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December 09, 2010


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Mr. Denning,

I really enjoy reading your blog and think you have some really important ideas about how organizations need to adapt in the 21st century. I also became an admirer of your work when I first read about you in the Heath Brothers' book Made to Stick

I read your December 9th post and wanted to know if you are familiar with the Montessori pedagogical method and Montessori schools because the five shifts you discuss already take place every day at hundreds of Montessori schools across the country including the one my three daughters attend in New Jersey.

1. Putting Students First -- One of the core principles of Montessori is to "Follow the Child". Whether we are talking about a three year old or a sixth grader, students largely choose what they work on and when. If a child wants to work on science for a week, they can do it. If they are fascinated by math and want to work on math related items for three straight days, they can do that as well.

The teachers observe the students interests and guide them (more on this in a minute). Most of the time, children will master a particular set of skills in an area and move onto another area of interest, so the fear that they will "only" do math or only do english is often self-corrected. But if a child seems to the teacher to be lingering too long in one area to the detriment of other areas we want them to master, again regardless of grade level, they will work with the child to help them explore other areas that, with some gentle coaching, they are likely to be interested in.

2. Teachers as Enablers of Learning -- There are no tests, grades or homework at the overwhelming majority of Montessori schools. Learning is done with hands-on materials and the teachers are there to guide the students and help them to become life-long learners. As but one example, when a first grader asks, "what does this word mean?", the Montessori teacher does not give the answer, but uses the question as an opportunity to introduce the child to the dictionary where they can find the meaning of the word themselves. Teachers are not seen as the holders or transmitters of information, but facilitators and guides.

3. Dynamic Linking -- In a Montessori classroom, the student decides how they will spend their day and week. Beginning in first grade, students have written planners, where they plan their daily activities and weekly goals which are in accordance with the the goals of the classroom. How the students accomplish the weekly goals is completely up to them and they consult with the teachers if they need help to ensure they meet the goals.

In lower grades, there does tend to be more prescription about ther weekly goals since there is a basic level of mastery of a range of subjects we want children to achieve. But within this framework, there is still a lot of flexibility and autonomy for children. Students do their work in generally 60-90 minutes blocks and take breaks, again all working at their own pace and determination. Works are generally self-correcting and with more sophisticated works, students can get feedback from teachers on whether their work demonstrates a mastery of the skills the work is intended to teach.

4. Value to Values -- Learning in a montessori classroom comes from the child's innate, intrinsic desire to discover and know. There are no tests and grades, just a wish to learn and master skills. As you probably know, Dan Pink, in his latest book "Drive" cited Montessori schools as emblematic of kind of schooling that should be admired and promoted since it taps so strongly into intrinsic motivation and does not resort to extrinsic motivators of "getting gold stars" or "high grades"

5. Communication -- If you walked into any Montessori classroom, you can see that it is extremely different from traditional classrooms. Students do not have individual desks and other than for the purposes of entering or exiting the room, there is really no meaning to the front or back or sides of the classroom since Montessori students are free to move around as they wish and work wherever they like in a classroom, choosing and simply observing the rules of decorum and respect to facilitate a calm, productive learning environment for all.

The very design and set up of the Montessori classroom, along with all of the above, facilitate conversation and collaboration of all types, teachers to teacher, teachers to students and student to student. The concept of commands, except in instances where children may be endangering themselves or others (as kids and adults alike are wont to do at times), is largely non-existent.


It continues to baffle me as the debate about education reform rages on with slogans about "child-centered learning" and "instilling a love of learning" as to why this amazing method, developed over years of experience and practiced with great results (the founders of Amazon, Google and Sim City all attended Montessori schools; see this interesting HBR blog post entitled, "How Innovators Think" continues to be on the fringes of the discussion.

There are no silver bullets and Montessori is not the answer to all that ails public education, but there are many important ideas in the montessori approach that I really believe need to be more closely examined because they can help shift the discourse from what I view as a lot of noise to fundamentals of how children can learn in a way that prepares them to be excited and love learning.

Best wishes,

Daniel Petter-Lipstein
Passionate Parent of Three Girls at Yeshivat Netivot Montessori

Steve Denning


What a wonderful comment! I was only vaguely aware of the Montessori schools. Now you've joined the dots for me. Thanks so much!

I'm sure that there are other wonderful examples of great schools out there. I would love to hear about them.


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