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.

Kawakawa Service Camp

By Rose Langridge  – Kawakawa Teacher

As Maria Montessori said “Education should therefore include the two forms of work, manual and intellectual, for the same person, and thus make it understood by practical experience that these two kinds complete each other and are equally essential to a civilized existence.”

Wā Ora Montessori embraces this idea in many ways and I love the chance to be involved in these experiences.

Last week we embarked on the service camp. Kawakawa headed to Wainui Camp and worked on clearing the land and planting native trees in this area. Ākonga (students) participated in tangible work that they could see was making a true difference to the environment in which they were working.

As well as working on the land, ākonga become chefs whilst they are away. All the food is made from scratch so that these meals are very much a labour of love as the group cannot use processed foods; bread is made and vegetables are peeled, chopped and diced and turned into delights. The camp is also meat free and a push for seasonal foods is a priority.

I had the joy of working beside the kitchen crews. Each meal needed a huge amount of input and collaboration as you can imagine when cooking for just shy of sixty people at each meal.  Systems were worked out however and I learnt a few new tricks myself, the favourite being to put a spoon in your mouth whilst you cut onions to stop you crying. The class was amazing at adapting and, when we did not have the food processor, took to making falafel mix without complaint by hand. I was stunned, however they refused to give up and made a brilliant falafel crumble and Greek salad by the time the others were back from work.

The talents that are needed for working in a deadline situation in a kitchen cooking for a large amount of people are complex and it is great to see the groups take this task on with such aplomb. They could really teach those MasterChef competitors a thing or two about unity and grace under pressure. Being able to develop these skills in an environment which the group does not know well is a great thing and pushes the whole group.

This camp is certainly not the norm for most schools in New Zealand. Bonding with ākonga in this way and being the kitchen Queen, sporting a crown made by them, was great fun and I did enjoy seeing ākonga develop and shine when it came to practical experience.

The Ongoing Nature of Brain Development

By Jan Gaffney  – Principal

Coming up this Thursday is the parent evening for this term, the topic of which is something I personally find exceedingly interesting. It’s something I wish had been more available when my three darlings were growing up, but is definitely useful in working with children, no matter what the age.

The development of the brain is a fascinating topic. Looking at a baby’s brain shortly after birth and then a short time later, you can see the number of neurons firing as the infant starts constructing themselves.

It is amazing to me that Montessori created a method of education that allows the brain to develop to its potential, and she did this before brain imaging was available. She did this through systematic scientific testing of theories and observation of children in relation to those theories.

She observed how children reacted to the various materials she put before them, taking away what didn’t’ work and replacing it with something that did, and then watched to see what it was the children needed in order to interact with the activities she placed in front of them.

She developed materials that called to the child’s developmental needs at each stage, and then allowed and encouraged the child to repeat each activity as many times as they wanted. Recently we have learned through the study of neuroscience that it is by repetition that automaticity occurs, and automaticity is required in order for someone to be able to do more and more complex tasks.

Such a lot happens in those first six years of life, and this is the foundation on which all else is built. However, the changes that occur when a child goes through adolescence is the time to shore up those foundations, in preparation for the next great flurry of activity.

What happens during this time, has up until recently, been largely a mystery. Now, thanks to modern science, we can learn more about what happens, why children do what they do as they pass through each stage, and better prepare ourselves to support them as they take the necessary steps to becoming a fully functioning adult.

A very exciting process indeed, and one that I’m always grateful to learn more about. I hope to see you here on Thursday night – in Kawakwa class at 7.30pm where we can find out more together.

Adolescents and Self Worth

By Richard Goodyear  – Kawakawa Head Teacher

Recently I was thrilled to be able to watch my daughter give a speech at her 21st birthday party celebrations. She spoke to a crowd of loving friends and family and gave my wife and me a huge acknowledgement. More importantly she simply oozed with confidence in her place in the world.

It made me think a lot about the belief one has (or doesn’t have) in his/her own worth, and in his/her ability to achieve. In modern parlance it is called self-efficacy. In Montessori we call it ‘valorization’, and it has been said it is the most important outcome of our work.

So what does valorization look like here in the adolescent community at Wā Ora?

We start with respect, understanding and belief in the adolescent’s potential. There is a real tenderness and sensitivity in young adults, due to the physical and psychological turbulence going on, so being aware, and tolerant of this, is perhaps the first attribute of the adult.

Dr. Montessori put it like this:  ‘The teachers must have the greatest respect for the young personality, realizing that in the soul of the adolescent, great values are hidden, and that in the minds of these boys and girls there lies all our hope of future progress and the judgment of our times.’ (Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence 72).

Secondly we must set up the learning experiences in such a way to allow for valorization. Our two key methods for that are occupations projects and community work.

Occupations projects in Kawakawa see the adolescents working for four weeks in a group with one teacher on a particular hands-on project. These projects generally have some sort of problem to solve or opportunity that will benefit the community. For this type of work and to make it more meaningful to the adolescents, the ‘community’ is generally fairly immediate, ie, the class itself, so the fruits of their efforts are very visible.

In community work (in which Tawari students are also involved) the ‘community’ reaches a little wider, being the whole school on a regular basis, and also events such as Peace Day and Matariki.  Community work does also extend out into the wider community with students helping out at Naenae Library, Wesleyhaven Retirement Village and Taita Cemetery. Doing these things in the community are valuable in and of themselves, but they are also small ways to promote valorization – seeing that there is value for others in one’s own efforts.

There is much potential in this idea of valorization for the adolescent and perhaps at the moment we are just scratching the surface. But it is an important part of our work here at Wā Ora. We simply need to think of our current adolescents giving speeches as young adults in a few years time, to see that stepping up as contributing adults in our complex society is a hugely important task

The Power of Suggestion

By Jan Gaffney  – Principal

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to join you for Matariki on Friday, but I hear it was a great day, and the hakari at night went well.  Our next school community event is a presentation from the Brainwave Trust talking about the developing brain from 8 years old onwards.  Brainwave’s focus is on providing education about the vast potential within each child and how we as parents can help to bring it out.  Maria Montessori talked about this a lot also.

Another thing Montessori often talked about was being careful about what was said around children and the need to be extra careful when they could hear, or even see that they were being talked about. She counselled teachers not to talk ‘ill of the child’, whether the child was present or not. There is a very good reason for this.

When a teacher talks ill of a child, he or she is reinforcing an idea of how she/he believes the child to be, and this can then become a fall-back position as to how the teacher feels the child ‘always’ is. This is something teachers  are supposed to avoid; each day we are supposed to come to the class with a clean slate, receiving the child daily as though nothing bad/wrong/inappropriate (call it what you will), has happened.

When we speak ill of a child, we reinforce to ourselves a usually negative perception and each time we do so, it becomes more entrenched. Then, when we see that behaviour occur again, we say, “Oh yes, that’s just what they are like”, further and further attributing certain behaviours as being natural to that child, which soon enough becomes reality, as the child takes his/her cue from the teacher.

This happens too, when we as parents, speak about a child when they are near, inadvertently reinforcing certain concepts, traits or characteristics that they then make part of themselves. When we say in front of them:

She worries so much about….
He doesn’t like broccoli / vegetables / Sarah, etc
She is very shy
He is very / not so good at math / writing / reading / singing / drawing, etc
She is feeling very grumpy this morning
He is feeling a bit sick, so you can ring me if he needs to come home
She is such a good / bad / disorganised / scatter-brained / messy child

All of these things encourage the child to believe they cannot be any different than what is being said about them, and in the long run, this is not helpful to them at all. A child who is quiet and needs time to warm up can be just that. Giving the label ‘shy’ can become a trait that they take on as a personal view of themselves and can become an impediment to their feeling comfortable in social situations for the rest of their life.

Similarly, when we talk about a child not being good at art or maths in front of them, we give them the idea that we think that is the case. Since we are adults and know so much more, what we say must be right, and so the child believes what we say, and makes that an integral part of who they are and what they can or can’t do. When we do this in front of children, we limit them, and I’m sure you will agree, that that is the last thing we want to do!

This is easier said than done I know (from experience!!), but if we are mindful, maybe we can do it less.