We all want our children to “work up to their ability,” but how do we measure that? Traditionally, one starts by “evaluating” the child to determine a “baseline” of ability. The problem is that such results are artificial and distort reality. We never know what a person can do; we only know what a person did. Any measure of a person’s “ability” is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than a baseline.
Maria Montessori began her career in education working with children with disabilities. She did not begin with measuring abilities. She just worked with the children, designing teaching materials, trying them out, noticing a child’s reaction and trying again. Good teaching is a continuous action-research project.
To maximize performance she focused on three variables: 1) high internal motivation 2) high decision-making, and 3) high quality (accurate) feedback on those decisions–oh, and one more: the quality of the social context.
The Montessori approach is strong on the three variables. The classrooms are designed to maximize internally motivated decision-making, and accurate feedback is built into the lessons. (A teacher usually doesn’t have to say: “That’s wrong,” because the material is designed to give them that feedback directly.) But no pedagogical approach can compensate for bad relationships, and great care is given to the social climate of the classroom.
But Maria Montessori designed classrooms, not adult learning communities; so creating that web of constructive relationships is the growing edge for all Montessori schools—all schools, actually. I am thrilled to discover that the adults in my new school community are engaged in this process–from the Board to the teachers to the parents.
But how do we measure that? The best way to measure a relationship is to count the things you can’t talk about. The best way to improve a relationship is to pick one of those things and figure out how you will begin to talk about it. This is a challenge for each of us. I have been at it for 69 years and am still not bored.
To make difficult conversations easier and more likely to happen, a community needs to engage in some unusual behaviors. Here are some critical disciplines:
Describe. Don’t Label
Don’t put our trust in labels, diagnoses and tests, and don’t compare people. Use anecdotes as the currency of conversation. Describe behavior we like or don’t like in such a way that it plays like a movie in the other person’s head.
Whether we are trying to kick a soccer ball or to have a parent-teacher conference about a student, the critical factor is accurate information. It is precisely here where most relationships break down. We say things like, “Wow, you’re smart,” and “Ah, he has an executive function disorder.” It’s normal, but not helpful. The building blocks for a relationship are anecdotes—descriptions of behavior—more subjects and action verbs, fewer nouns and adjectives.
Embrace All Challenges
Of course we tend to avoid failure, mistakes, losing, disappointment and disagreement, but this is where all the important learning takes place. Therefore, we have to help each other embrace and learn from these “bad” things.
Growing in our ability to work out differences with others is particularly vital.
Making sure people feel they belong includes making school a safe place for each of us to be our own unique, imperfect selves.
It’s the Relationship, stupid
Building a web of relationships must be the overarching, supreme goal for each of us. Getting the outcome we want at the expense of the relationship is a failure. See each challenge as an opportunity to build a relationship, and make sure the outcome is a result of the relationship.
This week Ms. Kara is meeting with each of our incoming first graders. This is not a test. We are not assessing ability; we are beginning to get to know the child and beginning to build a relationship. This is important because a person’s performance is more a function of the quality of their relationships than any measure of “ability.”
It is common practice today for schools and teachers to feel the need to assess children before we work with them. This is misguided and in conflict with the Montessori way. People learn from those they love.
So how do we know when people are working up to their ability? They feel it, and those responsible feel it, too. This consensus only results from good conversation.