Changing the Conversation

I recently attended a Montessori seminar featuring Dr. Steven Hughes, a pediatric neuropsychologist and Montessori parent.

One thing that Dr. Hughes described is that conventional schools are organized around the idea that teaching is telling.  So reform or improvement efforts tend to revolve around trying to attract better tellers, determine how to tell better, or trying to tell things in a better order.

Readers from Iowa may recognize that this is the path that the education reform conversation has largely taken in Iowa.  Whatever it is we are doing is fine we just need to attract “better” teachers to do it (higher GPAs or test scores); to have those teachers collaborate, peer coach, or mentor each other more about it (new career pathways); to pay those teachers more to do it; to evaluate and assess the teachers doing it and the students they are doing it to differently or more often (annual teacher evaluations, end-of-course exams, Smarter Balanced Assessments, ACT for all students); and more time for the teachers to do it (longer school days/years, year-round calendars).

But what if the problem isn’t the teachers doing it, the amount of time they have to do it in, or the assessments?  What if the problem is that whatever it is we are doing just can’t produce the results that we want?

What if the problem is the compulsory nature of schooling or organizing children into grade levels by birth date without regard to each individual child’s rate of growth and development?  What if a system that ranks students against same age peers (or even against standardized expectations based on age) necessarily results in some children being labeled “struggling learners” or “not-proficient” no matter how many rewards are offered or punishments are threatened?

It doesn’t seem likely that we will have that conversation any time soon.  But I hope that an interest in choice and competency-based education might open the door for a conversation about public Montessori and how public Montessori programs might serve Iowa students and produce the results that we want: more students not only proficient in math and reading, but who are also kind, self-motivated, curious, creative, and capable of self-control, concentration, and perseverance.

Dr. Hughes recommended that we each prepare elevator speeches, which I think is good advice.   I’m still working on mine for the upcoming legislative session (on both the education reform proposals and in favor of public Montessori programs) but here’s one from Montessori parent Trevor Eissler (author of Montessori Madness!: A Parent to Parent Argument for Montessori Education):

If you had a few minutes to talk to parents, teachers, administrators, or elected officials what points would you like to make about current reform efforts?  Are we headed the right direction?  Is there another conversation you’d like to be having instead?

1 thought on “Changing the Conversation

  1. Trace Pickering

    Thanks for this post, Karen. This is being said in many corners of the state and country. I addressed these very issues in my response to the education blueprint last year. I think you’ll see many similarities and a recommended pathway for making it happen. “Reform” is a dead-end road – we must be working on transformation and that begins with the learner, learning, and maintaining and nurturing a child’s inherent curiosity and desire to understand their world. As a friend of mine often says, “Learning is as natural an act as breathing.”

    Here the link to my blueprint response. You might also like outstanding teacher, Shawn Cornally’s recent post about his vision for competency-based learning here:

    Thanks for your contributions to the discussion!


    Dr. Trace Pickering
    Director of Community Building
    SourceMedia Group
    500 3rd Avenue SE
    Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52406


    “Nobody knows ahead of time how long it takes anyone to learn anything.” –Dr. Tae

    “The truth does not emerge from efforts to eliminate all perceptions but one.” – Russell Ackoff

    “To confuse change with progress is to confuse means with ends.” – Seymour Sarason

    “Purposeful systems don’t need external measures to be successful, only poor ones do.” –Jamshid Gharajedaghi

    “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” –Pasi Sahlberg

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