Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mac's Annual Speech

This is our 4th year at Ruffing Montessori, (RM) and I am blown away year after year by the principal, John McNamara's (Mac's) speech at the annual 'Back to School' night.  Due to my husband's busy work schedule (often traveling), he has yet to attend one of these presentations.  Yet, every year I regret that I did not videotape his speeches, since they are so interesting, insightful, and inspiring.  The following is a VERY rough (and lengthy) summary of what I learned from Mac's speech.

Some background perspective...

Particularly as parents with traditional educational backgrounds (mine in Catholic/private, my husband's in public), prior to discovering RM, we had limited knowledge of the Montessori philosophy.  I have found that the BEST way to learn about this method is to listen to Mac speak, if given the opportunity.

As a side note, I am a believer that multiple forms of education are likely effective and successful....They probably have various pros and cons when compared with one another, and furthermore may be more/less beneficial, depending on the nature of the child.  I suspect no ONE form is superior over all others.  Fortunately, we live in a part of Cleveland that has very highly regarded public schools.  I am sure that we would find them to be stellar in their own right, if we had opted to send our children there.  Yet, we stumbled upon RM during our tour of local preschools, and have gradually fallen in love with its format and philosophy. Therefore, we have decided to continue into the elementary phase, though very different and less 'traditional' than the schools we personally attended as children.

Learning about the Montessori philosophy is particularly interesting in light of current education debates.  Just recently, the Chicago teacher's union went on strike for the first time in twenty-five years, keeping students out of school for a staggering seven days.  Among other issues, teachers are unhappy that their evaluations are too heavily based on their students' standardized test scores.  It seems that an over-emphasis on standardized tests, (though well-intentioned to ensure quality education is provided to all), often backfires via an undue pressure on teachers to 'teach to the test'.  Similarly, this test-centric culture seems to interfere with students' intrinsic motivation to learn for the sake of the material itself.

Some notes from Mac's speech...

Mac illustrates the basic premise behind the Montessori philosophy that intrinsic/internal rewards are more motivating and productive for learning in the long run than external rewards (grades, gold star, cash, etc.).  He references various studies and focus groups, both of children and adults throughout various countries, and how they behave differently (less productively) when offered a reward for doing their work....the reward often crowds out the inherent satisfaction of doing the work...ultimately causing the person to lose interest in the work itself, particularly in the long run.  I have read various articles and books on this subject, and it simply makes sense.

He also discussed that these external rewards tend to stifle the creativity that is otherwise developed through problem solving, a natural passion for learning, discovery, etc...The student often will only do the work needed to get the A or to memorize/pass the test, as opposed to taking a more authentic approach, being genuinely curious and interested in learning, and taking pride in their work.

For example, he illustrated this concept with a recent debate among his 8th grade students on the various ways to approach a math problem.  Since it was longer multiplication, there exist various ways (i.e. Way 1, 2, and 3) to solve the problem in your head.  He asked one student, "How would you go about multiplying A x B?" student said, "Well, I would solve it via Way 1"...another student said, "Why wouldn't you solve it via Way 2", and a third student said, "Wouldn't it make more sense to do it via Way 3?"  All are valid approaches to reach the correct answer, yet since the three students learn in different ways, the different approaches made the most sense to them individually.

I am not sure what I was more impressed by: the fact that three 8th graders were genuinely, actively engaged in such a math problem-solving discussion, or the fact that the teacher was encouraging their creativity to discover the problem via the unique method that made the most sense to them individually (as opposed to just memorizing the 'correct' answer, for testing purposes.)

As all 8th graders give speeches upon graduation, he described a recent graduate's speech.  He mentioned four points that the student discussed for reasons she appreciated her RM education...

1 - Solid Work Ethic/Love of Learning - RM taught her to take pride in her work, enhancing her intrinsic desire to learn, work, grow, and be productive.

2 - Learn from your Mistakes, and furthermore don't be afraid to make mistakes.  Often you can learn MORE through the correction of your mistakes than from getting it right the first time....Also, unlike a more traditional school format, the kids are given the responsibility to correct their errors until they UNDERSTAND them (as opposed to never re-working the answers they got wrong on a test, therefore NOT learning from their mistakes).

Mac likes to re-state the following saying: 'Anything worth doing is worth doing well' - as 'Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly'...Moreover, tackling something you KNOW you are going to do well often does not yield as much growth as when you take risks, and attempt to learn/discover/figure out problems that seem like a bigger challenge...In other words, if there is a risk you may do it poorly, it is worth doing.

3 - (can't recall #3, bear with me!)

4 - Trust and Respect...she said she felt that coming to RM was always an enjoyable experience because the teachers treated her with trust and respect like an equal, not like a child.  The school also has a close-knit, family-like environment where the kids feel at home.  Learning about character development, good citizenship, and treating others with respect are just as important as academics.  From a very young age, the teachers at RM have given her responsibilities and through these responsibilities she gained confidence and a love of learning.  He emphasized the saying that 'When you leave, people often don't remember what you said, or what you did, but how you made them FEEL'....

As a sidebar, I have found with my own children that on the days I can be most patient, loving, and kind to my children, the more they WANT to behave well, so as to NOT disappoint me or disrupt this caring/warm environment....Yet, on the days I am feeling stressed, frazzled, and on-edge w/ the kids, I tend to distance myself and be less engaged...naturally, the more they misbehave...because either they are just trying to get an emotional reaction (negative is better than nothing at all), or they just want to see what they can get away with...

I often speculate this phenomenon will likely apply (with greater stakes) to the daunting teenage years....I suspect the kids who have a warm, trusting, relationship with their parents are less likely to rebel and experiment with alcohol or drugs because they don't want to disappoint their parents.  This seems to go hand in hand with the ever-important family meal....Family experts claim that children raised in families that gather for a daily family meal are LESS likely to rebel/experiment with alcohol and drugs than children raised in families that do not.  If the parent rules with a cold iron fist, with little trust/respect for the child's ability to make their own decisions, the teenager is more inclined to seek an escape, push the boundaries, figure out a way to get around the rules, etc.  Whereas, children who are trusted and given more autonomy to make responsible decisions are guided by a fear of disappointing or disrupting their relationship with their warm, loving, parents.

Another thing Mac discussed was that we, as parents and teachers, can learn a great deal from one another by sharing ideas and resolutions, particularly due to the 'can't see the forest through the trees' phenomenon.  When we are too invested, too emotional, or too close to a problem, it can be more challenging to come up with an effective solution.  Studies show that when two different focus groups are given a theoretical problem to solve: Group A is told to 'envision YOU are the person WITH the Problem X' and Group B is told to 'imagine you are HELPING a person with Problem X' - the larger majority of Group B successfully solved the problem because they can distance themselves and offer a better perspective.

I had never heard of this study, but I have often felt it as a parent.  Over the last couple years, I have been involved with a neighborhood parenting-related-book club.  As I read these books, the theories presented most often make sense on paper, but I find that putting them into action is the hardest part.  It is one thing to understand the healthiest/most effective approach to parenting on an academic level, quite another to put it into practice.  I am sure that when parents look back on their experience, they have a better view than when we are 'down in the trenches', emotionally frustrated/spent/invested in our parenting situations and challenges.

I am so thankful to have the opportunity to learn from John McNamara, and the rest of the staff at RM.  This crazy journey of parenthood did not come with an instruction manual, and even if it had, I suspect John would encourage us to seek our own methods and resolutions.  Through this process, we may even achieve the ability to write our own unique manuals, yet I suspect only from a distance, long after are children are grown.

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