The Limitations of Digital Personalised Learning

By David Starshaw – Mathematics Teacher – High School

In another life I could’ve easily been the poster boy for digital, personalised learning.

– I am one of those “paperless” types.

– I can code (for a very generous definition of coding).

– I have made my own website for my students to use and I have used sites like Khan Academy, both as a teacher and personally.

In other words, I should be all for digital, personalised learning. Digital, personalised learning is characterised by the student no longer being dependent on the teacher, but being free to work at his or her level regardless of the stage at which other students are working. Digital technologies help facilitate this as computers and servers do a lot of the differentiation ‘grunt work’ and they can lead students through pre-prepared lessons at a pace that suits them. And yet…

What’s the problem? One of the most commonly stated advantages of digital, personalised learning is that the student can fast-forward, pause, and rewind videos as they’re watching them. As Dan Meyer, US math educator/blogger and international advocate for better math instruction for students, puts it, “This isn’t good instruction, this is what the technology permits.”

So why isn’t it good instruction?

When someone says something you don’t understand, how often do you ask them to “repeat exactly what you just said, only slower”? Ironically, personalised learning is unable to tailor its lessons and explanations for individual students.

This should not be a difficult expectation. In fact teachers do this all the time and yet, in 2017, digital personalised learning cannot.

Teachers also take into account the prior knowledge of their students before choosing the level at which to pitch their lesson. But if you search for an online video explaining, say, quadratic expansion, it will begin at exactly the same place for each viewer. Because it must. Because it can’t personalise itself to you.

In our Montessori high school, a significant part of the adolescents’ learning relates to their place in the world and the relationships they have with those around them. In our preschool at Wā Ora, there is no place for devices and digital technology and our primary classes can only access computers in a very limited capacity.

So while digital personalised learning can have advantages because of the technology it uses, it is not a panacea and it certainly can’t replace a teacher and hands-on learning, rather it needs to be utilised in conjunction with face-to-face learning where it is the teacher, who is ultimately guiding the student.

Our Connection with Early Humans

By Carol Palmer – Tawhai Teacher – 9-12 Primary

After our recent 9-12 camp where we focused on the ways we meet our Fundamental Human Needs and the ways early humans would have met these needs, a friend, and Wā Ora parent, commented that she had ‘never understood why you guys are so obsessed with early humans.’

My answer was this:

The early humans were the first explorers, discoverers and inventors.  They figured out how to meet their fundamental needs, such as shelter, food and water in the most basic of circumstances; everything we know, have discovered and created since, is built on the work of those who came before us.  At Wā Ora, we are teaching the children to appreciate the work of all people – those who make small, but meaningful, contributions to our everyday life.  We want them to appreciate the farmer, who discovered that the graphite used to mark sheep, could be sawn into sticks for writing; and the person who later realised that binding that soft metal stick in wool or leather would make it more durable, leading yet another person to think of encasing the graphite in wood, which would then lead still more people to work together to mass produce these tools. This means that many generations later every school child has a pencil that can neatly mark their paper without breaking or making their hands dirty.

Ours are the everyday heroes and in learning to appreciate these people and understand that every single manmade item in our lives has a history of invention, refinement and production, children see just how many people’s work goes into ensuring our needs are met.  It helps instil a sense of gratitude and appreciation to the humans who, all around the world, work to produce all the material assets.  Our job as Montessori teachers, is to build a sense of gratitude and love for all people. One of the ways we do this is to show the children how many people have put love and work into providing for us.

We are not so much obsessed with early humans as obsessed with all humans – beginning with the early ones.  When we talk to children about our fundamental needs, we want them to realise that there are a few key requirements that all human beings, regardless of time, culture or geographic location share.  The very first human beings, and every human being that lives now, share the same material needs and spiritual needs. We have these needs in common and whilst we have very different ways of meeting them, the fact that we all share them helps the children see that we are not so different. It gives a sense of affinity with people throughout the world, young and old, past and present.

And to know someone, is to understand them. And to understand them is to love them.  And to foster this love and gratitude towards all people, of all time, is to bring us a little closer to peace.

Handwriting: Why Cursive?

By Robin Wilkins – Puriri Teacher, Primary

I am frequently asked, “Why cursive?” and in fact recently, was even asked why we teach handwriting at all, given the prevalence of computers in schools (did you know this question was first asked back in 1873, when the Remington typewriter was invented?).

Current articles and books focusing on the issue of handwriting address the difficulties of teaching cursive when following traditional education models, however this is not the approach used in a Montessori programme. Each environment – preschool, lower and upper primary and adolescent – is made up of materials, activities and methods that are carefully designed to meet the developmental needs of the child within that level’s three- year age-range.

When looking at writing, the manual preparation of the hand is interwoven with a child‘s need to express thoughts and feelings. We teach the cursive method beginning in preschool, as it corresponds to the physical and mental needs of the child at that stage. In ‘The Formation of Man’, Maria Montessori discusses the benefit of kinaesthetic preparation for writing, where she says, “The physical act of forming words on the page helps us to not only develop better handwriting, it also helps us to develop the neural networks that become memories and knowledge.” Cursive handwriting best mimics what the child does naturally. When a young child draws or acts out writing, he/she forms looping, connected shapes, not geometric, print-like shapes.

Much contemporary research evidence supports this. A study from the University of Washington found, “Forming a written word, letter-by-letter, leaves a stronger memory trace for written words than does a word, letter-by-letter, using a keyboard, particularly in developing writers” and interesting research out of the University of Toronto and Colombia University states that, “If cursive fades away, so will cognitive skills that only cursive handwriting builds. If children don’t learn those movements, their brains will develop in a different way that no one has really thought through. When a child types or prints, he produces a letter the same way each time. In cursive, however, each letter connects slightly differently to the next, which is more demanding on the part of the brain that converts symbol sequences into motor movements of the hand.” Practising the complex demands of cursive also builds fluency in language as studies confirm that characters learned through print or typing are recognised less accurately than those written in cursive. Another behavioural and developmental study says, ”When doing form drawings or writing in cursive, the right and left hemispheres are both active and working together. Print is a more abstract and advanced task that requires only the left hemisphere, often not developed enough for this task until 7-9 years.

As is backed up by modern scientific evidence, cursive still holds many advantages for the learning and development of our children.

The Benefits of Story Telling

By Krista Kerr – Pohutukawa Teacher

In the preschool, we start our year off with frequent and varied small groups. We have many conversation groups as tamariki are full of news about all of the exciting things they have done over the holidays. For preschoolers, speaking is a relatively recent ability that they now love to practice.

Storytelling groups have many benefits: they help tamariki stay on a topic and learn the ‘rules’ of conversation such as turn taking and listening to others. They also play a large part in building the community of the akomanga as we get reacquainted and new tamariki start to build relationships with kaiako and their peers.

“The development of language is part of the development of the personality, for words are the natural means of expressing thoughts and establishing understanding between people.” Dr Maria Montessori

Tamariki love hearing and learning about their world and those in it so these stories do not have to be wild, fantastical tales to capture their interest. Indeed they can start off with a sentence such as “At the supermarket yesterday….” or “On my way to school this morning…..” These stories give value and importance to the little everyday things we do, and are about something concrete that children of this age can relate to.

A true story may last a minute or two before moving on to another person in the group or if the focus of the group is me telling a story then a verbal story may be told which is much longer. This extends concentration for tamariki in a way that reading a book cannot. As there is no ‘object’ on which to focus their attention, more self-control is needed to sit and listen.

Reading books with tamariki certainly has its place, both at home and at kura, however verbal stories are equally important. In many cultures, including Māori, oral storytelling is used as a way to pass on knowledge and history. Only you know the intimate details of your child’s life and their history and ancestors.  Tell stories such as “It is such a surprise that you don’t like to brush your teeth! Let me tell you about the time we found your toothbrush snuggled up in bed with you…” or “When I was five years old …” or “Your Nana came to New Zealand from….”

Children of any age can be engaged in these stories, learning their personal stories as well as those about their family historyFamily trees fascinate children as it helps them to work out their place in the family and the world. So make the most of a snuggle at bedtime, a car trip or any spare moment together to start a story.

A short article on the benefits of oral storytelling: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/what-kids-learn-from-hearing-family-stories/282075/.

Echo, Dialogue and Moral Education in the Adolescent Programme

By Thomas McGrath – Humanities Teacher – High school

Dolphins are amazing. Not only are they like humans in many ways, but what is particularly fascinating is their navigation method. In basic terms it involves making repeated sounds and tuning in to their echo, thus allowing the dolphin to gauge its position within its environment; it is a dialogue with the infinite depths of their oceanic landscape.

Adolescents are amazing. Not only are they like humans in many ways, but what is particularly fascinating is their learning method. In basic terms it involves expressing actions and words and tuning in to their ‘echo’, thus allowing the adolescent to gauge its position within its society; it is a dialogue with the infinite depths of their social landscape.

This ‘echo’ is at the heart of ‘moral education’. The moral character of adolescents is not something ‘given’. It must be gradually assembled, disassembled, remodelled, and calibrated in an ongoing process of experiment and reflection – both consciously and unconsciously – by each individual. When expressing a thought or opinion, when putting themselves out on a limb for others, they are finely tuning in to the ‘echo’ this produces from those surrounding them; judging how it feels, and logging for future reference. It is our job as adults to ensure that the conditions and environment (ourselves included) are prepared in such a way as to foster this experimentation, while ensuring safety, adequate guidance in our responses, and assurance when it goes wrong.

As adults we are all in possession of a wealth of experience and wisdom from our own lives. But, when we think of passing these moral learnings on, often our tendency is toward monologue. There are certainly times when a well-placed and concise monologue is a potent tool, but ultimately it is through the experience of action and reaction that we as humans truly comprehend what it means to be a good person. So, to ensure that our adolescents form strong moral fortitude we must first model it ourselves, and second, not wonder “What should I say?” but rather “What should I ask?” For when we ask, we invite dialogue.

Dialogue is fundamental for moral education and learning in general. It requires engagement, listening and consideration of others and their ideas; it is a fluid process that can meander or be direct depending on the aim; it is social, collaborative, spontaneous and explorative – all qualities that appeal to adolescents. But most importantly, it is a form of ‘echolocation’ that allows the moral character to be developed and exercised. We want to assist our young people to become adults with the strength to enter into dialogue with the society they inhabit – verbally, physically, emotionally, in any form necessary – and to not be surprised or afraid when society talks back; but to tune in to the echo and respond with consideration and vigour.

[postscript]: If anyone were to compare me to a dolphin, I would be most flattered.

The plan of study and work

By Allyson Ashfield – Kawakawa Teacher, high school

Do you know why the weekly timetable in Kawakawa has the elements it does? I certainly didn’t when I first saw it a year ago!

Kawakawa’s timetable is based on Maria Montessori’s Plans of Studies and Work, (Childhood to Adolescents, Appendix B). It provides the plan for the perfect prepared environment within which the adolescent can develop, as in this plane of development (12 -18 years) they are ‘social new-borns’. The two-part plan consists of ‘The Moral and Physical Care of Boys and Girls’ (or if you like, the practical considerations of social organisation), and ‘The Educational Syllabus’.

Together these two parts meet the adolescents’ developmental needs of:

Part One

  • participating in production and exchange,
  • involvement in the use of the land and
  • working with head and hands

Part Two

  • self–expression,
  • psychic development including moral development and
  • preparation for adult life through general education topics

 

Micro-economy affords the opportunity for production and exchange, working with head and hands and of course self-expression and Occupations allows for meaningful work to take place (often involving use of the land also) as at the end of the unit there is a benefit to the community. An example of such a benefit this year, is the orchard, which students have developed, where working with head and hand has taken place. Maths, languages, micro-economy and community meeting all aid in psychic development and occupations and humanities aid in the preparation for adult life. Community work forms part of the moral development aspect of the plan. A final timetable component is reflection, which allows for quiet time when the brain can wander in thought and give time to processing.

It is important to recognise that self- expression is a primary developmental pathway for adolescents, as this is the age of identity formation so is interwoven throughout the week in all elements of the timetable, as are all the developmental needs. However, Wednesdays are dedicated to self-expression and the adolescents currently get to participate in the following options: music, art, drama, hard technology and education outside the classroom.

The Plan of Study and Work is just one part of the Montessori philosophy, which is needed to ensure the development of the adolescents’ needs, with the aim of creating fully normalised adults who will emerge capable of contributing to society.

Our connection to the outdoors

By Rick Bellagh – Kauri Teacher, Primary

At the end of my AMI Montessori training in Portland, Oregon last year,  all of us newly trained teachers sat down with our trainer, Elise Huneke Stone, to try to get some insights into the nuts and bolts of how to actually implement this Montessori theory in the classroom.  As we worked ourselves up into a frenzy of questions, I remember Elise smiling and telling us not to worry.  “If all else fails, remember there are two magic spells you always have at your fingertips:  Sing with the children, and take them outside.”  After a year of practice here, I can confidently say that she was right on!

With our Cosmic Curriculum, we tell the story of the coming of life and show the Timeline of Life.  We tell the children that diversity is the result of Life figuring out better ways of meeting its needs and that humans too have benefitted from this process – we have a special brain, a special hand, and a special kind of love that extends to others of our species.

I presented the First Timeline of Humans last week, which invites the children to imagine human life before the invention of all our modern trappings.  They were absolutely inspired by this conversation.  The human body became what it is, not to drive cars and use iPads, but rather to move in the environment, climb trees, hunt, move rocks, and dig for roots.

In this modern day and age, children are often completely shielded from the exact activities that their bodies are designed for – they spend their days at school with books, pencils and computers, and are all too quickly entranced by smart phones and other screen time.  But deep inside their cells, these children are looking for a connection to their Cosmic Task, and they find a resonance that they don’t intellectually understand out in the bush where they can climb and dig and explore.

Dr. Montessori writes that, “Education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiment upon the environment.”

As teachers, we are tasked with creating an environment where the children can feel secure to explore their world.  We go to great lengths to do this, and yet just outside our classroom, away from all of our human construction, exists nature’s perfectly equipped classroom for which the children’s bodies are sublimely prepared.  Their joy in the outdoors is a primal one.

When I first felt that primal connection of being out in nature and knowing that my body was doing what it was designed to do, I also knew that whenever this modern world overwhelmed me with its confusion, frustration, or stress, I could return to the joy of the river and the trees, and sing my heart back to peace.

This is a gift our children deserve.

Freedom and Discipline

By Kerry Pratchett – Rewarewa Head Teacher

The concepts of freedom and discipline, while on the surface quite different, are in fact very intertwined according to Montessori philosophy. Dr Montessori states that freedom and discipline are like two sides of the same coin, as we cannot have one without the other.   As an explanatory note: when Dr Montessori refers to ‘discipline’, she is actually referring to ‘self-discipline’.

If we work backwards from the goal of having self-discipline, we can ask: What does a child needs to develop this quality?

Montessori believes a child needs to be able to work actively and independently within his environment as a foundation for developing self-discipline.

Montessori refers to ‘active’ discipline, an idea which is very closely linked with independence.  Dr Montessori firmly believed that children learn through movement and doing an activity themselves, so that if the child is unable to do something for himself, then his learning and development may not be as embedded as it would have been if he was able to learn through movement and experience.

Often I find that I have to remind myself to ‘never do for the child that which they can do’, as a child’s development can be hindered if an adult helps unnecessarily.  This is because the child needs to make mistakes in order to learn.  Dr Montessori discusses schools where the desks are fixed into place and if a child bumps into them, they do not move. “…([S]ilence and immobility of this type actually keep a child from learning how to move about with ease and grace.”  (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, p.48).  If the environment is conducive, then optimal development can occur.  This is why we have breakable objects in a Montessori class and the children move around freely; the environment self corrects the child.  The child becomes independent and in turn satisfies their inner directives.

How then do we enable a child to move about actively and to be independent? It is by allowing the child to have freedom.

There are two types of freedom.  The first is complete freedom where the child is able to do as he/she likes.  The second type is the freedom that Dr Montessori referred to as ‘the development of the child’s inner directives’ – the freedom that each child requires in each stage of development.  The child needs to make choices to assist with being independent and the educator’s role is to assist the child in making the right choices.

This freedom does not stretch to enabling a child to do as he/she likes.  Through careful observation, the teacher will offer the child as much freedom as he/she can manage and help the child to make the right decisions.  “A child’s liberty should have as its limit in the interest of the group to which he belongs” (Montessori, Discovery of the Child, p.49/50).

How do you support your child on their journey towards self-discipline?

Grace and Courtesy in the High School

By Stuart Mason – High School

Grace and Courtesy is the theme at the Parent Education Evening this week.  In the high school this term is most often applied to seminar discussions.  Students prepare for weekly seminars by reading an article on a current issue and then participating in a 45 minute round-circle discussion in groups of 10 to 15 students.

Seminar begins with the chairperson – a teacher or in the 15-18 years programme, a student volunteer – inviting questions about the text from the group. Questions can be categorised as factual (seeking to clarify facts or definitions of terms), interpretive (arousing interest and seeking meaning) and evaluative (encouraging expression of opinions). The questions asked and the main points made by participants are recorded and a five-minute review back to the group at the end is provided.

From David Kahn of NAMTA (North American Montessori Teachers Association) we have the following list of ten Grace and Courtesy Rules for Seminar:

  • Wait until a person finishes speaking before responding or starting another comment.
  • Do not continue talking for a long period of time. Make your response clear but concise, so others can speak.
  • Make sure you finish your comment clearly so no one is left guessing whether or not you are finished.
  • No one may monopolize the discussion.
  • Politely request for others to have a turn or for a new question to be asked when the discussion seems to narrow to a few participants.
  • Make eye contact with the person who is speaking.
  • Watch the body language of others to recognize when they wish to speak.
  • Advocate for people who have been trying to speak but have not gotten the chance.
  • Call people by their names.
  • Agree or disagree with ideas ­ not with people.

On the subject of rules, Maria Montessori wrote (Childhood to Adolescence) “… in order that individual action should be free and useful at the same time it must be restricted within certain limits and rules that  give  the necessary guidance … The rules must be just those that are necessary and sufficient to maintain order and  ensure progress.”

The rules above obviously contribute to order and also ensure progress by providing the safe place students need to practice reading body language and communicate freely face-to-face.  It is an opportunity to practice expressing ideas out loud without preparation and to share ideas about justice and morality that are important for students of this age.  As with everything in the high school, seminar provides a chance to try on the adult world.

Discovery through Exploration

By Amy Johnson  – Kowhai Head Teacher – Pres

During the first weekend of the holidays, many of the Wā Ora staff were lucky enough to attend the MANZ conference in Hamilton that focused on the topic ‘Exploration – a joyful experience! Hoparatia – he wa pai’.

Since our return to school, I have been part of many different conversations among teachers applying ideas and strategies that came directly from the inspirational presentations and discussions at the conference. It is so encouraging to be reminded that the child’s exploration is an essential part of our curriculum.

One of the unique and amazing aspects of a Montessori education is the encouragement of children to explore their world, their interests and the prepared environment around them. Combined with the child’s natural curiosity and tendency to explore, the materials that surround them in their classrooms allow for personal and self-satisfying discovery.

A child will discover cultural, mathematic, linguistic or scientific facts and gain understanding through their own curiosity, ideas, effort and exploration. Because this information is not just handed to a child by an adult, every child, at each stage of development in a Montessori environment, feels that the learning and discovery is their own personal reward and accomplishment. From very early on they are gifted with the idea that knowledge is something that is gained by exploring one’s own interests and abilities, not something to be chosen or dictated by an adult. All of this self-satisfaction, self-recognition, self-discovery and self-confidence is linked directly to the experience of exploration that the Montessori learning environment encourages for our children as they grow and discover.

There are two key elements required for true exploration that are important to keep in mind, not only in the classroom environment but at home as well.

  • Time is the first thing that children need to explore as their curiosity and inner guide dictates. It is a precious commodity in our modern world and is something that is easy to overlook as we approach each day with our own adult priorities and perspective. It is important for those of us with our eyes on ‘the big picture’ to make a conscious effort to create plenty of free time for children to try things out, to discover on their own, to think creatively about different ways to do things and to make attempts and mistakes as they explore.
  • The second thing children need in order to feel free to explore their world, is what we call, a ‘friendliness with error’. Encouraging the idea that a mistake as a valuable learning opportunity, rather than a failure or problem is one of the best gifts we can give a curious, growing child and it is vital if they are to develop a thirst for exploration and a love of learning.