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"They're Good At Doing Things." - Elf M. Sternberg
"They're Good At Doing Things."
The other night Omaha and I did the very 19th century thing of attending a good, old-fashioned lecture by Steve Hughes, Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The crux of his talk, entitled "School 2.0," was how, when he became a parent, long after he'd gotten his degree, he did a survey of all the local schools in his area and determined to his surprise that the weird, granola-y school known as "Montessori" exactly matched what pediatric neurology had detemined was the best environment in which small children should study and learn.

So, as an experiment, he put his three-year-old into the program. And he's become a booster ever since.

He said, "I'm not going to talk science-y here. When you go to a lecture like this, you'll here things like 'it is believed that' and 'the evidence suggests.' You're not going to hear that tonight. The evidence is in the bag. ... The way you create great adults is give children the freedom to engage in age-appropriate physical experimental interactions with their environment."

It was definitely a bit of quote-mining, but he had quotes from neurological economists, neurologists, pediatric psychiatrists, and so forth exactly lined up with quotes from Maria Montessori, and pointed out that she had how children learn understood, mastered, and systemized correctly eighty years ago.

He asked, "Why is so much of the curriculum purchased, a strain on the budget, when mathematics, at least up to the high school level, hasn't changed in eighty years?" Commodity knowledge is commodity knowledge, but his question is like, "Why are so many operating systems purchased when a bunch of college kids have been making high-quality operating systems for twenty years?" Marketing, advertising, and inertia on the part of the consumer to go somewhere "different."

He talked about the budget strain, and how schools get their budgets cut first. This reminded me of a recent moment in Kentucky, where it was revealed that the Answers In Genesis "Noah's Ark" theme park had received $43 million in tax breaks and $11 million in local infrastructure improvements to ease anticipated traffic flow to and from the park in 2011-- and the Kentucky School system was told that it would have to accept a $50 million operating budget reduction for 2012. Hmm, I wonder where they could have found an extra $50 million, but no, they pandered to idiots who want to believe the Earth is 6000 years old.

Point one: Motor-control is the foundation of learning

There were two long segments on neurological development, starting with two areas in the upper cortex, one for motor control and another for sensory. Hughes discussed how these areas develop, and showed what sorts of environments help them develop best. He claimed that in our deep past, cognition emerged out of motor control: "Should I fight, flee, or hide?" laid the groundwork for the evolution of more complicated thought.

He discussed the Hebb rat study in 1947, the one that originally backed up Montessori's claims with hard neurological evidence, but was rejected because the US had just put enormous resources into building schools on "the manufacturing model," in which every kid is a "product," built at the same pace and delivered at the end of the line on schedule and supposedly complete, and didn't have the political will to change to a more touchy-feely system.

That reminded me of a recent issue of RadioLab, in which researches talked about white-matter studies in chimpanzees, and how researchers put chimps in one of three environments: an unstimulating one with low social interaction, a stimulating one with toys and games and a tribal level of social interaction of approximately 50 monkies, and a highly stimulating one with even more toys and games and even monkey pinball-like machines and about 200 monkies. The result was that the low-stimulus ones showed a decline in white matter (the stuff that actually thinks), but the other two groups showed the same level of white matter growth. So there's both a floor and a ceiling to brain development, but for most kids we're barely on the floor, if there.

A child, Montessori asserted, and neurology backs up, grows best when her need, desire, and ability to discover the world for herself are encouraged.

Point two: Motor control is the basis of Self-Control

The other long segment was on executive function, what most of us call "self control." Self-control is a function of motor control: moving when appropriate. If a child feels free to move when appropriate, and the environment has been structured so that it, and not punishment by adults, teaches that appropriateness, then the child learns to self-control. Montessori called this "the normalization of spontaneous self-discipline," but it amounts to the same thing. I think this may be why so many high-level executives work out and practice martial arts: its maintenance for the parts of their brain that enables them to engage in work for long, disciplined periods of time.

The Chinese government has discovered this also. Hughes claims their state 0 through 6 program has begun restructuring itself along Montessori lines, and 25,000 pre-school teachers are getting an in-depth education over the next five years in moving from a discipline model to a guidance and mentoring model.

Tentative discoveries

A few things in the "tentative" class of research results that he mentioned briefly are these: schools are getting worse as they head towards a standardized testing program. The punitive method doesn't work. In the past ten years, there's some evidence that children are failing to learn the social cues for "have a conversation": in the past, if someone was talking, they were usually talking to someone, often the child if the child was the only possible conversant, but now the odds that they're just talking into thin air, the bluetooth headset hidden under their hair, means that children are learning that "I'm talking" probably doesn't mean, "I'm conversing with you." In the past twenty years, there's been a scary rise in nearsightedness, and an equally scary drop in full-body coordination: exposure to sunlight prevents nearsightedness, and video games teach only hand-eye.

My experience with Kouryou-chan

I've seen this time and time again with Kouryou-chan. She is, as Montessori said she would be, "Good at doing things." When you point out to her what needs to be done, she does it, and usually does it well. The kid has a scarily powerful attention span when she wants to learn something, sometimes lasting for hours, even days.

I can't speak for other methods, but the Montessori method certainly worked for her. She wouldn't be who she is without it, and she certainly wouldn't have the opportunities she has now without it.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
en_ki From: en_ki Date: March 19th, 2012 05:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
+1, Like, etc.

But I wonder what world he lives in that Bluetooth conversations are more common than in-person conversations. I live in Silicon Valley and everyone I know has a cell phone, but Bluetoothing in the presence of other people is still jarring, rude, and relatively rare in my world.
urox From: urox Date: March 19th, 2012 08:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I loved surprising our Montessori school with my kid. All I said was "She's 2 1/3. She's advanced. You'll see." Without providing anything else. No evidence. Just that it would be completely clear. And sure enough, they asked *us* within a month if they could move her up to an older class because of her communication skills and pencil grip and following instructions.

Her prior non-montessori daycare wouldn't have let her move up to the older class until she was 3 years old. I do not look forward to the fight I'm going to have to have with public school about her skipping kindergarden because she knows practically everything 2 years before they'll let her enroll.
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