Not long ago a student asked me what it meant to be an “expert,” and whether I was an expert on dogs. Anyone who has seen me with my two terriers knows that I have anthropomorphized them – exactly what dog experts do not do. I told her instead that I am an expert on Montessori: Montessori pedagogy, the history of the movement and on Maria Montessori herself. This was met with a cheerful, “Oh, I get it. You are not a dog expert; you just have two dogs.” She then shared her own expertise in terriers, including the centuries-old belief that they are psychic, which I immediately fell for.
Independent schools are known to have faculty members who are expert in their subject areas. However, subject expertise is no guarantee of excellent teaching. Great teachers also have to be willing ‘non-experts,’ setting the stage so the students take the majority of steps toward new understanding: researching, creating something new, transforming it, and broadcasting what they have learned. In fact, in an age when information is so readily accessible, emphasis is shifting to what experts do and createwith their expertise, rather than on their knowledge alone.
Though students have historically been seen as recipients of information, we know it is not receiving information that excites students; the excitement comes afterward when they get to create and broadcast what they now know differently. To be relevant, schools can no longer aim to merely impart information, instead we need to provide a forum for students to express and play with new knowledge so they learn even more.
The Discovery Channel learned this when after years of struggling to produce a successful show for adolescents, they hit uponMyth Busters, the show that features two guys trying outrageous scientific feats and debunking urban legends, such as finding out whether a car can be blasted 15 feet into the air with ten fire hoses, or whether a person really can get stuck on an airplane toilet. This show and its spinoffs are so successful because we all enjoy participating in shared moments of discovery. If the world of work and higher education require us to find the best ways to create new information and understanding, it stands to reason that perhaps a teacher’s most important expertise is in the art of posing questions and assigning projects that lead to the knowledge we want students to acquire.
Taking it one step farther, we want students to enjoy creating with and testing their newfound knowledge, and this is what makes Milwaukee Montessori School truly different. Our four-year-olds may decide to diagram the human entire body and its major bones after learning about vertebrate animals, or write their own poems after learning about the elements that make up a haiku. Lower elementary students are forever writing detailed research reports, sifting through relevant facts about meat-eating plants or the conditions on the planet a hundred million years ago; or writing and solving their own division problems consisting of 17 digits. Upper elementary students design their own learning games that are then published and analyzed by students across the globe! Junior High students take on the roles of historical figures and use the rules of formal debate to consider the merits of significant decisions that shaped American history. These are not just exhibitions of competency; they are new ways to present and share novel connections they have made.
Our online student work gallery shows without a doubt that Milwaukee Montessori School faculty members are practicing a new paradigm for pedagogy. And, this approach is enabling our students to create new ways to learn, think, and share just about everything under the sun.