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The Philosophy of an Elementary Montessori classroom – Part II

At the final meeting with our Montessori school staff, we discussed the elementary curriculum in detail. We had always realized that there were weaknesses in the curriculum having to do with the teaching of multiculturalism, and the approach to science, which emphasized life sciences, and leads directly to an environmentalist bias. On the other hand,the approaches to mathematics and language development (reading, writing, grammar) were generally following extensions of the Montessori methods that were present in the primary (ages 3-5) classroom, and appeared to be working well for our daughter, who has become an avid reader at age 7.

At this meeting on the curriculum, the discussion turned to the methods of educating the children in the more abstract subjects of science and history, and the introduction of other less broad topics in the classroom. The purpose of the meeting from the school’s point of view was to determine whether our philosophically-based opinions on education were a “good fit” with the methods that the school was employing in the classroom. (In many other meetings, we have been quite explicit about our agreement with Objectivist principles in general, and specifically with the approach to education).

What we heard at this meeting was astounding. History is presented in the context of the “history” of the Universe, starting with the Big Bang, including the cosmological theories of the formation of galaxies, stars, and the solar system. A time line is presented, in which all of recorded human history is reduced to a miniscule interval at the end of the line. The fairly explicit message to the children is the belittling of humans, both in importance in history and in the grandeur of the Universe. The presentation of incredibly complex concepts such as the Big Bang and cosmology is done intentionally as “impressionist learning” – a term I had never heard before, but which has perfect connotation to this insane approach to education. The children are told they will not understand what is being presented until years later. The intent of this method is to “expose” the children to a wide variety of high-complexity concepts long before they can grasp them, with the plan of creating a “familiarity” which can somehow be exploited when the concepts are re-introduced later in their educational career. These vast concepts are then “deconstructed” into sub-topics, which are further dissected until the level of comprehension capability is reached for these children.

In my stunned amazement at what I was hearing, I attempted to describe the proper hierarchial approach to learning – assuming that what I had just heard was completely misrepresented, and that the teachers were merely failing to communicate the method to me clearly. (The lead teacher is actually fairly inept at clear communication, and tends to babble when she is excited in a discussion). My description was a progression from the easily-grasped simple concepts, mastering them, then moving on to the next level up the hierarchy – identical to the approach used in the school for learning mathematics, for example. I was immediately and clearly corrected, and told that this was the complete opposite to their approach.

Although this was the fatal blow to our interest in continuing our participation in the school,there were additional points made in the conversation that were of equal importance. When asked what “impressionist learning” meant, they described the bombardment of the minds of the children with vastly complex concepts, followed by the random “swirling around” of those concepts continually within the forming minds until the children made their own interpretations and connections and formed an understanding of sorts. Emphasis was laid repeatedly on the subjectivity of learning – that there was no “right” way to teach or learn, andthat most big questions have no “right” answers.

The approach to physics starts with telling the children about indivisible particles out of which all things are made. The emphasis is on the fact that everything and everyone is made from the same particles, and that there is a Oneness between each of us and the Universe in this sense. This fits all too well with the Eastern mysticism that forms a backdrop to this school, and, combined with the New Age mysticism that I’ve discussed in Part I of this topic, leads me to believe that I am not at all being paranoid in thinking that this Montessori school has an agenda beyond the basic proper education of children.

The climax of this discussion came as my wife and I were first accused of being engineers (guilty) who were seeking to limit our children’s viewpoint to objective facts (guilty), and would not allow for subjectivity and an acceptance of uncertainty as themes in education (very guilty). They expressed great concern over our plan to home-school, because Elisabeth had become someone so caring for the feelings of others, and for the greater world around her, and they feared that our approach to education might undermine the blossoming of these traits.

Well, at least their fears are not irrational.

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The Philosophy of an Elementary Montessori classroom – Part I

Having a strong aversion to public schooling, as well as a stronger aversion to the methods of education used in the public system, my two youngest daughters have been enrolled in a local Montessori school for the past three years. We were drawn to the Montessori method of teaching as it promised a proper development of early childhood education, working from concrete manifestations of mathematical and language concepts to enable the child to integrate from hands-on tangible materials to reach abstract understanding of the represented concepts. In the “primary” years (ages 3-5) this general technique was applied mostly consistently, and our children have excelled, reaching levels of reading and writing skill, and an understanding of simple arithmetic, far beyond average for their age.

As Elisabeth, the older of these two sisters, moved into the Lower Elementary classroom last year, however, we began to see signs of a change in the philosophy of the education approach. A “character education” component was added, nominally to develop inter-personal skills within the children, but we found it odd that this was being run by the Yoga instructor. Upon the tragic departure of the main teacher in this classroom, the teacher’s assistant (a former public school teacher with no Montessori training)became the main teacher, and the Yoga instructor (also with no Montessori training)was now the teacher’s assistant. A retired Montessori trainer was hiredpart time to assistin the structuing of the curriculum.

Then,after a few months passed, we started seeing a more bothersome injection into the classroom. This Yoga instructor (who is also an ordained minister)began to use the character educationcomponent as a forumfor introducing New Age ideas tothe elementary classroom.Elisabeth began speaking of “crystals” in our bodies which can be affected by music. She was told that her thoughts can physically affect other children. That a wound will feel better if she sends it “happy thoughts”, and that inanimate objects can be affected by her emotions. We confronted the school administration with this on a handful of occasions, and were told that the instructor had been told to curtail this material, and to separate her personal beliefs from what was taught in class. We accepted this, though with skepticism.

After these events at the end of last school year, we discussed our options during the summer. The possibility of having my wife (Kim) leave her career to home-school the children had become more of a viable option, both financially, and because of the stress of her work environment, and the concerns over the elementary curriculum. After allowing the school year to start, and Elisabeth now entering the second year of the elementary classroom, Kim finally decided to indeed leave her job. The actual trigger event for this final decision occured at work, with yet another run-in between Kim and her supervisor over taking a few hours off while I was on travel, to allow her to pick up and drop off the children from school (I should mention here for the general reader that my wife and I work for the same company). After another three weeks of wrestling with the decision, Kim resigned and began preparing for home schooling.

But the real point of relating this story is the final meeting we had with the administrator and the elementary teaching staff. This meeting was suggested by the administrator, and was meant to determine if the elementary curriculum had enough in common with our personal beliefs for the education of Elisabeth to continue. (The school was considering offering us a financial aid package to allow both Elisabeth and Victoria to continue at a rate we could afford now that Kim was no longer working). In the next posting, I will relate the amazing content of this discussion.

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