Sunday, 6 January 2013

Blended Learning for High School - Montessori Style

I am obsessed with the work of Maria Montessori. The scientist observer mind that Montessori brought to the education of children, enabled her to construct social learning environments that would be the envy of any major corporate human resources department. Observing the Montessori pre-school my own children attended inspired me to restructure my high school science classroom to reflect some of the Montessori structures that allow for freedom of choice and encourage self-discipline in a supportive and structured fashion.
My partners in this transition have been my two co-planning colleagues, Ben and Allison, but also a class set of Chromebooks running Hapara’s Teacher Dashboard. Ben, Allison, and I have divided up the responsibilities for digitizing our curriculum and screencasting mini lectures as well as laboratory briefs. Constructing version 1.0 of our curriculum in the cloud is a bit like making sausage, but student exam scores (year to year) are remaining flat while student affect is improving markedly. That is encouragement enough to continue with the transition.

The one to one Chromebook deployment means that students have the freedom to move at their own pace when solving problems and watching video lectures, and make choices about experiments they wish to pursue. Like most US public school classrooms ours contain thirty to thirty five students and one teacher. This ratio makes individual contact with every student during every class quite a challenge. The one to one deployment opens the opportunity to make this happen, but only if there is a significant amount of autonomous engagement.

The Chromebooks alone do not make this possible. The combination of a structured playlist with opportunities for topic choice based on student interest, and the insight into student activity offered by Teacher Dashboard make the Montessori-like environment possible. The dashboard views of drive, sites, blogs, etc. allow us to see progress students are making in real time. The Remote Control add-on allows us to view student screens, and monitor student activity as if we taught classes of six students.

On any given block day (100 minutes), I make a point of personally checking in with every student in the class. The Dashboard allows me to approach these encounters with some data. “Javier, I noticed that you took Cornell notes on the Newton’s third law video lecture, but you skipped the formative quiz, and now you are working on the problem set. Can we work together on the first couple questions of the quiz before you do your next problem?” Really.

There are still the two or three students in each class who will not do the work outlined for them without a hand on their shoulder and the occasional furrowed brow pointed in their direction from across the classroom, and at first it seemed as if these students were struggling even more in these classrooms with more choice. Then it occurred to me that I was just more aware of the lack of engagement of these students now that the data was in my face all the time. In my prior, teacher-centered model, I could be guaranteed that they were facing me as I directed activity in the classroom, but there was no guarantee (nor evidence) of their engagement. Now there is.

Montessori’s found that the pre-school mind and body needs some different things than does the adolescent mind and body, but something that is consistent throughout all of Montessori’s work with developing humans of all ages is the need for well-timed challenge and choice. My colleagues and I are on our way to making this a reality in a traditional high school science  classroom with Chromebooks and Teacher Dashboard.


  1. Wonderful execution of implementing Montessori's fundamental teachings in a traditional classroom setting. I commend you for your courage to act on your intuition and use technology to improve content engagement and authentically assess students' competencies. I believe US classrooms should change the antiquated style of instruction and become interactive environments where students learn to be proactive and take control of there own learning. eLearning/mLearning is becoming the norm in Universities where under grad and grads alike have to be proactive in their learning in order to succeed. Most fail since they lack the skills to instruct themselves with minimal guidance from instructor. Due to the mental model students all over the country have form from elementary through H.S. they expect to receive a teacher lecture and exam where they just regurgitate the information in the lecture.

    You gave your students a glimpse of what it is like to take an online course in a higher education institution. High schools should prepare/teach students to acquire the knowledge, skills and behaviors of successful online learners.

    I enjoyed reading this article.

  2. Thank you for your encouragement, Ivy. It takes considerable effort and will to buck tradition. I am hopeful about what technology can do to bring us to a more humane form of public education.

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