Tonight, I want to talk about the environment. Not the environment in the sense of the climate and ecology, but in the sense of the learning environment.
Montessori prioritized (correctly) the student’s direct, unmediated contact with the world as the fundamental basis for learning and development. In Education and Peace, she wrote:
“Love spurs man to learn. It leads to intimate contact between the thing that is loved and the human spirit, which in turn leads to production. Labor, life, and normal human development result. … The object of such a love is not important. What is important is that love spurs man to use his mind, to produce, to labor.”
This view runs very deep. The pedagogical upshot of it is a major attentional shift, away from the student-teacher relationship and towards the student-environment relationship. Much (though not by any means all) of what the educator used to do directly with the student, the educator now does indirectly, via the environment: one designs it, prepares it, and then inspires a student’s connection to it.
It’s also a point of contact between Montessori and a lot of other rich thought in education. Here follows a sampling of brain food for inspiring thought about different facets of learning environments.
Stop Focusing on Class Size (article) — Daniel Buck summarizes much of the research showing that, perhaps surprisingly—given that small class sizes are such a common desideratum for teachers, parents, and policy-makers—class size is not particularly important in education.
The social environment is a major part of the learning environment, and there are a lot of unquestioned assumptions about what optimality looks like. (Interestingly, some of Montessori’s work involved designing large early childhood classrooms of over 100 students. The fact that Montessori classrooms in the US today are typically under 30 students is an idiosyncrasy of American education culture and regulations.)
For the social environment, besides size, there’s also a range of ages: “Age-based segregation of children at school is an accepted and entrenched norm.” (Twitter thread) — Ray Girn’s compelling argument for mixed-age classrooms as a litmus test for education reformers.
Ecological Psychology and Education (podcast) — I interview Professors Andrew Wilson and Laura Shaw about ecological psychology. Ecological psychology is a heterodox movement in psychology: one shifts focus away from brains and the information processing architecture of the mind, and towards animals perceiving and acting in their environments. We discuss how this approach might be fruitful in education, more generally and specifically in Montessori.
An Ecological Approach to Learning in (Not and) Development (review article) — A couple of years ago, Karen Adolph published this wonderful overview of her approach to understanding learning in development in a more “ecological” way. She runs an infant research lab at NYU, focused on studying the development in infants of the capacity to navigate their environments.
“You'll never have as much leeway as you do on the first day. Seriously, you can do anything!” (Twitter) — Jesse Farmer describes how to design an experience on the first day of a class. It’s a focused look at how to create a very specific, synthetic learning environment: “The instant they enter the space—real or virtual—the students should feel like they've crossed a threshold.” Definitely worth a read.
Creating a Child’s World (essay) — Guidepost Montessori’s description of how the environment impacts development and learning is truly wonderful. And I’m not just saying that because I wrote it. :)
Go forth and learn something from your environments this week.
Matt Bateman, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Montessorium
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