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Constructivist and Montessorian perspectives on student autonomy and freedomEva Dobozy
University of Notre Dame
In this paper, I discuss some of the findings of a study of contemporary, mainly Western Australian Montessori schools. I also explore some arguments presented on the general issue of knowledge acquisition, particularly why many educational theorists in recent years have parted with the technical model of instruction, which is understood as mere transmission or dissemination of information and knowledge, to a more active form of teaching and learning, commonly referred to as constructivism. The commonality that this (new) theory of education shares with the Montessorian philosophy of child freedom is the main focus of this paper. Montessori teachers' perceptions of concepts such as self esteem, control, empowerment and intrinsic motivation will be extensively discussed. Participating Montessori teachers understand problems associated with performance, motivation and behaviour not as problems of underdevelopment or underpreparedness in children but rather as being related to underdeveloped learning environments. They believe that student agency, cooperative learning environments and a healthy classroom culture can promote self esteem and intrinsic motivation. I conclude this paper by asking what student autonomy and freedom might mean for further research and I am encouraging other researchers to articulate more clearly the importance of issues such as power, control, classroom culture and environment as essential aspects of policy making.
I will locate commonalities rather than differences between constructivism and the Montessorian school of thought. However, when Montessori teachers talk about the importance of student autonomy and freedom or a child centered learning approach, they often talk about the importance of recognising the students' innate powers or nature. Although treating "human nature", innate capacities, needs, tendencies and traits as universal goods has become problematic, at least from postmodern perspectives (see Lerman, 1996), I will abstain from engaging in this line of critique and instead concentrate on the various concepts which are present in both approaches to teaching and learning. Further, it is outside the scope of this paper to analyse certain shortcomings of Montessori's modernist concept, such as the failure to contextualise knowledge by considering and accounting for such determining factors as personal background and culture. In other words, one major difference between constructivist and Montessorian perspectives is that the majority of constructivists hold that human traits are dependent on (amongst other things) one's personal background and culture. Montessori ignores these factors completely.
Montessori schools in Western Australia are private and independent schools, which play an important part in the maintenance of educational diversity. People who are looking for alternatives to the traditional technical rational model of teaching and learning have been attracted to progressive educational systems such as Montessori. The recent shift in the theory of knowledge in the field of education has made the potential benefits of investigating alternative educational practices such as Montessori schools even more relevant. It will be demonstrated that constructivism and Montessori's philosophy of child freedom have many commonalities. Child centered learning, student empowerment and peer collaboration are some of the themes which go under the umbrella of constructivist teaching and learning strategies. Constructivism has captured increased interest and coverage by educational scholars. Constructivist perspectives have important implications for contemporary teaching and learning. Much of past education has been directed toward the simple transmission of knowledge. It was believed that the major aim of education is to instill an accepted body of predetermined knowledge and skills, divided into digestible small parts and chronologically ordered. By contrast, constructivism holds that the aim of education should include the development of problem solving and higher order thinking skills which are essential tools in later life and form an important part of the student's "knowledge construct". To put it differently, both the Montessorian school of thought and constructivism believe that formal education should also contribute to the personal and social development of students, rather than solely focusing on the intellectual development, important though this may be.
Although it may be assumed that constructivism has a single well understood meaning, it is not an easy term to locate. Constructivism comes in varying shades and with various meanings. According to Geoffrey Scheuermann (1998), there are as many as twelve different categorisations, which include radical constructivism, social constructivism, psychological constructivism, causal constructivism and conceptual constructivism. It is outside the scope of this paper to provide a detailed analysis of all the varying forms of constructivism. However, it will provide a frame of reference for the debate about two related forms, namely cognitive constructivism and social constructivism and the common denominators linking them with Montessori's philosophy of child freedom.
an act of depositing in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and "makes deposits" which the students patiently receive, memorise, and repeat. This is the "banking" concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the student extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits ... where knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those they consider to know nothing. (Freire, 1970, cited in Kneller, 1984, p . 54)The distinguishing characteristic of direct instruction is the active and directive role assumed by the teacher, and the passive and receptive role by students. Palincsar (1998) uses a different analogy than Freire (1970), for him, "learning functions like a switchboard, occurring when one person transmits the universal characteristics of reality to another". The teacher is the person with power and is not only in control of the content of the lesson, its pace and sequence, but also is in control of the student's behaviour and movement. For example, in many mainstream Western Australian classrooms, students must get the teacher's permission to leave their seats whether to get a piece of paper, to sharpen their pencils or even to visit the toilets.
According to the leading behaviourist, B.F. Skinner, student's behaviour is a response to a stimulus rather than the expression of a freely chosen intention. For Skinner, knowledge is acquired when the bond between stimulus and "operant response" is strengthened by means of positive reinforcement. He distinguishes between "operant responses" which are active acts and made for the sake of reward, and "involuntary responses" such as salivation (Kneller, 1984, p. 146). The teacher's primary function is to break information and skills into small segments, presenting them part to whole in an organised, logical fashion. The teacher then rewards students who mirror the reality presented to them with the help of worksheets and/or texts with either stars or points (for younger students) or appropriate grades or marks (for older students).
Thomas Lord (1998) exemplifies this role in a description of a situation where a student of his had missed a few of his science lectures. The student went up to him and asked for the relevant page numbers in the course materials so that she could work through them and not get a bad grade because of her absence from the lectures. Lord explains:
I asked her if she wanted to go over the material, but she didn't think she needed to because the textbook was full of charts, pictures and clear descriptions of the content I presented in class. She was sure she could get the information she needed from the book. (Lord, 1998)Lord argues that he was genuinely surprised at the student's reaction and conviction that she did not need the teacher because she had the textbook. He ponders over the actual role of the teacher in the process of learning. Lord (1998) asks: "Don't I play a larger role in a student's learning than disseminating information that can just as easily be gotten from the textbook?" (Lord, 1998). Lord does not agree with the view that the teacher's primary function is that of dissemination and transmission of knowledge and information. He thinks that the teacher is more than "just an extension of the textbook", that the teacher's role is more complex and involved. Teachers should, according to Lord, encourage their students to think beyond the description in the textbooks or worksheets, so that they are able to use the acquired knowledge in different and novel contexts (Lord, 1998).
Lord's questioning of his role in the teaching and learning process fits with the constructivist perspective which has redefined the very nature of teaching and learning. Teachers and students today are often called upon to abandon traditional views of "the objective reality", "truth" and "knowledge", and instead they are urged to view "reality", "truth" and "knowledge" as social constructs products of our practices which are relative to an individual's interpretation.
It is this notion of the social construction of knowledge and the teacher's role which has not only led many scholars to question positivist paradigms but has also paved the way for the dramatic conceptual shift in the past few decades. Skinner's behaviourist theory rejects student's understanding and knowledge base completely. The student is seen as an "empty vessel" which needs to be filled with an accepted and predetermined body of information. The teacher teaches and the students are taught; the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing; the teacher thinks and the students are thought about (Freire, 1970; Scheuermann, 1998). By contrast, both constructivists and Montessorians argue that teachers should help students become aware of their prior knowledge and concepts, and build on them.
Constructivism does not assume the presence of an outside objective reality that is revealed to, and then appropriated by the students, but rather posits that students actively construct their own reality, transforming it and themselves in the process. As El Hindi (1998) puts it: "Constructivism assumes that knowledge is "built" by individuals from within instead of being transmitted into the learner from another source without".
The conceptual relationship between the two forms of constructivism, cognitive constructivism and social constructivism, is so close that many scholars choose not to split them and instead discuss them together (Scheuermann, 1998; Manus, 1996). In this paper, I choose to treat them separately, and use Piaget and Vygotsky to hint at some of the similarities and differences of these approaches.
The learning process becomes a forum for experiencing and negotiating different cultural perspectives, differing understandings and cognitive levels concerning the shared phenomenon (Scheuermann, 1998; Manus, 1996). Palincsar (1998) extends this view by calling attention to "the strategic activity of experts", which means that students should be encouraged to cooperate, associate and collaborate, thereby making their private problem solving skills public and accessible to those with less expertise. How this theory can operate successfully in practice is exemplified by the following reports of the 24 Montessori teachers.
|No of schools||No of teachers|
|Perth Montessori Schools||6||21|
|International Montessori Schools
(America, Bali and Sri Lanka)
|Judy:||I think really that it's the fact that so little teaching is actually done, that it's the learning that is the focus of the Montessori classroom. The students are exposed to information or ideas or concepts and through their work and interaction in the classroom they're doing the learning. So you can see the learning process. For me it's quite wonderful.|
|Helen:||I really believe that we are all different and no two people are on earth for the same purpose. So I think, school should allow for that variety and encourage it but we all are let's say plants and we all need water and we all need sun and we all need nutrients. There is commonality up to a point but beyond that there is divergence. It's like a bouquet of flowers. Each individual is a different type of blossom and you just wouldn't want to wish them to be the same and you have to allow for that diversity of expression and hold them together.|
Implicit in the horticultural analogy is that the Montessori teacher's role in education is not a directive one but a facilitating role where the teacher is the person who organises the environment.
Teachers were very quick to point out that Montessori's notion of child freedom does not mean licence to do whatever the students like. According to these teachers, Montessori does not advocate a laissez faire theory of education. Rather, independent thinking and informed decision making in children is encouraged from very early on, starting at the age of three. This is achieved, so the participating Montessori teachers reported, primarily through the freedom of choice of activity, freedom of movement and freedom of interaction and association within certain boundaries.
|Nick||While there is individual freedom within the community, individual
freedom is curtailed by the sense of community responsibility. Students
are allowed to wander around freely talking to each other as long as they
do not distract each other. This is social responsibility and community
responsibility, being aware of their responsibility to the community entails
being aware, for example, of letting other people have the right to be
quiet if they want to. Their responsibility is to let that happen. It enables
children to be free enough also to develop an awareness of other people's
needs and the responsibility of other people as well as to be responsive
It is interesting to see people coming to Montessori at a later stage. They find it very difficult to get used to that freedom that they are given. They expect just to sit at the table and they expect to ask when they have to go to the toilet: "Can I go to the toilet?". They expect work to be brought to them. They just sit down and expect to be given work. This is the most difficult thing, it's the most difficult part of adjusting to the Montessori environment to realise that they have the responsibility for themselves. And what then happens is that a lot of children will suddenly become aware that they have this freedom and then they misinterpret it and they forget that this freedom is associated with responsibility, that they are a member of the community. So that is the second lesson that they have to find out. But usually the other members of the community very soon pull them back into line.
A precondition for any successful community life is the realisation of one's own responsibility and respect for others. According to these Montessori teachers, the class orders itself. Conflict and disagreement are to be expected in any democratic community and should be resolved in the ordinary course of events. And this needs practice, as much as, if not more than, the ability to read and write. In upper primary or secondary years the children mostly work out their own differences as the need arises, the teacher is not so much the judge as a mentor. Movement and social talk are evidence that the students are acting responsively within the limits of their freedom and so they are working in a freer and more complex order than is usually found in mainstream classrooms in Western Australia.
Two teachers of lower primary classes comment about the importance of self esteem in these early years in the following words.
|Monica:||When you just let them develop and don't put too much pressure on them, it's amazing what they can do. Their individual talents come out and that's really a beautiful thing because then they retain their confidence. Montessori puts such a strong emphasis on children retaining their confidence and that's really, really important. Children can't learn, she says, unless they're confident.|
|Lisa:||The fact that the classroom is geared for so many different levels so that the kids can slot in at the level they're at. I think their self esteem is better because they don't suffer from trying to compete and trying to always attain when they're perhaps not ready to do so. They can also work with someone who is perhaps working at a more advanced level and they can at least experience what that person is doing even though they themselves may not be ready for it and would not be able to do it by themselves, they can still be part of it.|
This is what some of the participating Montessori teachers had to say about control and empowerment:
|Monica:||We acknowledge that we can't control the child, we must control the environment.|
|Nick:||By giving the children the freedom to manipulate their environment, you give them control over their environment and you give them control over themselves and that in itself is an empowering process.|
|Laura:||They can contract their own learning. They come and say: "I want to find out more about fish, can I do a project on fish?" The children can go and find out more about this and that and you don't stop them and say: "Sorry, we've finished fish yesterday and we're on this today". They can do that, their learning is open ended and they can keep going with that and the depth of the work that they are involved in is just wonderful.|
Empowerment depends on personal choice, since students who simply do what they are told do not know what else they may be capable of. The students in the Montessori schools investigated choose what they will do to a large extent, individually or collaboratively, and the teacher follows their lead. In such an environment, the teacher is not an "authority", but another person, older and more experienced than the students. These teachers have come to realise that unplanned and spontaneous questions and issues are the ones that capture the students' interest most. They trust their intuition and are not hesitant to abandon plans that had consumed time and energy. As Lisa puts it: "What is so special is the flexibility. Each day is different, I set out to get through a certain program but it doesn't matter if I don't get through it, there is always tomorrow and the day after and next week".
|Judy:||In the Montessori classroom the power, the control is handed to the children and it becomes part of their internal personality and their self discipline assists them. You can just leave them and they will go on with their work whether you're sitting beside them or not.|
|Caroline:||It has given me a tremendous amount of trust in children and in their innate ability to find what they need to become self directed learners. To become independent and responsible people who can learn how to be kind and generous with other people and still take care of their needs.|
|Helen:||We don't have much grading or usually we don't emphasise incorrect answers. If a child can't do something it indicates where the child's at developmentally ... . You are amongst contented, very motivated people and you feel that you are really forging a positive influence on the future and I have to say it has been very gratifying to have children come back from the early days saying how much their education means to them.|
|Natalie:||The children come to school and they know exactly what to do. They're confident and they're independent and they sit at the table and get organised.|
It appears that Montessori educational practices succeed in letting the student's innate curiosity be the driving force of student's knowledge production, expansion and transformation with little adult intervention. The investigated Montessori teachers encourage the students to inquire, solve problems and test things for themselves, to be active and responsible choosers. These teachers believe that learning by doing, without the fear of failing, makes them happy learners. They also believe that extrinsic motivational measures such as grading, competing an d awarding stars or diplomas hinder personal development and stultify students' natural curiosity. Grades and awards rate children against uniform external standards, and so fail to respect their individuality.
The Montessori approach to teaching and learning should not be overlooked, as it provides, through a long history worldwide, many practical ideas on how the new role of teachers and students in constructivist classrooms might look. Creating classroom environments that promote student autonomy and responsibility and peer interaction and collaboration are key components in both approaches.
Peter Airasian (1997) cautions teachers not to fail to recognise that constructivism is "an epistemology of learning" and not "a well thought out and manageable instructional approach". What he means is that there is no "cook book version" of how to do constructivism. Instead there are suggestions for methods and strategies that are more likely than others to foster the desired traits in students such as knowledge construction, intrinsic motivation, independent learning and responsibility. His message to teachers and students is:
Teachers will have to guide, not tell; to create environments in which students can make their own meanings, not be handed them by the teachers ... not stick to rigid standards and criteria; to create a safe, free, responsive environment that encourages disclosure of student construction, not a closed, judged system.But most importantly:
Students will also have to learn new ways to perform. They have to learn to think for themselves, not wait for the teacher to tell [them] what to think; to proceed with less focus and direction from the teacher, not wait for explicit teacher direction; to express their own ideas clearly in their own words, not to answer restricted response questions; to revisit and revise constructions, not to move immediately on to the next concept or idea.
Teachers will have to become accustomed to working with quite different and more general goals ... much of the responsibility for learning will be turned over to the students through "hands on" experiences and activities designed to spur their construction of meaning. (Airasian, 1997)Constructivism is not a "quick fix" solution and educational practitioners should not primarily concern themselves with questions of how to empower students, how to motivate students and how to make them collaborate. Instead, educators are encouraged to review their practices, reflect on the relationship between their personal beliefs and values and the choices they make in regard to the power/knowledge nexus. Teachers need to let the children work collaboratively, foster intrinsic motivation, self discipline and responsibility in their students. This cannot be achieved simply through learned and applied techniques, but rather, teachers need to view students as knowledgeable and trust them to take control over their learning. In this way, the students will have to take responsibility for their own learning and teachers will have to develop a personal praxis which is more flexible and responsive to a diversity of students' needs and teaching demands. Caroline, a research participant with over 15 years practice in Montessori schools sums it up as follows:
The challenge always remains for me as a teacher: how can I get to know a child, how diligently do I have to observe each child ... because I am not the one who teaches the children. I facilitate it and I make the connection. It's the children who have to teach themselves. So my role as a teacher is a fascinating one and it's one I never say I know because I am a different teacher now than I was last year or 5 years or 10 years ago, because I learn more about the materials and I learn more about the children and hopefully I can do it better.Despite the persuasiveness of constructivist theory development and the themes emerging across many educational research projects and articles, the application of these theories in mainstream classrooms is neither widespread nor systemic (Manus, 1996). I believe that mainstream schools could benefit by experimenting with educational methods that cater for greater individualisation. This could be extended to the idea of even adopting some Montessorian teaching and learning practices which seem to be in harmony with constructivist ideas. At the same time, Montessori schools could also greatly benefit by looking at other educational theories, such as, for example, constructivism and integrating ideas and principles which may be underdeveloped.
The granting of knowledge and power to students may still be seen as very irritating to many teachers with traditional training and indoctrination. Both constructivist and Montessorian perspectives hold that it is in these free and cooperative learning environments that the personhood of the teachers and learners can be developed and enriched. However, teachers might never actually be able to escape the power position so that there is always a residue of authority, whether they want it or not. It is hoped that the awareness of power may affect the way teachers perform their role as teachers. Some teachers may begin to ask questions about how they come to perceive students as either "empty vessels" or "knowledgeable". Constructivism might help teachers understand that there are different sets of assumptions, implications and consequences that need attention when reflecting on their teaching practices.
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|Please cite as: Dobozy, E. (1999). Constructivist and Montessorian perspectives on student autonomy and freedom. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/dobozy.html|