Probably one of the most misunderstood times of a person’s life is what we call adolescence, especially the years from 12 to 15. Not only are these years difficult for the person who is living them, but this is a challenging time for those of us educators and parents who interface with these youngsters, too. It’s even harder for us if the child about with whom we’re interacting is our first-born child. Oh, the first-born child – forever an enigma! Once we think we’ve got the hang of the child, she changes ages, gets older, and we transform again into inexperienced parents. Fortunately when the next child comes around, we can be more confident because we’re no longer parent novices. To exacerbate this problem further, we parents unfortunately judge ourselves as parents by how well our first born does! So we’re even more vested in how that child does in every aspect of life. And you know what, that makes us not quite as good as we could be, because when we focus on judging ourselves, we’re misdirected and our child knows it. This in turn causes him to focus on us, on either pleasing or not pleasing us, rather than focusing on his job – namely that of becoming the best person he can become, the one who is the truest to himself. How wonderful it would be for each child, if she could be free to become who she needs to become. But we parents are afraid to trust that, so instead and with a well meaning attitude we guide our child to become what we think he should become in order to have a good, happy life. That’s a natural way for us to think and behave. But it causes a lot of avoidable conflict in our relationship with our adolescents.
As a proponent for the child at every age Maria Montessori did what no one before did and few since have done. She studied the adolescent, his characteristics, and his needs. She found what has been confirmed by modern day scientists, that in early puberty the adolescent finds it hard to concentrate on academic and structured learning. There is a decline in his motivation from elementary school into middle school probably because of puberty. So Maria Montessori decided it wasn’t right to match traditional schooling to the budding adolescent, who is so full of exploding hormones and consequently unsure of himself, full of self-doubt even. No, Maria Montessori did not see the adolescent as a miniature high schooler. She did not create junior high schools or middle schools that were patterned after high schools. Instead she created a unique curriculum appropriate for the adolescent. It was called Earth School, or Erdkinder. In her school adolescent children would live in a communal setting, away from their families and close to nature, eat fresh farm products, and carry on practical work related to the economics of supplying food, shelter, transportation and so forth. Intellectual work would still be done, but only of the child’s interests and free of all pressure.
But, you protest, we can’t send our adolescents off to the farm today. America isn’t an agrarian society anymore. And you’re right. A lot has changed from 100 years ago when Maria Montessori began her work. But what hasn’t changed is the biology of the child, and that is something we shouldn’t overlook.
… to be continued
Off to the Farm- part 2
Let’s look at today’s research and see if we can find what’s right for today’s adolescent. Researchers tell us that adolescents need opportunities to develop higher order “formal” thinking skills through reasoning, debate, and personal expression. They need a broad academic curriculum emphasizing the interrelationship of subject areas and practical “hands-on” experiences. There needs to be a sense of community among teachers and students to establish the classroom as a safe place to learn and grow.
Academic competition between students and contests with limited winners need to be de-emphasized and group work needs to be encouraged so that team building and leadership skills can be developed. (According to Tom Friedman in his best seller about the global economy, The World is Flat, these skills are the ones adults of the future will need to be successful.) Focus should be on the process rather than the final product with an acceptance of learning from one’s mistakes, allowing students to redo work, and encouraging students to take academic risks. Emphasis should move from the departmentalized approach to curriculum to thematic and interdisciplinary approaches. Problem solving and comprehension should be encouraged rather than rote learning, memorization, and over-used worksheets and textbooks. The use of extrinsic rewards, the imposition of deadlines, and an emphasis on evaluations decrease intrinsic motivation. It is important to recognize that students’ early attempts at regulating their own work may not always be successful. Teachers must remember that good decision making and time management require practice. Teachers can help students gain these skills by providing limited choices between acceptable options, by assisting with breaking large tasks into manageable pieces, and by providing guidelines for students to use in monitoring their own progress. And finally, adolescents need social experiences that teach students how to be active, contributing members of their society.
What has just been described by today’s research is the program that Dr. Edidin (Robin) has created in our Montessori middle school. It might seem strange to you because it wasn’t what you experienced; you might not be comfortable with it. You might not realize how essential a program like this can be for your child’s future academic success. You might not even know how to respond to your child’s perception of it. But for your children, for every middle school child, it’s just what the researchers have found works best. This kind of program helps the young adolescent succeed on his path to become the best of himself, the best for himself. Isn’t that what we all truly want?
Director/Elementary 1 Teacher