Spontaneous Science

By Tara Israelson – Nīkau Head Teacher – Preschool

I was once asked how we, as Montessori preschool teachers, incorporate science into our curriculum.  I had to think for a moment to figure out how to answer, because it’s not a simple answer.

You see, in our preschool classrooms we don’t have many activities with the sole purpose of investigating a scientific concept. Instead our Montessori curriculum invites the child to engage in what we like to think of as “spontaneous” science – the sensorial experiences of different concepts in real time, directed by the children.  Preschool children explore the world with their senses and when they make scientific discoveries, sometimes by accident, we, as teachers, have the privilege of watching the wonder unfold without having to always explain the science behind what they have experienced.

A 3-year old child, who mixes paint at the easel, will discover by accident one day, that blue and yellow make green and the next time they choose to paint they may put blue and yellow together again to see if green appears.  A child building the Pink Tower may attempt to build the tower upside down and will watch as it topples due to insufficient support.  An attempt may be made again, with a different block at the bottom and the tower may stand, or not.  This is how the preschool aged child develops their own working theories about the world and we want to allow these theories to form without a lot of “spoilers”.  So, rather than tell the child that blue and yellow make green and then invite them to prove our theory, we wait for the child to figure it out and tell us.

Having said that, kaiārahi (teachers), do not ignore the science happening around them!  We support children by naming their experiences; a surface can be “rough” or “smooth”. We also ask questions when we can see a child needs help; we might ask, “Where do insects like to hide?” when a child is struggling to find them.   Children make sense of the world through their discoveries and their ability to share them with others.  This idea is so powerful for young children, that they can work together alongside a friend or a teacher and solve a problem, or hypothesize and then experiment to determine whether their hypothesis was correct.  We listen and we stand back as they explore and experiment and we often guide them with questions, as they try to make sense of something new they have experienced.

As children grow older, they refine this technique further, but for our preschool tamariki it is so important to be given the space to truly explore, try something new, and share their findings with their community.

Through their daily work and play in our Montessori classrooms, these children are laying the foundation for future scientific study.  Not only are they developing working theories about the world that they will further investigate in primary and secondary school, or even in their adult careers, they are also building confidence in themselves as explorers, scientists, discoverers and pioneers.  Their minds know no limits, their hands are their tools, the world is their laboratory.

Personalised Learning

By David Starshaw – Mathematics Teacher – High School

Amplify is a personalised learning company based in the US. Its CEO, Larry Berger, is a seminal thinker in this field.1 He wrote a reflection in February 2018 on personalised learning, given the experiences educators have had in personalised learning to date. The following is an excerpt from that reflection (abridged):

“Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the ‘engineering’ model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:

You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn. Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.

Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment. Then you make each kid use the learning object.

Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn’t learn it, you try something simpler.

If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.

Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible and we have collectively built only 5% of the library. To be more precise: The map exists for early reading and the quantitative parts of [primary] mathematics; but the map doesn’t exist for reading comprehension or writing or for any area of science or social studies.

We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow.

So we need to move beyond this engineering model. Once we do, we find that many more compelling and more realistic frontiers of personalized learning open up.”

I can hardly add more to what Berger has already said. There are great advantages to personalised learning, but it’s not a silver bullet. In Kawakawa and Tawari maths, we are still exploring what makes effective teaching and learning of maths in a Montessori context. My reflection on our journey so far is that the relationship between student and teacher seems to be the most important factor; something that personalised learning can’t yet match.



Camping Montessori Style!

By Carol Palmer – Tawhai Teacher

Last week our 9-12 community went on school camp.  We do this every year, but this time we decided to do something completely different. We decided to go for a more Montessori approach, where we did everything ourselves.  Everything!

Firstly, we wanted the children to prepare their food. However simply preparing their own food was not enough!  We wanted them to understand where their food has come from and to understand all the work that goes into every stage of production. To do this they needed to work through each of those stages themselves.

So our plan, was for the children to source all of the food for camp from as close to ‘scratch’ as possible.

Over the past six months we have made cheese, filled sausages, churned butter, caught fish, preserved fruit, grown vegetables, visited bee hives, made pasta and even learned to press oil from seeds.

All this preparation meant that when the children got to camp and began to cook and serve each meal, they recognised every single ingredient and were able to discuss both its origin and its importance in the meal.

Each fish that was wrapped in foil and laid onto the campfire was revered as it was opened up and shared out.  Each spoonful of jam was savoured and each bagel relished! When it came to scraping the scraps from our plates at the end of each meal, there were practically none to be found – there was no way the children were going to waste the food that they had worked so hard for.

And the quality of the food transcended that of any camp we have ever attended.

As if all this food preparation wasn’t enough of a challenge, we also wanted the children to make their own shelters.  We asked them to build a shelter that would keep them dry overnight and, if possible, only use natural materials.  They were expected to sleep in their shelters for at least one night of the camp, though most choose to sleep there for several nights (including the one where it was pouring with rain – that’s another whole story!).

The children came away more tired and satisfied than I have ever seen them at the end of a school camp and the work done has opened the door for all manner of learning over the next few months.  The biggest realisation upon our return is that apple season is upon us, cheese needs to age, vegetables need planting and animals need raising, which means, it is already time to begin planning, gathering and preparing food for Camp 2019.

Closer to peace.

Easing back into School Routines

By Krista Kerr – Pōhutukawa Teacher

During this first fortnight back at kura we are reminded of the importance of routines and community. After a quiet first day when most/all tamariki were eager to be back at kura to see their friends and work with activities they hadn’t seen in a long time, we then come to days three, four, five. . . . when they realise this is a permanent thing and suddenly the preschool deck, in particular, can become a place of tearful farewells. No doubt across all sectors, there are some ākonga, though perhaps not tearful, who may be a bit anxious or hesitant about starting the year. As tamariki leave their whānau each morning, again the consistent routine of our akomanga (classroom) helps to make this easier. We see some tamariki a bit unsure and unhappy at having to separate from whānau, but observe as they then follow the same routine day after day (hanging up their bag, taking off their shoes, greeting their kaiārahi (teacher) and friends), that it gets easier; until the day arrives, when they happily walk into class, knowing what will be happening and feeling secure in that environment.

This is all the easier if there is a consistent routine at home also. A regular bedtime, wake time, leaving the house process and saying goodbye routine takes a bit of effort, but this does go a long way to helping your child settle into school.

The class community also plays a big part in helping tamariki settle in. There are many benefits of having a three-year age range in each akomanga, but seeing it in action as the older tamariki care for and support younger, newer tamariki is something that we, as teachers, are privileged to see time and time again. A child who is now happy and excited coming to class each day will often take a younger one under their wing, perhaps remembering back to when they were new; holding their hand as they walk around the class looking at the activities available, reading a story together, offering a hug for a crying child or suggestion of something to do – and many children will try again and again until they find just what it is that is needed.

Another factor that plays a big part in settling, is the behaviour modelled by the adults. If both kaiārahi and whānau are calm and happy during the goodbye routine (even if this is just a front for your child’s benefit), it shows your child that this is a safe place to be.  It is harder to do when your child is upset, but even more important. Keeping calm and staying with the same routine shows your child that there is nothing to be anxious about. Feel free to ask any questions of your child’s teacher for your own piece of mind and know that just as the class community is there for your child, the whānau is there for you.

And the great thing is, that all tamariki do settle in!  While all children are different, the tears and cries gradually fade away until they reach that magical day, where there are no tears, no shouting, no holding on, no protests – a day in which the child calmly walks happily into class, a day where the parent and teacher share a special smile!

The Magic of Science

By Carolyn Bohm – Rata Teacher

Science holds a valued place among Montessori’s vast collection of lessons and is a doorway to encouraging students to all other fields of study. Children are natural observers and explorers of the world around them. Their curiosity, wonder, imagination and eagerness to learn make them excellent scientists both inside the classroom and outdoors. The science lessons and opportunity for exploration is the backbone of the Montessori curriculum; a means to kindle their interest and encourage their own inquiry.

So, what is a scientist? “We give the name scientist to the type of man who has felt experiment to be a means guiding him to search out the deep truth of life, to lift a veil from its fascinating secrets, and who, in this pursuit, has felt arising within him a love for the mysteries of nature, so passionate as to annihilate the thought of himself.” Maria Montessori, The Montessori Method.

In the preschool environment scientific studies are sensorial in nature. When outside, a new discovery in nature will spark the child’s interest, resulting in a spontaneous lesson around what the new object is, what it’s called and what it feels, tastes, smells, sounds and looks like. After formulating a concrete understanding of objects in the natural word, children begin to take on the more abstract learning processes of planting seeds, watering plants and caring for classroom pets. They are also ready to look at the different parts of a plant or animal and begin giving names to these parts.

Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science.”  – Edwin Powell Hubble.

In the primary classrooms, scientific exploration changes from sensorial observations to questions about “how” and “what if”. In this stage children are at the sensitive period for imagination and stories. The science curriculum in the primary classroom begins with the five great lessons, which create the framework for future science and history lessons. Further study branching off from these lessons is done in the form of hands on experiments, impressionistic charts and independent research. From these initial demonstrations and experiments, students move into more complex understandings, using the scientific method. As they come across topics that really catch their imagination or fascination, students use research as a means to further their own understanding of the world and share that knowledge with others.

Science is not merely a means to encourage students to study other curriculum fields or to create an excitement for learning, it is also a means of bringing the world together. Through the common goal of trying to better understand our universe, our planet and ourselves, humans collaborate and share information across languages and borders to further our collective knowledge base and this is the message of peace we want to share with our children.

Why I Montessori!

By Amy Johnson – Kōwhai Head Teacher – Preschool

When people ask me why I have chosen Montessori education for my children (or for my career), it can be the beginning of a long conversation. There is a reasonable sized list of reasons for my choice and for my belief in this special environment for child development, however all of these can be boiled down to a couple of key principles.

An element I believe to be a cornerstone of our philosophy is that our children, whatever their age and stage of development, get to commit hours and effort doing two extremely important things. Firstly, our children get to continuously work toward knowing themselves and their abilities better every day and secondly they get the opportunity to discover and follow their passions and personal inspiration. Given time and freedom, within understood limits, our children are encouraged to discover themselves, their various roles in their community, their strengths, their interests, their ideas and their unique observations and gifts.

Dr. Montessori wrote, “Doubtless the fact that the child learns by himself, that he can overcome so many difficulties by himself, gives him an inner satisfaction that enhances his sense of personal dignity. The possibility of choosing his own activities also helps foster traits that we do not ordinarily think of as characteristic of the child – a sense of independence and a sense of initiative, for example.” Education and Peace. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2008. p 82.

The adult’s role in the environment is to create a safe, welcoming, ordered, accessible (physical, emotional and mental) space that calls to the child’s natural tendencies and interests. The Montessori guide strives to provide an environment rich in learning opportunities and to hold a general trust and respect for what Montessori called the child’s ‘inner guide’. Watching a child apply him/herself to a self-directed task is a true joy. Observing the concentration, the perseverance, the passion and the self-satisfied accomplishment that results is incredible. It might emerge as a child learns to tie a bow, or shoot a basket, pour from a jug or to read. It might be a pencil sketch or a lego construction, but if you observe closely as Dr. Montessori did, you might see how these freely chosen pursuits enhance your child’s “sense of personal dignity.”

How do we support our children through this personal growth and understanding?

* Freedom/time/opportunity – this is sometimes the hardest thing to give in the midst of busy lives and schedules, but time to experiment and make mistakes is a necessary part of any learning process.

* Demonstration/guidance/guidelines – how do they follow this interest safely? What guidelines need to be in place? We can all use a little help with this element when pursuing passions, but children especially. It is key to observe your child and offer the minimal amount of help needed, but ideally, just at the right time.

The Importance of Micro-economy

By Emma Stoddart  – Biology Teacher and Careers Adviser – High School

If you visit the preschool playground on a Friday morning, you have probably seen our Kawakawa ākonga selling items ranging from coffee to cake to wooden boxes. This is a part of our timetable called micro-economy. The goal of micro-economy is for our adolescents to gain experience in the practical skills of accounting, marketing, Human Resources and business planning, as well as the oral and written communication that goes along with talking to members of our community. Above all, it is a controlled, social organisation for our adolescents, who are wanting to try out the real world and adult responsibilities. The Kawakawa micro-economy has grown from the original café group to now having a wide range of groups including those who make beauty products, Kawakawa flavoured tea, frozen fruit desserts, handmade cards and sewn items.

The Maria Montessori quote that best defines the idea behind micro-economy for me is, “…that something is produced which is useful to the whole society, and that is changed for something else.” For adolescents, that “something else” is money!

When a new micro-economy group starts up, they are given a loan to purchase materials needed to begin making their product. This loan is ideally paid back as soon as possible and any other money made here on in, goes back into that micro-economy. Montessori’s ideal micro-economy involved producing items from the land. This works well for farm based Montessori schools, but is a little more difficult for our urban based programme. Hence, many of the items we sell may not fit Montessori’s idea of “useful to the whole society” (except for maybe the coffee sold by Sarah-Jane’s group!).

As a teacher who works in both Kawakawa and Tawari, I see the ongoing benefits of micro-economy. Although there is no micro-economy in Tawari, these ākonga are now looking beyond school at getting themselves part-time and holiday jobs. When Tawari ākonga come and ask me for help with writing their CV’s, I encourage them to include their time in ‘Kawakawa Café’ or the money handling skills they’ve learnt in ‘Cute as a Button’. The experience they gain on a Friday morning selling is just as valuable and important as what they would gain in any other job. In this last week I was able to be a referee for one of our Tawari ākonga for a part time job they had applied for. When the employer asked me, “Would you employ this person?”, I was able to say “Yes!” and give specific examples of where I had seen this young person display the qualities I knew this employer was looking for. Fingers crossed they get the job.

Finally, a little plug for my own micro-economy group, ‘Cute as a Button’. We are planning on attending the Eastbourne Christmas market again this year. For sale will be our famous felt Christmas tree decorations, also a new range of baby hats and infinity scarves. See you there on the 10th December at Days Bay.

Tiny Seeds Flourish

By Stuart Mason  – Chemistry Teacher, High School

It was in the latter part of 2016 when two girls from a class in the primary school knocked on the door of the Tawari laboratory, full of senior chemistry students.  I was handed two folded paper envelopes that had been labelled ‘coriander’ and ‘silver beet’ in neat pencilled italics.  Yes, they were seeds and yes they were for me and no I didn’t owe them any money and goodbye, because they were off to continue their mission sharing seeds.

As negligence is my main gardening technique, I was never going to be up to the task of honouring the generosity of the giving, so the seeds were passed to the one with the green fingers in our household.  This picture shows Sonya’s success.

Silver Beet (1)The fact that I can only acknowledge the girls anonymously highlights for me, a challenge that can arise within our school despite community-wide events such as Matariki celebrations and Peace Day, as we spend so much time working within our own prepared environments, suited to the relevant plane of development.

The teachers in the High School particularly get asked questions about what goes on in Tawari, the 15-18 class.  Do they do NCEA?  How is it different from the other classes?  Yes, students do NCEA courses at Levels 1, 2 and 3 and in general they have been very successful.

The High School is a ‘School of experience in elements of social life’ (meaning the adult world).  There aren’t the same kind of materials on shelves, but the adults in the classroom are a part of the prepared environment and the students’ work is to test their adulthood.  By the second half of the Third Plane, the students in the 15-18 programme are moving away from the earlier investigation of identity and personal place within a community into an exploration of the roles they will play more specifically as they move out into further education and work.

The timetable gives students choices of NCEA subject classes and options for how to best use independent work time.  They meet together, alongside the teachers, to make decisions about how the community will run.  There is community work, seminar discussion and reflection time.  As in earlier years, the students take care of a ‘house’, and this experience is reflected well in a quote of an American Montessori High School graduate on her first university flatting experience with other, non-Montessori students: “Mom, these people don’t know how to live!”.  The Tawari class is still growing and is expected to reach a roll of 60 students within the next three years.

I gather the next step in the seed-sharing business is that I will harvest seeds from the silver beet plant and pass them on.  I will have to talk with Sonya about that.

The Use of Imagination

By Joel Batson  – Totara Teacher

Have you ever heard that phrase, “Hasn’t that child got such an active imagination?”  It’s often said in relation to a young child acting out some story with or without props, with or without other young children.  While there is truth to the statement it is actually referring to a behaviour, which is often misunderstood.  A clear understanding of what imagination is and how we, as humans, use our imaginations increases the chances of a child reaching towards their full potential.

So then, what is imagination?  Is it something weird and mystical?  Something which some people have and some people just don’t?

Imagination is a creative power of the human brain.  It is the ability to create new ideas based on what is already known and it’s also the vehicle with which we are able to traverse time and geography.  It’s a process based on what is known (reality) and moves to what is either unknown or unknowable.  For it to be used correctly, the use of the imagination must start with the known.

Imagination, therefore, is different from fantasy, thinking and reasoning.  Fantasy is that place of make-believe and is largely based in an alternate reality.  Think elves, fairies and other brands of escapism.  Thinking is not necessarily a creative power and can be defined within the bounds of mental recount and memory.  Also different from imagination is reasoning; more of a deductive power.

These definitions help us to understand the difference between the use of imagination at the first (in the pre-school) and second (in the primary school) planes of development, in the context of how the brain is operating at these stages.  The first plane is concerned with the construction of the individual, giving real experiences the child absorbs with the help of their absorbent mind.  It’s all about the ‘what?’  The second plane is more about the ‘why?’  The child loses their absorbent mind and develops the reasoning mind they’ll have for the rest of their lives.

The first plane is the set-up, laying the building blocks for the use of the imagination that begins to develop in the second plane (and stays with the child for the rest of his or her life).  In the second plane, we begin applying this imaginative power to problems and solutions.  This is what has allowed humans to spread across the earth, adapting to pretty much any environment.  This is also where we see that the imagination is tied to the power to choose our actions, meaning that we actually have a responsibility to use our imaginations wisely.

Following are a few examples of how the imagination is used in class at the second plane: solving problems, creating business opportunities, imagining life in locations such as Ancient Egypt and how they used to re-measure their fields every time the Nile flooded and solving conflict by imagining how it is for others.  This all is based on what is already known.


By Tania Gaffney – Deputy Principal, Preschool and Primary

This year I have had the privilege of having my workspace situated in the pre-school.  It has been 20 or so years since I have spent time within a preschool environment for any great length of time.  I have been having a great time watching the kākano (3-6 year olds) and seeing what they are capable of in their environment.

IMG_1403 (1)The other day I walked past 2 little girls on the deck, one was leaning over the other girl’s feet, practically with her nose on them, putting all her effort into helping put the shoes on.  When it was finished they both hopped up pleased with the result.  No words were even exchanged, but by the looks on their faces, I could tell that each was happy with the outcome.  Another time there were two boys on the deck, one helping the other to put on his top.  When I first saw them, the top was on and the first boy was saying, as he helped to tug it down, “Mmm, now is it meant to be scrinched up like that?”  And it certainly was! I had wondered how he had even managed to get it on.  I went away and when I came back they were still there and the top was off again.  The helping boy was using his words of encouragement “You nearly got it that time. Let’s try again.”  At some stage later I saw them outside working, so I presumed that between them they had sorted it out.  For both these scenarios they didn’t need adults to swoop in and help; they were quite capable of sorting it out themselves, because one of them had a few more skills or experience and could help the other where needed.

In Montessori we strive to guide ākonga towards independence in many different ways. Examples include the way in which the class is set up, the lessons that are given in the area of practical life and the amount of adult intervention that we allow.  A well-known saying in Montessori is, “Every unnecessary help is a hindrance to the development of the child.”

As human beings, we strive for independence, not only so we can help ourselves, but so that we have the skills to be able to help others.  We might be highly skilled in one area, but not quite so capable in another and this therefore grants the opportunity for others to be able to help us and for us in turn to reciprocate by assisting them.

It’s sometimes easy for us as adults to forget just how much our small children are capable of, given the right guidance.  The trick we adults should always try and remember is to stand back, instead of rushing in and instead, let our children develop this side of themselves – it is a gift they deserve to have.