If you are reading this blog, then it’s likely that you are considering Montessori for your child. Before we made the decision to send our son to Montessori, I spent hours and hours searching the web for helpful, credible information to help us feel confident that we were making the right choice for him and our family. Some days, I ended my searching more confused than when I started. As you’ve probably already discovered, there is A LOT of information out there about “the best” education options. It’s hard to know who and what to believe.
I’d like to think that you could trust me when I say that a Montessori education provides the best, most rounded, most effective education around (with a special nod to all my friends at WBMS who do it better than most!). But I understand that I may come at the topic with a bit of a bias. That’s why I wanted to introduce you to Dr. Steven Hughes, a neuropsychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Dr. Hughes has studied the brain to depths most never dream of, but especially with regard to the way the brain learns best. He speaks about education and brain development at conferences, universities, schools and training centers all over the world. And he is particularly fond of speaking about the benefits of a Montessori education.
He often starts his presentations with the question: "So, just how can we build better brains?" His answer: through repetition, security, and hands-on, multi-sensory, self-guided learning. In short, the very same principles on which Montessori education is based.
As he explains, there is a model of the way the brain is organized and how it works that he refers to as the nuggets and networks system. Areas of the brain do not function in isolation; they communicate with other areas through networks of active fibers. Brains need healthy nuggets and healthy networks in order to function. Nuggets can be defined as small, circumscribed areas of the brain that perform a specialized function. A good example of a specialized function is reading. Reading is a cognitive function that requires the coordinated use of more than one nugget. Reading does not happen in one spot in the brain; it’s the coordination of multiple spots that cover things like letter and word recognition, phonological processing, and language comprehension. Maria Montessori knew about these nuggets. The Montessori reading curriculum is astonishingly dead-on in helping developing brains condense the nuggets that perform these certain functions.
Networks are the fibers underlying the surface of your brain, or your cortex. When you are confronted with a novel task, your brain needs help. Your brain then calls on all quarters to solve the problem. A healthy and well-developed network system helps bring all hands, or all neurons, on deck. There is a lot of general processing happening everywhere in a novel problem-solving brain.
In a Montessori classroom, children learn how to grip an object using the Bailey’s two-point pencil grasp through doing cylinder work: the little handles attached to the cylinders require that sort of handling. When the child then moves on to writing, they know how to hold a pencil as a result of all the time they spent handling the cylinders. This is an example of how the networks in your brain function. The novel task of holding a pencil is supported by previous activities.
Dr. Hughes points out that there are some things we know of that can help brains develop healthy and strong nuggets and networks. Repetition helps build better brains. And as every Montessori teacher, parent and child will tell you -- repetition is a big part of the Montessori environment! Take, for example, the pink tower. The child’s motor system is developing so that he or she can hold the top pieces of the tower high and still enough to place them on top of each other. Achieving this level of control takes practice – lots of practice.
Another thing that helps build better brains is multi-sensory, hands-on learning. Dr. Hughes talks about research at different grade levels in several countries confirm that educational achievement increases when manipulatives are used in the classroom. Educators have found that students make significant gains in these areas:
- Verbalizing thinking
- Discussing concepts and ideas
- Relating real-world situations to educational symbolism
- Working collaboratively with teachers and their peers
- Thinking divergently to find a variety of ways to solve problems
- Expressing problems and solutions in a variety of ways
- Making classroom presentations
- Taking ownership of their learning experiences
- Gaining confidence in their abilities to find solutions and answers on their own.
All of the materials in the Montessori classroom have been specifically designed to attract the interest of the student, while at the same time teaching an important concept. The purpose of each material is to isolate a certain concept the child is bound to discover. Montessori believed that “what the hand does, the mind remembers.” Concrete materials make concepts real, and therefore easily internalized.
A final important point that Dr. Hughes points out is that a person’s executive functions – the brain skills that allow us to plan, make decisions, trouble-shoot, overcome strong habitual responses and resist temptations – develop through self-guided learning, self-structured play experiences and self-regulated language. Montessori education is a brain-based, developmental method that allows children to make creative choices in discovering people, places, and knowledge of the world. It is hands-on learning, self-expression, and collaborative play in a beautifully crafted environment of respect, peace, and joy. In short, Montessori is all about building a better brain!