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#AnnualVL2015: Reflections on Day One

Classical education, Montessori, and the tension between the "what" and "how" of learning

In recent years my philosophical thinking about education has focused far more on the how of learning than the what.  That is, I've become much less concerned about curriculum and far more concerned about pedagogy as I've been convinced that the industrial, one-size-fits-all model of American education needs to be replaced with something that is much more student-centered.

After all, my reasoning has gone, the digital natives who occupy America's classrooms now have the entire body of human knowledge at their fingertips.  What they need are thinking skills that help them process this wide world of information and use it to solve problems.   This emphasis on "21st century skills" has been accompanied by a concern for the widely varying developmental needs of children who are often ill-served in schools that have arbitrarily decided that all children sharing the same birth year should be grouped together and taught the same, fragmented curriculum at the same pace.

In response to these concerns, my interests have turned toward Montessori, Sudbury, homeschooling, personalized learning, and other methods that place a much heavier emphasis on the agency of the individual child in the learning process.

But saying a child should have a lot more control of what, when, and how she learns does not necessarily mean there is no place for curriculum.  Adults still have a critical role to play in these decisions.  As a Catholic Christian, and especially now as a parent, I believe that education serves a greater purpose than to simply prepare children for adult life.  Indeed, the well-guided journey of the human soul is the ultimate purpose of education.  And not just any learning facilitates such an essential and important process.

This is why I've become interested in the use of student-centered pedagogies in Christian education, where the possibilities of blending such methods with a rigorous, soul-supporting curriculum are quite rich.  As I wrote on this blog a few months ago, rediscovering Montessori (as one example) might be a key strategy in the revitalization of Catholic education, which has suffered setbacks in recent decades in terms of enrollments, vibrancy, and religious identity.

That blog post was spotted by a friend who connected me with Corpus Christi Classical Academy, a tiny but thriving independent Catholic school in Simpsonville, Kentucky (Shelby County).  My friend, whose wife is a teacher there, wanted me to know about Corpus Christi's aspirations to integrate classical education and Montessori in the same school.  So on a hot spring day during the busiest time of the school year for both me and my hosts, I carved out some time and drove to Simpsonville to meet with Corpus Christi principal Leslie Genuis and visit her school.

Corpus Christi has had a long-standing presence in the Shelby County community, but nearly closed last year due to declining enrollments and the retirement of its long-time principal.  Genuis took over with a mostly new school board and a vision for revitalizing the school.  During my visit, it was a pleasure to see middle school students reading and thoughtfully discussing Homer, with other classics like Wuthering Heights and As You Like It tucked in their desks. 

Genuis, whose has experience both in homeschooling and Catholic education, showed me school's curriculum, which draws heavily from materials developed by Memoria Press, an offshoot of Louisville's Highlands Latin School.  But the staff at Corpus Christi has thoughtfully modified and adjusted the selection of materials to best meet the needs of their students. 

"Classical education" is now a very hot topic in the world of non-public education.  Memoria Press defines classical education as "the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through meditation on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This is accomplished in two ways: first, through training in the liberal arts; and secondly, through a familiarity with the great books and the great thinkers of the Western tradition."  Classical education, done well, is a traditional liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the development of Christian virtues.  In this sense, it is a curriculum that is rigorous, thoughtful, and structured in such a way that a natural coherence of all subjects is maintained and emphasized.

But Genuis and the parents and staff at Corpus Christi recognize that a rigorous curriculum does not preclude alternative pedagogies.  This is why they are launching a Montessori pre-school program for the 2015-2016 school year.  Genuis is participating in online Montessori training and has already started incorporating Montessori elements at the school.  I visited the classroom and saw the familiar pink tower, tracing letters, and other distinctive hallmarks of a Montessori pre-K environment.  And while the school only plans to institute Montessori in the preschool for now, visiting the lower primary class it was evident that the Montessori philosophy is making inroads there as well.

Is there a natural tension between a structured curriculum and a student-centered learning approach?  Probably, but Genuis and her staff seem eager to explore this tension and discover what is possible.  The Montessori Method includes its own, well-developed curriculum, after all.  And there appears to be nothing in classical education that precludes the possibility of students exploring that curriculum with a high degree of choice and self-pacing.

Corpus Christi Classical Academy is not alone in its faith that Montessori and classical education go together.  This fall I look forward to visiting Bob Nardo and the Libertas School of Memphis, a new charter school that will blend Montessori and Core Knowledge, a secular curriculum that nevertheless shares many of the same features as classical education.

It will be in schools like Corpus Christi and Libertas that educators will pioneer new modes of learning that embrace the student-centered, personalized focus emerging in conventional schooling but with the wisdom and accumulated human knowledge of classical approaches to education.  I am most eager to learn from their journey.



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We cannot have Montessori Philosophy and Classical Education at the same time. The end of one is totally different to the end of other. Maria Montessori believed that children belongs to the society and not to the parents. Her education goal was to form children for the work-force helping the socialism ideology as you can read on her own book. She also did not believe in sin, that's the reason for not allowing discipline in her method. What most people get fascinated about Montessori method are the hands-on and motor skills activities which were not created by her. She saw this approach in USA at a school for children with disabilities and brought back to Italy.

Leo Perez

Classical and Montessori are completely different philosophies. In Montessori, children have "freedom within limits" and are allowed to explore different "works" and take different "lessons" that they later decide to either work on or not and do it for as long as they want. Teachers are there to encourage and guide. Their philosophy believes in waiting for the student to be ready for the different lessons and they don't all follow the same curriculum at the same time (they don't all learn math, reading, writing at the same time and same pace). In Classical, repetition and "excellent practice" is developed. Children are also respected and met at their current level but it's believed to they should catch up and be at the same level eventually. There's a fixed curriculum and there's not much choice within that. While this may seem lacking freedom, it's also important to note that excellence is achieved by perfect practice and not just random tries. As a fellow parent trying to navigate what's best for my child, me and my wife are struggling with the decision on what's best for our boy.

Gary Houchens

Leo, I really appreciate your thoughtful comment here. You are right that Montessori and classical education are different in significant ways. But I think there's more compatibility here than meets the eye. For example, I think the Montessori curriculum is a lot more specific than people sometimes realize (though perhaps not as comprehensive as classical tends to be), and while children move at their own pace in Montessori, I think there's an implicit assumption that most children will eventually master a specific body of knowledge and skills. So I think it's possible to substitute the classical curriculum for the Montessori curriculum but still utilize features of Montessori like student choice, long work times, and flexible pacing. At any rate, I'd love to see more experiments in this approach, both in homeschool and traditional school settings.

Cristina Ballard

Nanda, what you have expressed is a huge misunderstanding of Montessori's work and philosophy.
Maria Montessori believed that children belong to society and not their parents, absolutely. She said this within a specific context relating to the fact that parents sometimes feel that they must make choices for the child that will fit the parents needs, and rather, parents should recognize that a child will become a man and be a great agent of change,progress, and peace in the world.
She believed strongly that children at the time, in schools where they are taught in a passive manner, where all children have to do one-size fits all activities, that they were treated as if they would only be part of a work force, some factory line work. She criticized this heavily,rather preferring that children play an active, critical role in their education.
Discipline, in fact, plays a great role in Montessori education, from the earliest in life, children begin making choices, with in limits which are natural, logic,and respect the environment, the community, the child, and their peers, so the child very soo. Begins to develop self-discipline, not because of reprimands and arbitrary consequences, but the child because it is good, good for themselves, good for others, good for all.
As far as academics - of course there needs to be a great standard at which we hold the children who will be the men and women of the next generation, there is nothing lacking in montessori as far as all the great disciplines go. The choices the child has are more about pace and focus. So you want to study math before reading? Ok but then you have to finish your book and report by this date. Freedom within LIMITS. You must study this one subject and relate it to the math concepts you studied last month- you can Choose how you go about it, this is your due date, we will have a meeting about your progress next week.


I would love to see how your thinking on this has progressed in the time since you wrote this post. Are there any further posts you can link to?

Gary Houchens

Great question! I need to write about this as I believe my thinking has indeed evolved. I'll try to update with some links or write something fresh when I can!

Kayla Rae Stewart

You should check out the Optima Classical Academy, based in Florida. They are the first VR school, offering classes with live teachers and classmates for four hours a day, four days a week, with three 25-30 minute breaks during those four hours. After lunch, from 1-3 scholars have asynchronous learning. Friday's are also reserved for asynchronous learning. I believe this may be a great blend between Mont. and Class. education. It's self-paced when not in VR! They also will have workbooks. To me it's like homeschooling meets the future. Classical meets Montesssori. Classical meets Unschooling even! I would check out their website and look around... They also have a YouTube channel with many videos explaining things in-depth. I would love to hear your thoughts on it!

Gary Houchens

I will check it out!

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