Tonight, I atteneded a
talk, Good at doing things: Montessori education and higher-order cognitive functions, about the
Montessori method of childhood education and its effects on neurological
development. If I wasn’t a convert to the Montessori method before, I am now.
Julie and I went to back to school night at Anna’s new school, Childpeace
Montessori the other night, and we were both jealous.
How we wish we could have had this kind of education! This talk really sealed
it in my mind. I can’t imagine that I'd want Anna to have any other education.
Anyway, I might write a bit more on this later, but for now, here are my notes
from the talk. Enjoy.
Steve Hughes, PhD, LP, ABPdN
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology
University of Minnesota Medical School
Good at Doing Things
Director of Education and Research
The TOVA Company
A Montessori parent. Interest fueled as a father, child development
specialist, and pediatric neuropsychologist.
What is a neuropsychologist?
- Clinical psychology
- Postdoctoral training in child brain development
- Assessment of brain functioning
- Children with development problems impacting brain development, learning, cognitive functioning, behavior
- Consult to parents, educators, physicians
- Research: attention, poverty, lead, genetic disorders
- Train future neuropsychologists
- Brain that is myelinated is functional
- Injured brains don’t develop well
- Rats with non-stimulating environment have smaller brains with fewer connections and lower IQ.
- Rats raised in stimulating environment are heavier and more complex
- Emotional support, stimulation good for brain development
“Experimental interactions with the environment.” Provided in unparalleled way
by Montessori education.
What should school be for?
In, US, it’s about preparing students for multiple choice tests.
If ask students, they want:
- Leave school confident, willing and able to take the initiative introducing change
- Become independent
- Develop character and personality
- Have speakers about careers and ed topics
- Know how to apply facts and techniques to new problems
- Want to speak well
- Have discussion lessons where can put forward own view
- Learn about different sorts of jobs and careers
- Encourage me to have opinions of my own
- Help me understand implications and responsibilities of marriage
List of things from teachers is similar. “I think that’s pretty neat!”
Reinforced by multiple studies around the world.
How Steve Discovered Montessori Education
BWCA Wildlife and nature preserve.
Beautiful place. There is a YMCA camp, Camp
Widjiwagan. Woman, Debra Sussex, Wilderness
photographer and tour leader. She got her start at Widjiwagan. A leadership
development camp for young people. People come from all over the state to
attend. She saw kids from every corner of the state.
Hughes was post-doc. Asked her, “Where do the good kids come from?” She
thought for a minute. They come from a Montessori school in Minneapolis. How'd
she come up with that? What is it about them? She said:
You have to understand young people have heard instinct, and these young
people are preoccupied. And everyone at Widji is supposed to help out. Most of
the time, those adolescents have to be asked to do something, then remind,
then hassle, then hold them accountable. But the kids from the Montessori
school, ask them to do something, they'd d it, do it well, then embellish it."
These kinds have ability to look around, figure out what needs to be done, and
do it. They're good at doing things.
For so many adolescents, you're not good at doing anything unless you go to
Montessori. You have to:
- Ask them to do something
- Hassle them
- Remind them
- Hold them accountable
Then they do bare minimum. Montessori kids, however:
- Ask them to do something
- They do it
- They do it well
- Then they embellish it
Ultimately, what they do is:
- Look around…
- figure out what needs to be done…
- …and do it
Key sentence: “They're good at doing things.”
A Montessori Parent
Hughes daugher, Isabel was born. [His daughter, gets choked up.] Isabel went
to Montessori, has been there since beginning. Almost 11. Couldn’t be happier
with her progress and experience of seeing a child discover herself.
So the Hughes family fell in love Montessori. 75% of children of his
Neuropsychology colleagues in department had kids in Montessori at one time or
Montessori education is the embodiment of all I learned while studying for a
Ph.D. in Child Development.
—Fiona A., Ph.D.
That’s where my kid is going to school!
—Terry H., Ph.D.
It’s like education designed by a gifted pediatric neuropsychologist.
—Steve Hughes, Ph.D., pediatric neuropsychologist
It’s like education designed by a gifted developmental neuropsychologist.
—Fiona A., Ph.D., developmental neuropsychologist
What is it about Montessori that pediatric neuropsychologists like? gets them
Spent most of career figuring out what happens in the brain of children.
Montessori is the original Brain-based learning. Maria understood this before
anyone coined that phrase.
Some areas are responsible for certain functions. Motor and sensory areas are
bands that go over the brain. Mapping of functional areas finds that they're
not the same size as parts of the body for which they control function. From
brain’s point of view, body is huge hands, large face, not much of anything
Way of Thinking About Things Brains Do
Functions are in neurological “nuggets.” Communicate with other areas through
neural networks. Brains need functioning nuggets and networks to work
What happens when you read:
- Apprehend text
- Decode text
- Identify words
- Apply vocabulary, reasoning, concept formation, general intelligence
- Determine meaning
These are nuggets that must communicate in order to read properly.
Children with reading disorder have brains that don’t activate as much. Such
children’s functions can be improved. Have to do lots of calisthenics of brain
to develop those nuggets. It’s hard, and takes someone who knows what they're
- Letter/word recognition
- Phonological processing
- Language comprehension
Maria Montessori knew about these before the study. Stuff in Montessori
classroom covers all of these thing. For children with dyslexia, pediatric
neuropsychologists do exactly these things to help, e.g., sandpaper
child learned perfect pencil grasp. Was easy to learn to hold the pencil when
started to write, because had already had practice with cylinder’s.
Child without grasp can still have phonological processing going on, doing
writing with movable
alphabet, phonetically. They
can write before they can form letter shapes or hold a pencil.
Word matching words to photos organized into categories, for language
comprehension. They learn not just objects and their words, but category-ness.
Brain is learning how to bring order to the world, create systems, and
If you take nothing else home tonight, take this:
Healthy networks develop through experimental interactions with the
Children need ability to test the environment, make mistakes, test hypotheses,
see how things go together.
When brain runs into something new, it focuses all available neurons to figure
it out. Those with better networks are better at figuring things out. Better
networks lead to better, more accurate problem-solving. Need lots of
opportunities for exploration to develop these networks. Generalized
activation — every available nerve is called upon to solve a new problem.
Once you understand problem, very little brain is required to solve it.
(Tetris example.) This is what learning is like.
What should schools be for?
About building better brains by developing nuggets and networks!
This is what Montessori education is about. Teacher makes sure what child is
doing is just on the edge of what they've done before. Great to give to child
something, a task, that’s developmentally appropriate to them, so they are
challenged by it. There is no environment like a Montessori classroom to really
emphasize this. If there is something you're doing that’s developmentally
appropriate for you, every neuron is focused on the task.
What would it be like if we spent every day like this?
How else can we make brains better? Hands-on activity. Learning that things
have a beginning part, a middle part, and end end part. All meaningful
learning takes place through error and analysis. Don’t solve problems for the
child; let them figure it out.
How else can we make better brains? Multisensory work. Self-guided learning.
People learn better by doing the things they're interested in. Montessori
teacher knows there are things to discover, and helps the child to get the
tools to figure it out.
Other places to have experimental interactions with the environment? Sim
City! Get to analyze the problems of
city planning. Inventor of Sim City was Montessori educated, through 6th
grade, later realized it was the high point of his education. Started making
games, which he thinks of more as toys. Maria Montessori designed toys to
allow children to discover things on their own, rather than just be taught
The games that I do I reall think of as modern Montessori toys, and I really
want them to be presented to kids in a way where kids can explore and
discover their own principals.
Will Wright at TED in
where he talks about his Montessori influence.
Most Important Part of Talk Starts Now
Hughes believes that the Montessori education provides environment that is
unique in providing extraordinary role of developing executive functions.
(From Q&A: Executive functions abilities are mostly genetic and possibly early
development environments. “Possibly” because these things are hard to measure
in children. If you check off the things you need, they're all in the
Montessori classroom, and Hughes believes that such an environment does
promote exectutive functions, he just hasn’t yet done the study to show such
Prefrontal cortex modify remote events (through time and space) through
intentional behavior. Through its development, links the present to the
future. Once this developed in humans, Humans had won evolutionary contest.
Chimps can solve problems. But they can’t plan for the future. Can stack boxes
to get banana on ceiling, but can’t stock up boxes for when bananas reappear
- Picking strategies
- Monitoring progress
- Sustain intention
- Inhibit impulses
These are executive functions. This is what our prefrontal cortex does. When
this is developed, you are an effective human being.
Unlike with learning problems, there is little to do to develop executive
functions in later age. For the development in children, there is nothing like
Montessori classroom to develop executive functions. Those who don’t
develop them are simply not that good at doing things.
Normalization represents some aspect of executive functions. Working memory is
essential to executive planning. And in Montessori classrooms, they plan
learning games. These develop this. It’s deliberate. Need limitation of
materials so children have to learn to limit inappropriate behavior. So if
there is only one pink tower, child has to plan, inhibit impulses, etc., to
Only way to develop executive function skills is through experimentation with
Aspects that Maria wrote about:
- Love of order
- Love of work
- Love of silence and being alone
- Profound concentration—The core function behind effective behavior
- Independence and Initiative
- Spontaneous self-discipline
- Attachment to reality
- Joy—Promote self-esteem not through promoting narcissism, but through doing things!
What School for Most Children is About
Remember the lists of what children and teachers consider important? Doing
well on standardized tests is not in the top 10. It’s #23, according to
Those that receive the most attention int he classroom? #1; Helping students
do well on standardized tests!
And what are the successfully met goals? Helping students do well on
standardized tests is #1. Understand what is happening i the world is #10!
If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a
mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the
bettering of man’s future.
Competent Vice Presidents tend to:
- Show initiative
- Set goals
- Influence people and organizations
- Build teams
- Listen and demonstrate empathy
- Control impulses
- Help others analyze problems and develop strategies
- Reward and recognize contributions
None of which is taught in business schools!
Find the same things for, e.g., competent machine operators:
- Accurate in reporting
- Respond to the needs of the situation without needing instructions
- Get along with others
- Take responsibility
None of this stuff taught in vocational school.
The best teachers;
- Recognize unique talents in each student
- Create individualized education processes that foster each student’s unique abilities
- Work with other teachers to understand of how growth is promoted
- Help parents create developmental environments for their students at home
- Analyze and harness sociological forces that control what happens in schools
- Work toe change society for the benefit of children
These are the things that teachers who are nominated as extraordinary teachers
possess. None are taught in teachers colleges. These are learned only by
engaging and experimenting with the real world.
What about the academic stuff?
Craig Public Montessori School in Milwaukee, covered in the journal Science.
by Dr. Angeline Lillard. At end of
kindergarten, Montessori children had superior:
- Executive control
- Decoding and early math
- Understand the mind
- Appeals to social justice
- Social awareness
At end of grade six:
- Social skills
- Sense of community
- Creativity in story creation
- Complexity of sentence formulation
East Dallas Community School
Montessori-based, serves children from birth to 3rd grade in one of most
under-served communities in Dallas.
- In 2002, 78% of third graders applied to gifted and talented program and all
- Since 1978, 97% of third-graders go on to graduate high school or get a GED.
Of those, 88% go on to college.
- In comparison, only 50% of students from same community but different
scheools graduate from high school.
And How is Conventional Education Doing?
Hasn’t changed much in last 100 years.
Schools struggle to meet state marks. It’s in the news all the time. Saddest
part about it is that it’s no longer surprising.
It’s time to do something different! We've tried the existing approach, it
doesn’t work, it’s not good for children. No reason schools have to be the way
they are. There is a better way. That’s what Montessori teachers provide.
Three components of Classical Montessori Education
Culture (of respect for child)
Curriculum and Materials
Everyone falls in love with materials, but the culture is most important. It’s
an exposure for children that’s transforming.
The social environment of a child influences the child, but also helps them
recover from trauma or disease. Humans are shaped by their social experiences.
We learn how to be humans from other humans. Children take what is given to
them by adults and their world and the convey them. Montessori provides
culture that’s supportive of what we identify as civilization. Civilization is
Whoever touches the life of a child touches the most sensitive point of a
whole which has roots inthe most distant pat and climbes toward the infinite
In infancy, we believe parents can solve all our problems
As children, it’s that teachers can
As adults, it’s that governments.
It as never been more important to raise generations who:
Look around, figure out what needs to be done, and do it.
Slides on goodatdoingthings.com. Will see
about getting a video posted, as well.