Follow the Child on the Journey to Mastery

Maura Joyce, Head of School
Elementary students working with a Montessori material

Do you remember the first time you saw a Montessori classroom? Was it familiar, similar to what you experienced as a child? For some of you, it must have been, because you attended Post Oak or another Montessori school. But for many of us, we didn’t understand what we were seeing and why it was designed so differently. I like to describe that difference in as many ways as possible to help parents (like me!) get a clearer picture of what we do in a Montessori environment.

In more traditional school models, TIME is a constant, while MASTERY is a variable. That is, each school day is broken down into multiple periods of time in which to address a specific subject (e.g., math, science, English). Students listen, read, study, and try to retain and demonstrate their knowledge of a subject within a time frame, say about 50 to 60 minutes daily. There is a lesson plan and content to be delivered at that time in each course of study. The degree of mastery varies, as different students achieve different levels of mastery given the time frame. For example, some retain 93% of it and earn an “A,” others retain 75% of it and earn a “C.” In other words, time is the constant while the degree of mastery varies among students, which in turn is supposed to be reflected in their grades.

Montessori flips this convention on its head. At Post Oak, MASTERY is the constant while TIME is the variable. In other words, it may take some students a few hours or days to grasp a particular concept, while others require two or three weeks to demonstrate knowledge of the same material or mastery of a skill. But the Montessori teacher is focused on mastery instead of time or grades. The goal is for each student to master the material regardless of how much time it takes. Teachers observe and re-present, challenge and offer support so that the student can obtain that in-depth understanding. Our environments are prepared for them to discover, explore, work, think, share, interact, communicate, and meet their needs. Within that framework, we also know that children are all unique and different and that we need to be able to individualize the educational program for each student. So rather than following a curriculum, Montessori follows the child. This aspect of our education system is really what sets it apart from the others: we follow the child.

In a more conventional classroom, when the curriculum is at the center of the school, the focus is on the “what” and how to get the students to know “things.” Teaching methods will vary depending on the school, the teacher, and the resources available, but most traditional models follow the curriculum and use various strategies to impart this knowledge to a large group of students. By contrast, at the center of the Montessori classroom is the child. For over a century, Montessori teachers have approached children with a view that is based on their physiological and psychological development. Our focus is on their growth: physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually.

This does not mean we do not have a curriculum—we have a very rich and comprehensive one! Nor does it mean we do not have deadlines as our students get older—we do! But on the road to mastery, there is a higher purpose of a Post Oak education, which is to help children learn how to learn.

Following the child means helping them each step of the way on the road to independence—intellectual as well as physical. Deeper understanding and mastery comes from delving into a subject, exploring a material, puzzling through a challenge, making mistakes, drawing conclusions, sharing ideas, and researching.

Methods that still insist on the “lecture-memorize-repeat back” process cannot make time for this depth of understanding, as the students have such a limited opportunity to engage themselves in the process. Even within a project deadline, we prioritize giving the students the time needed towards mastery. Blocks of work time are a feature at every program level at Post Oak.

There are opportunities to learn more. As fall conferences continue, parents engage in a dialogue with their student’s teacher (and at the upper levels with their child as well) about how they are doing academically, socially, and developmentally, based on their age and program level. Our conferences offer more than a conventional report card can. If you’re curious to explore the classrooms and materials at each level, Montessori Journey takes place in the fall each year.

Whether your child is 14 months or 17 years old, they are on a journey of exploration, learning, reflection, growth, communication, and interaction. And, at Post Oak, we will be following them along the way.

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