Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Montessori Curriculum and Brain Development

A lot of parents ask if we can provide them with a Montessori teaching curriculum album that concentrates solely on math or reading because they view the rest of the Montessori curriculum such as music, art, and sensorial work as extraneous to "real" learning.

But what is real learning? Montessori education focuses on overall brain development as key to the whole spectrum of learning, ranging from social skills and gross motor function to reading and math. So, we encourage everyone who buys our Montessori teaching albums to fully engage and use all sections of the albums from the practical life and sensorial work to the math, science, and reading lessons.

If you are looking for a quick discussion of the concept of brain development in different spheres of learning, here is an excellent video clip from a middle school that discusses some basic principals in use:

Brain development and Montessori has been well-discussed in Lori Bourne's article, The Neurology of Montessori:
"It is amazing to me that Dr. Montessori was able to develop her materials without the benefits of today’s technology. She could not view a child’s brain to see which areas lit up when they were using the Cylinder Blocks, and yet through observation she knew that a child’s fine motor skills, shape and size discrimination, and hand/eye coordination were being strengthened through this work."

One of the more interesting discussions her article brings up is the work by Dr. Steven Hughes, PhD, L.P. Dr. Hughes is a pediatric neuropsychologist and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and a diplomate of the American Board of Pediatric Neuropsychology.

Countryside Montessori School in Illinois has posted a very useful presentation by Dr. Hughes for AMI-USA News that is well-worth reading in its entirety. Some useful excerpts for Montessorians are included here:
"Why do young children, who are still developing the ability to understand language, spend so much time sitting and listening to teachers at a conventional school? Wouldn't it be nice to design an educational model around hands-on activity, physical manipulation, and engagement in the world? Maria Montessori did just that.

There is a model of the way the brain is organized and how it works which I refer to as the nuggets and networks system. Areas of the brain do not function in isolation, they communicate with other areas through networks of active fibers. Brains need healthy nuggets and healthy networks in order to function.

Nuggets can be defined as small, circumscribed areas of the brain that perform a specialized function is reading. Reading is a cognitive function that requires the coordinated use of more than one nugget. Reading does not happen in one spot in the brain; it's the coordination of multiple spots that cover things like letter and word recognition, phonological processing, and language comprehension. Somehow, Maria Montessori knew about these nuggets. The Montessori reading curriculum is astonishingly dead-on in helping developing brains condense the nuggets that perform these certain functions."

In an article, The Science of Education, Informing Teaching and Learning through the Brain Sciences, Johns Hopkins educators Mariale Hardiman, Ed.D., and Martha Bridge Denckla, M.D discuss this complex and vital linkage between brain development and learning:
"...the next generation of educators will need to broaden their approach—focusing not just on teaching math, for example, but also on how math reasoning develops in the brain. Meanwhile, scientists should take the needs and concerns of educators into account as they continue to investigate how we learn. Such crosstalk is already occurring in collaborative efforts focusing on learning, arts and the brain.

Research shows that learning changes the brain. The brain is “plastic”—it makes new cellular connections and strengthens existing ones as we gain and integrate information and skills. In the past decade, the enormous growth in understanding brain plasticity has created an entirely new way to consider how learning and achievement take place in the education of children.

Whether or not a teacher understands fundamental concepts derived from basic brain science, such as plasticity, can have a profound effect on how he or she views the learner. Many classroom teachers today, for example, were trained at a time when scientists thought the brain was fixed at birth and changeable only in one direction: degeneration due to aging, injury or disease. Such a misunderstanding of brain anatomy and physiology would limit a teacher’s view of the learning capacity of children, especially those who enter the classroom lagging behind their peers. For example, a teacher may think that a fifth-grader who has failed to master basic mathematics skills will always struggle with math because of limited cognitive capacities.

Contrast this view with contemporary knowledge that the brain constantly changes with experience, makes new brain cell connections (synapses), strengthens connections through repeated use and practice, and even produces new cells in certain regions. Imagine how differently a teacher armed with this information would view students’ capacity for learning. Knowing that experiences change the brain might encourage this teacher to design targeted remedial lessons. Engaging the student in multiple, creative math-oriented tasks might do more than increase achievement scores: It might actually change brain circuitry."

For all of you teaching at home or in schools, we highly recommend reading the rest of this article.

No comments: