Do today’s classrooms prepare children for tomorrow’s careers – or do we need a different approach?

One question most children are asked at some point is, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Whether they say an astronaut, a doctor or a footballer, the reality is that 65% of children joining primary school this September will work in job roles that don’t exist yet. In today’s rapidly changing world, many people, such as social media consultants and app programmers, are already doing jobs that weren’t around 20 years ago. As Richard Riley, former Secretary of Education, said, “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” Furthermore, a recent survey conducted by the World Economic Forum found that executives of leading companies rate complex problem solving as the most desirable skill for employees, followed closely by critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and emotional intelligence.

 

With this challenge on our hands, we need to ask if an education system that focuses mainly on teaching children academic subjects according to a fixed curriculum seems outdated and not fit for purpose. Education has become increasingly focussed on helping children achieve test scores, which is having a huge impact on the capacities of students entering our universities. How will they become collaborative, flexible and creative thinkers when they have experienced limited opportunities to develop these skills at school?

The visionary educational pioneer, Maria Montessori, recognised this when she wrote, “Education must no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities.” In the Montessori approach, children are guided by a teacher trained in child observation and child development, who prepares an educational environment with a wide range of open-ended, hands-on activities that provide opportunities for children to choose tasks appropriate to their stage of development. Because activities are so targeted to each child’s individual needs and interests, children are motivated and engaged and soon become able to concentrate, persevere and work with self-discipline. In addition, the activities offered encourage the children to think flexibly and come up with creative solutions. In the early years, this may simply be how to unbuckle their shoes or share a snack. Later, it may be an exploration of the Jurassic period or a novel approach to solving quadratic equations. Educational neuroscientists call the soft skills developed by the Montessori approach “executive function,” and research has linked executive function to academic and social skills and other positive life outcomes.

In a Montessori environment, children with a three-year age span are mixed together, which enables access to activities as and when each child is developmentally ready. This is in sharp contrast to mainstream approaches which generally require children to learn the same things at the same time and pass milestones and tests irrespective of whether they are the youngest in the class or the oldest. In Montessori, children develop capacities at their own pace, building on a firm foundation of what they can already do. Moreover, mistakes are viewed positively as an opportunity to find a different way of doing something, in sharp contrast to mainstream approaches where it can feel that “getting it right” is all that matters. When mistakes are valued as part of the learning process, this builds children’s confidence to try new things and contribute their ideas, exemplifying that everyone has a unique perspective to offer.

A further advantage of the Montessori mixed-age environment is that the younger children learn from the role model of older children, who in turn learn how to help those less experienced than themselves. In this mini community children share resources, put things away ready for someone else after they have used them and help each other, this fosters social collaboration and an awareness of the differing needs of others, building the emotional intelligence that guides the children’s thinking and behaviour towards other people.

So how can parents take a Montessori approach at home? It doesn’t require expensive equipment, it is simply about a change of mindset. Instead of doing things for our children, we can encourage them to do things for themselves such as helping in the daily tasks around the house. Let them do what they can do, show them the part that they can’t but then let them try for themselves, resisting the temptation to help when they are still trying. When they ask us how to do something our default must be to ask them how they think they might do it, so we are encouraging their thinking rather than spoon-feeding solutions which suggests that there is only one way and that is our way! Of course, they will make mistakes, but remember this is part of the learning process and an opportunity to try again.

Montessori education has been around for more than 100 years, but it is timeless. Perhaps the reason it is so appropriate for preparing for the modern workplace is because it recognises that education is about optimising human capacity, not filling children up with facts that can usually be accessed with a few taps on a device. An education that optimises human capacity offers children of today – and all the todays to come – what they need: encouragement to be motivated and curious, flexible and self-determining, able to persevere at difficult things and think critically in coming up with creative solutions; whilst also nurturing collaboration, emotional intelligence and the belief that everyone has something valuable to contribute.

 

Louise Livingston has over 30 years of experience in education and a background in educational neuroscience. Louise is Head of Training at the Maria Montessori Institute which offers Montessori teacher training and online short courses and the Maria Montessori School for 2-12-year-olds in London. www.mariamontessori.org

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