Fifth in a series. Former Mountain Shadows parent Paul Algreen (P ’15) shares his journey as a Montessori parent.
For those of you who have been following along with this blog, you might recall that my first post in this series began with a discussion of the fear and ego (FEGO) that unfortunately drives many parenting decisions. I extolled the virtue of moving past FEGO to make levelheaded, informed decisions around the best educational environment for raising strong, independent thinkers. In a way, I was hinting at what I believe is an important problem solving skill: being a critical thinker who can move past emotional and biased responses to find the space and time to make more fact-based decisions. I will come back to this skill as it relates to Montessori in a moment, but first let me digress by expressing some fear! How can my son Casey possibly be prepared to cope with the head spinning, complex challenges of the 21st century?
Being a successful problem solver (whether at work, at home, or at play) presents a decidedly different set of challenges for most of us living today than existed for previous generations; the nature of work is drastically changing. Through various mechanisms, such as new technology, increased automation, globalization, and process improvement, labor productivity (output divided by hours worked) is growing exponentially. The consequence is that, by most measures, it now takes only one person to produce the output that would have required six people from our grandparent’s generation! Put simply, non-complex forms of labor are rapidly vanishing for our children’s future. Addressing complex global political, economic, and environmental challenges will require a remarkably advanced set of skills and the ability to move past old norms and problem solving paradigms. Developing enduring relationships and addressing personal conflicts has become a more intricate exercise in the age of social media and digital life. With all those fears on the table, what will make Casey a strong contemporary problem solver and can Montessori help in this regard, even though it was developed early in the 20th century?
As it turns out, Montessori is unbelievably well suited to develop strong problem solvers for these modern challenges. To start, let’s go back to the point of moving past FEGO to be a critical thinker. How do we make that happen for our students? In his widely acclaimed, best selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman introduced many of us to a new, research-based understanding of how the human brain evolved to support bi-modal thinking. The two modes are termed “system one” and “system two,” where the former is designed for fast; often life saving decisions, and the latter is suited for slower, more critical thinking on complex challenges. The trouble is, with the daily, rapid assault of challenges; many of us spend an inordinate amount of time in “system one” when most of our problems these days call for more “system two” style thinking. Today’s most pressing issues call for a critical thinking ability unhindered by excessive bias or mental shortcuts.
This is where Montessori seems to shine. The extended work periods employed in a Montessori classroom coupled with the process of introducing lessons rather than giving lessons allows the student ample time and individual freedom to address their schoolwork. These unique educational constructs contribute to the development of a capability and a propensity for moving past the shortcut-driven “system one” style of thinking to the more capable “system two” style of thinking. While it may be expedient and more efficient to adjust our teaching styles to give students answers and ask them to memorize those answers, it doesn’t give them practice at being critical thinkers. While some traditional schools seem to be catching on to this and introducing some lessons to improve critical thinking, Montessori makes developing these “slow”/”system two” thinking tendencies an integrated part of the daily routine.
I believe another important problem solving skill is the ability to think geometrically rather than linearly. What I mean by this is that when confronted with a series of questions, how capable is the problem solver to consider many outcomes or solutions rather than the most obvious answer? The ability to “think outside the box” goes back to Socrates, but remains an elusive skill that (as it turns out) can be learned. I’ve seen Casey’s Montessori teachers slow down the classroom to encourage asking those extra questions and not simply reward the students who came up with the first, most expedient answer. This important process, a very creative process, is embedded in Montessori, and I’ve seen tremendous geometric thinking from Casey that makes me smile. Sometimes, as a parent/know-it-all, it can be frustrating because he may spend time exploring some tangents or rabbit holes, but I trust this ability to consider some solutions that may seem outlandish to me will someday serve him well. As the a propos alliterative saying goes, “Rebels revel in rewriting reality’s restrictions!”
Finally, there is no question in my mind that confidence plays an important role in problem solving. Starting from a position of belief in oneself is key to taking the first steps toward any challenge; and here again, I can say empirically that being a confident thinker is a common trait for Montessori students. Casey and his peers have grown up together to be self-directed, resilient, and motivated. These three traits, which inspire that confidence, do not happen by accident. They are clearly derived from the daily Montessori process of individual work time, safe and supported trial and error through experimentation, and the freedom to solve the challenges that most interest the student. It is easy for me to imagine how a lack of these consistent classroom gifts could lead to a lesser outcome, where students struggle to fully realize their potential to be a confident and energetic problem solver.
All that being said, obviously many amazing problem solvers come from many different educational backgrounds, so I wouldn’t assert a single solution; but my experience as a Montessori dad over the past eight years has been truly rewarding and has given me an appreciation for how prepared Casey will be to tackle the complex problems he will encounter in his lifetime.