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Good at Doing Things

Tonight, I attended 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 Development

  • 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 daughter, 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 another.

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 worked up?

Brain-based learning

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.

About Brains

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 else.

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 properly.

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 doing.


  • 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 letters.

Doing cylinder work, 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 organize them.

If you take nothing else home tonight, take this:

Healthy networks develop through experimental interactions with the environment.

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 them.

The games that I do I really 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 2007, where he talks about his Montessori influence.

Most Important Part of Talk Starts Now

Executive Functions

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 executive functions, he just hasn’t yet done the study to show such conclusively.)

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 next week.

  • Judgment
  • Planning
  • Imagining
  • Foresight
  • Organizing
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-correction
  • 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 use it.

Only way to develop executive function skills is through experimentation with environment.


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
  • Obedience
  • 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 teachers.

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.

—Maria Montessori

Competent Vice Presidents tend to:

  • Show initiative
  • Set goals
  • Coach
  • 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:

  • Dependable
  • 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 were excepted.
  • 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 schools 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) Method 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 optional.

Whoever touches the life of a child touches the most sensitive point of a whole which has roots in the most distant part and climbs toward the infinite future.

—Maria Montessori

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.

[Standing Ovation]


Slides on goodatdoingthings.com. Will see about getting a video posted, as well.

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