Science at Wā Ora – Primary Learning Supports NCEA Success

By Stuart Mason – Chemistry Teacher, High School

I have already mentioned in this space how easy it is to become trapped in one’s own high school silo and not realise the great things going on not far away. Through recent conversations with my colleagues in the primary school, I have been prompted to think more about the experiences of our students in the sciences in the primary school and high school at Wā Ora.

Working as we do under Maria Montessori’s guidance, one might expect that learning in science had been very deeply considered and that is indeed the case. In other primary schools the quality of the science learning experience for young people can be determined by whether there is a teacher present in the school, who feels confident about teaching science. There is nothing haphazard about the strategy for a Montessori student’s science learning from 6-12 years. They are offered the entire universe as their domain of exploration, then provided with materials that deal with everything from atomic structure, properties of materials and hands-on chemical experiments to key developmental concepts in biology, geology, astronomy and more.

But then, about that bomb-proof age of 12, bodies and minds start to change radically. Suddenly things aren’t so certain. The learning domain is no longer the universe, but the world of social discovery. A key Montessori concept now is the ‘hands in the soil’ experience of the history of human cooperation. Other schools have tended to call this social learning the ‘hidden curriculum’ and in the worst examples, it is side-lined or suppressed. But actually it is the day job of the adolescent. So, what science learning is appropriate? In the Kawakawa class, ‘occupations’ is the name of an activity in which students work on projects with a community orientation and learn the scientific knowledge they need to complete the project ‘knowledgeably’. This is just-in-time learning, not just-in-case learning. Richard has worked with the occupations teachers in the past year to add some science experiences that cover aspects of the curriculum that don’t arise quite so automatically in occupations. In Kawakawa the net effect is students with real, practical experience of science-related community activities.

At 15 years, the focus shifts again in preparation for ‘social life’, the adult world. This will include formal academic learning and assessments that might open doors into that world. And so the much-anticipated NCEA appears over the horizon. Are our students well-prepared by their past science experiences? Consensus amongst the Tāwari science teachers has been ‘yes’. All the absorbed experiences of the young mind, that well thought-out plan from the Second Plane, the practical experiences of Kawakawa upon which formal learning can be based and what I am convinced is the encouragement of natural curiosity that happens right from the start in families that choose Montessori education for their children, all work together. The result is, our NCEA students are succeeding in the sciences and our graduates are too.

Freedom and Responsibility

By Sharon Udy – Tōtara Teacher – Primary

I have heard two criticisms of the Montessori philosophy from people who have only a fleeting glimpse of it in action (or have never seen it at all!). The first is “it’s too structured – there’s no creativity” and the other is “there’s not enough structure – the children do whatever they want!” Obviously, both of these cannot be true.

Within each akomanga (classroom), the kaiārahi (guide or teacher) is constantly striving for a balance between freedom and responsibility. Doctor Maria Montessori wrote that, “Young people must have enough freedom to allow them to act on individual initiative. But in order that individual action should be free and useful at the same time it must be restricted with certain limits and rules that give the necessary guidance”.
Montessori, M. (1994). From Childhood To Adolescence, Oxford: Clio Press, p.73.

Real freedom, in the Montessori context, comes from within the child. It manifests through engaging with the environment and from concentrating deeply on self-chosen work. When a child is following her or his passion and is able to work without interruption, the child develops great self-discipline. Maria Montessori used the term ‘normalisation’ to describe this transformation based on intense concentration.

As kaiārahi, or guides, we are responsible for helping all of our tamariki to make wise choices. We give Grace and Courtesy lessons to establish the limits within our community and have conversations with individuals and groups about making choices for the common good – not just for ourselves. As an example of this, tamariki in the Montessori environment do not have assigned seats. Rather, they choose each day – sometimes several times a day –  where they would like to sit and work. This encompasses many freedoms: to sit where they would like – at a table or at a mat on the floor; to choose with whom they sit or whether they will sit alone. Along with this comes several responsibilities: to sit at an appropriate place (eg. enough space for the materials he/she chooses); if working with others, to choose those who will not distract her/him; to ensure he/she does not distract others.

As our tamariki become older and move through the different levels of our kura (school), they experience more freedom and more responsibility. Just like the materials provided for them, the expectations placed upon tamariki are different according to the characteristics and the needs of their particular stage of development.

As mātua me kaitiaki (parents and caregivers) we must also consider what freedoms and responsibilities our tamariki are ready for. At home, just as at kura, some tamariki will be ready for more freedom and more responsibility at an earlier age than others. For this delicate balancing act, Dr Montessori offered the following advice: “To let the child ‘do as he likes,’ when he has not yet developed any powers of control, is to betray the idea of freedom.” Montessori, M. (1964) The Absorbent Mind. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Press, p. 205.

Multi-age Groupings

By Jackie Kirk – Kauri Teacher – Primary

Montessori environments are prepared for multi-age groupings of children. These groupings encourage children to aspire to the achievements of older peers. New (younger) students enter an established and mature environment with effective models of both work and social interaction and in turn, the older children learn to treat younger ones with care and respect, providing them with opportunities to reinforce their own learning and understanding through ‘peer teaching’. Children are also able to work through the curriculum at their own pace without being limited to one year of the curriculum only.

At Wā Ora Montessori all our environments are prepared for multi-age groupings – playgroup (for children from 0 to 3 years), preschool (for children from 3 to 6 years), primary school (classrooms for children aged from 6 to 9 years and for children aged 9 to 12 years) and secondary school (a learning environment for students aged 12 to 15 and one for students aged 15 to 18 years).

The advantages of multi-age grouping include the following:

– the opportunity to experience three roles i.e. being the youngest, in the middle and the oldest and the time to develop appropriate behaviours for all three roles.

– experiences that stimulate a sense of caring and responsibility for others and the continuation from year to year of the culture of the class as a caring community.

– experience of social cohesion and a sense of place gained from being in the same environment for three years.

– exposure to a diversity of talents, aptitudes and interests and a wide curriculum beyond a single year.

– participation in peer teaching.

– experience of appropriate behaviour and teaching and learning modelled from a broad age range of their peers.

– development of self-esteem and a greater understanding of community responsibility from roles as leaders in the group.

– groupings of similar interests and learning needs from across the age groups working together at their own pace.

– experience of stability and social cohesion with the same teacher within a stable community for three years.

– the teacher is able to build a solid relationship with each new student.

– individual learning is more effectively supported because there is more opportunity for teachers to know the students well.

If you get the opportunity to observe in a Montessori environment, then consider the essential element of multi-age grouping and see for yourself how it works and allows children to develop socially, emotionally and intellectually at their individual pace.

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.