In my experience as a Montessori educator, my feelings about the importance of understanding and reflecting on the philosophy of the Montessori method has only grown stronger. Recently, while reading Darling-Hammond’s book, The Flat World and Education, I was given some insight into a very common educational problem, which Montessorians suffer with in a singularly unique fashion. The common educational problem is that of tracking. That which makes the Montessori educator’s struggle with tracking unique is the logical similarities between it and differentiated instruction.
Although Montessori herself probably never used the Italian equivalent of ‘differentiated instruction’, this is not an altogether misleading label to place on what Montessori teachers strive to do every day. That is, in Montessori classrooms, good ones anyway, Montessori teachers are guided in part by a principle that requires students to be individually challenged according to their own academic and developmental needs. (Articulating Maria Montessori’s thoughts on this concept based on her writings would be a great topic!)
The struggle of Montessorians – teachers, administrators, and parents alike – that I see is being overwhelmed by the desire to differentiate instruction and student work to the point of creating separate “tracks” within a curriculum area and accepting it as differentiated instruction that is better meeting the needs of students “at their level”. It is a slippery slope between working to provide individually tailored educational experiences to tracking students under the weight of external performance goals. This is where a deeper understanding and an ability to reflect on the philosophy that drives you as a Montessori educator, or simply as an educator, can serve beneficial to yourself as well as to your students.
There is a significant consensus in the research literature that tracking students, and retaining them to repeat a grade level, has a negative impact on student academic performance. Students who are tracked “downward” suffer from less challenging academic work. The less challenging academic work is not of the same kind or caliber as the higher tracked class. It is not as if the lower track is just a few chapters behind in the book and will eventually be doing all of the same kind of work as the higher track class. Rather, the lower track class is simply providing a lower quality of education. The work students are assigned and the questions they are asked are not near the top of Bloom’s taxonomy. And this has long term detrimental effects on a child’s education.
Let me clarify that tracking is normally the practice of separating groups of students for instructional purposes based on the performance of an academic assessment. And, conceptually speaking, there may be any number of groups and each group may have any number of students. So tracking may occur even in the case of two students who are separated for the purpose of instruction based on the performance of an academic assessment. The negative connotations with tracking are derived from the strong tendency to vary the quality of the curriculum based on the level of a group’s track. It is not as if both the low and high track will eventually do all of the same challenging work. The issue is that those placed in the lower track will be provided an education that focuses more on memorization and rote skills out of context as opposed to the transference of higher order thinking skills.
However, as a Montessori educator, the curriculum and pedagogy within which I work is enormously rich with higher order challenges throughout. During the work period, the notion of grade level and a student’s identity with it disappear and the child is working where he or she is in the curriculum. For students who are struggling for any number of reasons, academic supports might include having more time for a job, doing a fewer number of problems per job, repeating a job more times than most, etc. But there is no dumbing down that occurs. Yet, Montessori educators, and all educators for that matter, often mistake dumbing down with providing developmentally appropriate challenges. And this is where we can sometimes trip ourselves up by slipping into a tracking mindset in the spirit of meeting the child where he or she is.
Only our own education can be used to educate others.