A one-minute history of personalized learning would feature neanderthals tutoring each other on how to kill dinner, one-room schoolhouses in Prussia, and the birth of the Montessori movement in early 20th century Italy.
Fast forward one hundred years: education technology grabs all the headlines, but Montessori education is still one of the most complete examples of personalized learning. Yet, less than 500 of the roughly 98,000 US public schools take a Montessori approach.
Sara Cotner, founder and CEO of Montessori For All (“MFA”) based in Austin, TX, wants to shift Montessori education from a private school phenomenon to a driver of innovation and social justice in public education. She launched her first school, Magnolia Montessori For All (“Magnolia”), last fall in East Austin. Magnolia is a public charter school initially serving 300 students in Pre-K to 3rd grade and eventually growing to 550 students through the 8th grade.
If successful, Ms. Cotner plans to open a second school in San Antonio and hopes MFA becomes a national movement in public education.
Schools For Social Change
In the United States, Montessori schools are mostly private, creating the perception that Montessori education is solely for upper-income students. But the original Montessori school, Casa dei Bambini, was created for children living in the slums of Rome as part of an attempt to improve conditions for the working class and counter the effects of poverty.
Like Maria Montessori, Sara Cotner views Montessori For All as an engine for social change. MFA’s strategy is to proactively attract students so that its schools are economically and racially diverse--something that isn't naturally happening in public schools across the country as neighborhoods and schools become more segregated along income and race lines. Magnolia is 46% low-income, 44% white, 36% Hispanic and 15% African-American, reflecting the broad demographics of East Austin. “We believe true equity requires children from different backgrounds to be educated together,” says Sara.
Personalized learning is especially important in diverse school communities because academic preparation can vary dramatically among students. Let’s see what personalized learning looks like in the Montessori model.
Montessori Education: What is it?
Montessori classrooms can be disorienting for the uninitiated. In Magnolia’s classes of 25 students, anywhere between 15 and 25 activities occur simultaneously spanning multiple academic subjects. Students are sprawled across the room working individually, in pairs, or in small groups to complete hands-on, self-directed activities. It is this “freedom within structure” that allows MFA to personalize learning, foster student independence and focus on child development well beyond academics.
Personalized learning. The Montessori experience centers on a daily 3-hour “work cycle” where every child progresses through a customized work plan of activities and assignments. Students might collaborate if they have common tasks, but the idea is that students are working at their level in each academic subject.
The workplans function similarly to the playlists found in Summit Public Schools, Matchbook Learning and other competency-based learning environments, giving students choice and control over their learning. The eventual goal is for students to “self-select” their work during the work cycle (or create their own playlists).
Activities that foster student independence. At their best, Montessori classrooms have a productive hum as students are immersed in a set of specially-designed, hands-on learning activities. The Montessori materials provide enough structure that students can work independently, yet the materials are open-ended and conceptual enough that students can move to deeper levels of learning. This is similar to the role that adaptive, online learning content plays in other personalized learning environments like Aspire Public Schools and KIPP LA.
For example, bead chains (a popular Montessori manipulative) help students learn counting, multiplication and perfect squares and cubes, using a single set of materials. Sara pointed out one Magnolia kindergartner who used the bead chains to discover and understand multiplication problems like 4 x 4 and 3 x 16, shocking the child’s parents in the process.
Whole child education, beginning in preschool. Magnolia begins serving students at three-years-old, and its educators teach far more than simply academics. The school trains children to use all five senses, like using musical cylinders to match sounds, as Maria Montessori believed that children’s ability to perceive differences in stimuli was the foundation for learning.
Magnolia classrooms are multi-age, serving three grades at a time, which allows students to stay in the same community for three years. Multi-age classrooms provide opportunities for peer mentoring, social development and conflict resolution. For example: In one of Magnolia’s Children’s House classrooms (ages 3-6), a four-year-old was tutoring a three-year-old on the science of water droppers when the three-year-old accidentally spilled green liquid onto the four-year-old’s artwork, leading to that day’s lesson in conflict resolution.
MFA intentionally balances its classrooms by student age and demographics to provide a diverse community experience. Sara believes that both low-income children and children with special needs can benefit from Montessori’s progressive education approach. However, the research base for Montessori education is thin, particularly in public school settings. And like all first year schools, Magnolia has had its ups and downs.
The Best Place to Start Is The Beginning
The Magnolia staff uses observation tools to evaluate the effectiveness of the learning environment every three weeks. “Building a Montessori culture is challenging with 300 students,” says Sara. “We expect 95% of our students to concentrate deeply during the work cycle, be motivated to self-direct their learning and grow academically.”
As a new school, Magnolia does not have a full year of academic results. But the early signs are promising: 75% of students who entered below grade level are on track to make 1 ½ years of reading growth this year based on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA).
Additionally, families are responding enthusiastically: there are currently ten applicants for each available spot for Fall 2015.
If Montessori For All has its way, it will be the next overnight success in public education--just a mere 100 years in the making. Maybe public education is finally ready for Maria Montessori’s vision of personalized learning and social change.