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personalized learning model
Children play with musical instruments during free time at Redcliffe Children’s Centre, a public nursery school in Bristol, England. Credit: Lillian Mongeau

Personalized learning is all the rage. And for good reason.

Our world is rapidly changing, and students need a broader set of skills to lead the future — adaptability, goal-setting, critical thinking, problem-solving, executive functioning, collaboration.

Many of our schools are stuck in an antiquated “factory model” mindset where everyone does the same thing at the same time in the same way, which is more aligned with preparing adults to follow directions as opposed to innovate and invent.

Howard Fuller says that our job is not to prepare children for the 21st century; our job is to prepare children to “transform” the 21st century. Personalized learning environments can help unleash the power and potential of students to do just that.

Fortunately, a tried-and-trued model of personalized learning has been around for more than 100 years. The Montessori Method was developed by Maria Montessori, Italy’s first female physician, who opened her first school in 1907.

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Despite its long track record, the Montessori Method is actually a fresh and innovative answer to many of the questions being asked in the modern educational sphere.

“The research-based Montessori method can serve as a showcase for what’s possible for our children through personalized learning.”

For instance, many are asking what the role is of the teacher in an environment that empowers children to lead the future. The answer is that the conventional model of school positions the teacher as a “sage on the stage” whose job is to transmit knowledge to students. While there is undoubtedly a lot of specific content that children need to learn, this model sets up the teacher to do most of the thinking and talking, rather than the students. But in a Montessori environment, the role of the teacher is a “guide on the side.” The guide still delivers direct instruction, but it happens one-on-one or in small groups so that the content is more targeted to individual need, and the children are more engaged. In this format, it’s easier for teachers to build meaningful relationships with children, check for understanding, build a growth mindset, and connect lessons to individual students’ interests.

So how do we create a competency-based progression so that all children can make more efficient and effective progress by working at their level? In a conventional school, teachers typically attempt to deliver the same content to everyone in the same way. Children who are advanced end up feeling bored, and children who need more support are left feeling frustrated.

Personalized learning enables students to move at their own pace so that higher-performing students can move ahead without waiting for everyone else to catch up and lower-performing students can get the remediation they need in order to catch up and access grade-level content.

Many personalized learning environments rely on technology to teach each child at their level because creating multiple lessons for different levels is incredibly difficult and time consuming.

In Montessori schools, there is already a comprehensive, scaffolded curriculum using hands-on manipulatives. These hands-on materials encourage deep, open-ended exploration of concepts. Through these materials, children actually teach themselves. Children are able to move through the curriculum at an individual rate and to forge their own unique pathways.

How do we use choice, process-ownership, and progress-ownership to build intrinsic motivation rather than rely on extrinsic praise and punishment? When we use rewards and punishments to shape student behavior and motivation, we undermine the development of the very skills they actually need to succeed out in the world. Children become conditioned to make good choices when adults are around, but they don’t internalize the long-lasting habits and mindsets that lead to leadership.

Part of the college persistence problem we are facing with our students from low-income communities is that they graduate from highly-structured and teacher-centered environments ill-equipped to handle the self-direction that college requires. Miguel Aguilar, a graduate of a high-performing charter school, said, “[At college,] no one is going to tell you what to do, and you’ll have so much freedom…At [my high-performing charter school], your teachers remind you, remind you, remind you.

I was so used to everybody being there for me and looking out for me. At [my high-performing charter school] someone would see you struggling and go out of their way to help you. They came to you, and it was mandatory, and you got better. So when I went to college, I really didn’t reach out for help. I’d never learned to do that before.”

Montessori — just like the best personalized learning environments — incorporates choice into the educational experience, so that children get real practice with making decisions. They choose what to work on, when, and with whom, which strengthens their ability to consider options and make responsible choices. One of the most important things we can teach our children is how to handle freedom with responsibility. But in order to learn this important skill, children must practice day in and day out.

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In a Montessori classroom, children also exercise this freedom beyond the classroom through self-directed field studies. For example, a seven year-old at one of our Montessori For All schools decided that she wanted to learn more about the periodic table.

She planned her own field trip to the University of Texas to tour the lab of a chemist, which involved planning the city bus route from school to the university and securing a volunteer chaperone. When our seven year-olds have these kinds of integrated experiences with reading, writing, calculating, and problem-solving, imagine what they will be doing when they are twenty and thirty years-old?

There are definitely challenges when it comes to implementing a personalized learning experience in a way that brings about educational equity. When children are pursuing their own paths on their own time, how do we ensure that children graduate with the foundational skills they need to be successful?

This is why Montessori For All exists. We are grappling with these questions — committed to the belief that this kind of expansive education should be available to all children.

As a nation, we’ve known for a long time that our education system is antiquated and not aligned with a future we can only begin to imagine. Thankfully the research-based Montessori method can serve as a showcase for what’s possible for our children through personalized learning.

Sara Cotner is the founder and CEO of Montessori For All, a network that runs public schools in Austin and San Antonio, Texas.

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