Learning is a Self-Organizing System

by Rick on November 8, 2013

What can you trust kids to do on their own? Almost anything if you play your cards right.

Dayton said, “Hi,” to me when I walked into a large room crawling with 30 boys and girls ages six to eight.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Dayton,” he said.

“Hi, I’m Rick,” and with that he went back to doing his long division problems.

“This is the only class where they use textbooks,” said my tour guide as she began her apology. Textbooks are the last thing you would expect to see in a Montessori classroom, but seeing half-a-dozen of the older kids whipping through them made more sense to me (and apparently the students) than to my well-trained Montessori tour guide.

The kids and I are not into dogma. Rather our passion is to learn what it takes to master the world, and that was what was obviously so great about this school. These kids, many of whom had been in the school for four or five years had already obviously mastered the rudiments of the 3 R’s and were now using these basics to take their learning to the next level.

Jayden was dividing 1,672 by 8. As I watched him line the numbers up in the boxes provided by the Montessori graph paper specially designed for this very purpose of teaching place value as well as long division and reviewing math facts, he interrupted himself, looked up at me and explained that this is a tricky problem because after you divide 8 into 16 you have no remainder to carry to the ten’s place, and since 8 into 7 is 0 with a remainder of 7 it could be confusing.

“How long have you been doing long division?” I asked. Since I was six,” he said. “I had done everything else by the time I left pre-primary.” (Ages 3 to 5)

“Why are you still doing long division?” I asked. Because it’s fun. I am taking a break, now.”

“What’s the work you are in the middle of?” I asked.

Jayden took me back to a table where he had been working with three other eight-year-olds and sat back down in front of the textbook he was using. The book was open to the “section test” in the middle of the book, and Jayden’s notebook with today’s date on it showed that he was moving through this test systematically.

I picked one problem at random and asked him if he could do this problem? He said he hadn’t had that yet, but that he thought he could do it, and started right away to wrestling with the problem. The word problem involved a ven diagram with 17 in one circle, 19 in the other circle and 34 in the intersection. The answer was one of four multiple choices.

After a couple of minutes, he looked up and said it might take him a while, so I said I would come back later. I visited another classroom and came back. When I did he had finished the test and was at another table by himself writing in his journal. As I came over to him, he looked up, took me back to the table with the textbook, flipped through the pages till he found the problem and explained to me why the answer was “a) 10.”

I was visiting three Montessori Schools in Chicago. It was the same at all schools. I could tell from the way the Montessori trained teachers talked at these schools that they were not in complete agreement with how things were done at their sister schools.

However, to me the important thing to look at is not what other schools are not doing perfectly, but at what all three schools are doing right. Here’s what  Professor Sugata Mitra would say that what all three schools were doing right is acting as if learning is a self-organizing system.

If we want all kids to be successful we have to teach them as if stepping up to challenges, collaborating, communicating and learning are what human being were designed to do. You don’t have to make them. Learning is a self-organizing system. Given the right structure, kids can be self-directed, self-disciplined learners.

 

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Sheryl Morris November 9, 2013 at 8:59 am

Lines I love and appreciate here:
“The kids and I are not into dogma. Rather our passion is to learn what it takes to master the world, and that was what was obviously so great about this school.”
“I could tell from the way the Montessori trained teachers talked at these schools that they were not in complete agreement with how things were done at their sister schools.”
“However, to me the important thing to look at is not what other schools are not doing perfectly, but at what all three schools are doing right.”

Pamela Swallow November 9, 2013 at 7:18 pm

One of the very best talks I’ve heard. Prof. Sugata Mitra is a fascinating and inspiring speaker. It would be wonderful if this Ted Talk were shown to every teacher and parent.

Rick November 13, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Yes. Yes.

Rick Armstrong November 15, 2013 at 8:28 pm

Organization of content does matter. Teaching methods do matter. Math is so much more than “Here is an example, now practice”.

Rick March 5, 2014 at 5:07 am

Thank you, Rick. And you articulate so powerfully in your comment on http://geniusinchildren.org/2014/02/25/each-conflict-is-a-chance-to-find-our-center/

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