from setting a challenging personal goal and making it.

I thought about our children, my own sons and your children and all of the children in all of the Montessori schools around the world. We offer them an education based on personal, hands-on experience, one that offers many many successes, one building upon another, some small, some big, and failures, too, because we must encounter moments of difficulty, even failure, in order to build psychic strength and the knowledge that we have the personal resources and resolve to overcome adversity. And we invite them to make choices, to set individual goals, big ones. Riding up Mt. Evans on a bicycle is not everyone’s goal. But everyone has their own Mt. Evans…if they have the courage to see it and to take it on. That is what I wish for my own children and for yours.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Big smiles? School must be out

That was front page news in the Houston Chronicle. In that view, school represents the curse of Adam, the burden of work you don't want to do.

Poor children.

I am reminded of one of our graduates, Travis Caton, whom we interviewed several years ago when he was a senior at Bellaire High School. It was right after Christmas break and Travis recalled phone conversations with some of his high school classmates who were whooping it up because school was out. He joined in the whoopery because he did not want to be seen as a total dork. In the interview he expressed his real feelings:

"I think that school is a privilege. Learning is a privilege."

A rare comment from a football player? Just what I would expect from a Montessori kid. Don't get me wrong, Montessori kids love summer. But our headline would feature the tears we see every May as our kids mourn their separation from a learning environment prepared specially for them. Not the curse of Adam, but the Garden of Eden itself.

Motivation, part 2

"If you're lucky, you've had a Dan Green in your life. He's that special coach, the one who cussed the loudest, pushed the hardest, cared the most."

Cussed the loudest?

Pushed the hardest?

To do what? Make me perform better?

What emotion undergirds such tactics? Fear. Even in the name of caring. I will intimidate you into performing better becasue you are afraid that I'll curse at you. Or like Bobby Knight in one famous incident, choke you. Because I care for you. Want you to do your best.

Do we need abuse from others to do our best?

Darth Vader provoked Luke Skywalker's anger. This caused young Luke to up his effort, to fight harder--to do better. Mr. Vader did so intentionally because he knew that the anger pushed Luke to the Dark Side.

Yes, there is motivation there. The motivation of the Dark Side. All rewards and punishments and manipulation are motivators from the Dark Side, highjacking our true selves, our true desires. They stop us from hearing our calling, the inner voice, the inner motivation that will last for a lifetime. The chance we have to work with joy rather than with a sense of drudgery.

stanky legg dance

"As the school year draws to a close, principals are delivering on promises made during the fall to encourage campus unity and coax extra effort from students. Houston-area school leaders are eating worms, shaving their heads, dancing on roofs, kissing a donkey, spraying their hair various colors and performing the stanky legg dance to the delight of students who said they worked a little harder this year in the hopes of seeing straight-laced administrators embarrass themselves."


This is what drives the advance of civilization?

Or was Dr. Montessori correct when she said every child is motivated from within?

When she said it is not our job to force children to learn, but rather to inspire them?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Marshmallow Study: Part II

Blog of the day:

A follow-up on the marshmallow study: includes video footage of 4-year olds confronted with a marshmallow and the idea of delayed gratification.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A lesson in humility

The black strip is 100 feet long and made of felt. It represents all the time since the creation of the earth. It is undifferentiated except for that half-inch wide strip of red at the end. As she rolls out the black strip, the teacher tells the story of the earth's history, adding details such as when the earth's crust solidified, when life began, when fish first appeared in the sea, and when dinosaurs appeared and disappeared. The last half inch is red -- and represents the entire time period we humans have lived on earth. Dr. Montessori called this "a lesson in humility." Give elementary children the big picture, a cosmic perspective. Help them to appreciate their place in the universe and in human history and culture. Help them to understand the debt we all owe our forebears and the responsibility we have to each other in the present and to the people of the future. This lesson in humility is not just about being small. It is also about being large. We are significant; our actions matter.

Imagine my surprise when one of our teachers, Joseph Lockett, sent me this web site: a Montessori lesson done with toilet paper!

And on the "aren't we humans amazing!" front, that lesson comes from the Worsley School in northern Alberta. The internet has expanded our reach, our connectivity, the speed of our communication...and shrunk the earth.

Friday, May 22, 2009

parasite lessons

This is from Trevor Eisler, a dad who has written "a parent to parent argument for Montessori education.":

"Parasite lessons constitute what John Taylor Gatto calls 'a national curriculum.' He lists, with anger and regret you can almost taste, the seven awful lessons he realized he was actually teaching, even as he was being praised as an award-winning English teacher:

1. Confusion...Everything I teach is out of context...Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies well concealed....

3.Indifference...I teach children not to care too much about anything, even though they want to make it appear that they do...I do it by demanding that they become totally involved in my lessons, jumping up and down in their seats with anticipation...But when the bell rings, I insist they drop whatever it is we have been doing and proceed quickly to the next work station...Nothing important is ever finished in my class not in any class I know of.

4. Emotional dependency...By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, honors, and disgraces, I teach kids to surrender their will...Individuality is a contradiction of class theory, a curse to all systems of classification.

5. Intellectual dependency...I teach [that] good students wait for a teacher to tell them what to do. It is the most important lesson, that we must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives.

6. Provisional self-esteem...I teach that a kid's self-respect should depend on expert opinion. My kids are constantly evaluated and judged...A monthly sent into a student's home...[indicating]down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with the child a parent should be...Self-evaluation is never considered a factor...People need to be told what they are worth.

7. One can't hide...I teach students they are always...under constant surveillance...Students are encouraged to tattle on each other or even to tattle on their own parents...I assign...homework so that the effect of surveillance...travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood."

New York City teacher of the year three times. New York State teacher of the year. This is what he says he was really teaching...the unconscious we learn shapes who we become.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The marshmallow test: blog of the day

Here's the blog that refers to a New Yorker magazine article that reports on a forty year old study involving children, marshmallows and self-control. Google "the marshmallow experiment" and you get 32,000 entries! I guess self-control is a compelling issue.

Friday, May 15, 2009

What have you learned from failure?

Rolf Smith asked that question. Rolf is the director of the School for Innovators He has a habit of asking questions that turn your thinking on end. Mistakes are one thing. Errors in the learning process. That seems temporary, transitory to me. I have a friendly relationship with error most of the time -- unless the knower side of my personality rears its ugly head.

But FAILURE? That seems bigger, more permanent. Well, I guess you could talk about materials failure. If a wheel on my bicycle collapsed, that would be a materials failure. I can see that could be painful, but not the same as a personal failure.

What have I learned from failure? Drat you, Rolf, made me think...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Reality (blog of the day)

Attachment to reality.

What's wrong with pretend play, Batman?

Does Montessori discourage imagination?

Check out the blog of the day:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Work worth doing

Whenever I've had the chance I used those 3 words to express my aspirations for my own children: that they find "work worth doing." I've tried to model that kind of thinking for the many parents I've worked with as a teacher and school head over the years--a sort of antidote to more prescriptive expectations we parents sometimes express. Here's an example from the book Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar:

"Mrs. Goldstein was walking down the street with her two grandchildren. A friend stopped to ask her how old they were. She replied, 'The doctor is five and the lawyer is seven."

The joke makes me smile until I think about the way we parents can pressure and deflect the aspirations of our children. Reminds me of the young man who quit medical school after two years to become a teacher--when he realized he was pursuing his parents' dream rather than his own.

"Work worth doing." Actually, I'm not sure where I picked up that phrase. I don't usually speak in sound bytes, so I'm sure I borrowed it from somewhere, though I've not really seen it anywhere else---until today: here's a little feature about Sandra Day O'Conner and her key to happiness:

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Teacher

Teachers: three archtypal advertising images:

A smiling young woman stands in front of a chalkboard, and looks at hands raised from desks.

Five students gather around a table-top globe, and look attentively as their teacher points out a location.

A young man stands, shirt sleeves rolled up, in front of hands raised from desks.

The ASCD prides itself on promoting best practice in the world of education, and these are the images it employs to promote its 2009 summer conference.

The three photos are at the bottom of a brochure page. They are so everyday, so innocuous, they are nearly invisible. Looking again, looking closely, what do I see?

Teacher front and center. All activity funnels through the teacher. Student engagement limited to raising hands or looking on. Teacher controlling all activity. All students doing the same thing at the same time. Teacher as sage on the stage. I see the teacher smiling and the backs of the children's heads. Children locked in desks.

Who talks most in these classrooms? Who needs the most practice talking?

For each student there is a lot of wait time.

Our classrooms look very different. Our teachers teach in a very different way. Actually, Dr. Montessori emphasized the distinction by using a different name for the Montessori teacher. She called them directors or guides.

At times I look in a Montessori classroom and can't see the teacher at first. She can usually be found sitting on the floor or at a low, child-sized table giving a lesson to an individual child or a small group. The rest of the children are working on other other projects independently.

There is not a lot of wait time in a Montessori classroom. The teacher is not the funnel, not the controller, not front and center. We do not engage in "full frontal teaching".

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Goals: Big Goals

Just now I was watching a 5-year old girl (a small one, at that) shooting a basketball at a 6-foot hoop. The first six or seven shots rose no more than halfway to the basket; and twice her two-hand shot failed to clear the back of her head. On her eighth attempt she hit the rim, and jumped in delight. Her next shot rose no further than halfway to its goal. Progress is never a smooth curve.

Inside the school, waiting for the 5 and 6-year olds to return, were two long number chains: the 9-chain and the 10-chain. The 9-chain goes up to 729 and the 10-chain goes up to 1000. The children count each bead, laying out little number tickets at each multiple of the base number until they reach the end. Then they write all the multiples on a long roll of paper.

This is big work.

Around the corner a team of 12-year olds was squaring polynomials. The work began weeks ago with (a + b)2. Now they are working on squaring the alphabet.

Say what?

Squaring the alphabet: (a+b+c+d+...+x+y+z)2. While (a+b)2 has 4 terms, when you square the alphabet you get 676 terms. This is big work. And big work takes big paper. They were working on a sheet of graph paper nearly 20-feet long.

Was this drudgery or child abuse? Neither. In fact, the students said it was more fun because the work was so big. The work is so big they have to plan it out like contractors plan the construction of a building. They broke the job up into sections and then looked at the calendar for the remaining days in the school year. The had to plan around Cinco de Mayo dance practices and the trip to Williamsburg.

Big work and big goals teach many things. Learning to manage projects is a 21st Century objective. Shooting and shooting and shooting until you hit the rim helps you to get comfortable on the steep part of the learning curve--and prepares you for the false starts and failures you will always encounter in achieving big goals. And simply being encouraged to take on big work, rather than having tasks broken down into bite-size pieces, expands your expectations for yourself.

Emerson said, "Hitch your wagon to a star." I love this comment. I think about the little red wagon I had as a kid. Usually I kept my eyes down when I was pulling that wagon, watching the load in order not to spill it. That was diligent and practical. Those kids who are checking the calendar to make sure they'll have time to complete their project are being diligent and practical. But they've also hitched their wagon to a star. Who knew you could square the alphabet? I never did that in algebra...and they haven't even gotten to a bona fide algebra class yet. They have learned not to be intimidated by big work, and that they are capable of great things.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Enjoy the fun of failure"

Did that get your attention?

It's another take on failure for us type-A types. Failure. Get used to it if you are going to grow, to learn, to be creative.

In fact, it is one of the keys to happiness. And that leads me to the blog entry for the day from "The Happiness Project":

Monday, April 13, 2009

Book of the Day

Check out this blog entry for a very short interview with Trevor Eissler who has written the book Montessori Madness: A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

quote of the day

"Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly until you learn how to do it well."- Zig Ziglar

Wow! How counterintuitive in a pursuit of excellence world. But really, it begs the question, is your focus on the excellence or the pursuit?

If you are a learner rather than a knower, you are focused on the pursuit; you are willing to endure the steep part of the learning curve becuase you know that it comes with the territory, it comes with learning something challenging. And you're probably going to do it poorly until you learn how to do it well. Does that threaten your ego?

If you are a knower, it may. Being a knower may keep you off of the steep part of the learning curve because you don't want to embarrass yourself, or worry about being seen as incompetent. Since you are a knower, how could you not know?

So you don't try. Or you oppose change. Know anyone like that?

Now, here's the real question: what are the implications for school? In focusing on grades and class ranking, do we contribute to learning or do we contribute to fear? If you are aware that your work is going to be graded, are you willing to risk doing something creative and out of the box? Or would you do something that you already know how to do, something safe?

If we are not failing enough, we are not trying hard enough.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

quote of the day

Thanks to Lisa Camp for this quotation from the Buddha. It ties directly to yesterday's blog:

"Your work is to discover your world, and then with all your heart give yourself to it."

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Pursuit of Excellence

A very fine traditional school has launched a new initiative.

In the future the school aspires to "help students learn to make constructive use of the pressures that often accompany the pursuit of excellence.”

"Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice.

Tom Peters wrote the book The Pursuit of Excellence, so it must be an idea imbedded in our corporate identity. And I remember the aphorism, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well."

I think about my own goals as a parent and as a teacher. I certainly want to encourage excellence. However, I would rather that young people be able to answer the question, "What are you passionate about?"

It would be rather odd if a student said in anwer to that question, "the pursuit of excellence."

At our last alumni night, high school students and college students spoke about their interests, their majors, their future careers. Not everyone had an answer, but those who were still searching said something like: "I'm interested in music and physics, and also history--well, really, so many things. I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do." At least there is interest! They simply have not committed yet to a narrow focus. (Reminds me of Robert Lewis Stevenson's dedication to A Child's Garden of Verse: "The world is so full of a number of things, I think we should all be as happy as kings.")

Among those clear about their goals was a high school senior who wants to do work in microbiology. That's worth doing, and it's worth doing well.

I would suggest an alternative to the pursuit of excellence: Pursue your passion excellently. The passion comes first.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

35 minutes each Tuesday

Character building program.
"Classes are scheduled for 35 minutes each Tuesday in order to teach positive character traits throughout the year."

This description is lifted from the curriculum document of a well regarded traditional school. It is typical of The Old School and its fundamental belief:

If you don't teach it, it doesn't get learned.

And the corollary, if you taught it, the students must know it.

And the corollary to that: if a student doesn't know it, it is his fault because, after all, it was taught.

Since The Old School wants students to develop positive character traits, it teaches them for 35 minutes each Tuesday.

At a recent Alumni Night, one of our graduates who was then a college junior said, "Montessori school is not preparation for life--it is life." In other words, character building happens all day long every day as children make choices that shape their work, their role in the community, and their interactions with adults and other children.

They aren't simply told to be responsible; they are given opportunities to be responsible, to manage their studies and their social relationships. Montessori called the teacher "a guide" or "a director" because that describes how the adult works with each child. The teacher does not narrowly control the children; nor does he leave them free to do whatever they like. The teacher guides and coaches the individual child and the group toward personal independence and responsible interdependence.

Yesterday I stopped in to an upper elementary classroom. The teacher was finishing lunch at his lesson table, and two fourth grade boys were engaged in a focused and quiet conversation at another table. They were the only students in the classroom. All the others had just gone out to recess. After a couple of minutes, they came over to their teacher to explain that they had worked out their differences, that it had all been a misunderstanding to which they had each contributed. They were sent on their way to join their classmates on the playground. It seems that they had been bumping and pushing one another when the class lined up.

This was 5 minutes on Monday, not 35 minutes on Tuesday, but it was definitely "character building." What did they learn? First of all, they learned that their teacher has confidence in them to solve problems -- not by "letting them fix it themselves," but under the watchful supervision of a caring adult. They learned that it is important to deal with conflict, not to sweep it aside. They learned that confronting issues directly can untangle them. They learned that speaking and listening can resolve issues in a way that physical responses cannot.

What didn't their teacher do? He didn't solve the problem for them. He didn't decide who was at fault and impose a punishment. He didn't lecture. He didn't tell them what they should have done or not done. He didn't "teach."

Well, he did teach by way of what he chose to do and chose not to do, but if you asked the boys, they would say they solved the problem themselves. And that is a powerful, charcter-building lesson.

Friday, March 27, 2009


Remember the Alamo! I'm sure that our upper elementary students will do just that--40 of them spent two days and one night in San Antonio to visit historical sites.

They prepared for the trip by researching Texas history and geography. They also divided into four groups to write rules: bus rules, restaurant rules, venue rules, and hotel rules.

Here are the restaurant rules:
  • Use good manners.
  • Use indoor voices.
  • Order a reasonable amount of food.
  • Keep rude comments to yourself.
  • Be responsible with your food.
  • Be respectful to the waiter/waitress.
  • Ask chaperone to go to the bathroom.
  • Keep your hands to yourself.
  • Have fun following these rules.

I really like that the rules are cast in the form of positive expectations rather than "Thou shalt NOT..."

And the last rule, seemingly a semi-facetious afterthought, is in fact, an incredibly mature acknowledgement that you don't have to break the rules to have fun (as some people believe).

The restaurant rules committee printed their list, as did the other three committees. Then all 40 students signed each list, making a personal commitment to follow them. It reminds me of that seminal document of American history, the Mayflower Compact, a social contract in which the governed established and agreed upon the rules that would bind them.

These rules were not simply imposed on the children by their teachers. The children were given the freedom to exercise their responsibility. This is a significant social accomplishment. Just imagine those four committees of ten children each, meeting to create these lists.

This is how we help children develop responsibility. This is how moral development evolves. This is how social and emotional intelligence are fostered. We don't have a student government at Post Oak. Or do we?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Quote of the day

"In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." -Eric Hoffer

This reminds me of the distinction between a learner and a knower (Hoffer's 'learned'). A knower KNOWS. If he finds himself not knowing, it threatens his identity. To defend his identity he has several options: he can pretend that he knows; he can change the subject; he can avoid the situation altogether. If something is hard, he has to bail out because, after all, he's a KNOWER, and if it is hard, or if he doesn't know it already, then he must not be a knower.

On the other hand, a learner understands that learning is a process. He understands that there is a steep part of the learning curve. He understands that mistakes are a normal part of learning. He does not define himself as smart--as a finished product--, but as someone who is always learning, always curious, always in development.

Who would you rather spend time with?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This is a letter about Hunter, who is a 7th grader, and his visit to an infant community class where he spent a morning working with the two year olds. Community service is not a punishment at Post Oak, it is a privilege. All of our middle school students do weekly community service--usually off campus, but on this day, Hunter had the opportunity to work in one of our classrooms here at Post Oak.

Dear Middle School Team~

I want to tell you how impressed I was with Hunter yesterday.

He came to my class to do community service, and his poise, confidence, and innate respect for my children impressed me beyond belief. I spoke briefly to him when he came in, but then I had to go and help another child. Hunter immediately spotted a little boy who looked like he needed some help. He approached him with such gentleness and respect. The next thing I knew they were working on some wood polishing, and I don’t know who was enjoying it more—Hunter or the young child!! He read books to the children, took a little girl into the garden and played catch with her, and assertively stood his ground when more than one child wanted to work with him (“I can’t work with you right now, but I will be there in just a minute.”). I have had fellow Montessori teachers enter into this environment who did not assimilate as well as Hunter did, and I would welcome him back at any time. I know my students would agree too!

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see what a Post Oak middle school student is like. I could not be more proud.
Take care~

Jessica Wagner
Full Day Infant Community Teacher
Teacher Recruiter
The Post Oak School

Sunday, March 22, 2009


The problem with Montessori children is that they are courageous. They speak up for what they believe in, what they believe to be right. And they have the courage to follow their dreams. Too many parents want to control their children, to shape their lives...and I'm not just talking about kids who are three years old or five or ten. Know any parents who approve of certain career choices but not others?

My two young adult sons have the courage to follow their dreams. Karl took a long and winding path to law school. He's graduating this spring. Timing's not so good, but he's doing what he wants.

His older brother, Jacob, just played three shows at SXSW in Austin. His band, Mi Ami, is creating music that the NY Times called "strange and cool". Some people hate it, some love it. According to Seth Godin, you're not pushing the limits unless you get that range of responses, so I guess they are succeeding.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Holistic living

I do more than school. I do so to stay healthy in mind and body. I intentionally use both sides of my brain. And I also try to drop down from my conscious brain to my unconscious. I get there by engaging in activities where I achieve flow. I'm an artist. I'm also a cyclist (that's me in the middle).

Here in Houston we can ride our bikes 12 months of the year. Every April 13,000 of us ride 180 miles from Houston to Austin in a two-day charity event, the MS150 (well, 180 almost equals 150). I started doing that ride and asking for donations nine years ago when Post Oak School teacher Barbara Hacker was diagnosed with MS by Post Oak parent Dr. Mark Welborn. Mark was a cycling buddy of mine until he and his family moved to San Antonio. Barbara continues to teach her primary classroom at Post Oak.

I invite you to support me in my ride by clicking on the above link.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 design?

"I don't want to be an accidental parent."

What a surprising and powerful statement that is: a commitment to intentionality, a commitment to action based on principle. It came from a participant in one of our prospective parent meetings, a series of four classes we offer as a part of the admission process to the Post Oak School. We want parents who are considering our school to make an informed choice; to understand what we do and why; and we hope they will learn basic Montessori ideas that will be helpful at home right away.

This parent thanked us for helping her understand the importance of offering a child choices because that empowers the child. He has a voice. He feel likes he has some control over his world. He is not a pawn or a victim. At the same time, the adult must set limits on the choices. The child is not running the show, and limits provide security and structure.

It is time for your two year old to get dressed. You do not ask, "Would you like to get dressed?" That is not really a choice that you are offering...unless you are ready to accept "no" for an answer. But you could say, "It is time to get dressed. Would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?" Or, if you have limited to a small number the shirts in the dresser drawer, you could say, "It is time to get dressed. Would you choose a shirt to wear?"

This is an example of a design principle undergirding Montessori classrooms: children make choices within limits. This helps them learn to make choices. It helps them develop their will. It helps them develop diligence and self-control. It helps them know themselves, recognize their own interests and act on them. It helps them have a respectful engagement with adults and with authority, rather than to utilize opposition as the only way to express autonomy.

Do all schools have design principles? What are they?

Tangential connections to the idea of "education by design:"

David Perkins' book Knowledge as Design
Dan Pink's book A Whole New Mind
Fast Company magazine
the books of Edward Tufte
the work of Frank Lloyd Wright
Presentation Zen
Wordle: Montessori stories

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

5 conversations

coming soon:

f : a : l : s : e : d : i : c : h : o : t : o : m : y

Quote of the day:

The dangers of compliance

“We need kids who don’t just do what they’re told but who are self-directed.”

– Ken Kay, P21, quoted in USA Today

The above statement appeared on Dan Pink's blog as his quote of the day for March 6, 2009, so in this instance, I'm only 10 days behind the curve. You may have seen Dan Pink when he spoke at the Association Montessori Internationale (AMI) refresher course in 2007.

Ken Kay is the executive director of P21: The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. You'll see that organization referenced in my earlier posts ("21st Century Wrangle", and "Pangea.")

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wave and Shout

Tell me a story.

My father used to read us stories at bed time. And when Kathy and I had children, I read to them from the time they were born. Really. I remember singing the newspaper aloud to my older son, Jacob, when I was changing his diaper. And Mother Goose. I loved reading and singing Mother Goose to both boys. And the Oxford Book of Verse.

When I taught elementary students, I read to my classses every day. I read the Illiad and the Odyssey; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Gilgamesh; Wild Animals I Have Known; The Snow Goose; Little House on the Prarie; The Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln; Alice in Wonderland; The First Family; The Phantom Toolbooth; Charlotte's Web; and Old Yeller. Kids love hearing stories.

So do adults. Adults listen to stories and we make stories. We make stories to make sense of our experiences and of the world. Isolated facts slip away. Narrative helps us to remember, and to understand.

Story telling is the best way to present ideas and to sell ideas. We in Montessori education have not been very good at that. We lecture. We write abstract, academic prose. We speak jargon. We are the opposite of Montessori education.


We are the opposite of Montessori education.

Dr. Montessori understood how to make learning memorable, how to appeal to the learner, how to make it "sticky". For the young child, that meant tactile. "Never give more to the mind than you give to the hand."

For the elementary child, she expanded communication tools to include story telling, which often employed posters and charts: visual icons to encapsulate the story in a single image. The other day three 8-year olds brought me a picture of the little factory that exists within every green leaf -- a metaphorical representation of photosynthesis: the leaf factory. They told me the story of combining water from the ground, and carbon dioxide from the air, and then baking the mix like bread in a solar powered oven to produce food for the plant. And of releasing oxygen as a by-product--and how that helps us humans because we need to breathe oxygen. And of how we help the plants when we breathe out carbon dioxide. What a wonderful partnership, they said.

We Montessori people need to learn how to tell our story. It is frustrating to read lists of proposed educational reforms that unknowingly describe Montessori principles. We wave our arms and shout: "CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?"

We need to get better at telling our story.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Two 9-year olds just left my office.

This is the third time they have visited me in the past two weeks. No, they aren't hellions banished to the headmaster's office. And I trust they won't step into some future headmaster's office with the trepidation I sense in many parents when they come to see me. I can only imagine what memories they are replaying in that moment.

No, Isabel and Sean Paul were here to show me five geometric figures they had rotated about a point on the perimeter. (a rectangle, a curvilinear triangle, a quatrafoil, a circle, and a trapezoid.)The last time they stopped by, they had rotated an assortment of geometric shapes around the center of the figure. This all started one day when I dropped in on their classroom. They were in the middle of a geometry lesson about the 7 kinds of triangle, and Sean Paul spun a wooden triangle on the table. Could have been interpreted as fooling around. I said, "That's pretty cool. If you are interested in learning to draw that spinning triangle, come by my office when you finish this work." He did. And he brought Isabel with him. Now they've been working on this in their spare time for a couple of weeks.

Let's see where this goes.

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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

21st century wrangle

The battle is on again. This time the front is called "21st Century Skills". When Russia launched Sputnik, beating America into space in 1957, it caused a national crisis. Fingers were pointed at our schools: they were obviously failing us. School reform moved to the front burner. Top scientists convened at Woods Hole, Massachusetts to rewrite high school science curricula;
"new math" challenged traditional teachers and parents alike; and the "open classroom" concept led to the construction of thousands of new school buildings to accommodate this new thinking In the midst of all this, Montessori education was re-introduced to the United States. Among these reforms of the late '50's, only Montessori survives, perhaps because it was already a proven idea, with 50 years of field work under its belt by 1957.

Today it is the global economy, not sputnik that has grabbed us by the scalp. We are falling behind! Our schools are obviously failing us! We need reform! Sound familiar?

"There's a dark little joke exchanged by educators with a dissident streak: Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folks defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls--every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walkes into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. 'This is a school,' he declares. 'We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.' (Time 12.18.2006)"

The Bush administration's No Child Left Behind narrowed focus onto basic skills, and ensured compliance via high stakes testing. These reforms made schools even more recognizable to Rip Van Winkle, and precipitated a new wave of school reform ideas.

An organization called Partnership for 21st Century Skills has the most memorable new name in school reform today, but they're not alone. Perhaps you've read Tough Choices or Tough Times by The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce . Or Time's "How to bring our schools out of the 20th century." Or Five Minds for the Future by Harvard's Howard Gardner . Or College Learning for the New Global Century . Or Dan Pink's best seller, A Whole New Mind .

Each of these sources identifies a set of skills required so our kids will thrive, and our country prosper in the future. Tough Choices or Tough Times calls for:

  • creativity and innovation,

  • facility with the use of abstractions,

  • self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion,

  • leadership,

  • and the ability to function well as a member of a team.

(Thanks to Pat Bassett, Executive Director of NAIS for this summary.)

All reforms get bludgeoned. We humans resist change, and our most change-resistant institution is the school. Check out Jay Matthews, education writer for The Washington Post: "Latest doomed pedagogical fad: 21st century skills." At the heart of Matthew's criticism is the absence of curriculum content in the 21st century skills agenda -- and a glaring absence of "How To".

For example, how do you teach "self-discipline and organization to manage one's own work and drive it through to successful conclusion?" Traditional schools say that is why homework is assigned, so they are already accomplishing this objective. No change needed.

I disagree, and so do the leaders of the 21st century skills movement. Freedom and responsibility are both required for students to develop self-discipline and the ability to manage one's own work. When the teacher mandates what work is to be done, for how long, and under what circumstances, students have no opportunity to manage their own work. In order to give students such opportunities, we must renovate the organizational structures of the classroom. The crystal cathedral is not built of concrete blocks.

As much as I agree with the objectives of "21st century education," I must also acknowledge that Jay Matthews is right. There is no evidence in the 21st century skills literature of how to accomplish their agenda. There is no description of what a 21st century school should look like, of how it will function, of how it actually differs from Rip Van Winkle Academy.

This is why Montessori education is so extraordinary. As a scientist, Dr. Montessori began by observing children. She identified their characteristics as learners. She was a pioneer of what we now call developmental psychology. From that starting point, she developed learning materials, a curriculum, and a set of pedagogical principles. She trained teachers in the Montessori method, and established an organization to grant credentials to teachers and to accredit schools. No other approach to education integrates developmental psychology, educational philosophy, curriculum content, classroom materials, teacher training, and school accreditation. By doing so, Montessori education bridges the agenda of 21st century education reformers, and the critics who demand attention to content and methodology.