Student choice

By David Starshaw–Mathematics Teacher–High School

Do we want adolescents to be independent learners? The obvious answer is yes. Even if you are not quite sure what it means to be an ‘independent learner’, you probably have a sense that independence is a good thing we want our students to embody. Perhaps you think adolescents should be interdependent learners? A student who doggedly insists they are independent and so refuses to ask for help when they are stuck is not going to be very successful. Clearly, we want students who are neither too dependent, nor too independent.

One way we foster this is through student choice. A common phrase you will hear in Montessori circles is “freedom within limits.” And, here too, a balance must be struck. Montessori says “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” (The Absorbent Mind). But equally, not enough freedom to make good choices denies the opportunity for adolescents to make mistakes of self-management and learn from them. As teachers, our role is to allow students to fail, but not so badly that they do not get back up and learn from it.

As I have increasingly become more interested in educational research, I have learnt that students, as a rule, do not make good choices on how to best develop their learning. Students that are novices in the topic and struggling, will tend to choose more open-ended tasks that are easier to hide that they don’t know. Students that are becoming intermediate in the topic and understanding the basic ideas, will tend to choose familiar, short, closed questions rather than extending themselves into more open-ended problems. One of the roles of the teacher is to limit the student’s freedom to choose ineffective uses of their time so that they can make good choices and be successful. But, as before, there must be a balance to allow enough freedom without allowing too much.

I was recently surprised to learn that learning styles are still being discussed. This used to be a common way in which students were allowed choice. The educational research has been clear for a long time now that learning styles are not a thing. Or, as was published in 2008, “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base.”   1 This is as close to a ‘burn’ as it gets in research.

Student choice is a good and necessary thing. But, like fire, too much is harmful and puts unnecessary roadblocks in the way of progression and future success.


“Why is my child sweeping the floor at preschool?”


By Anna McLean – Preschool Deputy Principal

The Practical Life activities are a key part of a preschool classroom.  Quite simply they are what they say they are.  They are real life activities that children are naturally drawn to wanting to do and ones that are hands-on and need to be repeated in order to gain proficiency.

Practical Life activities are the first area that a child will be given lessons in.   Right from the very first day they enter a classroom they need skills to be able to operate independently.   In order to have a drink of water they need to be able to pour water from a jug.  They need to know how to carry a chair, roll a mat, carry a tray to a table etc and the key thing is they want to be able to do these things!

“It is interesting to notice that where life is simple and natural and where the children participate in the adult’s life, they are calm and happy.” 

Maria Montessori, The 1946 London Lectures, pg 152

The Practical Life activities in a Montessori classroom use real, child-sized tools and equipment that give children the skills that allow them to be independent.  This independence from adult support allows them to gain that sense of satisfaction that they have done it themselves. Using the sweeping analogy, the broom is the right size!  They can be successful in sweeping the floor because the handle is the right length and the broom head isn’t too heavy or ungainly to move.  Even better, they can practice the actions of sweeping for as long as they want to.  It is not about sweeping the floor.  It is perfecting the movement of sweeping that they have seen others do and being able to do it without help.

One sees that these small children have a tendency to work in their play, imitating the actions of the adults.  They don’t consider what they do to be play – it is their work.” 

Maria Montessori, The 1946 London Lectures, pg 151

Alongside meeting the need to imitate what adults do, the Practical Life activities also assist self development through control of movement, development of hand-eye coordination and muscle coordination which prepares the child for other activities.  Practical life activities have an important place throughout the whole three year cycle of a child’s time in preschool.  There is a progression in the activities from simple to complex.  Some lessons such as cloth washing have many steps and need the development of concentration and perseverance in order to complete the cycle of activity.  Any activity that is refining the movements and strengthening the hand is providing indirect preparation for holding a pencil and writing.

Rest assured that any time your child comes home from school and talks about all the practical life activities they have been doing at school, they are actively building their intelligence through the use of their hands!