When evaluating a school, getting there before school starts can be very useful. You get to see the bearing of the teachers as they arrive. You can read their emotional tone as they greet people. You can assess the enthusiasm of the students approaching the front door or entering their classrooms. You can sense the quality of the social interactions, gauge the relations between the generations, and you can feel each individuals’ personal authority and sense of purpose.
One morning in April I arrived at Golden Oak Montessori School at eight to find the parking lot already filled with cars and the sidewalk in front of the school awash with backpacks, duffle bags and early adolescents. Two teachers were moving among them solving seven problems a minute, and I learned that all this would soon be piled into vans for a trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.
With considerable experience in the art of hanging out, I joined the ebb and flow on the sidewalk by standing next to a seventh grader. After introductions I asked him if he had started thinking about where he wanted to go to high school. I knew that I had no right to ask such a question of a thirteen-year-old I had only just met, and that I had no right to expect anything other than a one-word answer like “No.”
“Seriously, Dude? The future? School?” But he didn’t say that, and he didn’t say, “Yeah, my parents are all stressed about that, too. I am just trying to make sure I get to sit by my friends in the van.”
No. Blake (his real name) gave me the full story of the search process he had only just begun: the high schools he had visited so far, the pro’s and con’s of each one, the schools he was considering adding to his list, and why.
I was impressed. Not surprised, but impressed. Children are quite capable of this kind of talk, but in most schools children are so used to having less expected of them, that they expect less of themselves.
I was not surprised because Golden Oak is a Montessori school, and this young man is exactly the kind of person a Montessori teacher would expect him to be after five years of Montessori education. And indeed, when I visited the classes that morning I could see in their self-motivation how all the children are building toward being their own unique self-directed, self-possessed person. All the students in all the activities I saw pointed this way: solving problems, inquiring, practicing, creating, and collaborating, all lit from within. I got the impression that every one of them—the shy and the bold—would be comfortable standing in front of a group and talking about themselves and the mission they were on.
This is no small thing. Research shows what we actually already know; i.e. that education comes from within. “Soft,” “non-cognitive” skills like collaborating, changing perspective, communicating, connecting, creating, contributing, embracing challenges and persevering, are actually essential for success. They are also hard, cognitive and essential for academic achievement, and can only be learned by internally motivated decision-makers in pursuit of growing their own authority.
Everyone I saw at Golden Oak that day was in pursuit of growing his or her own authority, because at the core of the very sophisticated Montessori delivery system is the simple notion that respecting children requires educating them as if they are born with an inner spark that drives their own education.
My conversation with Blake reminded me of something we tend to forget about children: they are quite serious about grown-up problems, want to understand them, want to take responsibility for them and are often even more sanguine about solving them than adults who learned in schools that problems are academic, boring, scary, jobs-for-experts, or all of the above.
To maximize learning, people need a sense of purpose. Those responsible for Blake’s education have been more intent on discovering Blake’s purpose than in giving him one; so, Blake is the one working the high school problem.
In most schools authority is understood as the means by which adults get students to do what they are supposed to do. In a Montessori environment adult authority is in the service of helping students do what they most want to do—grow their own authority.
Golden Oak is a public charter school in Hayward, CA. In two weeks I will be their new Head of School.