There is a question that has been bugging me, and I’ve been searching for the solution for years. It’s one of those trick questions where the answer is so simple that it’s the proverbial snake that would’ve bit me had I been looking at it the right way. The question however, is monumental: “What are the components of effective education?” and “What can I do to nurture this success in the classroom?”
My work history reflects my search for answers to these questions starting my journey first as a Montessori assistant, then a certified Montessori teacher, Curriculum Supervisor, Program Director, Director of Education, Field Consultant for a training program and finally, a Montessori Teacher Trainer. My research into optimal learning environments has delved into neuroscience, mindfulness training, collaborative learning models, the science behind motivation, and more. Each step unfolded a new, compelling, and worthy insight that I would endeavor to incorporate into my teaching methodology whether it be with 3-6 year olds, teaching interns, or the 4th through 6th graders I spent the last four years guiding in their learning.
Despite enriching the classroom and my students, I questioned why Finland and Norway consistently rank at the top of the world in student effectiveness? Why was it that in the United States some children flourished in some classrooms but not others at the same school? Why is it that despite the variety of learners, some teaching styles seemed to make progress with everyone while in other classrooms there were students who fell through the cracks?
What is the key to a broader range of success?
Intrigued by classrooms that are high functioning and others that struggle, I collaborated with my favorite colleague and trained school leader Juliana Fitts to investigate how we might make a difference. Our response to the problem was in the form of focusing on the entry-level support people that are essential to a smooth running Montessori classroom. We spent a year researching what exemplary adult learning courses looked like and then created a 20 hour face-to-face assistants course that we ran through our local Montessori training program. Twice a year for seven years, we taught groups of assistants how to be more effective in their positions supporting children; we improved the course each time we taught it with new-found, cutting-edge research and understanding.
We had a great run. We had high accolades and a steady clientele. Word spread that the learning was fun and applicable. Our leisure time together was filled with passionate dialogue about what we’d researched about optimal education. These discussions were penetrating yet inconclusive and always left me a bit overwhelmed by that overarching question of what is the key to student achievement?
And then I heard a podcast interview with John Hattie, Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne and the Chair of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership … and that was when the snake bit me.
John Hattie lead a comprehensive research project studying student achievement by analyzing longitudinal studies from around the world from the past 50 years. His inspiration was that previous researchers would measure one or two aspects that influenced student effectiveness, such as curricula or the home environment, but no one had taken all the data that had been collected and studied it as a whole. I find the correlations he discovered both discouraging and hopeful.
Professor Hattie found the number one factor affecting student achievement is the teacher. Not the school. Not testing. Not how many children are in the class. Not school leadership. Not the socio-economic level of the neighborhood. Certainly not the number of instructional hours the children are in school. Not even the content itself. But the teacher. And not just the teacher, but teachers collectively. Specifically, how the teachers teach.
Of course. It seemed so obvious once the snake bit me.
The classrooms I’d observed that had the highest student achievement were the environments where the teacher employed a self-evaluation of his or her teaching methods. Where there was a refining of the lesson or a reflection as to whether the students were pressed to stretch themselves, student outcomes soared. This explained why once-effective teachers displaying burn out had the lowest student engagement, despite their “tried and true” routines.
Who is the successful teacher? It is the teacher whose outlook and interactions with their students foster a love of learning whether it is a subject the student likes or finds easy, or not. It is the teacher that guides the child to embrace challenges with hard work and perseverance. It is the teacher that sees the child’s potential and encourages them to stretch further. It is the teacher that visibly shares their passion in ways that hook the child to develop their own passions.
I was compelled to dig deeper into what teaching methods manifest in deeper learning according to Hattie’s analysis, and found the greatest influencers are the teacher’s constant evaluation of their teaching strategies and the transparency of the learning by the student. The greatest impact on student achievement are the teacher’s use of devices such as “micro-teaching” where the lesson is recorded and later reviewed by the teacher to evaluate efficacy, and a self-reported grading system where the student predicts their performance and the teacher stretches them to do more. Notice where there is no mention of testing students as a proper measurement of good teaching.
Were the classrooms I observed that seemed to nurture curiosity, collaboration, self-directed learning, and academic skills led by teachers that are conscious of these components? Could the teachers that didn’t manifest these qualities gain them through training? How does Montessori education fit into this schema?
Professor Hattie identified the second greatest influence on student achievement to be educational programs with teachers that adhere to stages of learning based on Piagetian developmental progression. I’m relieved in knowing that the whole child is nurtured in Montessori learning environments using a framework of developmental stages, and that observation, scaffolded learning, and assessment are inherent in the teaching. I am relieved that the methodology I’ve been learning about for years is yet again backed up by the research; however, my relief is short lived.
One of the greatest attractions of Montessori education is that there is a greater concentration of effective components in the methodology, and yet I know some Montessori classrooms where children still flounder. Maybe looking outside of Montessori and at schools that are consistently successful would uncover why.
The schools in Finland don’t adhere to district or school autonomy, they give the autonomy to the teachers. Focusing on the art of teaching and minimizing the focus on things that don’t matter ought to be the mission of every school. Outcomes depend on it.
Now I know. And now I have a clear mission to nurture these components in classrooms worldwide. What can we do? Support the teachers. Learn more about what Professor Hattie calls “Visible Teaching and Learning”. We’re not on a mission to tell school leaders what to do. That being said, strong school leadership can make a difference by avoiding the bureaucratic tasks that waylay teachers from pursuing the most powerful influence on their students, that of quality teaching. School leaders can foster autonomy giving teachers time to design powerful lessons and evaluative measures to scaffold, or stretch student learning. Support the teachers.
I believe we can be change agents by affecting transformation from within the classrooms by supporting the teachers. In Montessori education there is often an assistant to insure the children are well-supervised aiding the trained teacher to be that dynamic link between the child and environment. I surveyed a random number of teachers on six continents and found out what characteristics they are looking for in an assistant. The results are clear – find them an assistant that embodies the calm, gentle, kind qualities that foster confidence in children, with an open mind eager to learn new things and they will have the ideal assistant, enabling the teachers to focus on implementing the art of teaching.
Most recently, I’ve taken these ideas experiences and am delivering training in a distance learning course for assistants. I’m confident we can make a difference in supporting teachers to bring their passions and knowledge to children by cultivating a strong support system to let them do their life work.
Now that you’ve been bitten by this proverbial snake, what are you going to do?
-Tammy Oesting holds American Montessori Association certification at the 3-6, 6-9 and 9-12 levels and is coFounder with her husband Aaron Oesting of ClassrooMechanics, a professional development company for adults in Montessori environments. Check out their online on-demand assistants training course found at www.classroomechanics.com available starting in July 2016. Check out the BBC podcast at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04dmxwl and learn more about John Hattie at www.visible-learning.org You can reach Tammy at firstname.lastname@example.org .