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Encouraging the Scientist in Your Preschooler

If you follow the discussions about education reform and improvement, you will have heard much about the deplorable performance of U.S. students in the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering & Math—at the high school and college level. Effort to improve this performance usually centers on tougher standards and more testing, often for middle school and up.

We think that’s the wrong approach. The scientist in each child is born (or not born) in preschool.

In a Montessori classroom, the Sensorial Exercises are designed to foster an interest in the natural world. Here, during the formative years of their lives, children develop many key attributes of the successful scientist:

  • Observing carefully, with all senses. In contrast to computer screens, which are two-dimensional and primarily visual, the sensorial activities heighten observation skills by training all of a child’s senses. Children listen to differences in sound made by shaking cylinders to match, or tones in the scale made by the Montessori Musical Bells. Blindfolded, they match wooden tablets by their weight; other tablets by their heat conductivity or roughness of texture. They match taste and smell bottles; they arrange rods by lengths and cubes by volume. They put together complex, three-dimensional puzzles by using multiple sense modalities in conjunction.  Why does this matter? In addition to the fact that many professions, from cooks to research scientists, need finely-tuned senses, deliberate, sequenced observational training helps children become active observers of their environment. And of course, the world is a much more enjoyable place when we have the tools to notice and appreciate the beauty around us!
  • Categorizing things by their attributes. One of the key skills possessed by a scientific mind is the ability to ascertain similarities and differences, and to group things accordingly. In the Sensorial area of the Montessori preschool classroom, children learn precisely this skill. They identify attributes—length, width, height, color in wide gradations, taste, texture and so on. They acquire the vocabulary to accurately capture and describe what they see (mauve, magenta, crimson—instead of just "reddish"). They learn to sort and arrange things by their characteristics.
  • Developing a scientific vocabulary. Dr. Montessori observed that preschool-age children operate with an "absorbent mind", that is, they can learn big words in an effortless way, just by being exposed to them:

    We have to conclude that scientific words are best taught to children between the ages of three and six; not in a mechanical way, of course, but in conjunction with the objects concerned, or in the course of their explorations, so that their vocabulary keeps pace with their experiences. For example, we show the actual parts of a leaf or flower, or point out the geographical units (cape, bay, island, etc.), on the globe. (The Absorbent Mind, p. 175)

    As part of the sensorial exercises, we expose children to a range of scientific vocabulary: they are introduced to the names of different forms of leafs (palmate, acicular) as they trace and match them; they identify land and water forms (peninsula, archipelago) as they work with water and clay to make these features in miniature; they make maps of the world, and learn the names of countries and states; they learn the names of two-dimensional geometric shapes and three-dimensional geometric solids (triangular pyramid, rectangular prism). The primary value here is not even the specific terms that the child retains, but the fact that she develops an inner norm for what it feels like to use vocabulary to heighten and capture one’s observations. Language itself becomes a precision tool to classify and categorize the world one perceives, rather than just a series of vague impressions.

The preschool-aged child, given his proclivity for observation and retention, is naturally inclined to develop a passion for science. So whether your child attends a Montessori school or not, there’s a lot you can do at that age to support your child’s budding scientist within:

  • Spend at least half a day outside, exploring nature, on as many weekends as you can. In California, we are blessed with amazing nature, and a warm climate that enables us to be outside year-round. By taking your child out to explore the great outdoors, you naturally foster her interest in scientific inquiry. Whether she’s a toddler going on a short walk in a local park, picking up pine cones, rocks and flowers, or a five-year-old exploring the tide pools, unhurried outdoor experiences with you as a companion, engender an underlying fascination with the observable, natural world. The goal is not to make these instructional events: you’re not there to teach her about science so much as to let her use all her senses, let her explore at her pace, let her become enamored with the world around her, and curious about what makes it work. For ten fun things to do outdoors in OC, click here; this blog about OC parks is also full of great ideas; I refer to it often when I visit OC with my children.
  • Express enthusiasm for technology as well as nature. While it’s particularly important to explore nature, we sometimes forget that for our children, everything is new and unfamiliar, whether natural or man-made. If your toddler is drawn to the garbage truck every time it passes, or really likes the shininess of a railing’s metallic surface, or notices every time an airplane passes overhead, treat these moments as instances of scientific exploration. An early fascination with technological innovation is a common characteristic of great scientists.
  • Point out and name what you observe in the world about you. Just like we give children words in the classroom—for leaf shapes, for rocks, for land and water forms—you can provide much vocabulary in response to your child’s gaze and interests. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the scientific terms yourself: often, it’s helpful to just describe what you see—the bright red color of a maple leaf in autumn; the warmth of the sun on your skin; the fact that the sand is wet on the beach where the high tide covered it. If you can, and if your child is interested, do provide short explanations, of course—and use questions you can’t answer as a jumping-off point for joint research at home!
  • Ask and answer questions about how things work. Recently, I was getting ready to go out to a park with my six-year-old daughter, when she, out of the blue, hit me with this series of questions: "Mama, there are some things in life that I don’t quite understand. Why does the light turn on up on the ceiling, when I flick the switch in the wall? Were there always bananas—and if not, where did they come from? What pushes the water up in a straw when I drink? How come the water in the toilet stops by itself after I flush?" Welcome questions like this—and do your best to answer them. We took off the top of the toilet tank, and watched what happened. I didn’t know the vocabulary for all the parts either—but you can always look it up! "Let’s find out together" are great words to use often!
  • Include good, well-illustrated non-fiction books in your home library, and re-read them often. Picture books are a great way to introduce the fascinating world around us to young children. You can create many tie-ins to your excursions, for example, reading about constellations or moon phases as you spend time outside on a winter evening, or about marine creatures before you visit tide pools.  Books are also a great way to bring new vocabulary terms to life: make reading interactive, as you name the things you see on the pages, and, on the second or third read, ask your child to find animals or plants or tools on the pages.  Click here for a convenient Amazon list of some of our favorite non-fiction picture books for ages three to nine.

The preschool years are a wonderful time for making shared memories with your child. Going out into the world together, slowing down, noticing the sights, smells, sounds around us are wonderful ways to enrich your child’s preschool education—and to enjoy these precious years, when your child is so immensely curious, so aware and still so excited to be together with you.

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The Sensorial Area in Montessori Preschool: Where Young Scientists Are Born

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A preschool child is fascinated by the world around him: eager to explore it, always asking questions, constantly getting his fingers into everything.  As he does so, he acquires a tremendous amount of information – about animals, people, plants, common household objects, etc.  He makes observations at home, in the park, at the store, on vacation.

In the Montessori preschool environment, we help him organize his wealth of information into an orderly store of knowledge.  We guide him to observe carefully and provide him with a systematic way of conceptualizing the world around him.

The Sensorialareaof a Primary (preschool/kindergarten) classroom is where this training happens.  Children work with a range of materials, each of which varies in a single attribute; for example, the length of the Red Rods, the shade of each Color Tablet, the texture of the Fabrics, or the pitch of the Montessori Bells.  In using these materials, children learn to observe carefully and to order, match, or sort objects by their attributes.

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Each Sensorial material presents to the preschool child one special key to the world.  Dr. Montessori conceptualized the idea of keys as a way of introducing significant aspects of this vibrant world we live in to the young child.  Keys serve as jumping-off points for learning more about the world.

Work with the Sensorial materials also broadens a child’s vocabulary.  Once a child has experience with a material, the Montessori teacher introduces the appropriate words to fix the new idea in the child’s mind: “This rod is the longest”, “Feel how smooth this silk is”, or “Listen how these two bells have exactly the same pitch.”

Preschool children spontaneously apply what they learn from the Sensorial materials.  For example, a child who has practiced matching and grading the Color Tablets will naturally begin to notice things about color in his surroundings that he previously didn’t.  It is not uncommon for Montessori preschool teachers to hear a 4-year-old remark things like, “That’s dark blue”, “This green is lighter than that green”, or “This grey matches that grey.”  A child who has explored shapes from the Geometric Cabinet and has learned their names will start to identify shapes in objects around him (“That stop sign is an octagon!”), buildings (“Those windows are squares!”), even food (“The yolk is a circle!”).

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If a child is unsuccessful with a Sensorial material, we do not correct him directly.  Rather, we observe and note any errors, and re-present a lesson from start to finish at another time.  We might offer a point of interest, a detail that is important for the child to grasp in order to get full benefit from a material.  E.g. “Watch how I line up the Red Rods neatly along the edge of the rug as I order them.”  As always, we then invite him to continue working with the material independently.  The preschool child eventually learns to correct himself, as the control of error is often a combination of his own developing discrimination and the materials themselves.  For example, with the Brown Stair, the child will experience visual disharmony if he sees that the stair is out of order.

There are formal games and extensions that are connected with every Sensorial material.  With the Botany Cabinet, for example, the child learns not only to trace and recognize a variety of leaf shapes, but also to connect these to actual leaves he might collect on a nature walk.  Once he is writing, he might enjoy creating booklets about the different kinds of leaves or, more broadly, other parts of a plant.  The Puzzle Maps are a great example of work that extends throughout the Primary (preschool/kindergarten) years.  For instance, initially the child simply learns how to put the United States puzzle pieces back properly in the frame.  By his second year, he learns the names and locations of each state.  By his third year in Primary, he might begin to create his own beautiful map of the United States, carefully tracing and cutting out each state, pasting them accurately on a large poster-sized paper, and proudly labeling each of them.  A child is also welcome to make his own discoveries and variations.  Perhaps he might recognize the similarity between the Pink Tower and Brown Stair, and build them side by side!

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Beyond all of this, the Sensorial materials are significant in that they indirectly prepare the preschool child for later work in language and math.

Early Sensorial work, such as the Cylinder Blocks, indirectly prepares the child for writing and reading.  As he uses his pincer, or three-finger, grip to grasp the knob of each cylinder, he strengthens and prepares his hand for holding a pencil.  Touching rough sandpaper on the Rough and Smooth Boards will feel familiar to him when he traces his first Sandpaper Letter, the key Montessori preschool material for introducing the sounds and letters of our alphabet.  Tracing geometric shapes as well as puzzle map pieces increase his fine motor control and precision of movement.

The Sensorial materials also prepare the child for math work in a variety of ways.  Many Sensorial materials (just a few examples are the Pink Tower, Brown Stair, and Knobless Cylinders) are designed in series of ten, which reflects our base 10 number system.  Several others provide a thorough introduction to geometric shapes, solids, and the unique, constructive properties of triangles.  The Binomial and Trinomial Cubes are three-dimensional puzzles based on the binomial and trinomial equations, respectively.  The Red Rods, of course, are a prerequisite for the red and blue Number Rods, which solidify a child’s grasp of quantity and his ability to count to ten with one-to-one correspondence.

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Through sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound, the Montessori Sensorial materials provide opportunities for the child to classify and clarify the world around him.  If you are a LePort Montessori preschool parent, we invite you to enjoy getting a closer look at these materials and to see them in action during your next Watch Me Work Wednesday visit!


Just not good enough: why your child deserves a better curriculum

If you attended Elementary Curriculum Night, you had a sneak-peek into LePort’s unique approach to education. [See the videos at the bottom if you weren’t able to attend.]

In this newsletter, I’d like to offer you further insight into what makes LePort’s curriculum different. How does LePort’s approach, which we call “Knowledge for Life”, compare with the California Standards?

Almost everyone agrees that there’s something wrong with “teaching to the test”, the practice of focusing in school on memorizing and drilling for standardized tests. But this practice is based on the California Standards—the textbooks, lessons and outcome measures approved by State education committees.

Read more

Why Do We Study Science

Science education is a staple of modern schooling. One rarely hears anyone question the value or necessity of teaching our children science. But what is the reason behind this view? Why should a child study science?

Despite today’s focus on standardized test and national content standards, it’s clear that the purpose of science education cannot merely be to ensure that children score well on standardized tests of science. (Why have those tests?) The same is true of any answer of the form that science education is necessary to ensure that a child will succeed in high school science, or be ready for college many years down the road. (Why should science be taught at those levels?)

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Few question what students are being taught or how.

Memorizing and drilling students, once thought out of fashion, is now back in vogue in schools across the country. In the wake of the “No Child Left Behind” act, the emphasis of teaching has shifted to basic skills, and to increasing performance on state-wide standardized multiple choice tests.  And while many children, especially at middle class public schools, are scoring better on standardized tests, some educators are starting to wonder if these results might not be telling the whole story.

In his book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It, Dr. Tony Wagner questions the wisdom of the traditional teaching approach and the apparent excellence of suburban elementary, middle and high schools.  It is an important book to read for parents and educators alike.

Dr. Wagner believes that even the best public schools spend too much class time on memorizing content and drilling on basic skills, and he suggests that this leaves students without the thinking skills and real, meaningful knowledge they need to succeed in life. He writes of his decades of experience as a teacher, researcher and education policy advisor:

What I have seen in some of our best public schools over the past decade is that while Johnny and Juan and Leticia are learning how to read, at least at a basic level, they are not learning how to think or care about what they read; nor are they learning to clearly communicate ideas orally and in writing. They memorize names and dates in history, but they cannot explain the larger significance of historical events. And they may be learning how to add, subtract, and multiply, but they have no understanding of how to think about numbers. Not knowing how to interpret statistics or gauge probability, many students cannot make sense of the graphs and charts they see every day in the newspaper. They are required to memorize (and usually quickly forget) a wide range of scientific facts, but very few know how to apply the scientific method—how to formulate a hypothesis, test it, and analyze the results. Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, the less curious they become.

Dr. Tony Wagner

He quotes a scientist from MIT, who describes his two sons’ experience in science class in 4th grade at one of the most acclaimed public schools in the country:

They went to the same school and had the same teacher. … My eldest son had a great experience. His class went over to the pond at Mount Auburn Cemetery and took samples from the muck. They brought them back to school and studied what they found. They discovered all kinds of creatures there –ones that even I hadn’t seen! It was great, ‘hands-on’ science, and it really motivated my son.

But my second son’s experience was totally different. Now all the kids had to take the MCAS test [annual standardized test required of all Massachusetts schools], and the teachers felt they couldn’t take the time for the ‘fun stuff.’ They felt they couldn’t take the time to collect and study the muck. They had to prepare fall the kids for the tests.

I worry about the future of science in this country… For kids to get passionate about science, they have to get their hands dirty—literally. They have to have labs where they study things in depth and learn to observe, instead of just memorizing facts from a textbook. The kids who take my intro lab courses today have gotten top scores on all the Advanced Placement science courses in their high schools, but they don’t know how to observe. I ask them to describe what they see in the microscopes, and they want to know what they should be looking for—what the right answer is.

Dr. Tony Wagner

In our view, this is one of the best summaries of what is wrong in education today: children memorize words, but don’t learn about the world.

Mr. Wagner continues with an even more alarming observation, namely, that the public education establishment—from educators to policy makers, from researchers to concerned business men—is not even asking the right questions to address the problem: “The only debate taking place about education in America today is simply whether to modify certain provisions of NCLB [the No Child Left Behind education act.] Few question what students are being taught or how.”

Yet these are exactly the questions an intelligent parent ought to ask of potential schools: Why are you teaching—what is the goal of your education? What are you teaching my child? And how are you teaching it? If you share our belief that children need to be engaged at school, that they need to care about what they learn, that the content of education matters (=what children learn), as does the pedagogy (=how children learn), then come and observe in our Montessori elementary school and Montessori middle school programs. You’ll discover an education like no other, and may just decide that it is time to question your own child’s educational options and explore Montessori for your child.