Significance and Montessori in Higher Education

This week as we were discussing mindfull learning and anti-teaching I came across this blog post from an instructional designer at Rice University that discusses some cognitive research on children and how they are being taught and what they do with what they are taught. Even though I found the post a few days ago and tweeted about it then, it has still been playing on my mind. What the research boiled down to is that the children who were explained exactly how the toy worked then proceeded to spend less time playing with it. The children/students were not interested in figuring out other ways that it may work or other things that it may do. In the end the direct instruction limited creativity.

The study reminded me of the readings from this week that discussed practicing lessons to the point of overlearning it and mindlessly accepting information. This allows for when individuals come across a challenge, they do not know how to work around it and come up with a solution without repeating the formula they already learned and had repeated dozens of times. When we force students to learn our way of how things work we are limiting their own creativity. We are also limiting how students will find significance and how they may use the information in the future.

These are ideas and conversations that are not only on-going within Virginia Tech and higher education as a whole, they are also ideas that are constantly floating around in my head. As I have mentioned before (or if you dug deep enough in my blog site) I was involved in a MOOC last semester in which Mike Wesch led the discussion about “Why we need a Why”, in which the discussion brought up the idea of significance. At the time I was a few weeks into teaching a new course to me, and blogged about my student’s view of the significance of the course. This semester, now my second semester teaching this course, my students have found other significance in the course. In particular, they see how knowing and understanding how children and adolescents develop will make them better able to understand human processes as they enter into their careers of hospitality management, education, counseling, physical therapy, computer science, etc. My students are finding significance in the course far outside of the significance I would have gotten from it, which is wonderful and potentially one of the benefits of teaching a social science.

Another way that I try and guide them to find significance in the course that can translate outside of this one class is by guiding them on a semester long research paper. Yes, it is relatively structured in that they have certain portions they have to do within a certain time frame, and they are some-what limited to their topics. However, their topics are broad enough, where they can make it their own, such as bullying and gender. Some choose topics because they were already meaningful to them while others choose them based on what they know the least about, and others have chosen some based on what they think will be most useful to them to know about in the future. This paper allows them to read through the research that is out there on these topics, figure out what is most meaningful, and write a coherent paper. I hope that along the way they learn the skills to repeat the process again and be able to read the literature out there on the topic of child and adolescent development.

One of the topic choices that I give my students is on Montessori method of education. For those of you who have never heard of this approach, here is a short history of it. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician in the late 19th/early 20th century, who spent her career researching childhood education up to age 12 (the last age she studied before dying with plans to go further). Within her educational method, children are able to move about the classroom as they wish and choose the work that will be most meaningful to them at the time. The teacher is a facilitator to their learning. The Montessori method is constantly playing on my mind as to how it can relate to higher education. I would love to develop my thoughts on it more as I continue down the path of teaching in higher education. In part, I think it goes back to not limiting the creativity of students, allowing them to find answers for themselves, working on what speaks to them, and finding significance in the work that they are doing.

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