Harnessing the Curiosity of Childhood

One of the joys of observing a Montessori classroom is seeing small people solemnly and carefully taking various activities—excuse me, works—off of the shelves and to their workspace to engage with them. 
There’s something so wonderful about how you can see the concentration rolling off them in almost visible waves as they tackle their brass polishing or water pouring or metal inset work at their table.

The thing I realized as a Montessori parent, though, was that it was all part of a long-term “hustle” by Montessori teachers. I do recognize that there are few things less like pool-hall hustlers than Montessori teachers, but nevertheless, I imagine them laughing up their sleeves as they watch the children work.
“You see that student over there? Likes penguins. Keeps choosing the work where she picks up small penguins with tweezers and puts them in a bowl. At it for hours. And you know what she’s learning without even knowing it? Fine motor skills that will be useful for academic skills like handwriting later. And you know what’s even funnier? She likes it.”1
One of the goals that emerged in the strategic planning process is to increase student engagement in learning. Research in education over the last few decades has pointed us towards something that Montessori educators have known all along—engaging student choice in education leads to more positive learning outcomes.
On the one hand, it seems painfully simple—when children choose what they are doing, they are more likely to keep doing it because they chose it for some reason in the first place. Adapting that to the classroom is tricky, because in order for group activities to work, students need to have a commonality of knowledge and experience. We also don’t want a student to simply choose not to learn some large subject area, obviously. But there are methods to incorporate choice within the classroom that do create greater student engagement and better learning outcomes. Things like choice in homework assignments—how a mathematical concept is practiced, for example, or how a student shows understanding of a historical concept—can increase student engagement and long-term learning.
Sometimes this choice can look messy, particularly to parents. Sometimes, as in the Montessori classroom, the work can look suspiciously like play. Sometimes the path the student takes with his/her choice of work seems circuitous and peculiar. But by allowing students to participate in guided choice, we’re harnessing the natural curiosity of childhood while also building independent learners.
While we may not be able to reproduce in 15-year-olds the same breathtakingly serious attitude of a four-year-old carrying water across a classroom, we can still maintain some of that excitement and wholehearted engagement in learning that we see in the Montessori classroom. Choice is a way to give responsibility to students for their own learning, recognizing them as partners in the project of school and building on their strengths and enthusiasms.
1As a point of clarification, I’ve never met a Montessori teacher who talks like this. They are, in my experience, a uniformly wonderful group of people who love helping children’s minds unfold. In fact, I think that on reading this, my Montessori teacher (Miss Sudie, I love you!) may appear suddenly behind me to remind me that we only use kind words with our friends.
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