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6 colorful Montessori pencil holders in foreground of blurred classroom (opinion)
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I have a chronic autoimmune illness, an invisible disability, and my institution took its responsibility to the Americans With Disabilities Act seriously, so my COVID-related online teaching time was longer than that of most of my colleagues—I taught online from spring 2020 to spring 2022.

Throughout that period, I had the opportunity to work on how I could best teach using the given tools and situations at hand rather than try to replicate what I had been doing in the classroom before. What came to me was the Montessori theory of “preparing the environment”: a theory based on availability of choice that aims to ready the student for independent living and that relies on freedom, structure and order, beauty, nature and reality, social environment, and intellectual environment. We all have our own relationships with those ideas, but Montessori gives us a unified way of thinking about them.

It’s easy to think of Montessori as a generally play-based preschool, but using Montessori philosophies and tactics in both in-person and virtual college classrooms can help instructors offer what college students say they want while diminishing some of their own common frustrations, like misalignments between their expectations and student abilities. For example, by encouraging students to create their own plans and experience natural consequences—without tongue-clicking and the attachment of failing grades and with the emotional and intellectual support that demonstrates a person’s value as distinct from their class work—we as instructors can help to create the interpersonal and institutional safety necessary for them to take intellectual risks.

Six Tenets

I have found that applying six Montessori tenets in first my digital and now my in-person classes has allowed me to provide students with a sense of both caretaking (clearly laid-out expectations, consistent locations) and challenge (responsibility for making many of their own choices). In this piece, I’ll describe each of those tenets in hopes of helping you increase student buy-in and engagement, as well as their independence as scholars, in your own classes.

  1. Freedom. After having had their power restricted when they are younger students, it takes some trial and error for many undergraduates to get used to making their own choices. In the transition to college portion of my first-year seminar, we focus on ways that young adults are figuring out their friendship styles, the atmosphere and methodologies that best support their studying, the ways they themselves can balance social life with family and work responsibilities, how to get up in the morning, what time of day is best for them to use their minds or bodies, how to set boundaries and hold them, on and on. The college classroom is just one part of the journey of freedom.

However, freedom can inspire anxiety in many undergraduates who have spent their lives trying to do the “right” thing in previous educational environments. I’m typically met by disbelief when I speak about free and self-directed learning. “But why would anyone do anything without tests or grades?” is the most common response. When our students feel nervous with assignments that can encourage creativity and freedom, often worrying that they’re going to do something wrong, we must recognize that is often the effect of their natural curiosity having been trampled.

To reintroduce young adults to intellectual freedom inside an educational system, we must create a system in which they both are and feel safe enough to risk freedom. While as instructors we cannot guarantee safety, explicitly acknowledging and demonstrating its importance—along with taking steps toward creating the amount of safety that is within our control—can make intellectual and personal freedom feel more possible.

What might freedom look like in the digital or in-person classroom? In the Montessori method in elementary education, a caregiver might supply a child with a child-height clothing rack containing several different weather-appropriate clothing items. The child then has the freedom to dress themself, making choices on their own that will not later be modified or policed but that the caregiver also knows will not lead them into a situation laden with frostbite.

In a college environment that values freedom, a student might have the choice of which assignments to complete as long as they finish an appropriate number from each category, or they might have the choice of when in the semester to set a particular deadline. They might have the ability to pick their own topics or to complete assignments in various forms, such as podcasts or video essays rather than group presentations or papers. This scaffolded approach to freedom tends to avoid the fear-based paralysis that can come from assignments that sound like “Do whatever you want!” yet seem underpinned with unspoken expectations.

  1. Structure and order. Freedom paired with a structured and ordered system creates the sense of safety that students need and helps us remember that previous experiences affect a person’s actions and decisions in the present. Modeling and transparency can also help. Modeling may take its inspiration from the Montessori acronym SHOW: slow hands, omit words. In elementary school, modeling in a concrete fashion might mean silently letting a child watch you slowly pour sugar into a measuring cup and then pour the contents of that measuring cup into a bowl … and then allowing the child to do the same.

For young adult college students, it might mean carefully, step by step, allowing them to create their own classroom materials. For instance, I might invite the class participants to build the course calendar and syllabus along with me, thereby combining freedom and structure and order. I can explain what I’d like them to get and they can explain how they’d like to get there. We also use live materials, meaning that we can update them based on class need and also interact with them. Both other students in the course and I can respond to questions on a main document as comments, leaving a modeled track of problem-solving.

  1. Beauty and simplicity. When we have new technical tools at our disposal, we can go overboard. The digital environment should never be cluttered, however, and it should be unified in the ways that it presents all readings, assignments and so forth in the same place. The haphazard dropping of files rather than the creation of chronological modules might be easier for us in the moment, but it creates more difficulties for our students. Faculty members can experience culture shock and avoidance when messages are sent in Teams, Canvas, email, Slack and Discord all at the same workplace, and students can confront similar challenges when we don’t use the campus LMS.
  2. Nature and reality. We can include the images and sounds that students recognize and understand if we study our students’ realities. When working with young children, an environment based in reality means using child-size dishes of real glass or small appliances that in fact heat food. Similarly, we should be creating college assignments, discussions, visuals, groups and projects that reflect students’ reality. We should engage in the worlds that they bring with them to the classroom, not just in the bubble of academe. We might use memes in our syllabuses. We might embrace podcasting or create a course publication that resembles an online periodical in which each member of the class becomes a pundit, an op-ed writer, an editor, a creative writer, a reporter, a comedian. In an Anatomy and Physiology class, a student might be clearly given work that they will use in a career as a physical therapist.
  3. Social environment. Montessori K-12 classrooms are multiage, and the students call their teachers by their first names to help clarify that all members of the group are respected and have things to teach and learn from each other. In college, boundaries of power must be clear: only one person in the room will input a letter at the end of the semester, even if that letter is one that a student chooses themself. Even so, as instructors we can encourage a sense of community. We can take extra care not to exacerbate any pre-existing fault lines along differences of race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, dis/ability and so on.

By showing interest in students’ lives through questions and reflective listening, by encouraging students to request things from us and then granting those requests, we can create a system in which adults grow to know and trust each other as people. Establishing certain rules of social environment, like no cross talk, or how to stop and address the situation if a microaggression occurs, can also be done collaboratively.

  1. Intellectual environment. Finally, we arrive at intellectual environment, which involves the whole personality. This is where many of us as instructors begin, but there’s something to be said about ending here instead, having first prioritized the individual and their experiences in “practical” life, cultural subjects and all the senses while we engage in subject-based learning. Regardless of the topic or department, we have the opportunity to encourage students to carry out real-life experiments; interviews; art in visual, sonic and physical forms; writing and personal writing; discovery of both qualitative and quantitative data; and the honoring of each other’s lives.

Our diction and our curation of space should be cross-curricular and cross-cultural. When we ask young adults to bring their own knowledge to teach us all and to search for applicable knowledge or ideas from their personal lives as well as from the other classes and interactions, we can also encourage play. The importance of play-based education does not disappear once a person is 10, 16 or 36 years old. Regardless of age, an ideal way to learn is through immersive, free joy in a space that was built for you but is in no way an escape from the reality of our world.

Keeping the Best

As I’ve returned to the physical classroom this year, I’ve kept many of the approaches that I began using online, including days of the week set aside for small group work or optional Zoom Fridays, live and communally sourced documentation for courses, a rotating position of class note taker and assignments that ask students to go into themselves and their worlds rather than only into books and papers. My assignments have grown in scope and I’ve learned more about scheduling in the past three years of full-time teaching than I did in the first 14.

I’ve long been interested in the differences between our test-and-funding-based K-12 schooling system and “alternative” methods such as Montessori. It has not been possible for every student to grow up in a system that values independence, auto-education and individualized education, but it might still be possible for us at the college level to offer that opportunity. We face our own barriers in class size, funding, overwork and the rest. But we can always find a way to reintroduce play and respect for everyone and to prepare our spaces for the actual students we have in our classes—not for some imagined others. And we can start now.

Jaime Warburton is an actor, writer and assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College, with interests in poetry, literary/cultural theory and fan studies.

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