From the Head: Why "The School of the Future" is a Montessori School

Educators flock to conferences. And nowadays, there is likely a better than 80% chance that, if an educator is going to a conference, that conference will be about “Schools of the Future,” “21st Century Learning,” or a similar topic. In fact, one cannot swing a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order around a conference center these days without hitting someone who is about to give a presentation on “Tomorrow’s Schools.”  

I have attended a fair number of these conferences, and, at the end of each one, there is usually a list of changes schools ought to make in order to prepare “The Leaders of Tomorrow.” I must admit that, when that list of changes comes across in the last PowerPoint slide, I smile and often feel a little smug. Why? Because I know that the School of the Future, by all measures, is a Montessori school.

According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), there are seven “shifts” in education—shifts that are taking America from the education system of yesteryear into the future. These shifts are noteworthy, and people should be aware of them.  So, let’s dive in! 

There is a shift from knowing to doing. Traditionally, schools have delivered information to children who are expected to learn or “know” that information, and their knowledge of that information has been tested, usually by way of pencil and paper. The shift to “doing” means that students will be asked to demonstrate their learning rather than write it down. Working without tests and grades, Montessori teachers have always relied on students’ abilities to “do something” in order to demonstrate their learning. When you ask a Montessori teacher how they know that a student has learned something, they will often say, “When the child is able to teach it to someone else.” This is what we call “mastery learning,” and Montessorians have been teaching this way for over a hundred years.      

Learning is shifting from being a teacher-centered activity to being a student-centered activity. One’s image of a traditional classroom usually brings to mind a chalkboard with a teacher standing in front of it and students seated in uniform rows, taking notes or raising their hands. A shift to student-centered learning means that there will be no front of the classroom. Rather, students will generate and engage in the learning to be done. Working in groups, pairs or alone, students will identify the tasks that comprise their learning and engage in those activities through their own self-direction. Instead of rows of chairs and lectures, there might be curricular areas that children go in and out of, choosing the work they need to do and sequencing that work on their own. The teachers will be resources, helping the children stay on track and giving appropriate amounts of assistance… just like in a Montessori classroom.

The most important unit in a school will no longer be an individual, but a team. As grades and rankings fall by the wayside, the student who outperforms won’t be recognized, but instead the student who works best with others, cooperates, generates, and leads from the middle will be cheered. Montessori schools do not grade or rank students—rather, children work in pairs, groups, or alone. Sometimes they lead, and sometimes they follow. In other words, they are constantly adapting and working cooperatively. As in the workspaces of Googleplex, our students are “out of the box” all day long.

Students’ main task will no longer be to consume information; rather, they will construct information. The information that used to be the crux of school-based learning is now readily available at everyone’s fingertips. Memorizing the rivers of the world becomes less relevant when one can access them, with images and all relevant data, at the speed of a quad core processor. Synthesis of information, however, is still more ably done by humans, and will only become more valued as time goes on. Engaged in an integrated curriculum, Montessori students undertake tactile experiences that lead to the ability to think abstractly, and this is the skill they need in order to synthesize and produce new information. 

Schools have traditionally been fortresses unto themselves, but schools of the future will need to be networked with other schools, organizations, and communities. When our students embark on “goings out,” take part in Discovery Programs, visit museums, and learn about other cultures, they expand their own networks as the school expands its network, thus tying all of us into the global learning community. 

Education will reflect a shift from single sourcing to “crowdsourcing.” Perhaps nothing signaled the end of “single sourcing” more potently than Encyclopedia Britannica’s announcement in 2012 that it would cease printing. Wikipedia demonstrates the power of crowdsourcing. Social media, in all its forms, allows users to readily disseminate news, videos, and stories to broad audiences. Our children’s ability to synthesize, amalgamate, fuse, and categorize input while contributing to the stream of information will be paramount. 

There is a shift from testing to demonstrating. Twenty years after No Child Left Behind was made law, skepticism of standardized testing and its unintended consequences is warranted. States that implemented testing to receive government funding are realizing that their testing has dumbed down curriculum, turned teachers into automatons, and simply taught children how to memorize, regurgitate, and purge. The ability to demonstrate learning (as difficult as it may be to standardize) is now recognized as vitally important. Whether it is through sixth year exhibitions, science experiments, creating climate maps, acting out history, or keeping learning journals, Montessori students are accomplished at demonstrating their learning, while other schools struggle to figure out how to monitor student achievement without testing.  

A hundred years ago, there was a shift in education, and the paradigm of behaviorism gave way to the constructivist approach to education. Behaviorism, we all know, is the rewarding of preferred behaviors—for example, giving high grades to children who successfully memorize information. Constructivists believe that a person’s interaction with the people and the environment around them leads to true learning. Maria Montessori was the only Constructivist who left behind an entire curriculum—a way to implement successful learning. A century later, her approach is being universally validated, and we, along with the rest of the global Montessori community, couldn’t be happier.


Kevin Clark

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