A common conversation (and social learning)

by David Starshaw, Mathematics Teacher – High School

 “Where do you work?”
“Oh, I’m a High School teacher.”
“Really? Where do you teach?”
“I teach in Naenae at Wā Ora Montessori School.”
“Wait, Montessori? I thought that was for preschoolers?”
And so on…
I’ve had this conversation χ+1 times where χ is as many times as I can remember. Inevitably, the conversation will then turn to: “So, what’s different about your school?” And this is an enjoyable conversation for me.
I like answering this question because I get to share why I like teaching in a Montessori environment and the listener consistently answers “It just makes sense!” Especially if I’m talking to another teacher. I’m never short for conversation on training days if I mention I work in a Montessori High School.
What makes sense about a Montessori High School, specifically the 12-15 program? We teach them according to their developmental needs. Adolescents have passed the second plane of ‘cosmic education’ where they collect facts, interests and form practice societies. They are in the third plane of preparing for real society and learning to be adults.
How do we do this? We have community meeting once a week where any student can bring up a topic to discuss, agree with one student, disagree with another and be heard by 50 of their peers and teachers. We support students to look after their own needs during long work cycles. Been working on a document for the last two hours? Feeling yourself fading? Take a walk, grab some food, do what you need to do to come back fresh. We expect students to empathise with each other. Through restorative practices, students explore harm done to themselves, others and the wider community. They take steps that they decide are necessary to repair the harm and decide what needs to happen for them to feel restored to one another.
Did you notice that none of the above are ‘academic’? Academic learning happens too. They still learn to factorise quadratics, they can compare a homozygous and heterozygous genotype and can tell you how to “save the bees!” But more so than any other time in their development, their academic interests are diminished and compete with their social interests. “How do I look right now?” “Am I in the right or wrong here?” “Will people laugh if I say that? Or is it too far?”

We match our teaching to what they need to know. And what adolescents need to know is how to become adults that contribute to society, understanding that they have influence in their own lives and in others’, and that they have valuable skills which they can use to gain financial independence. It takes three years for them to ‘get it’. And it’s wonderful when they do.