What I learned from talk radio

I was listening to talk radio the other day, as I often do when I’m stuck in the traffic nightmare that is the bottom of the Allen Road, when I learned something about Montessori.

Not that they were talking about Montessori, you understand. The focus of the show was on special-interest schools within the public school system. And it wasn’t the content of the show that taught me something; it was the way one caller explained her experiences.

This caller was a teacher in a TDSB school, and told a story about a kid who did some research into a slightly controversial position on global warming and then presented his findings to the entire student body.

“He was really interested in this issue, so he researched it – we allowed him to do the research.” She explained to the host.

“Excuse me?!?!?” I said aloud, because I’m weird like that and have been known to talk to the radio at times, “You ALLOWED him to research something of interest? Well, isn’t that just so GRAND and GENEROUS of you to allow a student to LEARN something that he wants to know!”

And there it was, in stark relief: in a conventional school, the teachers are the gatekeepers of knowledge. They decide what and when and how the students will learn. Students who don’t keep up with the group are seen as lazy or uninterested in learning, which is about as far from the truth as you can get. Everybody is motivated to learn something. Montessori schools support this: the children are given the tools to learn anything, they’re given the resources to access knowledge, and the teacher acts as a guide.

In a Montessori school, the child from the anecdote would be given large blocks of time to focus on the issue. He’d have to find old weather statistics (probably on the internet) and then delve into history to see how the stats lined up with developments like the industrial revolution. He would probably take a look at some botany books to see how plants would interact with climate changes. He might, depending on his academic level, need to learn a bit about statistics and formulae in order to understand the relevant research. All of this would, of course, require copious reading (probably far beyond the amount needed to fill in the “reading logs” that are ubiquitous in schools these days.) It would also require, and be fueled by, the child’s genuine interest and curiosity.

The “three r’s” aren’t an end in themselves. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are the tools that we use every day to understand our world and our experiences. At Montessori the children master these tools and practice using them at the same time, freely, just as they will need to do in the “real world.”

So thank you, talk radio, for reminding me that our children don’t need our permission to learn. As Montessori teachers have known for years, our children just need the proper tools and some guidance. They’ll take care of the learning.