The right to make mistakes

By Carolyn Bohm —Rātā Teacher

We have all been scarred by childhood experiences; whether an academic subject we struggled with, constantly felt stupid for when called upon in class, and still struggle with today, or something athletic, artistic, or social that left us feeling inadequate.

Some we managed to overcome and are stronger for, but others still haunt and impact us today. Therefore, it’s only natural we would want to protect those we care about, especially children, from the same experiences.

While this is a justified and healthy response, it can, if taken too far, deprive children of the valuable experience of struggling, problem solving, making mistakes and self-correcting

It is a delicate balance for us to walk, protecting them from real harm, but also letting them make mistakes in a safe setting so they can learn the evaluating skills they will need as adults when mistakes might have higher consequences.

This juggling act appears all the time in the classroom.

While watching a child do a bead frame multiplication problem I noticed him start to move on without finishing the process of exchanging and I had to bite my lip to keep from pointing out the error. I so wanted to tell him and spare him the frustration of doing the whole problem over again. However, as I waited, I saw his eyes go from the bar he was still working on, to the bar he should exchange on, and back again . . . . and then he slid over the bead he almost forgot to exchange. When he did, I couldn’t fight down a smile of victory ­— of his victory. For if I had taken away from him his right to make that mistake, I also would have taken away his chance for the victory to be his.

It’s a constant mental weighing of “how wrong could this go?” So wrong I need to stop it (falling from a dangerous height or redoing the problem enough times to cause damaging frustration)? Or just wrong enough to be inconvenient?

I find myself flinching internally as I watch a child walk across the room with one more box than is practical, balanced in her arms and then have to watch her pick it up when it topples over and makes a mess all over the floor. But she is far more likely to re-evaluate how many she can carry next time after cleaning up this miscalculation, than if I’d intervened and stopped her.

No one wants to watch someone suffer the slings and arrows of life unnecessarily, but it is important to give our children a safe environment to make mistakes, learn from them, and experience the victory of overcoming the obstacle.

It’s a constant challenge and we too will make mistakes – jumping in too early, not jumping in soon enough – but that’s okay, because when we do, we model how to learn from our mistakes.

Let’s talk about kai (food)

By Amy Johnson — Kōwhai Head Teacher – Preschool

As the season changes and different fruit and vegetables become more available, there is a real buzz about morning tea in preschool. What kai will be available today? Capsicum? Pears? Cucumber? Grapes? Which will I prepare for my hoa (friends)?

When we welcome children into our community, one of the first things they learn about is the rituals, the sociability and tikanga around food at school — how we wash our hands, get a placemat, pour a drink of water…these things are grounding, settling and community building. Whether it’s in playgroup where children as young as a year old might help prepare and serve themselves fresh scones and fruit, or in preschool where a new 3-year-old might be offered and served cheese and crackers by an older peer, food plays a central role in how we build community. This year I have come to especially appreciate the times of sharing and preparing food together as we have had weeks when we could not always enjoy these activities as freely and safely as a community.

We all know as adults, how lovely it is to get together with hoa (friends) and catch up at a café; or to celebrate something with whānau over a special meal, especially when everyone contributes a little bit of themselves. Who doesn’t love a potluck? School events like Matariki are a wonderful example of this. Eating together is fun, enjoyable, and socially bonding. It nourishes our bodies, minds and souls. Throughout the school, even though shared or community lunches can sometimes be a little hectic, and certainly can be learning opportunities in every age group, they do actually bring our classroom communities together in a very unique and amazingly social way.

Dr. Montessori talked about the importance of these practical life skills.

To spread out carpets and roll them up after they have been used, to spread a tablecloth for dinner and to fold it up and replace it carefully after the meal is finished, to set the table completely, to eat correctly and afterwards to remove the dishes and wash them, placing each object in its proper place in the cupboard, are tasks which not only require increasing skills but also a gradual development of character because of the patience necessary for their execution and the sense of responsibility for their successful accomplishment. (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child. The Montessori Series. Amsterdam: Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company, 2007. p 64)

And although our children are lucky enough to get these experiences at school, they are not limited to the classroom environment.

What food rituals and preparation can your children be involved with at home? Clearing and setting a table? Helping to make the salad? Or the dessert? Maybe discuss with your whole whānau and figure out ways your child(ren) could increase their “sense of responsibility” at your meal times, then watch their contribution nourish them physically, emotionally and socially.

MIM 2020  —  Meeting in the Middle

By Zena Kavas — Biology Teacher — High School

Wā Ora Montessori high school recently co-hosted and participated in the annual Meeting in the Middle workshops, a meeting of Montessori teachers spanning 4 different time zones, New Zealand and Australia, with participants from Bali and the United States fitting in with us. Although we were originally looking forward to hosting this event in person and showcasing our amazing school and learning programme here at Wā Ora, the COVID travel restrictions have allowed to us to explore how to present and participate in an on-line meeting and conference.

Many of our teachers hosted on-line workshops — Thomas was one of the hosts, Sarah Jane ran an inspiring workshop on micro economy, Jason hosted a workshop describing the next 8 days of life in the lead-up to Coffeehouse, and David explained how he designed and continues to build the Maths programme at Wā Ora. There were also workshops and discussions on:

– teaching in these COVID times, with discussions on how different schools are dealing with the range of issues that the future holds in terms of on-line teaching

– sharing ideas around the issues and successes of timetabling

– planning a senior Montessori programme that covers the learning that is necessary for the needs of the students

– a humanist approach to creative self-expression, and how to integrate the humanities with mathematics, technology and the sciences

– creative solutions to overcoming barriers, and the euphoria of overcoming the odds

Meeting in the Middle is a wonderful opportunity for us learn what other schools are doing, to share our successes and challenges, to discuss curriculum and programme development, and to collaboratively explore and problem solve. And equally importantly, it is a chance for us to catch up with and get to know other adolescent programme Montessori teachers. Although we teach to the New Zealand curriculum, it can sometimes feel lonely, and that we are marching to a different beat. So we make the most of these chances to be part of the Montessori community. Maria Montessori said “we shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity” (To Educate the Human Potential, p. 6). Although this quote is referring to educating the child, it is also very relevant to how we, as adults work best — when we are supported by caring colleagues in our community, and can share our experiences, both triumphs and our tribulations. This gives us the courage to continue to innovate, to try new ideas and to continue to improve how we teach.

Ironically, I got some great ideas from other Montessori teachers here at Wā Ora, shared over the Zoom forum with our overseas colleagues. I have come away from this conference feeling inspired and supported to continue developing the programmes that I teach.

A prepared adult in a young person’s environment


By Stuart Mason—Chemistry Teacher — High School

Last Monday classes sang ‘Tanti auguri a te!’ and ate cake to celebrate the 150th birthday of Maria Tecla Artemisia Montessori, born in Chiaravalle, a small town on the Italian Adriatic coast. Of course we know the subsequent story of the first female Italian to graduate as a medical doctor, whose work with children in Rome led to her developing what she called a scientific pedagogy, a stage-development model of education centred on the needs and tendencies of the child. She was influenced by the thinking of others but she based her work in scientific observation, and the pedagogy we implement today is her set of conclusions about child development, generally regarded as the work of a genius. “It is not true that I invented what is called the Montessori Method… I have studied the child; I have taken what the child has given me and expressed it, and that is what is called the Montessori Method” (What you should know about your child, 1961, p.3).

Dr. Montessori’s instructions on how to be a prepared adult in a young person’s environment are pretty clear. We are told “the child has a mind to absorb knowledge. He has the power to teach himself” (The Absorbent Mind, 1949/2007, p.5).  Therefore, we should “respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which the child engages and try to understand them” (The Child in the Family, 1956/1970, p.88). We must never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed because “the essence of independence is to be able to do something for one’s self” (The Absorbent Mind, 1949/2007, p.142), and independence is a consistent theme throughout the planes of Montessori education.

A young person’s job is to self-construct. The judgement required of the adult is to know when and how to intervene, or to trust, stand back and observe. Sometimes a good compromise working with adolescents is ‘Spray and walk away’: share an adult opinion about the problem then leave the young person to make their own judgement and take their own action.

The adolescent must never be treated as a child, for that is a stage of life that he has surpassed. It is better to treat an adolescent as if he had greater value than he actually shows than as if he had less and let him feel that his merits and self-respect are disregarded. (From Childhood to Adolescence, 1948/1997, p. 72)

It was well over a century ago that Dr. Montessori began to tell us about the importance of respecting the dignity and autonomy of young people as an aid to their development. However, in many of the institutions in which children find themselves today there seems to be only slow progress in the direction of those principles. So I tautoko those birthday greetings.

Buon compleanno, Dr. Maria.

Why look at History?


By Joel Batson–Tōtara Teacher

In these tumultuous times I thought it apt for us to take a glimpse at why we look at the area of history.  Funnily enough, it was an area that either wasn’t taught that well when I was a kid, or I just didn’t really pay much attention to it.  Iwonder how it was for you growing up?  Either way, I certainly didn’t learn very many terribly deep lessons from history when I was young.  And that’s really the crux of the reason why.

In the Montessori classroom we look into history — to be specific, human history, in order to learn from what happened in the past and, hopefully, help children to think about how they might apply those lessons to their actions in the future. As the old adage goes: if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.

The way we look at history is inherent in the word itself. We use stories. We essentially look at the story of humanity.  We encourage children to use their imaginations to transport themselves to other times, places and locations in order to imagine walking in the shoes of other humans, just like themselves, as they sought to meet their fundamental needs in a myriad of different ways.

Examples could include telling stories about how the first cities came together in Ancient Sumer; how it seemed that the growing of a surplus of crops in the fertile soil of the Euphrates river valley encouraged greater build-up of people living together; and how this method of living was so very different to most other people living at that time who mostly led hunter-gatherer lifestyles, living hand to mouth most months.

We might also look at the stupendous architecture of the Egyptian civilisation and what it seems was needed for those people to put together their systems of worship, governance and building.  We look at what it may have been like each year as the Nile river flooded its banks and the fields then had to be re-marked out with a clever system of maths that gave the Egyptians extremely accurate corners. So accurate, that the same system seems to have been used to build the pyramids themselves.

From these sorts of stories, the emphasis is really on how it was that these humans met their needs. What we mainly find is that for these humans to have achieved such wonders as building the pyramids, organising themselves into civilisations, figuring out planting fruitful crops or finding food in harsh conditions, the thing they most often had to have figured out to achieve all of those amazing feats is cooperation.  Just how do 2, 3, 4 and more different people get along with each other effectively in order to achieve a common goal that ends up being good for everyone in the picture?

Perfection or Perfectionism

By Tania Gaffney–Deputy Principal Primary

The Montessori concept of Human Tendencies may be something you have read about before.  There are a few different lists of tendencies that Montessorians have come up with over the years, but they are all fairly similar.  I want to talk about one human tendency from that list, which is perfection, or we could call it exactness or precision.  This is the tendency to perfect ourselves by striving for accuracy, precision and the elimination of mistakes.

When you’re striving for accuracy in an activity, there is really only one way to get there and that is by repetition, which is really just another word for practice.  Sometimes we come across a child that is averse to repetition or practice, and in fact is averse to learning new things or going outside of their comfort zone. The reasons behind this can be in case they make a mistake and fail and so seem in their own minds to be no good at it.  Instead of striving for perfection or accuracy these children, who are often called perfectionists, struggle with wanting to be right first time, with no mistakes.

If you think about learning something new, how many of us could say that we could do ‘it’ right the first time, with no mistakes.  We might have been ‘quite good’ at something first off, but it was probably because we had some sort of background in it already, e.g. if you’re a violin player then you can probably have a go at the base guitar and be fairly good, but you still won’t be fantastic until you’ve had some practice.

When ākonga are perfectionists and refuse to participate or have a go at something then they are closing themselves off from the possibilities of the world. As adults I think it’s our job to try and open up the world for those children again.  There are some ways that we can help with this, for example, modelling the way we speak about activities: “Look how far you’ve come! Remember what that was like when you first started doing it?”

Model trying something new and failing and being okay with it; use the words, “I’ll have to practise that to get better”.  Another way of supporting practice is by encouraging independence.  Don’t do everything for the child as they then get the idea that they aren’t capable and need an adult to come alongside them and help every step of the way.

Talk regularly over dinner about mistakes you’ve made — encourage the whole family to join in and share, saying what you learned from it or what your plan is for next time, to show that the journey of learning isn’t over for that thing yet. Eventually your child will join in and share their own examples.

This may be a chance for some parents to reflect on their own Human Tendencies, as I’ve heard parents of ‘perfectionist’ children say it’s something that they have struggled with themselves, and may still do.

Teamwork and sport

By Sarah Jane Lambie and Emma Brazil – Co-Sports Coordinators

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. – African Proverb

Teamwork, collaboration and the importance of helping each other succeed is a feature of Montessori education — in all aspects of our daily school life. Our classrooms are multi-age, providing the setting for older students to learn how to be role models and to help the younger ones. As older students model kindness and leadership, teach skills and inspire younger students, so the sense of community deepens as students work together to all be the best they can be.

Accordingly, our school spaces could be described as

…incubators for teamwork, filled with students working together to support, encourage and question each other, learning much more than just the academics they are working on. They learn to have ideas accepted, improved upon and maybe even rejected. Each time they work together, they are learning the soft skills needed to succeed in school and in life (https://montessorimessage.net/2018/10/04/teamwork/).

In the school environment at Wā Ora, we work to the notion it is teamwork, not competition, which is what it takes to succeed in life, including on the sports field.

However, when it comes to sport, competition is an inevitable component. Our teachers and coaches support students to keep this in perspective by showing them ways to use the competitive aspect of sports to manage the paradox of wanting to distinguish themselves as individuals while at the same time wanting to be a valued, contributing and liked part of the whole… a good team player.

From this, students learn that participating in team sport binds and connects people —in friendship, skill, enjoyment and the thrill of a united struggle that is (hopefully!) not life threatening.

Dr. Montessori (1949) wrote that sports “…challenge us to acquire a new skill … and this feeling of enhancing our abilities is the real core of our delight in the game.” (p. 180).

Playing in a team also requires the virtues of courage, persistence, perseverance and patience. Being part of a sports team brings frustrations and challenges with all of these. But, by sticking with the team, students have opportunities to develop and practice the valuable life skills associated with these virtues along with the value of applying them to other aspects of their lives… always remembering to be gracious in victory and in defeat.

People do not stand alone; our species is just not made that way. We are all part of teams, small and large. Throughout level 4 lockdown, we worked together as a ‘team of 5 million’ to rid our country of the Covid-19 virus. During this time, we were separated from all but immediate whānau having time to reflect on the things we took for granted before coronavirus.  We learned that humans need to be together. This was particularly evident in the cancellation of sport and sporting events, one of the main spheres where kiwis come together to participate in person, in the same event, at the same time.

Thanks to our efforts, we are one of the few countries able to participate safely in sport and mass gatherings again. Let’s support each other to get involved as players, coaches, managers or spectators, and revel in the joy of coming together in sport.

The journey towards independence

By Dannielle King – Playgroup Facilitator – Preschool

As is usual at the start of a new term we have farewelled some tamariki from playgroup as they turn 3 and transition into preschool; and we have also welcomed new whānau just beginning their time at Wā Ora. Often the parents of our new tamariki comment about the work they see the nearly 3-year-olds doing; they have never imagined a 2-year-old preparing kai for morning tea, setting a place at the table, pouring a glass of water, serving themselves and cleaning up afterwards. I always explain that it is a learning process, that independence is not something that comes about in an instant, but is a journey that begins from the moment of birth. Maria Montessori (1948) wrote that “The essence of independence is to able to do something for one’s self”. We can help our tamariki learn to be independent in many small actions that will lead towards their independence as a grown human being.

We must help them to learn how to walk without assistance, to run, to go up and down stairs, … to express their needs in a way that is clearly understood, and to attempt to satisfy their desires through their own efforts. All of this is part of education for independence. (Maria Montessori, The Discovery of the Child, 1948, p. 58)
As parents, we need to give some thought and effort to educating for independence. In most cases it is quicker and easier for us to do things for our children than to teach or allow the time for tamariki to do it themselves. I’m sure everyone has heard the Montessori quote “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” — I would perhaps replace “never” with “as often as possible” though!
In the first few years this seems like a constant effort, as physical capabilities grow so quickly, along with will power. I’m sure we can all remember hearing “me do it!” even if it is many years since we had a 2-year-old. Every moment that you spend teaching, helping or waiting, results in increased confidence and independence. This is not just for younger ones though. A 2-year-old cutting a banana, a 7-year-old packing their own lunchbox, a 10-year-old making lunch for the family, or a teenager cooking dinner; all are steps towards the young adult who leaves home with the confidence that they will be able to look after themselves.

What belongs in polite conversations?


By Rose Langridge – Humanities subjects teacher; Careers Advisor–High School

In 1936 Maria Montessori asked “what is the task confronting education? Its primary goals must be the realisation of the values of the human personality and the development of mankind” (Education and Peace, p. 54).

I think this is still the primary role of the course that we call humanities.

The Tāwari class members make the choice often about the content that they cover in history and social studies. They often choose topics that can be uncomfortable. We acknowledge this and there are set rules for how to discuss things. We need to actively listen to one person at a time and we need to think about our responses. If they are not kind, necessary or helpful then we need to think about whether we need to say what we are about to, and come up with a way to frame things so that we are respectful. If we can do this in a noncontroversial way, then we can move forward and be peaceful in many aspects of our daily lives.

A very common phrase is that in polite conversation one should avoid discussing religion and politics. The reason for this is so that awkward situations do not arise. However, it cannot be denied that religion and politics are two highly influential factors that shape any human society. Humans are the change agents of the world and our cultural markers generate the social world in which we live. I do not think the issue is the content but rather not knowing how to have these courageous discussions in a polite and non-confrontational way.

This is what we should be focusing on.

It is clear that developing the skills to analyse and discuss our world needs to be central to the humanities programme.  Being able to equip students with the skills to unpack our world in a meaningful way is imperative given the floods of data that we all encounter on a daily basis.

Both Kawakawa and Tāwari also have a weekly wānanga (seminar). This is a key component of the high school model and relates directly to the principles of education and peace. The purpose of wānanga is to meet, discuss, deliberate and consider things. By learning how to interact with difficult material in this way class members are able to begin to develop their own beliefs about the world and the change that they want to see.

We as adults are far more likely to be rigid. It is children who by their nature are all motion. Giving them the skills to make sense of the world, question where they stand and discuss sensitive topics in a respectful way, may indeed change the world.

They could move us towards peace which would indeed be a great gift not only for them but for us as well.

The nature of change

By Jason Johnson – Kawakawa Teacher

“Everything flows and nothing abides” —Heraclitus

With the welcoming of Hilary to our team up here in Kawakawa and the departure of Richard, who has led our programme for the past five years, the return to school from lockdown and the strange restrictions on daily life, and the upcoming general elections and ongoing strife I read about each day around the world, I have found myself reflecting on the nature of change.

As humans, we generally like to be in a state of equilibrium. Much of our effort is devoted to removing chaos from our lives, to developing systems for organising and resetting our environment.  Why?  Because predictability saves energy. When our environment is predictable, we expend less of our precious mental resources carrying out everyday activities. Thus humans have developed an innate behaviour to bring order to our environments, not just to be more comfortable (who doesn’t feel better in a tidy room!), but to save our resources for more important things. Like sharing ideas, making art and music and connecting with loved ones.

Yet we live in an ever-changing world that requires us to adapt to changes in our environment on a daily basis. Some changes are small and able to be accommodated easily — “now it’s raining, best put on a raincoat” — but others, like the global pandemic we are currently experiencing, require total paradigm shifts and the establishment of a new equilibrium.

Ecologists have a term for this process. They call it disturbance, and it is a vital part of the functioning of healthy ecosystems. When a large tree falls, opening up the forest canopy, or fire sweeps across a hillside, burning up a stand of Manuka, there is massive change. At first, it may seem catastrophic — that which was once, is no more. But nature quickly fills the gaps. The resources once used are now free to be utilised by other organisms. New space is available — more light, more water — and there are opportunities for different species to take on new roles in the community. Without this disturbance, ecosystems stagnate. Dominant species monopolise resources and the system loses its biodiversity, the number of different species, and its ability to adapt to future change diminishes. In short, without some disturbance, ecosystems lose their ability to cope with change at all.

In finding our new equilibrium we are now presented with opportunities. We should assess what is fundamental to the way that we do things and wants to be preserved. What can we choose to develop in a new way, to take advantage of the changing situation? As we do this, however, we remember that too much change, or constant change, can be stressful. We need to be able to find a new equilibrium. And as adults, we must show our young people how to ride through times of uncertainty. We can model how to adapt and, as Jacinda Ardern reminds us, how to be kind to each other as we do it.