A frequently asked question by Montessori elementary teachers at the beginning of the year is how to set up an effective expectation for student work performance and how to balance this structured plan with the spontaneity of student-chosen subjects. Maybe this has come about because most adults (including Montessori guides), have acquired a conventional construct for education that dictates what subject matter should be mastered and how much.
Does a Plan Reduce Freedom?
In Montessori, guides work to understand their student and build trust in the child’s innate ability for auto-education. Trusting that every child’s engagement with a richly prepared environment will guide them towards what they need, is part of the transformation of the adult and the child. Restraining the need to intervene is imperative to make way for students ability to follow their passions and learn to manage their own learning.
“We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration. It is like the sun which appears at dawn or a flower just beginning to bloom. Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.” — Maria Montessori Discovery of the Child, p. 52.
And yet we still struggle with an effective balance and incorporate controls on student learning such as the teacher-driven work plan, or all-group lessons (that cannot be customized), or scheduled lessons to insure everyone has enough new content every day. School leaders and guides sometimes kowtow to parental pressures to communicate and implement an exact plan of what their child is learning or to move a child through the curriculum. I am all for partnering with families to create appropriate goals for their child, yet in a Montessori environment where the culture is to trust the child, how we achieve mutually identified goals needs to firmly be in the hands of the Montessori guide. For it is the observant adult that prepares the environment and delivers the curriculum including setting the tone and pace for student learning.
I fell into the conundrum of “To Plan or Not to Plan” as a guide working with students as early as Kindergarten. I remember resisting the school-driven “Work Contract” with Kindergartners primarily from engaged families that although well-intended, requested a weekly, or sometimes even as much as daily, report on what their child worked on that day and what the plan was to “get them reading”.
And then I went to Upper Elementary (9-12) and this topic of how to build in accountability and carve time for student-driven free choice of study became one of my biggest challenges. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential,” and this idea has become my beacon.
It’s the action of reflecting and creating goals, and then imagining a path to achieve those goals that is essential. Having a plan isn’t a contract. It’s more of a path of possibilities that the student drives with guidance from the adult.
Goal Setting Comes Before a Plan
“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Vice versa, a plan without a goal isn’t a plan at all. The first step towards a student-driven plan is to have a clear idea of their goals – what they want to learn about, and to provide a clear plan to achieve their specific goal. As the guide, you also have the scope and sequence from which to build an understanding of the possibilities.
What we know about goal-setting is that it needs to be specific and have a time frame within which to achieve, and it needs to be measurable. For instance, a goal for math stating, “I want to better at math this year,” because that’s too vague and doesn’t give the student (or their guide) the specific arena for improvement. Yet when it’s stated like, “I want to be able to divide a big number by a big number,” the goal can be planned and isn’t just a wish.
The next step is create a path to attain the goal. Do you have a visual sequence for different subject matter? Exposing a visual sequence to the learner increases their meta-cognizance and increases ownership of their steps to mastery.
Knowing where you’re starting is an essential piece of the journey, so having an understanding of what the student has mastered will help set this path. I’m biased against assessments that only determine a student’s memory abstractly and would recommend having your students show you what they know and remember by pulling out our beautiful materials. As they’ll likely be using materials as their first passage in learning new content, this engagement will prime their neurons for similar learning and give you feedback as to where they are.
Is it a Plan if It’s Not Written Down?
When I reflect on my own executive functioning skills and how I manage completing the tasks I create for myself and those that others have for me, I’m excited that the process of planning we’re aiming to achieve with our students truly is preparing them for life.
Although there are tons of online planners and calendars and apps that leverage technology to help me plan my tasks, I’m a fan of the old-fashioned pencil and paper planner. The writing itself helps move thoughts and ideas from my short term working memory into my longer-term, and vice versa, writing down tasks frees up my working memory and reduces my need to hold onto minutiae.
Fortunately, the paper planner is a also real-life tool accessible to our students first learning how to plan. My suggestion is that you find or create a planner that has a weekly calendar alongside several places for lists. I work out of a simple one that has the month, and each week and a couple of handy columns for noting “To Dos”. I also really like the preprinted quotes that top each of the pages in my planner as they give me pause to reflect on new ideas.
Setting Up the Work Week Plan
It’s imperative for our students to have practice planning. In Upper Elementary, I used to follow the school culture of writing down on a whiteboard an entire laundry list of work that was necessary for our students to get through every week. The students would sit down every Monday morning and copy the list into their planners and use it as a checklist to get through. Anything from the list left incomplete would become weekend homework.
I have to admit, this system didn’t work very well. Students exhibited stress about getting work completed which in turn didn’t enhance their acuity or excellence. There was no extra time for student-driven interests except for the speediest of learners which became an equity issue. Families became stressed by the weekend warrior approach to homework. Maybe worse of all, we witnessed students losing their love of learning.
Years later and lots of trial and error and surveying other educators, I now believe a better practice is to commit to the barest number of necessary lessons that are teacher-planned every week in balance with a task list that is goal driven by the student meeting their interests.
One of the best ideas I’ve seen in action is from an Upper Elementary guide that recreated the student planner on a whiteboard using tape. Every week, the guide would schedule all the lessons they planned to give that week, and any class business such as class meetings or events and the students would in turn copy them down on their weekly plan. Additionally, on the “To Do” section of the planner, the guide would list consistent student-driven materials that students were expected such as word study, math fact practice, and writing prompts. Another column was provided for students to track what they accomplished. For some, there was a place to enter the time they began and completed the task. Rather than just tick off what they did, there was a place for the student to record their work and use for feedback or reflection during a one-on-one conference/meeting/chat with the student. The plan for the next week can then be dynamically built off of this work record.
This shift towards interest-based work chosen by the student is a dramatic one for many school cultures, yet one I believe is essential to consider when looking at our greater goal of nurturing executive and life skills and truly trusting the child.
Now that I’ve thrown some thoughts about planning your way, what’s your plan?
-by Tammy Oesting
Tammy Oesting has spent the last 25 years delivering professional development workshops, consulting schools, and educating new Montessori teachers. Her passions include issues of social justice, educating support staff, art education, neuroscience as applied to educational practices, and exploring the magnificence of the world. She is location independent and serves Montessori globally through her company ClassrooMechanics. AMS certified 3-6, 6-12