At LePort, the Ancient Greeks are an incredible inspiration. The culture of antiquity, and particular of the Classical Athenians, represent the type of culture we want to create and nurture at our school.
The Greeks were deep lovers of learning. They either originated or revolutionized entire fields of study – from the systematic study of history (Herodotus), to medicine (Hippocrates), to science & geography (Aristotle, Erasthostenes, Archimedes, etc.), to mathematics (Euclid) to literature (Homer, Sophocles, etc.). At the same time, they were also lovers of action.
As well, the Greeks as a culture represent the unity of mind and body. They were not bookish scholars removed from the world, who artificially separated academics from life. The same young students who went to the Lyceum in the morning to debate about philosophy went to the gymnasium in the afternoon to compete in sports and train for athletic competitions.
This is the type of spirit we want to encourage in our students: the thirst for learning that comes from a sense wonder and curiosity about the world. We want our students to take genuine pleasure in their studies, and to combine that with a healthy interest in their chosen personal interests, such as sports or music or other worthwhile pursuits.
Dr. Maria Montessori was a brilliant educational theorist. Her “Montessori Method” defines LePort’s early education program, and even at the upper levels, Dr. Montessori’s thought influences the way we think about our purpose as educators.
Dr. Montessori was born in Italy in 1870, and was the first woman to receive a Medicine degree from the University of Rome. Early on, she took a deep interest in children and child development. Through her direct work with children around the world and over the course of decades, and building on her scientific medical background, she inductively developed her theory of education.
One of the principles she observed was that children love to explore the world independently, and are extremely eager to do so. This led her to develop an incredible range of specialized Montessori materials that children could explore directly, after only a short lesson from the teacher, in order to learn isolated concepts. The materials are divided into different areas of the classroom, including practical life, sensorial, math, language, geography, art, science, and cultural studies. Within each area, the materials build on one another from simple, to more complex. For instance in math, one of the earliest materials young three-year-olds work with is the spindle box, which gives them a direct understanding of both number and quantity. From there, they progress from material to material, from building complex numbers and gaining an understanding of place value, to a wealth of materials that concretely and systematically teach the different mathematical operations, to fractions, negative numbers, etc., etc.
Dr. Montessori also wrote a great deal on the need of the child to gain independence. For instance, she believed that the primary reason so many children experience the “terrible twos” is that they have a deep need to be independent, and become frustrated when they cannot do things for themselves. This influenced one specific area of the classroom, the “Practical Life” area, where children learn to do things for themselves using child-sized materials. It also influenced the overall setup of the Montessori classroom, where the orderly structure and classroom rules are set up in such a way that children can learn by freely choosing and exploring within the classroom environment. And it is informed by Montessori’s conviction that there is a natural integration between cognitive and physical growth. “To be always thinking of the mind, on the one hand, and the body, on the other, is to break the continuity that should reign between them.” LePort’s dedication to maintaining that continuity, that unity between thought and application, is in large part an expression of our understanding of Montessori principles.
Although our Upper Elementary and Junior High program is not a full Montessori environment, Montessori theory heavily shapes our approach. For instance, our belief that our curriculum must be intrinsically motivating to our students, so that they learn because they enjoy the process of learning, not for extrinsic reasons like grades or ice-cream parties or gold stars, comes from Dr. Montessori’s body of thought.
Our deep commitment to individualization is also an important principle of Montessori. It is for this reason that we strive to meet every single student at his individual level, and challenge him at that level, to help him move forward at the pace that makes sense for him.
LePort’s view of the role of the teacher is another of the many areas directly shaped by Montessori ideas. In particular, we’ve drawn from Montessori’s ideas regarding the need for the teacher to ensure her own “spiritual preparation” for her task. The teacher’s preparation is not merely the learning of ideas, but also a deep study of herself, and an ongoing commitment to achieving the type of character that will enable her to successfully impart knowledge:
We insist on the fact that a teacher must prepare himself interiorly by systematically studying himself so that he can tear out his most deeply rooted defects, those in fact which impede his relation with children…. A good teacher does not have to be entirely free from faults and weaknesses [but they should know what they are].
And of course, LePort’s optimism about the impact that today’s children can have on tomorrow is an attitude we’ve gained from Montessori. (For links to some good books for further reading on Montessori, click here.)
Ayn Rand was a 20th century novelist and philosopher who emigrated from communist Russia to the United States in the 1920s. She is best known for the political themes explored in her novel Atlas Shrugged, but, most importantly for us, she also had sophisticated theories of learning, thinking, and valuing.
Rand held education to be of tremendous importance. She placed particular emphasis on the earliest years of a child’s growth, which she recognized as a time of profound, rapid development, physically, sensorially, cognitively, and emotionally, one where “some of the infant’s tasks and achievements whose magnitude is not equaled by most men in the rest of their lives.” She regarded the job of educators as critical in guiding children to a successful adulthood. The job of the educator is to prepare children to think conceptually and to impart, through the teaching of great literature and art, “a view of life motivated and dominated by values.”
She argued at length that the mainstream modern educational system was, at all levels, a failure. Instead of encouraging the child’s curiosity, teaching him to think, and nurturing his nascent sense of values and love of humanity, she thought that schools did the opposite, producing classrooms that were inimical to the child’s developmental needs. While Rand did not herself develop a full-blown theory of education herself, she did indicate that “the best antidote” to the failures of modern education “is the Montessori system of education.” She recommended that for “any question in regard to child education, [to] start with Montessori’s own book and then look into the existing Montessori schools”, and regarded the possibility of the expansion of Montessori’s pedagogy, both in reach and to older children, as potentially “the greatest movement in this country so far.”
We agree with her evaluation, both of modern education and the solution, and have found inspiration in her perceptive theories of learning and development. Rand, like Montessori, held, human knowledge develops in a specific sequence, from concrete to more abstract. She worked out her epistemological theory in a way that is a powerful aid to curriculum design and pedagogical thinking. For example, we use a guided sequence of increasingly sophisticated literature to enable students to think conceptually about the content of literature; they develop the lifelong capacity to abstract truths about themselves and their fellow human beings in a way that is deeply grounded in both real-life and literary concretes. In the sciences, we use a curricular scope and sequence inspired by the history of science, such as by having students engage with and recreate the earliest identified electrical phenomena at the outset of teaching them about electrostatics and electromagnetism.
Moreover, Rand believed that thinking and learning should be joyous. Rand expressed an abiding respect for the power and value of human reason, and held that it was a natural, enjoyable process for a child to learn, and that it was the educators job to protect and nurture that joy: “I will ask you to project the look on a child’s face when he grasps the answer to some problem he has been striving to understand. It is a radiant look of joy, of liberation, almost of triumph, which is unself-conscious, yet self-assertive, and its radiance seems to spread in two directions: outward, as an illumination of the world—inward, as the first spark of what is to become the fire of an earned pride.” We strive to create in our classrooms the world that Rand envisioned, where such thinking was elevated and turned into a culture of learning and thinking, a culture with “a sense of intellectual freedom of depth, i.e. concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of limited possibilities and above all, of profound respect for man.” Just as we identify with the deep reverence Montessori expresses regarding the value and potential of the individual human child, so we identify with the comparable reverence Rand expresses for the value and potential of the individual human adult. Both hold, in their own ways, that human beings as such are efficacious, capable of achieving both inner and outer greatness, and worthy at a fundamental level of our trust and confidence.
Rand’s ideas inform our whole approach to education, both at the level of teaching and at the level of our highest educational goals. At LePort, our overriding goal is the complete happiness of each individual child, both in their time at school and beyond.
It’s worth noting, as an addendum, that Ayn Rand’s sometimes controversial political views do not shape LePort’s curriculum, nor do any other political views. We regard it as a betrayal of an educator’s deepest responsibility to prematurely introduce children to frameworks and perspectives they cannot independently understand and evaluate; ours is the task of teaching them how to think, not what to think. Our simple and singular purpose—which we believe Rand would have agreed with—is to ensure that our students have the tools necessary to evaluate facts and formulate their own independent views.
Just as we want our students to always be curious about the world, to eagerly research better ways of doing things, to learn by reading about and studying the way others tackle the challenges of life, so we, too, are always eager to improve by learning from others in education and related fields. Below, we highlight a few of the movements and thinkers that are influencing our thinking and practice at LePort.
Everybody seems to know that public education today is broken—in fact, that it has been broken for decades. While there are many who critique the status quo, there are a few people who are fellow travellers on our journey to provide an inspiring, conceptual education that purposefully prepares children to live joyous, happy, fulfilled lives. While we often have major disagreements with parts of their approaches, and while Knowledge for Life is clearly distinct of much of what they say, their work is providing an inspiration for what we do at LePort.
- Marva Collins. Marva Collins grew up in Alabama, where, she directly faced the challenge of segregation from early in her life. Despite this obstacle, Collins grew up with a strong desire for learning and independence. She graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, and became a teacher. For many years she taught in the public school system in Chicago. She became increasingly dissatisfied with the existing state of education, and ultimately, Collins opened her own school on the second floor of her home. Collins believed, as we do at LePort, that children should be challenged with important subject matter and lofty ideas. She also strongly believed in teaching the classics, including classic works of literature. Collins would provoke abstract discussions in her classes, to encourage her students to develop their verbal skills and reasoning abilities, to appreciate the nuances of language, and to formulate their thoughts logically. Marva Collins reminds us to challenge our students to think deeply, and rise up to our high expectations of them.
- Dr. Bernard Nebel. Bernard Nebel, Ph.D., author of Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, has done fantastic work in the field of science education and curriculum. At LePort, we eagerly draw on the resources he has created.Dr. Nebel, over the course of his 40-years-and-counting of researching, teaching, writing, and working with children, has come to believe that scientific literacy includes both factual information and reasoning skills. He has designed a fantastic body of curriculum that is intended to develop both. The lesson plans he developed present science in a logical, sequential order, so as to isolate concepts and build knowledge incrementally.Time and again, our science department finds inspiration in Dr. Nebel’s work.
- Dr. Arthur Bestor. Arthur Bestor is history professor who in the 1950’s became a prominent critic of the deteriorating public school system. In his book Educational Wastelands, published in 1953, he identified the reason of the decline of educational quality in America as the disregard for intellectual training by progressive educators focused on “practical needs” and “life adjustment.” He called for a revival of respect for the mind, of the value of carefully sequenced instruction in the key intellectual disciplines—math, history, science, literature, language skills. He argued that mind-training is the most fundamental purpose of education—and the only thing that will, in fact, prepare children to deal with the increasingly sophisticated world we live in: “The basic argument for the intellectual disciplines in education is not that they lift man’s spirit above the world, but that they equip his mind to enter the world and perform its task.”
- Salman Khan & Khan Academy. Salman Khan is the founder of the Khan Academy, whose mission is to provide a world-class education to anybody, anywhere, by delivering high quality educational videos for free on YouTube. Millions of parents and students are using these videos to supplement the education they receive in traditional school settings.While we only occasionally use Khan Academy content at LePort, we find inspiration in Mr. Khan’s concept of the “flipped classroom”, a teaching environment in which students independently study basic materials, and then use class time to receive individualized coaching, to dig deeper into topics in moderated discussions, or in applied projects. His recent book, The One World School House: Education Reimagined, sketches out a very different approach to educating older students, one we find intriguing, on where high-tech delivery mechanisms like videos, electronic text books, and tablet apps, have the potential to become for the upper grades what the hands-on Montessori materials are for younger students: tools for self-directed, self-motivated learning, which is still carefully sequenced and guided by knowledgeable, expert adults.
Over the past two decades, progress in cognitive, neuroscience and psychology have uncovered many intriguing facts about the human mind that shed light on how we learn, how we get motivated, how we form our fundamental attitudes about life. At LePort, we eagerly research these new insights, and work to incorporate them into our teaching practice.
- Dr. Carol Dweck. Carol Dweck, Ph.D., is the author of the book Mindset. She is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford, and a leading researcher in the field of motivation. Mindset focuses on the psychology that gives rise to success in achieving a goal, and is an inspiration for both our students and our teachers.Dweck believed that any kind of growth and development has to be effortful, and must be founded on the belief that success is possible and under your control. She coined the terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” to refer to basic beliefs that people can have about themselves and their abilities to grow and learn. In a fixed mindset, people believe that their intelligence or talent are simply given to them, and cannot be expanded. A growth mindset, by contrast, is defined by the belief that ability levels can be developed through work and commitment.This is an illuminating observation in an educational setting. It reminds us at LePort to develop the growth mindset in our students, by explicitly highlighting for them their improvement over time, and coaching them to strategize about how to overcome personal obstacles. The result, we hope, is a never-ending quest for greater and greater learning and personal growth that lasts our students into adulthood.
And, of course, this is also the mindset that we try to take toward ourselves as educators. We are always striving to improve what we do, so that the quality of the experience we provide to our students and families will be ever-increasing over time.
- Dr. Daniel Willingham. Dr. Willingham is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia. Since 2000, his work has focused on the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. His book, Why Students Don’t Like School, is a fascinating, systematic presentation of the insights cognitive science can provide into what it actually takes to enable students to actually learn, to acquire knowledge in a way that is lasting and that allows them to do something with what they learn. (Sounds a lot like Knowledge for Life, right?) Dr. Willingham emphasizes many ideas and techniques we regularly refer to in our teaching, ideas which are often counter to the main-stream educational practices found in many of today’s public or private schools. For example:
- The critical importance of background knowledge (as against the common progressive education refrain against knowledge in the time of instant information access on the internet.)
- The importance of spending time on the actual things we want children to remember (as against the many hours wasted in traditional education on fun, ancillary projects that do little to actually solidify and deepen the target knowledge areas or skills.)
- How to motivate by building great lessons, lessons that are structured like stories, and engage the students curiosity (as against using sticker, stars, grades or other extrinsic motivators as primary tools to keep students engaged.)
- The importance of applying what we learn through work, of practicing key skills over and over again (as against today’s general disregard of repetition as “drill and kill”)
- A series of recent books on motivation, practice, memory, and specific teaching practices. We’re avid readers here at LePort, and find inspiration from a wide range of popular science fare, which we often share among our staff, write about for our blog, or use as starting points for new programs at our schools. For example:
- The book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle offers lots of great ideas on how varied, challenging practice can help students to learn more, quicker and keep learning fun. His blog is also worth reading!
- The book Drive by Daniel Pinkprovides new insight on the importance of autonomy, purpose and mastery in our motivation to learn and in life.
- The books Book Whisperer and Readicide reaffirmed the importance making great literature a key part of children’s lives—and of offering them many chances to engage in sustained, independent reading.
- Books like 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do and The Element inform our approach to after school programs and summer camps as passion finding and exploration activities.
- Parenting books, for example Parent Effectiveness Training, Positive Discipline, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, NurtureShock or Free Range Kids help inform many aspects of our approach and strengthen our pedagogical tool kit.
- Books like Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath emphasize the importance of taking audience motivation seriously, and apply psychology research to the task of effective communication.