Standing on the shoulders of giants

2 May

Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and teacher, started her first preschool in the early 1920’s. She was the first person to make the furniture and learning environment child friendly. She was also the first person to say that children learn through playing with each other. One of the things that Maria Montessori did was to observe children in their play without interfering in their play.

Jean Piaget was a Swiss developmental psychologist that became interested in how children learn by observing his own children.  He was the first one to say that children learn in a completely different way from adults. His advice to teachers was to create an environment where young children can play and where the role of the teacher was to observe and not to interfere.

This is exactly what modern brain researchers and learning specialists say. The only difference is that Montessori and Piaget’s position was based on thorough observation and modern researchers like Alison Gopnik, Stuart Brown and Sugata Mitra base their position on irrefutable evidence of brain research.

The question we must ask is then why do people in light of almost 100 years of evidence still insist that playing is a waste of time and worksheets are a valid way to introduce children to the rigors of primary school?

One of the things we know from brain research and from evidence in schools, is that the lack of vigorous, physical play has precipitated an avalanche of learning difficulties. A more hidden result is that a lack of play leads to a diminishing ability to think symbolically. That in turn influences creative thinking and the ability to read, write and do well in Math. Stress and the effect of stress on learning have been researched very thoroughly in recent times. When learners are subjected to situations where they experience stress, or when teachers (and parents) use stress to “motivate” learners to do better, the stress level increases so much that no learning can take place.

Why do teachers and parents persist in ignoring research? Maybe it is because education is so caught up in a conservative mode of thinking, or alternatively that teachers and parents do not read and take notice of the abundance of evidence. 

In our preschool and primary school we apply the results of brain development research. We have reached the stage where we label our program a brain-based learning programme. The results are spectacular. The best reward for us as teachers is that our learners are really hooked on school!

I often wonder what Dr Montessori and Piaget would say if I could meet them over a cup of coffee?

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